‘O Afghanistan, Afghanistan!’

Residents of a Shia neighbourhood blame the government for an attack in Kabul that killed 58, mostly students in May 2021 (Al-Jazeera)

Grief has many faces; as Anglo-American poet critic T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) said of death, it ‘has a hundred hands and walks by a thousand ways’. Shell-shocked military children at a father’s funeral. Mothers cradling photos of infants vaporised in an airstrike. Distraught professionals unjustly accused. Women silently abused. The dreams of adolescence turned to the nightmare of drugs, or paths to advancement blocked by destitution and ideological oppression. Religious leaders hearing the truths they seek to uphold twisted and turned back on them in barbs and bombs. The prophet mocked and dishonoured. The heart-felt cry of Jesus as he entered the holy city near the end of his ministry, ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!’ (Luke 13.34), has particular poignancy for a world aghast at the speed with which Kabul fell to the Taliban a little under a week ago. ‘O Afghanistan, Afghanistan!’ how often have some sought ‘to gather your children together’, others to sow seeds of discord in your tribes and ravage your ancient culture/s. Grief at human loss. Desperate grief to flee a beloved homeland: tears in the eyes of those wanting and working to help, to turn an Afghan sunset into a bright dawn. Grief too, surely, that some will see possibilities for strategic, regional, and local political advantage in the collapse of the former Afghan regime and its purportedly well-trained and well-equipped army. No-one knows what the future holds for Afghanistan, perhaps not even its new Taliban masters.

(The Guardian)

Jesus’s tear-filled words ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem’ are rooted in his sense of history repeating itself. Here righteous prophets have been killed before. Here hard hearts have won the day many times over the centuries. The many faces of grief we see in and over Afghanistan today are, surely, also born of a sense of history repeating itself. Here, for all its refinement and beauty, tribal conflict has been endemic and failed military incursions characteristic. Lessons, it seems, cannot be learned: lives and livelihoods lost in petty local disputes and in grand military and diplomatic strategies. A favoured terrain for the erstwhile ‘Great Game’ in East-West/North-South sparring and feuding, the rugged hillsides and fruitful valleys of Afghanistan have flowed with the blood of locals and invaders for centuries. As Jesus said sadly of Jerusalem, ‘Look, your house is left to you desolate’ (Luke 13.35). ‘O Afghanistan, Afghanistan’, if only you weren’t where and what you are. Will lessons [n]ever be learned?

(New York Times)

Grief is often – and understandably – associated with recrimination. We look for someone to blame. The loved one dies: ‘It’s the doctor’s fault.’ The marriage fails: ‘He didn’t listen to me.’ Children rebel: ‘I’m going to speak to the school Principal.’ Political recrimination can be brutal. Knives are already being sharpened in Washington and Westminster. Points can be scored; reputational and electoral blood shed. Voicing concern for Afghan victims can veil domestic, political vindictiveness. That said, recrimination is the poor relation of righteous indignation and legitimate accountability. Bad decisions should be called out. Base motives denounced. Banal demonization of enemies to justify military expenditure or secure another term denounced for what they are. Grief can be justifiably angry: and it should be, when the innocent suffer, or when lives are wantonly squandered. Hearing and heeding the hurt is the duty of the politician and the diplomat just as much as the pastor, General, judge and medic. Perhaps to our surprise there is a steely toughness and compelling realism in Jesus: he follows his heavy-hearted ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem’ with the punchy indictment ‘but you were not willing’ (Luke 13. 34). Peace is a choice. But recrimination, like self-justification, can also be self-serving. Afghanistan needs more than a well-meaning Western Band-Aid, much more than that it becomes a punchbag for political complainers or go-to rod for moral flagellants. There is integrity in victory and in defeat. Cool, clear heads and warm, generous hearts can – and must – work well (better?) together now to support a new Afghanistan.

Scene in Kabul streets just days after the Taliban takeover (CNN)

So, what of the grief of bereavement and loss on all sides in the most recent round of Afghan wars? To some, grief will co-exist with pride in a job well done, in a sacrifice willingly made, in a much-be-medalled regiment or safe return of troops. To others, grief is already overlaid with the anguish of PTSD or persistent pain in a shattered body and/or fractured mind. Some grief can be reached by time and therapy, some will not be surrendered out of a sense of duty to lost colleagues or because of hardened bitterness. No two stories of grief are the same. Some are written in silence, others etched in suicidal blood. And let’s not forget the deep pain of Afghan – and Taliban – grief: humanity is not humanity when it is parochial. Of course, cultures and faiths handle grief differently – and are to be respected for that – but the sheer commonality of human grief unites our fragile, fractured world. Or certainly should. Yes, there may be regimental ties and tribal loyalties unintelligible to outsiders: the pain of sorrow, is all too familiar, and no respecter of character, culture, or professional calling.

Winning hearts and minds for the next generation (AFP)

If, as many security professionals and honest politicians now admit, there was (for a range of reasons) an inadequate assessment of the risks and complexity of Western military action in Afghanistan (and Iraq) – however plausible or legitimate the appeal to sever Islamist radicalism at its root post-9/11 – and little attention to a viable ‘exit strategy’, such an egregious error cannot be allowed to be repeated. Afghanistan is a deeply, and richly, complex set of tribal, religious, cultures and communities, which has in recent times been exposed to some of the best and worst of external influence/s. Its cities have familiar urban features. Its intellectuals, professionals, businesses, and youth are globalized. Hopes for the development of Afghanistan have, in part, been realised. Progress has been made. Educational, professional, and social opportunities for women and girls, in particular, have been transformed. The 2003 constitution safeguarded women’s rights with 27% of the seats in Parliament reserved for women. It is estimated ca. 65% of women and girls were in some kind of formal education last year in Afghanistan, with 39% of the country’s 9.5m. students female. A 2009 law (EVAW) proscribed violence against women, which an estimated 200 female judges and 4000 female law enforcement officers have helped to safeguard. Eyes have been opened; new opportunities found. If the West miscalculated in 2001, it has tried hard to reprogramme itself.

But Afghanistan is (thankfully) still Afghanistan, not France, Houston, Cairo, Beijing, or Delhi – and, arguably, more complex than before twenty years of Western military, economic and ideological involvement muddied further the waters of Afghan identity, and, it now it appears, rendered the country susceptible to Taliban (and, increasingly, allied Sino-Russian) threats, manipulation, inducements and flattery. Let’s be clear, the ‘Culture War’ Western powers failed to comprehend pre- and post-9/11 is still being waged. East is still East, and is, at best, ambivalent about whether it ever wants to be or become like the West. No amount of economic inducement, bribery, threat, or coercion can, or should, persuade Afghanistan that it should be anything other than Afghanistan. That isn’t to say Afghanistan should be left to find its own way out of the current crisis: it is to say it should be allowed, and supported, to discover its own new identity and flourishing future. Protecting that should be, surely, an international non-negotiable.

(Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

But what of the Taliban? Commentary is, it seems, divided between those (erstwhile realists) who confidently predict, ‘We know what they are like: they are brutal, unpredictable, devious and dangerous’, and those (patient idealists) who want to ‘Wait and see. Give them a chance. Keep our diplomatic powder dry.’ The early tone of Taliban statements is, unsurprisingly perhaps, eirenic and reasonable. They know that they, too, must win the hearts and minds of fellow Afghans to secure their position. They know first-hand the depth of the change that has already taken place in Afghanistan since they were last in power. The world has moved on: their country has moved on. But the Taliban also face two significant internal threats. First, they are an essentially artificial construct created from of a diverse, rough-hewn, set of gun touting, tribal ‘vigilantes’ (promising protection from bandits) and socio-political dreamers and dissidents (imagining heaven on earth), who have united as much to oppose international intervention as create a new nation. How they preserve their unity and identity when in power is a moot point. History suggests Afghanistan and Afghanis know as much, if not more, about defeating local friends as thwarting international enemies. Second, in so far as the Taliban own an Islamic identity, they will be under various kinds of pressure from other ‘Islamic’ nations and radicalized militant groups. If they are serious about creating an ‘inclusive’ Islamic state, how will they respond if threatened by ‘exclusive’ Islamist agents or nations? Will they really risk distancing themselves from the (predictable) narrative in which Afghanistan is a shining example of occidental humiliation and defeat?

There are two other pressing questions the Taliban face, and with these I end.

China teams up with the Taliban in an unlikely partnership (CNN)
Sergey Lavrov (Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs) with Taliban representatives (EURACTIV.com)

First, how will they handle Russia and China, both of whom have a deep (and active) interest in the future of Afghanistan now Western powers and forces have effectively withdrawn? China is in a difficult position. It is paranoid about Islamic radicalization, as its suppression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang has made grotesquely clear. It will not want, however, to drive the Taliban into the arms of Iran or see Afghanistan become a soft(er) border for Islamic influence in its Western provinces. Crucially, having heeded US advice in its early treatment of the Uyghurs (and thrown money at the problem), it has now learned the hard way that a religious culture cannot be easily bought. In other words, swamping Afghanistan (like Africa) with Yuan may increase its investment but not its influence. But equally, if it adopts a strong-arm approach, it knows it risks alienating the global community on which its already weakening GDP depends. For now, China will discreetly rejoice with the Taliban. For its part, Russia carries the scars of its most recent military action – and repeated defeat – in Afghanistan (from December 1979 to February 1989) but will be as keen as China to consolidate its position in the country; indeed, the safety of its political presence has already been assured. But Russia, for all President Putin’s (b. 1952; Pres. 2000-08, PM 2008-12; Pres. 2012-present) avowed Orthodox religiosity, is still embroiled in a ‘Culture War’ with Afghanistan, albeit different from China’s. To China, Afghanistan institutionalises Islamist ideology on its doorstep; to Russia, the Taliban is a potential ally in squeezing Western influence in India and more widely in Southeast Asia. Pakistan knows it holds many cards in the region: the world needs her to play them wisely – more wisely, than hitherto. Alas, outsiders will probably have little access to the chemistry of the Taliban’s relationship with China and Russia. I, for one, would quietly expect these usually confident global super-powers to be oddly awkward in their presence!

Taliban leaders (Times of India)

Second, how well will Taliban ideology stand up under scrutiny of its governance at home and its engagement with the international community (and media) abroad? Yes, it will have a range of interested ‘allies’ keen to offer various types of support, but money is often tied and loyalty conditional. As the Taliban know, the greater their ‘success’ the more enemies and friends – out of security fears or religious competitiveness – will seek to undermine or displace them. If, as has been suggested, they have been surprised by the speed of their success, they may yet trip on their coat tails. And they have few leaders with much political or diplomatic experience. Those who urge patience on the international community have this on their side: the Taliban have a very difficult task ahead of them and may yet stumble or implode. Meanwhile, mature wisdom and humanitarian compassion would suggest the task of winning friends and influencing Afghanistan for good should not be surrendered swiftly. Western powers have a compelling opportunity and, I would suggest, moral responsibility to demonstrate in practice the values they aspire to embrace and live. Not all Afghans will be persuaded, no: some may be. A healthy package of humanitarian aid would go a long way, as many thankfully recognise. Better an attempt to exceed the ‘righteousness’ of the Taliban than give critics of the West further ammunition to indict what we believe and how we live. But that is, rightly, to re-direct Jesus’s heart-felt words and from Jerusalem and Afghanistan to Paris and London, Washington DC, or Rome. ‘O West, West’, we can almost hear him say with tears again in his eyes. But we must speak of these things again … and will do very soon.

Afghanistan: a nation united or divided? (The Guardian)

Christopher Hancock, Director