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Afghanistan: Pragmatism, Hypocrisy, And An Unwanted Sense Of Déjà vu – OpEd

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Edward Burke, George Santayana, Winston Churchill warned about the consequences of not learning from history.  The world watched in horror at the desperation of the Afghan people attempting to escape the inexorable certainty of living under the medieval rules of the Taliban.  

Many, including Donald Trump, have compared America’s exit from Kabul to their departure from Saigon on the 29th of April 1975.

But the truth of the matter is that the series of events that culminated in the Taliban forming the government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan whose members include those whose photographs have adorned most wanted lists is an unwelcome leitmotif for many. The déjà vu spans span time, personalities, and geographies. 

For example, President Joe Bidens unilateral decision to bring back troops from Afghanistan without discussions with the then Afghan government mirrored what his predecessor, Donald Trump, did. As the 45th American President,  Trump sidestepped the Afghan government and made a deal with the Taliban which included the release of Taliban fighters. The breath-taking hypocrisy of the deal is in its titleAgreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America’ Though Trump’s bigoted short-sightedness is understandable, many felt that Biden’s decision was ill-conceived, callous and let down the Afghans. The implications for the world is as heavy as another of Trump’s decisions which was overturned by Biden – exiting the Paris Agreement.

The backwash that one tastes is not America’s alone. 

The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, heralded the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.  Speaking on the occasion of Pakistani schools adopting a single national curriculum he spoke about ‘cultural enslavement’ and that the Taliban had ‘broken the shackles of slavery’ in Afghanistan. In 2014, in his maiden speech from the Central Hall of the Parliament as the 14th Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi spoke about Indians weakened as a consequence of ‘1200 years of slavery’.   

In the movie Mars Attack, a sci-fi spoof, Martians claim they come in peace and  are friends while they go about slaughtering earthlings. This came to mind as the Taliban went about claiming they were a better version of their past selves and would grant amnesty to all while on the ground there were reports of mass executions, former Afghan officials being targeted, and women restricted from participating in work and education.

 Notwithstanding precedent and facts, the world has no choice but to believe that the Taliban have changed. In fact the Chief of the British Army has gone on record to say that the Taliban are ‘country boys with a code of honour’.  Many would call this hypocrisy, others pragmatism but it is the common person that bears the cross of choosing either. 

Henry Kissinger and Churchill said there are no permanent enemies or friends only lasting interests. But, behind this pragmatism one can’t deny the awkwardness, if not horror, of working with groups whose ideology is based on your destruction. America and its NATO allies have had to negotiate with the Taliban, which they had labelled as a terrorist organisation, driven away from Afghanistan and whose leaders they had captured and imprisoned without trial. But now communicating with the Taliban, the very nations that had invaded Afghanistan to destroy them are giving it credibility and inadvertently giving hope to similar groups across the world. 

When it first ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 only 3 countries had recognised the Taliban government – UAE, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. This time even before the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Taliban representatives met Chinese officials. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recognised the group as “a pivotal military and political force”.  China also stated that it is ready for ‘friendly relations’ with them. Other countries have adopted a ‘wait and watch’ approach which suggests that they are now willing to lower the high standards that had caused them to invade Afghanistan in 2001. 

Taliban is familiar to India’s rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). On 24th December 1999 an Indian Airlines aircraft with 160 passengers was hijacked to Kandahar during an earlier BJP government.  Then too the Taliban government was not recognised by India. However, the Taliban saw this as an opportunity to gain international recognition and agreed to act as mediators between the hijackers and the Indian government. The Vajpayee government sent the then chief of Intelligence Bureau Mr. Ajit Doval to negotiate with the hijackers. He is now the National Security Advisor to the BJP government presided over by Mr Narendra Modi.

 In trying to evacuate its citizens and remain relevant in the region the Modi government has chosen to build bridges with the IslamistTaliban that it does not recognise. It is hard not to notice that the BJP government is opening channels with the Taliban while refusing to acknowledge the Indian farmers protesting peacefully. 

Both China and India are reaching out to the Taliban but have problems with their own Muslim citizens.The Chinese are doggedly converting the Uighurs into communists. The Indian government is targeting their Muslim citizens through laws, while their supporters do the same unofficially using violence and overt and covert forms of intimidation. Muslim nations choose to ignore this. Similarly, they accept the humanitarian disaster of an Islamist terrorist organisation ruling a nation with anachronistic laws. Where is the concept of Umma that binds all Muslims irrespective of race and nationality?

The Afghan imbroglio is a Venn diagram that connects countries, the past and leaders. No one comes out smelling of roses. Einstein defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results’. The unwillingness to learn is nothing but the outcome of pragmatism clothing hypocrisy. As a consequence, we are assured of a future filled with Déjà vu.  

*Samir Nazareth is the author of 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People. He tweets at @samirwrites

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