Often forgotten in hard-nosed debates on geopolitics is the fact that the countries under discussion are home to people just like us. Take Afghanistan, the country of 40 million that geopolitical analysts often refer to as the ‘graveyard of empires’. All the important international actors are in play in this traditional confluence of South Asia and Central Asia. We in Nepal think we are struggling to manage international geopolitical competition in our midst. But if our situation is that of struggle, in Afghanistan, things are hopeless. People there have little to look forward to.
The scenes of Afghans clinging to a military aircraft about to take off, in what was their last desperate ditch to leave the Taliban-controlled country, were heart-rending. One shudders to think of their state of mind. Yet there seems to be no shortage of commentators, including in Nepal, who are celebrating the Taliban’s ‘liberation’ of Afghanistan. As a rule of thumb, the farther on the left you go, the greater the number of sympathizers for Afghanistan’s new ‘liberators’.
In the past few days, I have had the misfortune of listening to countless Afghan women express their fears of living under the Taliban. These interviews broadcast over TV and radio had an overarching theme: whatever the mullahs might say, women are not safe in the new Afghanistan. They fear their jobs will be taken away, girls’ education will be discontinued, and they will be forced to accept their ‘second-class’ status under the sharia law. Even the limited achievements in gender equality that has been achieved in the past two decades would now evaporate into thin Hindu Kush air.
But it’s not only women who are afraid of the Taliban. Most of those trying to force their way into Kabul airport to leave were young men. The US is certainly to be blamed for a lot that has gone wrong in Afghanistan since its 2001 invasion. Did they need to invade the country to capture one terrorist, whom they could have easily ‘neutralized’ through precision airstrikes? If they were going to ruin the country, why didn’t they have any plans to rebuild it afterward? And why did they so callously assume that the Afghans would welcome an invading force with open arms? And, by the way, wasn’t it the US that first armed most of the men who now fight under the Taliban umbrella?
Yes, they were guilty on these and many other counts. But there was also a welcome side effect of the Taliban’s removal from power. Women could uncover their faces and attend schools and colleges. They were consulted in making modern Afghanistan. They had found a voice. Even as bombs continued to fall all around them, young Afghans, boys, and girls, now started imagining a life of freedom and gainful employment. How can the crushing of their aspirations and dreams be celebrated?
I have often been amused at this divide in Nepali intelligentsia, between the proponents of ‘freedom and democracy’ at any cost and the backers of unconditional ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity’. For some, the Americans are evil imperialists whose sole intent is to conquer the world, and such was also their intent in Afghanistan. For others, no regime is worse than the one in Beijing, whose ‘debt trap’ diplomacy is no more than modern-day colonialism. For still others, the expansionist India is to be the most feared. There is no middle ground in this race-to-the-bottom debate.
Instead of everyone uniting to raise a collective voice in favor of better lives for common Afghans, they seem mostly busy holding their ideological forts. On the plus side, people around the world have gotten to hear and see from the Afghan streets. A geopolitical hotspot it certainly is. With 63 percent of its population under the age of 25, it is also a young and restless country teeming with possibilities.