A little over half a century ago, in 1970, my mother’s parents took her to Kabul to shop for her wedding. From Lahore, Kabul was only a short flight or a long drive away, much closer than Karachi. It was the first time my mother had left Pakistan.
They stayed in a hotel but were shown around Kabul by a family friend, a young Persian-speaking Afghan woman who had attended medical school in Lahore with my mother’s sister. This friend wore stylish western dresses, as many well-off women in Kabul did, and my mother was struck by how modern and cosmopolitan Kabul seemed. The city was full of westerners, including, in my mother’s recounting, throngs of “hippies and druggies”. My mother loved it at once.
One day they went for a picnic in a park. There was a river or a canal nearby, and beside this body of water some western women were sunbathing in bikinis. A group of Afghan men in traditional attire emerged from the trees and began to stare. Clearly uncomfortable, the women covered themselves and ran off.
My mother’s party all laughed as they watched this scene unfold. It seemed harmless enough. “Westerners come here,” their Afghan friend said, “and forget where they are.”
In recent weeks, as I have seen the heart-rending images from Kabul airport — of thousands of desperate people crowded outside, of babies being handed to soldiers over barbed wire, of men clinging to the sides of aircraft and tumbling from the skies after take-off, of blood staining the ground after a bomb blast — I have asked myself how this can be happening once again. For this is not the first time a western intervention in Afghanistan has ended in horror and chaos. Those of us in the region who are old enough can remember another.
When I was a boy growing up in Lahore, Afghanistan and Pakistan were made into a cold war battlefield. A coup in 1978 established a communist government in Afghanistan, and in the face of Afghan resistance to the new regime, the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. The US intervened, allying with Pakistan in a massive operation to defeat the Soviet Union. The plan was to arm and train mujahideen, those who do jihad — or, as we might call them today, jihadists — to enter Afghanistan from bases in Pakistan and wage a guerrilla war against the Soviet Union. Most of these fighters were Afghans, but some Muslims drawn from all over the world by an international call to join in jihad, among them a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden.
The Soviets fought brutally. They also engaged in a massive nation-building exercise, educating and providing technical training to tens of thousands of Afghans, constructing schools and hospitals and infrastructure. But soon American-backed guerrillas controlled most of the countryside. The Soviets and their Afghan government allies controlled mainly the cities and towns and major roads. Millions of Afghan refugees displaced by the fighting came to Pakistan and Iran. More than half a million Afghans died, possibly far more.
After 10 years of attempted occupation, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. The US withdrew from the region as well, and reimposed sanctions on Pakistan for its nuclear weapons programme, sanctions that had been lifted and replaced by copious aid in the 1980s while the war against the Soviets was under way. Afghanistan descended into civil war and chaos. And in horrific fighting between various mujahideen factions in 1992, Kabul was all but destroyed. Afghanistan lay in ruins.
Pakistan, too, suffered during this time. Had my mother gone to Karachi rather than Kabul for her wedding shopping, she would have found a city with bars and nightclubs, with many foreigners from diplomatic missions and corporate offices and airline flight crews wandering around. For in 1970, Karachi was the Dubai of its era, a thriving hub for air traffic and trade and commerce, perched advantageously midway between Europe and east Asia. But by 1992, flooded with Kalashnikovs and heroin and militants from the Afghan conflict, and riven by inter-ethnic violence and crime, Karachi was a deeply troubled city non-Pakistanis usually did their best to avoid.
To defeat the Soviets, America had enthusiastically supported the regime of Pakistan’s dictator, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and had enabled Zia’s project of Islamisation, which sought to remake every aspect of Pakistani life along the lines of Zia’s regressive interpretation of Islam. Schoolbooks were rewritten, newspapers censored and opponents imprisoned. Religious student groups intimidated secular faculty on university campuses. Militants killed members of religious minorities. All while Zia was feted at the White House by Ronald Reagan and given billions of dollars of American arms and aid.
The US won the cold war. But Afghanistan was shattered, and the scars suffered by Pakistan from that period have yet to heal. Some, indeed, have festered and grown worse. For many of the people of this region, the price paid for America’s victory in the cold war might understandably have felt much, much too high.
The Afghan civil war of the 1990s gave birth to the Taliban. The Taliban played host to Osama bin Laden (who returned to the site of his 1980s jihad against the Soviets). Bin Laden resented America’s military presence in Saudi Arabia. He orchestrated the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Thousands in America were killed. The US invaded Afghanistan. The routed Taliban attempted to surrender in exchange for amnesty. They were rebuffed. Twenty more years of fighting ensued. Once again a foreign power and its Afghan government allies controlled Afghanistan’s cities. Once again jihadist guerrillas controlled the countryside. Once again the guerrillas finally seized Kabul. And once again a foreign army is now beating a retreat.
What has been the point of it all? And what has been the point of the rest of it, the disasters that followed military intervention in Iraq and elsewhere across the region? “We came to defeat terrorism,” it is repeatedly said of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. But surely terrorism has not been defeated, as last week’s suicide bombing at Kabul airport attests? And if it has not been defeated, if the best that can be done is for terrorism to be managed through a combination of political settlements and international pressure and working with local regimes and with neighbouring countries and launching occasional narrowly targeted operations, then why were the wars of the past 20 years waged at all?
Rather than ask these questions, we are told that the withdrawal from Afghanistan frees America to focus its military on China. China, not terrorism, is the real threat. China must, at all costs, be stopped.
I am not a military expert. But I am familiar with what it is like to live in a country run by military experts. In Pakistan the population has long been told that India is the greatest challenge Pakistan faces. Not illiteracy, not militancy, not climate change, not poverty, not healthcare, but India. India is no doubt a dangerous neighbour to Pakistan. (And Pakistan is to India, as well.) But I nonetheless wish Pakistan had chosen its priorities differently.
Meanwhile in India, now enlisted by the US as an ally against China, there are signs of a transformation similar in many ways to that of America-allied Pakistan in the 1980s. In place of the Soviet threat there is the Chinese threat, in place of Zia’s Islamisation there is Modi’s Hindutva, and once again minorities are victimised, journalists are intimidated, and the structures of democracy are yielding to an increasingly intolerant autocracy. Pakistan’s history of superpower-backed religious chauvinism should have served India as a cautionary tale. Instead, it seems to be serving as something of an inspiration.
And so, as we the people of the world are encouraged to pivot from a cold war to a war on terror to a war against Chinese hegemony, I would suggest that we watch closely the calamitous debacle unfolding in Afghanistan and remain suitably sceptical.
Other than China, what might qualify as a worthy challenge for the world to do its utmost to meet? The Covid-19 pandemic we are currently battling is an obvious candidate. Vaccines are an important part of the solution. We are struggling to vaccinate enough people outside of Europe, North America and China. But what if these three centres of power had worked together? What if they had pooled resources in a plan to make more of the best vaccines more quickly, with a goal of dramatically expanding production facilities on every continent and vaccinating all the world’s adults by early next year?
Certainly the result would have been better than the alternative that actually occurred: national dose hoarding and bilateral vaccine diplomacy and endless sniping about relative vaccine quality and the introduction of geopolitical rivalry into what ought to have been a shared, humanity-wide goal. Confronted by the most sudden and urgent global pandemic in living memory, an emerging new cold war has not helped us at all.
Terrible though it has been, the Covid-19 crisis barely registers in scale and complexity when compared with the impending disaster of climate change. It is too late to avoid some of the damage: we can already see it all around us, in fires and floods and droughts and heatwaves. In Pakistan, the city of Jacobabad has already experienced wet-bulb temperatures over 35C — the point at which, even in the shade and with plenty of drinking water, the human body cannot cool itself and will soon die. A year ago a friend who lives in the Italian Alps sent me two pictures: one from a Nasa satellite, the second from his home showing a nearby mountain that was less visible than normal, though it was a cloudless day. It seemed the jet stream had carried smoke there from colossal fires raging on the west coast of the US.
But we can still limit the damage from climate change to levels that need not cause the displacement of billions of human beings. It is still possible to prevent the collapse of our planet’s main agricultural regions. But we do not have time or resources to waste. And the notion that we will do what needs to be done, act on the scale required of us, while the US and China settle into an ever-deteriorating stand-off in the western Pacific seems implausible at best. More aircraft carriers, hypersonic missiles, nuclear weapon silos — these are on their way, and they are decidedly not what humanity most requires.
The end of a war ought not to be a time to adjust our focus to the next war. The end of a war ought to be a time to focus on peace. In Afghanistan, this means bringing co-ordinated international pressure on the Taliban to create as inclusive a government as possible and to protect the human rights of the Afghan population, especially women and girls, victimised groups such as the Hazaras, and supporters of the previous western-backed dispensation. The Afghan economy will need assistance if it is not to collapse, as will Afghan refugees, particularly if more fighting swells their numbers, and the world will want assurances that Afghanistan will work to thwart groups who launch attacks on other countries.
But we must also consider what peace means beyond Afghanistan. We must, above all, seek to de-escalate the growing conflict between the US and China. This does not require us to assume that China is a benign actor in world affairs. It does not require us to assume that the US is either. Rather, it requires us to reckon with the consequences of endless conflict, to recognise that the benefits we are promised from military solutions rarely materialise and that the costs are often ruinously great.
The distinction between foreign policy and domestic policy is not a valid one. We are unlikely to be able both to fight endless wars and near-wars abroad and to reduce poverty and polarisation at home. This applies to wealthy and poor countries alike, to Europe and America and China just as much as it does to Pakistan and India. It is not simply a matter of resources, though resources are limited for overcoming the vast challenges humanity faces. Rather, it is also a matter of focus, of attention, of priority — indeed of culture.
The task at hand is to recognise that there are too many of us now, simply too many human beings living on and affecting our planet, for anything other than a profound increase in our level of co-operation to offer acceptable outcomes for us as a species. After the debacle in Afghanistan, it should be our ambition to regard war itself with more suspicion, and to think more radically about the possibilities for peace.
Mohsin Hamid is the author of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’. His most recent novel is ‘Exit West’
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