The Big Lesson from the Tragedy in Afghanistan

The immediate reactions to the unraveling events in Afghanistan have been mostly about what’s closer to skin. For the Americans, the question has too often been whether Afghanistan is their second Vietnam, and whether it can spell a disaster of some level for the Biden administration. For the Russians, it has been – again – whether Afghanistan will prove to be some greater sort of fiasco for the Americans, and – to lesser degree – what security and geopolitical implications may the Taliban regime pose for Moscow. For the Central Asian neighbors, it has been mostly about the security dangers that may spill over to the north from Afghanistan. But an equally relevant and true lesson from the happenings in today’s Afghanistan for all sides, and for the young states of Central Asia in particular, has been the lesson of state-building failure.

What happened in Afghanistan

Obviously, the republican government of the country (For lack of a better term to identify the 2001-2021 regime in Afghanistan) imploded and the Taliban took over the country again and are now on course to reinstall their questionably Islamic but unquestionably terrible regime – that’s what happened. But this all-too-obvious fact has obviated some broader elements of ‘what happened’. Any ‘happening’, come to think of it, happens in some variable period of time – it may be shorter or longer.

In a two-year or so perspective of what happened, for example, one has to admit that a serious undermining of the sitting republican government has taken place alongside an open and high-level recognition of the power of the Taliban. The process of US-Taliban negotiations, with Afghan government left outside the door, was deeply damaging for the latter. That Moscow and Beijing also began to entertain the Taliban made the blow all the stronger. The already weakened government of Ashraf Ghani, whose re-election was anything but convincing or conclusive, essentially had to swallow humiliation and try to keep a straight face. Possibly, it had also to seek contacts with Taliban in its own ways – something now rumored but unconfirmed.

If by “what happened” we mean the past 5-7 years, then it would be about a gradual but sure regrouping, battling and retaking by Taliban of different parts of the country already after the 2014 drawdown of Western forces. Taliban had long been back and spreading more and more broadly across Afghanistan, and their blitz advance was only the finale of a process of several years. In that period, Afghanistan saw the exit of Hamid Karzai from presidency – albeit not from political spotlight – to be replaced by the extra-constitutional tandem of a president and a CEO in the mostly malfunctioning ‘National Unity Government’. The latter arrangement, brokered by then-Secretary John Kerry, was an ad hoc fix to a weird problem: the Afghan electorate turned out in very low numbers and gave an unconvincingly divided vote in favor of both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. The Western drawdown, essentially, set off the melting down of the Afghan republican government.   

Not least informatively, if one considers the happening of the past 20 years, one can see the larger problem that encapsulates all the happenings of the more recent and shorter durations – a seriously flawed and ultimately failed project of building a modern nation-state. Problems and mistakes in the project were numerous and evolving over the period, from forging it with guns and then with money, to forcing constitutional design and processes lacking touch with ground at a speed that made it artificial still more, to bringing all that constitutional endeavor to lay upon a very thin crust within the society (and a much thicker crust of corruption) and a lot else. Add the immense corruption that sprang up in the absence of a real economy and in view of the flow of billions in donor money. Add, too, the deep fractures along ethnic and tribal lines that were never genuinely confronted by foreign powers and ever manipulated by Afghan elites and suffered by ordinary citizens. Add, for one more, the never disappeared activity of the Taliban and other destructive groups and their ideologies against the background of an ever distrusted, disillusioning, foreign ideas of rights, freedoms and democracy for large swaths of the population. Come the summer of 2021, taking all the above into account, it would have taken a serious impairment to expect the Afghan soldiers and police, bureaucrats and the government topped by President Ghani himself – all of them weak in convictions, divided in interests, uncertain about the future – to give a proper fight against the juggernaut of an upbeat, mobilized mob of the Taliban fighters.  

Considering all these happenings of the recent history of Afghanistan, one can only see a project of constituting a modern nation-state that stood on stilts and waiting to implode. Events of the recent period drawing up to the spring of 2021 were only a sequence of developments that appear to have quickened the implosion.

What remains today is that thin crust of young Afghan democrats – human rights activists, journalists, women activists, academics, students, entrepreneurs, political hopefuls – who were given education, hope, opportunities, and now found themselves left on their own, locked up in their country that is not quite theirs anymore, facing the Taliban take control and impose their chains upon the society, with modern republican institutions of government withered away.

The big lesson of Afghanistan

What happened in Afghanistan is a large-scale tragedy. First and foremost, it is a tragedy for the Afghan people, and especially, for that relatively small part of the Afghans who took the possibility of a modern, democratic, law-based government seriously and had committed their lives and hopes to it. It is a tragedy for the Afghans because at the end of a twenty-year stretch they came to realize that the country was the site a giant socio-political experiment that came to a failing end. As it tends to be with such giant experiments and projects, this, too, was arguably not designed and planned as one at the start, and many times and in many ways along the way there were efforts to make it less of an experiment and more of a genuine development process, but the result in the end remained an experiment all the same.

“Institutions can be at most be imported, never exported,” a quip attributed to a Brazilian economist and statesman, echoes loudly upon the Afghan tragedy.

One is tempted to observe that for Afghanistan, not only were institutions exported from outside, but – lacking people on the ground ready enough the operate them – even people were exported: just think of Ashraf Ghani leaving his comfort in New York to become the president, or Zalmai Khalilzad jockeying all along as half an American and half an Afghan.

The lesson from Afghanistan remains mostly a negative one, alas. It is about how not to attempt to build a nation-state; how not to prioritize the wrong tools and resources, such as money and weapons; how not to jeopardize small numbers of committed supporters when the outcome is so fraught with odds; how not to neglect the primacy of the people, economy, culture – the life – that existed before the project unfolded; how, ultimately, not to overestimate the malleability of such a large and complex society as the Afghans in such a short time.

Countries like the Central Asian neighbors of Afghanistan may and will prioritize the most immediate implications of the events – the security of their borders, the spillover risks of extremist activities in their own societies, even (however unlikely) the spread of Taliban ideology into their midst, and certainly the refugee and militant flows. But they will do so much better to take seriously the larger lesson of Afghan state-building.

The Central Asian ruling circles as well as the active citizens, parties, intellectuals and business need to understand that the security, viability and prosperity of their states and governance regimes is theirs to care for, not for the international community or some strategic foreign partners, even in the best intentions of the latter.

They all need to also understand that corruption coupled with a poor economy is a quicksand that can swallow a constitution faster than they could think.

Most importantly, perhaps, they need to understand that without the larger society buying into their constitutional endeavors, without a requisite enlightenment, engagement and sense of empowerment and ownership for their state among the mass of citizenry, any regime is ever a construct on stilts waiting to fall.

In supporting development in countries like the Central Asian states or Afghanistan, the international partners certainly still have a role. The failure in Afghanistan is not an invitation for international development cooperation to cease. But it is an urgent sign, possibly the loudest such sign yet, that such efforts need to be done differently.

Complex projects must be given their proper maturation time, not hurried for political or budgetary reasons. Sustainability of such development projects and the human and social capital that can sustain and operate them, need to be prioritized ahead of the funding thereof. Any constitutional endeavor must be grounded on the society – its context, history, make-up and more – for which it is designed. And most importantly, such an endeavor must be embarked and carried on with a strong level of local commitment and ownership. Genuine international development support needs to be support to societies in their efforts to achieve better economies, governance and life in general; not support that comes with prepackaged visions and deadlines of what a recipient society ought to become.

The current predicament of the Afghan society in its tragic complexity, may look very unique and only applying to Afghanistan. The unique history of the ‘graveyard of empires’, that has swung repeatedly between modernization and archaization, progress and backwardness, that has sometimes seen unity and more often – deep divisions, that has gone through so much war and bloodshed in recent decades but was able to enjoy far greater freedom of press and thought than any of the Central Asian neighbors ever had, has been abused by nearly all the greater powers but never quite surrendered – it is clearly a very thick modern history for others to be able effectively to relate to. But while the whole is so unique, many elements of the whole are easily relatable to many other countries, from violence and disunity to corruption and self-serving elites, from exclusion and discrimination to unequal resource distribution, from ideological clashes to great power interference, and so much else.

Today’s Afghan predicament is ultimately for the Afghans themselves to deal with and resolve, with help from outside if it comes relevant, without it if it does not. The idea of a modern Afghan republic may not even be so terminally gone just yet. For others, however, both near and far, the moral of the story ought to be that what happened in Afghanistan is about much more than geopolitics and securitization: it ought to be about proper state and nation-building, proper governance and public interest.

Emilbek Dzhuraev, PhD, a political scientist in Bishkek, taught numerous Afghan students most of whom are now back in Afghanistan. He is now a Program director at Soros Foundation – Kyrgyzstan.

Emilbek Dzhuraev

PhD, a political scientist in Bishkek, a Program director at Soros Foundation (Kyrgyzstan)

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September 2021
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