By Nasir Shansab:
Last month, I arrived at Kabul International Airport. Walking toward the car, I asked Jawed, the porter, what people thought about the ongoing negotiations between the United States and the Taliban. He turned towards me with a surprised look in his eyes and said: “I’m not an educated man and don’t understand what’s going on. What simple folks think is that the fire under the caldron has been set. But no one seems to know where to find a fitting cover for it.”
“You looked surprised when I asked you about the situation,” I said.
“I couldn’t believe you would ask me,” Jawed said. “People with money and importance don’t care to know what we think.”
“I’m neither with money nor important,” I said.
“You’re from America,” he said. “You look rich.”
As I later went into longer and deeper conversations with “people of money and importance,” I realized that that self-declared “not an educated man” in his simple and short definition of Afghanistan’s future was absolutely right. I didn’t find a single person who could convincingly suggest a way to end the Afghan conflict without the country collapsing into civil war.
What’s to be done?
Modern policymakers and bureaucrats holding themselves to be realists and knowledgeable have concluded that a trillion dollars was wasted on a people whose unimaginable poverty, primordial social conditions and rugged, unforgiving countryside have rendered them virtually impregnable, mentally, physically, and philosophically. They determined it’s time to bite the bitter pill, accept defeat, and sue for peace — albeit an expensive peace, both in blood and treasure.
In the bargain, they’ve forgotten they’re dealing with the third world; a region of paranoia and conspiracies, of complete lack of functioning governance, institutions existing in name only, law represented and enforced by corrupt political elites, strong men with their own mini armies, and an uneducated, silent majority who simply glance about their profoundly deprived lives with wide eyes and incomprehensible minds.
From Washington’s misadventures in Vietnam, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, it’s plain America does not understand the Third World. As a nation with global responsibilities, it’s high time that America begins figuring out this part of the world where several billion reside.
When U.S. forces entered Afghanistan, a far-off country most Americans had hardly heard of, Washington policymakers didn’t know the extent of that country’s backwardness and the depth of its poverty. Had they been aware of its true conditions, Washington might have decided differently.
Be that as it may, America has been occupying Afghanistan for 18 years. Thus, in the context of its global responsibilities and international credibility, the U.S. should carefully deliberate the side effects of its action before leaving Afghanistan to its own devices.
Washington should not commit the same mistake it made in the early 1990s. Considering America’s astonishing limited knowledge of the Afghan psyche, U.S. politicians should meticulously study the people who are advising them in matters Afghanistan. It was mainly Afghan-Americans who lead the international effort to form a government for post-Taliban Afghanistan. Those Afghan-Americans and their Afghan cronies passed Afghanistan into the bloody hands of warlords and drug kingpins, creating a disaster that continues to dog Washington today.
As a result of the so-called Bonn Process, Afghanistan’s politics became a messy, corrupted enterprise. Before assuming the leadership of post-Taliban Afghanistan, most had lived in conditions of mayhem and had thrived from chaos and lawlessness. They neither understood the rule of law nor had any appreciation for it. They found the power of institutions bothersome and simply did without them. As they became richer and more powerful, they considered themselves the personification of the law. They didn’t govern the country. They reigned over it with their own interpretation of right and wrong.
The only thing they initially lacked was the evaluation of submitted bids and the choice of bidders to award large contracts to rebuild the country’s shattered infrastructure. That job had been reserved for a group of foreign experts who had been hired by the international donor community.
But even that would fall; the 2005 London donor conference was used by the Karzai government to usurp the decision-making process on the economic rehabilitation of the country from that group of experts and take it into its own hands.
This gave the Karzai government and its supporters complete control over the financing of Afghanistan’s reconstruction and the awarding of major contracts to companies of its choice. Fortuitously for the regime and its friends, that was the timeframe when the donor institutions and governments had reached consensus to open their purses much wider as before in providing funding for the reconstruction of Afghan infrastructure.
As we know now, little of real consequence and long-term value has been created with the massive monies that flowed into the country. The general population remains at roughly the same level of poverty. With the help of corruption, Afghanistan got its first class of post-Taliban multi-millionaires, and among them were a few billionaires.
Washington can’t continue as before. Real change, not mere rhetoric, must take place if the U.S. is to leave behind a country that continues to function at a mere survival level without it falling back into violence and cruelty.
The present U.S.-Taliban negotiations will probably not succeed. The philosophical worldview of the post-Taliban political elite and today’s Taliban is too far apart as to allow them to agree on a power-sharing model.
To expect the U.S. to get rid of Afghanistan’s ruling elite is asking too much of Washington. The only workable model is to absorb the cost of maintaining and protecting the Afghan political system, but denying it the management and reconstruction of the country’s economy. Also, by taking direct charge of Afghanistan’s infrastructure rehabilitation until the country stands on its own economically.
This would take about five years and up to fifty billion dollars. Only then could the U.S. withdraw, knowing it did its human best to leave behind a functioning country; at least functioning enough not to slip into mayhem.
Nasir Shansab was born in Afghanistan, attended boarding school and college in Europe, and after finishing his education returned to a very successful Afghanistan business. In 1975, Shansab’s family was forced to leave Afghanistan; Shansab lived in Germany for five years and then moved with his family to the Washington, D.C. area in 1980. A longtime U.S. citizen, Shansab is the author of books on Afghanistan including “Silent Trees: Power and Passion in War-Torn Afghanistan."