Taliban Redux: How & Now What?

Taliban Redux: How & Now What?
In 2009, I made the rounds of US State Department, USAID, Washington Think Tank circuit to ultimately doing a presentation on the Capitol Hill to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffers. I had a simple message, which I thought that the new Obama Administration might be receptive towards. The message was that the United States will lose in Afghanistan if it does not pay attention to rural livelihoods in Southern Afghanistan in particular, and Afghanistan in general.

I didn’t know much about all of Afghanistan, but I knew that in the semi-arid southern Afghanistan’s rural livelihoods were dependent upon groundwater and the karez system in turn was the lynchpin of socially and environmentally sustainable groundwater extraction in the region. Karezes are common in Balochistan, Afghanistan and most of Central & West Asia as well as North Africa. I have written extensively about Karez system and a shorter more accessible piece about them is available here. Suffice it to say that they are aqueducts where the water rights are like property rights and the social equity and environmental sustainability is exemplary.

I mistakenly thought that the Americans genuinely wanted to learn about Afghanistan and were keen to succeed by helping Afghans succeed.

I was wrong in my assumption about the Americans caring about the Afghans and in retrospect I wonder why I even thought that. I had a bit of rude shock even then, when the head of the Afghan desk asked me to explain to him, what is a karez. That is like head of the US desk at the Pakistan Foreign Office asking me to explain what is a freeway in America or what is a suburb. Karez is the most important structure for social and economic life in Afghanistan, and Americans, as it so happens had their camp on top of the mother well of one of the largest Karez’s in Kandahar. A bigger sacrilege is not imaginable to anyone who knows the sanctity and cultural importance that is attached to Karezes in Afghan and Baloch culture. Naturally, I was listened to politely and was told by a USAID hand that the money involved was too little and that they wanted bigger projects for disbursement of funds. Shuja Nawaz at Atlantic Council helped me along with meeting people and making my case. We tried our best and came up short, largely because everyone thought of me as a naïve fool, which I am. I clearly didn’t understand the real motivations or indifference of the Americans towards Afghans. I wished to believe that they cared, even for their own self interest.

The Americans were giving out tubewells in Southern Afghanistan. Installing tubewells in Karez country is like giving out heroin to a heroine addict. The tubewells were immediately appropriated by war lords and they also soon broke down, leaving the populace with little to go on. The old property rights in water, through karezes, had been disturbed. My idea was to restore the infrastructure and resurrect those rights for livelihood and social stability. There were no takers and that was the end of it.

Would the outcome that we saw this week had been different if I, or the likes of me had been listened to. I doubt it. Imperial hubris, and fantasies of geopolitical advantage are rarely about people. My idea was a non-starter in the context, and I know that now.

Today the sight of terrified Afghans clinging to the wheels of a C17 transport plane evacuating American embassy staff in Kabul, and then hurtling to their deaths as it takes off is the signature image of America in Afghanistan. It was eerily reminiscent of the image of desperate people in the World Trade Center twin towers jumping to their deaths to avoid certain death in an inferno. It was images of those desperate souls in New York that sent America to Afghanistan. It is with the images of desperate Afghans falling from US planes that Americans leave Afghanistan. Whatever sense of justice or victimhood US had about 911 is washed away by that image and the sight of thousands of Afghans running from the Taliban, like New Yorkers ran from the dust cloud of the twin towers.

The regional powers like Iran, Russia, India and above all Pakistan have played their own cynical games in the process. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has the poor judgement and moral vacuousness to congratulate the terrified Afghans for their liberation! How will generations of Afghanistan forgive Pakistan for its backing of the Taliban is something I can’t even imagine. But the security establishment of Pakistan is incapable of thinking strategically and building lasting alliances. Its time horizon is this or that mining or infrastructure project. This or that enemy, mostly India to be chased away at all costs. This or that puppet government, home or abroad, that will let it deal with the next contract in peace.

In the 1990s every sectarian and religious inspired terrorist had sanctuaries in Afghanistan. I remember Nawaz Sharif and his interior minister supplicating the Taliban to reign in this or that terrorist outfit to no avail. Today again with Waziristan and Swat on tepid peace, everyone in these regions is talking about the regrouping and return of the Taliban. Meanwhile, the PTI-wallahs and the Pakistani patriots are celebrating the return of the 1990s.

To the Afghans, it's too bad that their lives and future meant nothing to the Americans. The fact that American forces killed more Afghans than the Taliban ever did is a sobering statistic in this context.

To the Pakistanis too, Afghan lives and future are less important than our enmity with India. Afghans should live or (mostly) die with that reality in mind. God knows we Pakistanis certainly will.