Engagement, not abandonment

Regional and international communities should come together to help Afghanistan

“You cannot build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.”

Dr. Norman Ernest Borlaug

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In an interview with the CNN, Prime Minister Imran Khan referred to the existing situation in Afghanistan as difficult, which could improve or deteriorate depending upon the way the world conducts itself in dealing with the new government in Kabul. It is as realistic a statement as one could make under the circumstances regarding the future of a country that has been ravaged by war for more than four decades.

The principal constituent that could shape things one way or the other in the foreseeable future is the level of engagement that the world establishes with the ‘new reality in Afghanistan’. But a far more important question at this stage is whether the countries of the world would be willing to do this at all? Bets either way would carry a huge quotient of risk.

The USA’s contention is that the Taliban will have to ‘earn’ legitimacy to facilitate any form of engagement. Key conditions for this include the formation of an ‘inclusive’ government and the grant of human rights, more specifically the rights for women to study and work. In other words, the Taliban government has to make allowance for the 20 years of ‘democratic’ incursion by its battleground adversaries and induct them as partners in a new setup.

Afghanistan cannot be left alone at this juncture. It needs the support of the regional and international communities to move further on the road to delivering peace and justice to its long-suffering people. War was not an option yesterday. It is not an option now. Only a policy of engagement and connectivity with Afghanistan will help tide over the sprawling wreckage that it has been reduced to after over forty years of fratricide. It is time to bring this to an end. Continued conflict will not do it. Afghanistan will heal only if the world would pursue a policy of engagement, not abandonment

The attitude of the rest of the Western world and the financial and donor organisations is not any different from this. They seem to be locked in a mould to wait and watch the progress as a precursor to taking any initiative for pre-empting the looming economic and humanitarian crises which could plunge the country into chaos. Is that the actual intention behind this policy of putting conditions to potential engagement? And, as a consequence, will the world bear with a bloodbath leading to Afghanistan plunging into the valley of death and destruction? A policy of non-engagement will, most likely, push things in that dreaded direction. For the proponents of this course, the Taliban government is like a morsel which is difficult to swallow, but also difficult to throw out.

On the other hand, the voices emanating from the region are for forging engagement with the Taliban government in Kabul. The neighbours of Afghanistan have called for more interaction with the newly-announced government to eliminate any prospect of further unrest. A proposal has been mooted by Pakistan that the Afghan government should be invited to the next huddle of its neighbours. That would be a big step forward in averting a feeling among the Taliban that they are being left out.

At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Dushambe, Tajikistan, the participating countries concurred with Prime Minister Khan’s call that the war-afflicted country should not be left out after the Taliban take-over. He said that “it is in the international community’s collective interest to ensure that there is no renewed conflict in Afghanistan and the security situation is stabilised”. Equally importantly, he pleaded for urgent steps to “prevent a humanitarian crisis and an economic meltdown”.

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While calling upon the Afghan government for constituting a more ‘inclusive’ government, the SCO summit declaration has reminded the West, particularly the US, of its responsibility to help avert the humanitarian crisis that looms in Afghanistan.

The world is caught up in a clash of two narratives at this juncture. The one emanating from the West pleads for a policy of moving forward only when the Taliban government has fulfilled all requisites for establishing an ‘inclusive’ government. On the other hand, the regional countries are promoting a policy of engagement with the Taliban to help and encourage them along to set up such a government. This is based on a policy of incentivising the new rulers of Afghanistan, as proposed by Prime Minister Khan, as opposed to censoring them. The regional countries are also poised to pursue the idea of ‘collective security’, thus taking the concept of connectivity a major step further.

These two approaches are diametrically opposed to each other, reflecting the needs of a world that is far removed from the area of conflict and the other which neighbours Afghanistan. Both have different yardsticks to go by. The question that arises is whether, in spite of the interim government not being strictly in conformity with the promises the Taliban leadership has been making in the last few weeks, and in spite of the fact that not a single woman has been inducted into the interim cabinet, will a policy of continued disengagement mould the Taliban to think differently, or will this harden their stance further, thus generating problems for the people of Afghanistan who have, for over four decades, borne the devastation of a deadly war?

These two policies reflect two different mindsets which are tailored to fulfil the respective needs. But there is something which is far more important than either of these mindsets and the policies emanating from there: chalking out a mechanism to address the needs of the Afghan people. This should take precedence over all else before the state plunges into strife. With the economic assistance stalled and the new government under increasing pressure, the prospect of a renewed conflict cannot be eliminated.

The outcome of this stalemate may reflect a lot more than just the fate of the Afghan people. It’ll be a credible indicator for the world to see whether the West’s insistence on making the provision of economic aid conditional on promoting its brand of democracy-linked agenda is justified. If that be so, it would come at a huge cost to the impoverished and marginalised communities of the world who have, for generations, languished in the dark dungeons of deprivation. They need to be freed from captivity by providing opportunities and avenues of their empowerment. Instead of initiating attempts to force change of governments, this would be better realised by incentivising them to invest in the welfare of their people.

The agenda of Changing regime has not worked. I think there is a lot of sense in promoting a policy of engagement in preference to one of abandonment. The world can retain relevance by pursuing a policy whereby they undertake reconciliatory approaches in preference to ones which are confrontational in nature.

Afghanistan is not just a regional issue. It has international ramifications. It is absolutely vital that the world converges in its resolve to help the country along a path of inclusivity. But this should not be attempted through a policy of coercion and conflict. It should be pursued by forging greater engagement and understanding with the Afghan government to ensure that it remains committed to the objectives outlined by the international community which are also inherent in the regional countries’ approach. This broad convergence should be developed further into a policy document to be taken up with the Afghan government in a consultative and advisory manner.

Afghanistan cannot be left alone at this juncture. It needs the support of the regional and international communities to move further on the road to delivering peace and justice to its long-suffering people. War was not an option yesterday. It is not an option now. Only a policy of engagement and connectivity with Afghanistan will help tide over the sprawling wreckage that it has been reduced to after over forty years of fratricide. It is time to bring this to an end. Continued conflict will not do it. Afghanistan will heal only if the world would pursue a policy of engagement, not abandonment.

Raoof Hasan
The writer is a political analyst and the Executive Director of the Regional Peace Institute. He can be reached at: [email protected]; Twitter: @RaoofHasan.

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