By Tamim Asey*
Afghans and Afghanistan has an image problem. An image less reflective of the realities of Afghan society and polity and more portrayed for them by western academics, diplomats and politicians.
An Afghan proverb, “If you repeat a lie a hundred times then it becomes the truth,” best describes most of the paradoxical and far from truth narratives that has defined Afghanistan and the developments in this country.
In the western literature, Afghans are perceived as warrior savages with an extreme sense of independence with no respect for central authority therefore a centralised government and against progress and development. The only few scholars who have defied such an image of the country are Frederick Starr, Robert D. Crew and Frank L. Hot who have taken a civilizational approach to state and state building in Afghanistan. The argument of a centralised authority weary Afghans is as good as Republicans or the GOP calling for a small government in the United States with less intrusive powers in people’s individual lives.
The fact of the matter remains that this is a predominant image portrayed by few western academics and diplomats who spent little time in the country and without a deep understanding of Afghan social and anthropological intricacies; an over -exaggeration of a far more complex social and anthropological phenomena than the realities of the Afghan state.
The truth is that successive governments and western powers who supported these regimes failed to deliver services, security and infrastructure or resorted to short cuts and this was the main driver of people rebellion and disenchantment with regimes in Kabul. Therefore, they had to come up with cover stories, political justifications and academic explanations for their failures. Governments are supposed to deliver services, provide security and facilitate trade and more often than not few governments have provided the trio key functions of any state to Afghans.
Afghanistan is known by many aliases – Heart of Asia, cul -de -Sac and round about of Asia, Graveyard of Empires and Silk Road Bridge among many others to describe its geopolitical and historical endowment plus comparative advantage. Some hold historical significance while others were manufactured in the course of Great Game in 18th century by officers, academics and diplomats of the British Raj and Russian czarist court.
Though this process of image projection for Afghanistan receded after the great game but it took significance as apart of the information warfare during the cold war when the mujahiddin supported by the west and Arab world fought Afghan communists supported by the Red Army and the Comintern in Moscow.
Some of the most common misperceptions about Afghanistan and the state of affairs in the country are summarized below. These are narratives built by security establishments and PR machinery of Afghan neighbors and great powers to justify interventions and/or failures in Afghanistan.
1. There is a civil war in Afghanistan
By any stretch of imagination and definition – Afghanistan is not in a civil war. The three ingredients of a civil war: a disgruntled indigenous population, geography and finally a political ideology against an authoritarian regime are completely absent in the current Afghan war. What we see in Afghanistan right now is state sponsored terrorism and proxy war – it contains the three elements of a proxy war i.e. state sponsorship, sanctuaries and use of violence as an instrument of foreign policy is present in the current Afghan war by all accounts.
Though the question remains that if Afghanistan is entangled in a civil war then why we have Arabs, Chechens, Uighurs, Punjabis, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kergyz and other nationals belonging to groups such as LeT, Jundullah, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jaish – e – Mohammad, Al Qaeda, ISIS and other regional and international terrorist outfits fighting in this civil war. The truth is that Afghanistan is fighting an “imposed proxy war” primarily supported and exported from Pakistan and the region consisting of nationals from across the region and the world.
2. Taliban are fighting for the Rights of Pashtuns
Since its establishment in 1774 – Afghanistan has had Pashtun rulers except only in two junctures of its history. Since the fall of the Taliban regime it has also been ruled by ethnic Pashtuns i.e. former President Hamid Karzai and current President, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai while across the spectrum the Afghan government, parliament, judiciary, security forces, civil society and the media is dominated by ethnic Pashtuns followed by other ethnic groups.
As a diverse multi-ethnic country, Afghanistan’s strength has always lied in its diversity but never had any separatist movement. Taliban is fighting for a dogmatic ideology whose ranks are filled by terrorists, Islamic ideologues, criminal groups and regional criminal networks who fights for no ethnic group but a dogmatic ideology as a proxy group hurting its own people and land. Taliban are no “sons of the soil” but a proxy group instrumentalised as a foreign policy tool serving foreign objectives and interests in Afghanistan.
3. Taliban is an indigenous political movement and not a threat to South – Central Asia and the world
Taliban is no disgruntled indigenous group. It is a heterogeneous proxy group at the hands of regional security agencies whose rank and file are filled with Arabs, Chechens, Punjabis, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Uighurs and many other nationals with no sympathies to the aspirations of common Afghans.
During their reign, the Taliban movement and their senior leadership have shown no respect for international laws, only recognized by a couple of countries, blew up the statues of Buddhas in Bamyan, killed Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif, provided sanctuary to terrorists during the Indian airline hijacking fiasco, harbored and nurtured terrorists from across Central Asia and China in the territory under its control and finally provided sanctuary to Al Qaeda and its affiliates to stage the tragic events of Sept. 11. They were and still are a credible threat to regional and international peace and stability.
4. Taliban is fighting against Daesh and is a better moderate alternative
The death of Mullah Omar and further fragmentation of the Taliban movement provided an opportunity for the Pakistani intelligence agency to use an old tested formula with the creation of Daesh as an intelligence proxy project (more than 90% of Daesh leadership and 80% of Daesh members in Afghanistan are Pakistani nationals from Orakzai and Afridi tribes) . This way the Pakistani military establishment could use the Daesh fear card to give legitimacy and improve the image of Taliban as a more moderate “Islamic” group who only pursues domestic political goals and is not a threat to the region and the world. This way based on their calculations Taliban can become acceptable phenomena for the region and the world – the choice between worse and worst. This approach only provided short-term yield but was soon proved a futile calculation against the realities on the ground.
Taliban groups started collaboration and sharing of resources with Daesh forces in the Southern, Eastern and Northern Afghanistan to conduct joint operations against Afghan security forces and NATO. The “symbiotic” relations between the Taliban and Daesh as the realities on the ground dictate soon overtook the narrative that the Pakistani security agencies wanted to establish with regards to the animosity between Daesh and Taliban.
5. Taliban have disentangled from Al Qaeda and the global terror network
After the death of Mullah Omar and subsequently of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor – Al Qaeda chief, Ayman Al Zawahiri, pledged allegiance to their successors and recently to Mullah Haibatullah Akhund. In fact – Al Qaeda mediated between various Taliban factions to make peace with each other after the death of Mullah Omar.
The truth remains that Taliban and Al Qaeda still have strong ties, provide military-logistic-financial resources to each other and the Taliban movement have not broken its ties with global terror network. It has rather strengthened over the recent years.
6. Afghan security forces are weak and will disintegrate
The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) is a nascent yet professional and resilient force. With the withdrawal of the bulk of NATO/American forces in 2014 – the ANDSF has took the lead in the Afghan war and has proven itself to be a capable, resilient and tested force though for it to be effective and sustainable it will require continued financial support, mentorship and training.
While – the ANDSF is suffering high rates of attrition and casualties but it has managed to weather the storm and remain resilient and steadfast. The ANDSF is nascent but not weak and its has proven to carry the burden of the Afghan war.
7. Afghans are hostile to foreign powers and can not be apart of the community of nations
After the three Anglo–Afghan wars and subsequently the Afghan jihad, which led to the defeat of former Soviet Union in the country – a particular image of Afghanistan is portrayed that Afghans are hostile to foreign powers and cannot serve as an active member of the international community. Henceforth, the interaction with this country should be contracted out to its neighbors especially to Pakistan effectively undermining the sovereignty of Afghanistan. This particular narrative is as wrong as Pakistani claims that it does not export terrorism or provide sanctuaries to Taliban and its Al Qaeda affiliates in its territory.
After the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghans have held four major Loya Jirgas in each of which it has reaffirmed its partnership with the international community and the members of this grand assembly has deemed the presence of US/NATO troops as a necessity to train and provide much needed resources to Afghan security forces as well as serve as a deterrence to the interference of Afghan neighbors in its own internal affairs.
8. India is using Afghan soil to destabilize Pakistan
Pakistan has consistently failed to produce a dearth of evidence on covert activities of India in the Afghan soil to destabilize Pakistan, even fabricated ones. It claims Tehreek –e- Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is a by product of Indian – Afghan intelligence agencies whereas there is a long historical trail as recent as former dictator Musharraf era in which Pakistani army negotiated with this group to free Swat valley and subsequently its spread in South and North Waziristan. Furthmore – with the presence of US and NATO forces i.e. about 42 nations with world-class intelligence services no such covert project is possible and it goes against their stated policy of “no distinction between good and bad terrorists”.Such narratives are more meant for domestic consumption and a public relations exercise than a credible, well documented claim backed by real hard evidence.
9. The Afghan government only controls main cities and district centers
The Afghan government controls 34 provincial capitals and 353 districts out of 364 districts of the country. The Afghan National Solidarity Program (NSP) now known as Citizen Charter, which is a community led rural development project, delivers services to tens of thousands of villages across the country. While insecurity persists but Taliban and their terrorist affiliates have failed to control a sizeable territory, hold it and deliver services to the population.
The recent US Inspector General report for Afghanistan claiming half of the country under Taliban control is questionable at best and it worst shows incompetence. As per SIGAR the source of such claims are maps and other secondary sources obtained from international agencies in Afghanistan. The methodology, sources and analytical base of such inferences are high questionable since the Afghan government and security forces control all the provincial capitals and the overwhelming majority of Afghan districts. Threat assessments and threat perceptions of IED attacks should not be translated to territorial control.
10. The Afghan government is in the hands of Afghan minorities.
Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic diverse country. Diversity has been the strength of the country and never in the history of Afghanistan there existed a separatist ethnic movement. But the Pakistani intelligence services for years been trying to forement an ethnic war in the country following the good old policy “divide and rule”.
Former Pakistani dictator, Pervez Musharraf, once told an audience that Kabul is controlled by “Panjshiris” and “everywhere you go you see photos of Ahmad Shah Massoud” implying that essentially Taliban has taken up arms to assert the right of Pashtuns who consist the “majority” of the population against the minorities who control the power in Kabul. Essentially, portraying the Afghan war as an ethnic war to suit his own and that of the Pakistani army’s geopolitical interests. He was oblivious of the fact that at that time, Hamid Karzai, a prominent Pashtun from the Popalzai tribe was the President of the country and majority of his cabinet members and government machinery consisted of Pashtuns. This was an intentional policy of the Pakistani establishment in order to forment an ethnic war in the country.
*Tamim Asey is the former Afghan Deputy Minister of Defense and Director General at the Afghan National Security Council. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Security studies in London. He can be reached via twitter @tamimasey and Facebook @Tamim Asey.