Appeasement or Betrayal?
By: Kapisa Observer
It was early September 1996 when I left Kabul. Two of the major armed political factions-Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hikmatyaar and Hizbi-e-Wahdat of Abdul Ali Mazari, positioned in and around Kabul, had been driven out of their areas of political and military influence by the then rapidly growing Taliban militia. The only obstacle to the advancing Taliban militia was the internationally recognized government of moderate Prof. Burhannuddin Rabani. Kabul was relatively calm after it had been brutally wounded with the mortars and rockets fired by Hikmatyaar soldiers.
But what now pained the majority of city residents was the agonizing security uncertainty over the presence of the hitherto vague Taliban militia at the southern gates of Kabul. Here, the Taliban unexpectedly demanded the surrender of the city against their initial assertions that their only intention was securing the highways to ensure the safe passage of food to the impoverished Kabul.
That was my last image of Kabul. It would only be a little more than a fortnight before the threatened government withdrew to the north without any resistance and the city fell to the Taliban.
Almost nine and a half years later, I am back in Kabul. The only armed men and vehicles in Kabul are either the Afghan police or the NATO peace-keeping forces, locally known with their acronym ISAAF. Scores of NGO’s are easily spotted in different corners of the city. Accompanied by their local interpreters, foreign aid workers are seen shopping or negotiating deals with Afghan suppliers. The city is over populated and the roads are packed with cars, generally Toyotas.
Having been brutally suppressed by the Taliban, Afghan women now have visibly resumed their normal course of life. Several TV and radio stations have started broadcasting in Kabul alone. The most popular TV station is the versatile Tulo TV, which draws the largest national audience. Its coverage ranges from detailed, and often uncensored, newscasts, educational programs, to pop culture and movies. Cell phones can be heard everywhere; some Afghans carry even two cell phones or more. New markets have opened up. Kabul City Center, a ten storey complex of luxury suites and high-end stores, has revitalized Shahr-e-Naw, which was once a tourist rendezvous boastful of exotic restaurants and incense-burning stores that sell relics and other elegant handicraft. There is a democratically elected parliament with televised sessions. This parliament has tens of women representatives too. The Taliban is gone and so are the other armed factions whose head-on military collision had fatally scarred the city during the first ethnic war around mid 1990s. The atmosphere is that of peace and relative prosperity. No more nerve-wracking whistle of mortars, no more cry of woe.
Such is the initial image of Kabul that greets every visitor who either personally was in Kabul during its ethnic wars or intimately monitored the Afghanistan-focused international news in foreign countries: an image of unprecedented boom since 1992. But that image does not linger long in the mind.
A more close-up image of Kabul and other provinces is getting increasingly worrisome: it is one of reemerging gloom. The Taliban is very active in the countryside and threatens the overall national security; the government has failed to deliver on its vociferous promises; the pace of reconstruction, if there is a pace at all, is alarmingly slow; most members of the national parliament lack any higher education while others have questionable backgrounds with respect to human rights abuses; Foreign NGO’s are viewed with suspicion as most of them are locally staffed by an unbalanced representation of ethnic populations; the rift between haves and have-nots is disturbingly sinking; ethnic Tajiks that constructed the backbone of ‘war against terror’ in Afghanistan and, aided by US air strikes, toppled the Taliban regime, feel outrageously marginalized from political power; they also feel betrayed by their own ethnic leaders who they (Tajiks) think represent their own self interest rather than that of their ethnic group as a whole; interethnic faith-building government efforts which are so desperately needed are non-existent; and the high administrative corruption makes that of other third world nations’ considerably dwarf. A local friend once playfully said, “Bribery is so prevalent and institutionalized that if you don’t bribe an official to sign your application, he/she would take it as insulting to his/her position.”
The recent ugly riots in Kabul that started with a tragic road accident can be a clear expression of these pent-up frustrations.
Exposing the myth of one nation country, Afghanistan suffered two gruesome ethnic wars just in the decade between 1992 and 2001. These wars have caused thousands of deaths; the resultant property losses and forceful displacements are colossal. I call the entire Taliban era ‘the second ethnic war.’ It broke out after some local Pashton men, who had achieved success in a battle against some local commanders, came to ally with other Afghan-based militant international Islamists and border-crossing Pakistanis against the remaining ethnic groups.
As it unfolded, the underlying Taliban objective in this alliance was the establishment of an exclusive Pashton domination of the entire country as opposed to the ostensible establishment of an Islamist theocracy committed solely to promoting Islamic virtue and prohibiting vice.
The Taliban used Islam as a domestic weapon and an international cause. As a weapon, Islam was domestically applied to re-Islamizing Afghanistan-an effective euphemism for the ethnic-cleansing process of Afghanistan. In that, this weapon did not even spare the ancient Buddha Statues that scream for the non-Pashton identity of that ethno-geographic area.
As a cause, Islam was intended with astute dexterity: a, to convince the Western world that their cause was the dream of a huge majority of Afghans who were disillusioned with the communist and Mujahidin legacies and aspired to have a purely Islamic emirate. And thus their aspirations deserved due understanding and their emirate, that would be the embodiment of those aspirations, deserved diplomatic recognition; b, to attract instant financial and diplomatic support of the Islamic world, principally aimed at Saudi Arabia and UAE.
Despite being denied recognition by the Western democracies, the Taliban, however, managed to win by having these democracies look with utter inattention as the Taliban embarked on their ethnic-cleansing campaigns against other minorities; I will come to this later in this article. They also succeeded in receiving the most coveted Saudi and UAE cash and, even transient, diplomatic recognition. Throughout this period, Pakistan remained a staunch Taliban ally in every front.
Whereas the Taliban cultural catastrophe engulfed Afghanistan as a whole, Central and Northern Afghanistan suffered the full human catastrophe of this war, i.e., the genocide of Hazaras mainly in Mazar-i-Sharif and the human and property genocide of Tajiks mainly in Parwan and Kapisa provinces. Tajiks’ fruit orchards, their only source of livelihood, were either set ablaze or, by evidence, even chemically destroyed; their houses, largely made of mud, were leveled to the ground; and their women as young as 12 were raped as their men as old as 70 were shot in the head. Hence the scars afflicted by the second ethnic war are fresher and uglier.
I visited Parwan and Kapisa provinces where I heard a lot of unreported accounts of the killings and burnings perpetrated by the Taliban when they occupied these provinces. No wonder why the US Bagram Base in this part of Afghanistan continues to be a safe resort for the US and coalition forces amidst the heart of otherwise militarily xenophobic Afghanistan while Kandahar and other Southern provinces, by contrast, continue to be a disturbing story of the coalition forces, Afghan National Army soldiers, and foreign workers. The beheading of another Indian engineer in that area reaffirms this fact.
Afghan National TV, as a rule, airs its daily headlines with gory stories of roadside bombs and ambushes orchestrated by the Taliban. Each story involves the murder or afflicted injuries of the Afghan and coalition soldiers, security officers, civilians and of course the Taliban.
Surprisingly, the National TV, which is officially the state TV, reports on these bloody incidents in such a soft tone that makes the audience think that the Taliban was but another legitimate yet slightly offended part of the government. However, the government adopts a harsh tone reporting only on such incidents as can be conceived to be the work of the ‘enemies of Afghanistan’, implying foreign fighters. When in the heart of Kabul the March suicide attack targeted the president of the Afghan Senate, Sebghatullah Mojaddidi, he unhesitatingly held Pakistan responsible for the attack. As for the domestic Taliban, the government seems to be mysteriously soft.
The author believes that the government softness psychologically prepares the public to eventually accept the Taliban malice as something that has to be put up with regardless of its contempt for humanity. In certain provinces that has even encouraged the ethnic locals to cooperate with the Taliban. The result is more suicides bombs, more beheadings and ambushes for the Afghan as well as international forces.
Given the escalation of violence lately, what has the Afghan government accomplished through its soft rhetoric? Why has the government not adopted a more aggressive policy towards the Taliban?
Only a ‘policy of appeasement’ can generally provide a rational answer to the above questions. But why would the national government, backed by the world’s most superior armies-the US and NATO-as well as the Afghan-Soviet war Mujahidin veterans, seek such a policy in its fight against terror, if it is scrupulously fighting it? Should ordinary Afghans and the Western peoples whose sons and daughters are already directly engaged in Afghan security, not feel betrayed if the government is actually pursuing such a policy? These questions have caused concern, and should encourage debate, among national and international observers.