Cassandra, we are told, felt no joy at predicting calamities. Reality, in Afghanistan, is proving to be worse than the most pessimistic predictions, and this is not a motive of satisfaction for those who foretold disaster.
It was in the winter of 2006 that many objective observers, some of them such as myself, in Afghanistan, realised that the tide was turning, and that ultimate military ‘victory’ had eluded the present occupiers, just as, in the past, it has eluded others.
Even as late as the summer of 2007, there could perhaps still have been room for successful negotiation with the Taleban, who had not as yet shown signs of having as strong and widespread an organization as they have now. The NATO allies, however, chose enhanced - and ultimately unsuccessful - military action, without enunciating a clear and credible set of realistic war aims apart from the destruction of the enemy.
Now that no alternatives appear to a policy of more or less decorous withdrawal, the immensity of the tragedy brought upon Afghanistan finally comes to light and the real risk is leaving the Afghan people in a situation far worse than at the time of the invasion.
It is an undeniable fact that a great number of Afghans, particularly but not exclusively women, were relieved at the apparent end of the Taleban regime which, greeted at first with approval, had ultimately brought civil society to its knees, annulling the undeniable progress which had taken place in the waning years of the Monarchy, in the short life of the “Socialist Republic” and even, with due reservations, during the Soviet occupation.
A great number of Afghans, therefore, for the most part motivated by a genuine feeling of hope, freely chose to cooperate with the invading forces, thus actively participating – especially in the North and in the West of the country, as well as in the capital, Kabul – in the rebuilding of their society.
It was heartening at the time to see adult women taking advantage of their newly obtained freedom in order to compensate for the years of deprivation by resuming the process of education, as, indeed, was the sight of schoolgirls, smartly attired in their uniforms, marching off to classes from which they had been banned by the preceding regime.
It was also pleasantly instructive, in the Autumn of 2005, to follow, as a Monitor, the regional elections, in a rather far away and isolated post to the west of the country, near the Iranian border. No military presence was requested and none was needed, for the electoral process took place in an atmosphere of quiet determination, with a large turnout, both male and female.
To ask what went wrong, or where did we miss the opportunity of preventing disaster is as fatuous a question as the “Who Lost China” question was in the USA of the fifties and sixties. It is far more useful to attempt to analyse whether any options are left to prevent a massive retaliation upon the departure of the last NATO troops, for which only belated and far from encouraging preparations are being made.
Afghanistan’s civil society: the next inevitable victim
It certainly is to be feared that, once the Taleban return to power, there will be a very large number of Afghans – primarily, but not only, women – who will be left to pay a heavy price for their “collaboration with the enemy”. This, above all, will be the inevitable legacy left by the hurried, unwise and poorly planned invasion of 2001.
The military mission in Afghanistan is well beyond recovery, and any last effort by the NATO forces must concentrate on the safety of the civilians left behind.
The Soviet Union faced a similar problem when they left, and, for a time, were able to protect the Najibullah government by controlling the skies from neighbouring Central Asian bases: this protection came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and civil war ensued.
At this stage, negotiations with the Taleban appear even more futile than before, and any promises made by them in terms of the guarantee of human rights will almost certainly be broken as soon as they regain full control of the country. The solution found by the Soviet Union would be difficult because there is no reliable neighbouring haven from which the Taleban’s activities could be controlled. On the other hand, leaving a “friendly” government – either Karzai or another political figure – in control would be a very short-lived solution. It is therefore difficult to predict a positive outcome of the inevitable NATO withdrawal.
The alternative, bleak though it may seem, appears to be between a strong Taleban-controlled government, it is to be hoped more moderate than the preceding one, and a renewal of the civil war which followed the Soviet withdrawal and came to an uncertain end only with the Taleban takeover.
Afghan civil society therefore faces tremendous hardships: it is difficult to imagine, for example, what will become of the numerous female NGO’s created over these past years, and which have undertaken a tremendous task of rehabilitation and reconstruction. Nor is it easy to think of all those Afghan men and women who have been working, steadfastly and loyally with the ISAF civilian-military organizations (Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRT’s) scattered around the country. Their future looks bleak indeed, and there is little left except hope. But hope alone, in itself, is not usually creative.