Cost of War

Ajmal Shams

South Asia Magazine (February  2014)

It has been almost 25 years since the last soviet soldier left Afghanistan, the country that has been known as the graveyard of empires. The occupation lasted for about nine years leaving Afghanistan devastated and vulnerable to regional and international rivalries that continue to this day. The country never fully recovered from that shock even with a robust intervention of the international community pumping billions of dollars into the country’s economy. But one should bear in mind that rebuilding a country that has suffered civil war for decades is not all about physical re-construction, it is the state institutions that must be built together with enhancing the local capacity to absorb and utilize international assistance.

The impacts of Soviet occupation on Afghan society have been significant. Millions of Afghans migrated to neighboring Pakistan and Iran and limited number to countries of the Western hemisphere. As per the World Bank, Afghanistan lost US$240 billion in ruined infrastructure and vanished opportunities between 1979 and 2001. One and a half million Afghans lost their lives with hundreds of thousands becoming physically and mentally disabled. The social fabric of Afghan society was severely shattered. Continued war and civil strife caused deep divisions among Afghans along ethnic and linguistic lines. One of the main challenges for the national politics in coming years will be to transform the political themes and slogans from ethnic to issue-based.  

The 1979 occupation of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union was a long cherished dream of the latter as part of its hegemonic and strategic objectives. However, the war in Afghanistan was proving to be unfeasible and costlier for the Red Army due to unyielding resistance by freedom-loving Afghans. This was made possible by a comprehensive military, financial and political support by the entire Western world led by the US, as well the Islamic-cum-Arab world. The political and diplomatic isolation of the Soviet Union coupled with its deteriorating economy forced its leadership to view Afghan war as liability rather than a national strategic effort. Realizing that the war was both unnecessary and unwinnable, the Soviets agreed to pull out as per the Geneva Accords. The Afghan war contributed in large part to the downfall of the Soviet empire. Even after the Soviet withdrawal, the war continued in Afghanistan with Communist regime clinging to power before eventually collapsing in the early 90s.

On the other side, the ideologically divided Afghan resistance had little or no vision for the political future of the country in case of Communist defeat. Lack of political consensus together with excessive lust for power hampered all efforts by the international community to bring the divided opposition on one table. This, however, does not include the liberal parties like Afghan Millat led by late Shamsul Huda Shams, which was never the recipient of western aid channeled to the armed resistance. Such parties mainly struggled through peaceful means having limited access to participate in armed resistance.

The Mujahideen rule was one of anarchy, mismanagement and oppression. The deterioration of the state started and continued well into the Taliban’s rule. It was also a period when ethnic divisions became even deeper. Pashtuns representing the largest ethnic and linguistic group was particularly marginalized. The Taliban’s coming to power was the direct result of the anarchic and cruel rule of the Mujahedeen whose unstoppable fighting cost thousands of innocent lives.   

The Taliban’s harsh rule was also not sustainable by any means. The movement gradually lost whatever popularity it had gained in the beginning due to their ultra-conservative enforcement of Sharia and inability to achieve international credibility. Not agreeing to US demand to hand over Osama bin Laden further intensified their international isolation. The tragic events of September 11 proved to be the final nail in their coffin leading to their ultimate collapse.   

The coming to power of President Karzai after the Taliban overthrow in late 2001 through a broad international and national consensus in Bonn was a new beginning for the country after years of civil war and chaos. A major segment of the current ruling coalition, being in power since early 2002, comes from Afghan expatriates having strong political connections and those influential in Mujahideen parties blocking the emerging young and talented technocrats to elevate to high level political positions. Social mobility, therefore, has been an uphill task given the prevalent nature of political dynamics.

Keeping the country united and bridging the deep divisions caused by decades of civil war and foreign interference have been top priorities for President Karzai since being in power.  While pursuing his policy of unifying all ethnic groups as one Afghan nation, Mr. Karzai seems to have gone too far, marginalizing the majority Pashtuns. While the ongoing insurgency may not be a direct consequence of antagonistic Pashtuns and is rooted in regional and international strategic political maneuverings, the perception of Pashtuns being unfairly treated has certainly contributed to fueling the insurgency.   

One must be fair while making an assessment of where Afghanistan stands today since the Soviet occupation ended almost 25 years ago. The country has undergone tremendous changes ever since. State machinery was virtually non-existent when Karzai came to power. The institution of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) had vanished after the collapse of Dr. Najibullah in the early 90s. Re-establishing the ANSF, particularly the Afghan National Army (ANA), has been a major achievement of the Afghan government through US-led NATO support. Yet, sustainability of ANSF without financial, military, technical and training support of the NATO is critical challenge for Kabul. The key aspect of the ongoing debate on Bilateral Security Agreement with the US revolves around this key subject.

Social and economic life has thrived particularly during the past decade. Afghanistan’s GDP steadily grew from $2 billion in 2001 to around $20 billion in 2012. International trade increased significantly. Our annual trade with Pakistan has already exceeded $2 billion and is expected to reach $5 billion by 2015.

The World Bank supported National Solidarity Program envisioned by the Presidential front-runner Dr. Ashraf Ghani, since 2003, has tremendously invested in rural development empowering communities, increasing awareness and introducing the culture of democracy in local governance. Some fifty television and nearly hundred FM radio channels broadcast programs in entertainment, news and diverse aspects of Afghan social, political and cultural life across the country. Thousands of clinics, hospitals and schools were built serving millions of Afghans all across the country. Afghans have yet to rely on the quality of health care though as thousands travel to neighboring Pakistan and hundreds others to India for treatment. There is little control on the practice of medicine and quality of drugs pose serious threat to the health sector.

The quality of education is equally dismal. Although thousands of Afghan students have been offered the opportunity to study in Pakistan, India, the US, Japan and other countries in the region and beyond, the quality of education at national level has limited value in the international market and may not meet the local market demands either. Private education industry has tremendously grown after the government eased regulations. However, due to the problem of systemic corruption and lack of well-defined institutional framework, the cost of private education is no match for the quality of education offered. The relevant ministries have hardly any visionary plan for improving the quality of education in the country.

Due to the complexity of the political dynamics, involvement of deviating international interests, and lack of intellectual capital at national level, Afghanistan has been unable to come up with an integrated foreign policy framework to guide its actions vis a vis countries of the region and beyond. The fluid nature of this dynamism has caused the status quo to sustain. The coming to power of Mr. Nawaz Sharif, a long-time supporter of Afghan Jihad against the Soviet occupation and well-informed about the intricacies of Afghan politics has raised hopes that his government will re-consider its relations with Afghanistan opening a new chapter that is based on mutual respect, trust, cooperation and non-interference instead of sticking to the traditional policy of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan.

After 25 years since the end of Soviet occupation, the country stands at a cross-road. The coalition forces are planned to exit the country by 2014. The fate of the BSA with the US is yet to be decided and all indications suggest that it has to be signed either by the incumbent President Karzai or his successor. The country has come a long way after overcoming crisis after crisis. Afghanistan has been a strong nation but a week state as rightly stated by former interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali. President Karzai has been successful in keeping the nation united through his political wisdom and skills in crisis management. He has not been able to build viable institutions though. Afghans are preparing to elect their new ruler in about three months. It is up to the next Afghan President to do so.  Both Presidential front-runners Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah might be anxious to build a renewed relationship with Pakistan, other countries in the region and international community at large. Dr. Ghani, a visionary and strong advocate of integrating Afghanistan into the regional economy even offers a well-thought-out strategy in this regard.   

Despite all the tension, political uncertainty and challenges ahead,  with wise and visionary leadership there is every reason to believe in an Afghanistan that is steadily progressing towards peace, stability and economic growth given its vast natural resources, sustainable commitments by the international community and emerging human capital willing more than ever to  rebuild the nation.

(Courtesy: South Asia Magazine - Feb 2014)

The writer is President of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party well know as Afghan Millat National Progressive Party and is based in Kabul, Afghanistan.

دافغان ملت ملي مترقي ګوند

 Afghanistan Social Democratic Party

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