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Watching Afghanistan

a year ago

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The collapse of the Afghan Government and the Taliban’s takeover this week was lightning swift and not particularly bloody. The capitulation of the Government of Ashraf Ghani is perhaps less to do with a stronger Taliban than with a weak government disconnected from its people and rife with corruption. Ghani was a figure the West was always more comfortable with: Educated and eloquent, and the author of the book titled Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World. But at home, Ghani was known to be out of touch with his own people and unable to hold his officials accountable. The unpopular, unstable Ghani Government could do little more at the end than abandon its own people and flee Kabul. Afghanistan, like many of its South Asian neighbours, has a complex history; global superpowers choose to police our nations with little sensitivity to those sociocultural contexts. Despite 20 years on the ground, American troops were no closer to understanding Afghanistan’s local dynamics. For the West, this will hopefully be a moment of introspection to find better ways to assert their “better democracy” on others, without invading countries and waging wars. In the final equation, the US and its NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) allies failed to uphold their moral obligation and responsibility to the people of Afghanistan or at the very least, to adequately secure and protect the families of those who worked for them. The events in Afghanistan are proof that more aid is never the answer to building a nation’s capacity. The more aid dependent a nation becomes, the less it focuses on streamlining public finance and instituting mature mechanisms by which to manage its own economy. The fragility of the Afghan Government, and by extension the state, despite billions of dollars of international assistance being poured in over two decades, reflects the paradox of aid – no matter how well intentioned. Modern Afghanistan has failed to create strong, competent institutions that are capable of independently improving its socioeconomic conditions; it remains one of the least developed nations in the world with over half its people grappling with poverty and food insecurity. The Taliban is certainly trying hard to present themselves differently; their early press appearances post-takeover have been more moderate in tone. They’ve pronounced they want no enemies, within or outside of the country, and have even been conciliatory about women’s rights. Even in appearance, the Taliban seniors of today are much more than a ragtag bunch of zealots and the rough, uncouth militiamen one imagined them to be 20 years ago. The Taliban, of course, are far from saviours: They’ve historically been violent and oppressive, and have known their share of messy in-fighting and corruption. But in the years they’ve spent regrouping and strengthening themselves, they’ve also made themselves more stable economically than the Afghan Government. In September last year, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty went public with a confidential report commissioned by NATO, which predicted that the Taliban “has achieved, or is close to achieving, financial and military independence”, and warned that the Taliban’s “burgeoning financial might/could make the militant group immune to pressure from the international community as it negotiates a role in postwar Afghanistan”. That report estimated that the Taliban had revenue of $ 1.6 billion in the 2019/20 financial year – with well over half of that earned through illicit mining and narcotics. Unlike the Taliban, Afghanistan has for decades failed to make vital economic progress; it has seen little modernising of its agriculture and industries while non-aid-related investment whether in commerce or physical infrastructure has been negligible. They’ve made no progress in exploring over $ 3 trillion worth of minerals embedded in Afghan soil. These deposits include traditionally sought-after minerals such as gold, iron, and copper, but also importantly, some of the rare earth minerals critical to future use, including lithium. In fact, Afghanistan may lay claim to one of the large-known deposits of lithium, the demand for which is slated to quadruple over the coming decade. A well-managed exploitation of these minerals offers a minefield of potential to build a viable economy. In the chaotic denouement of this phase of Afghanistan’s history, it can only be hoped that there are better prospects waiting in the wings for ordinary Afghans, who are clearly weary of both violence and alienation from their government. Shoring them up economically is as critical as the protection of their security, and their rights and freedoms. The world must now decide how it plans to engage with the Taliban, while ensuring it also helps the Afghan people. For those of us in South Asia, the road ahead is of both interest and consequence.

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