After 13 years and about two months, the US-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) folded up its flag in Kabul on Sunday and left Afghanistan, leaving behind a 13000-strong residual force to ‘train, advise and assist’ the Afghan army and police. There were no victory parades in the Afghan capital or anywhere in the 50 countries, which joined the Afghan war in one way or the other. The farewell ceremony was low-key, arranged secretly in a military auditorium fearing violence by the Taliban, because Afghanistan, as rightly portrayed by President Obama, ‘is still a dangerous place’. This was the longest war in the history of the United States of America, in which some 3,500 foreign soldiers, including 2,200 Americans died. The Americans had arrived in Afghanistan within weeks of 9/11, then fully backed by the American public opinion as the consensus then was, that the Mulla Omar-headed Taliban government should be thrown out for its refusal to hand over the planners of the American tragedy. But as the war in the land continued with body-bags reaching American homes as the only message from the battlefront, public sentiment morphed into stiff rejection, forcing President Obama to declare its end by the end of 2014. At the end of the day the random surveys indicate that Americans feel ‘Afghan war was not worth the effort’. The disenchantment with Afghan engagement is not the first of its kind – the machismo-obsessed American public brooks no second thought while jumping into troubled waters, but is also never shy of voicing disappointment when eluded by its wrongly-sighted goals in far off lands. No question, Afghanistan remains the graveyard of foreign invaders and that Afghanistan lives up to its history.
But that said the fact must be stated that the Afghanistan the international coalition forces had entered is not the same they leave behind – their victory is of another kind, possibly and hopefully, more lasting than the long spell of their battlefield engagement. Indeed the Isaf commander General John Campbell is spot on to claim: ‘Together … we have lifted the Afghan people out of the darkness of despair, and given them hope for the future’. As foreign troops exit, Afghanistan is a vibrant democracy, its civil society is energetic, media vibrant and woman has asked for her space in the Afghan polity. This is a paradigm shift from the past and Taliban or no Taliban in control it is irreversible. And to help it gain attrition inside and outside Afghanistan it is imperative that the outside world should take cognisance of this shift by increasing its interaction with the emerging non-governmental power centres in Afghanistan. For too long has the international community perceived Afghanistan as a geopolitical challenge only – and reacted accordingly, adding to its difficulties. That’s no more the case. It is a changed nation, and its landscape is no more battleground of another Great Game, a preserve of tribal lords and a trophy to be won by radicalized power-seekers. Kabul is expected to open up and welcome ideas and offers to help develop and modernise Afghanistan.
With foreign combat troops gone from their country the Afghan Taliban are left with not much of reason and cause for the violence they believe as their only option. They should give up their fighting gear and join the political forces to be part of the present government or wait in queue for their turn through democratic process. With President Obama now saying he would not hit Mulla Omar even if he knew where he is the United States concedes the Taliban’s right to be part of the government in Kabul where the elected leadership is ready to accord them a warm welcome. And no less significantly the lingering misperception that Afghanistan’s closest neighbour, Pakistan, would always like the rulers of its choice in Kabul, has also died its natural death. And the new Afghan government believes it, to considerable disappointment of anti-Pakistan players in the region. Peace in Afghanistan is more important to Pakistan than any other country, not for any fanciful mindset or untested geostrategic theorem, but for the harsh reality that the fallout of the Afghan war damaged it more than it has done to any other country. Obviously, if insurgency refuses to abate in Afghanistan in the post-pullout phase Pakistan would be very much within its rights to suspect the presence of an anti-Pakistan foreign hand. It is, therefore, incumbent upon Kabul and the residual Nato forces to ensure that the anti-Pakistan players do not use their proxies now sheltering in Afghanistan against Pakistan. The danger that these players would not give up so early in the game is there but there is no reason why peace will not prevail in Afghanistan.