9/11: The end of the ‘forever wars’
On December 5, 2001, a range of agreements were exchanged at a meeting in Bonn, Germany. The Bonn Conference — as the United Nations (UN)-led endeavour came to be known — set out the markers of what a new Afghan government would look like.
This was the first major international effort, in the budding age of the War on Terror, to replace the old — the Taliban — with the virtues of renewal--“democracy, pluralism, and social justice”, as the Bonn text underlined. In a few cities such as Herat, Kabul, and Mazar-e-Sharif, some citizens reclaimed the right to express newfound freedoms. Yet, these virtues of modernity —as the last 20 years have made clear —remain abstract for many Afghans in the hinterland.
Afghanistan’s operating environment seemed to have changed forever. In 2001, it was believed that the Taliban had been defeated, temporarily at least. After all, reluctantly, a coalition of 42 countries led by the United States (US), committed themselves to what can only be described as nation-building.
The Taliban responded to these developments by indulging violently in rejectionist politics. It adapted instruments of modernity to suit its needs. The smartphone became the weapon of advantage. It recuperated, resisted, and finally invited itself to the negotiating table with bullets, bombs, and tweets alike.
The combination of Pakistani refuge and encouragement, high levels of government corruption and political instability in Kabul, and the ever-dipping levels of public support for the war in Washington, London, Berlin, Paris, and other European capitals, ultimately led to the withdrawal of all foreign troops.
The tragedy of the final stages of the withdrawal belongs to the ill-considered and punishing policy choices made by President Joe Biden and his administration. Biden’s defence that “there is no good time to leave Afghanistan” is no doubt a truism. His view that there was no way of leaving “without chaos ensuing” is littered with weakly-founded assumptions.
Twenty years to this day, the Taliban is back.
A founding member of the movement in the 1990s, Mullah Hassan Akhund, has effectively been made the prime minister (PM) of an unelected caretaker government. He is understood to be a compromise candidate able to band-aid deep-seated differences within the movement. Abdul Ghani Baradar — who has been spearheading negotiations in Doha for the last three years — has been made the deputy PM. Sirajjudin Haqqani, a “specially designated global terrorist” is acting interior minister. Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, has been made the acting defence minister. Omar offered Osama bin Laden a home in Kandahar in the late 1990s.
Within Afghanistan, the armed resistance has faded, for now. The social battle for modernity is still alive in the streets of Kabul and Herat. Some younger and better-to-do Afghans, who invested in the future of the republic, find themselves in Paris, New Delhi, London, Tashkent, Istanbul, and elsewhere. Others still await their new lives in makeshift immigration camps in Doha, Kosovo, and other “staging grounds”.
This 9/11 marks, without doubt, the end of the “forever wars” led by America. It also ends any appetite for the kind of hubris-provoked interventionism that shaped two decades of struggle and disappointment. Yet, at the end of America’s long wars, the clock has not simply turned back to a pre-9/11 time stamp. The world has moved on. Geopolitics has changed. Only Pakistan and its leaders find themselves in a time-capsule of their own making.
It is this world that Afghan citizens, refugees, and Taliban oppositionists from the former government have been left to comprehend. Unlike in the 1990s, there will be no ready support for an armed insurrection against the Taliban government. The brutal reality is that for many countries there will be little incentive in either legitimising or antagonising the Taliban.
America’s credibility might have been stonewashed in Afghanistan, but there is little reassurance needed to those nations committed to areas of interests well inside Biden’s geopolitical wheelhouse. These interests include managing China, investing in Quadrilateral alliances, and doubling down on new marketplaces and opportunities in the Indo-Pacific.
There are real threats to India’s security. Afghanistan, more so than before, will become the playhouse of terrorist groups incubated by successive Pakistani regimes. The threat matrix on the Line of Control is likely to shoot up in a few months from now. There is much to prepare for, no doubt.
Yet, in the post 9/11 epoch, India has the unique opportunity to stand-out as a nation devoted to a form of humanism — not only humanitarianism — that is in ever-short supply. For those displaced Afghans —betrayed by friends and allies alike, who are yet to find refuge — let India be their home. A few thousand visas will hardly affect the strategic realities of India’s future ambitions. Many Afghans who managed to flee wait in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, and even Turkey to make their way to India. Many in India still remain hopeful of an extension.
Further, whatever India finally decides — with regards to the form of engagement or disengagement with the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — it needs to urgently work with its partners, such as Germany, Russia, and Iran to support the distribution of humanitarian aid. As outrageous as this idea may seem, India could moot the Bonn 2.0. Except this time, rather than focussing on the ideal of “democracy” — a hollow commitment which no Afghan will any longer buy — it could simply focus on providing desperately needed long-term assistance to the Afghan people.
Rudra Chaudhuri is director, Carnegie India
The views expressed are personal
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