by William Milam 8 November 2021
I often look at real-life current events through the mirror of my childhood memories for the beginnings of wisdom about these events and the beginning of much more complicated analyses by others that guide governments’ policy decisions. These memories can never replace the much more sophisticated and nuanced analyses that should guide political policy decisions by governments, but only be a starting point for the development of such analyses. In the last week or so, two events have led me to look at the present situation in Afghanistan through the memory of a film that I saw first when I was about 5 or 6 years old and have seen many times since then.
‘The Wizard of Oz’ is among my favourite five films, though how a musical version of a fantasy for and about children could ever remind one of the situation in Afghanistan will certainly confuse some readers familiar with the film. I don’t know how well-known this film is outside the United States; it was released in 1939, well before the birthdate of most readers (not mine, unfortunately), but has been re-released many times and is shown annually on American TV.
Let me explain its relevance at the risk of offending those readers who have seen the film and can guess at the scene I will describe. It is one scene only that I think of: it begins with the heroine, Dorothy, taking shelter with her little dog, Toto, in her Aunt and Uncle’s farmhouse during a tornado in Kansas (at this point the film was in black and white, and thus Kansas looked very barren); the house was blown into the air by the severe winds and landed with a bang somewhere far away with Dorothy and Toto unhurt. (This is fantasy, remember.) They approach the door to exit the wayward house with caution and when they throw it open, the film suddenly changes from its grim sepia colour to rich and vibrant green, red, blue, orange, and they emerge to a new world of colour. Dorothy, with Toto in her arms, walks out looking at this new world with amazement, and she says, “Toto, I get the feeling that we are not in Kansas anymore.”
Well, one could say that the Taliban are also not in Kansas anymore. They have, like it or not — accept it or not — emerged into a different world that clearly, they don’t understand very well yet. Unlike the land of Oz, where Dorothy and Toto landed, the Taliban landed in a world of hurt. (Not that there were no dangers for Dorothy and Toto in Oz; the Wicked Witch of the West was out to get them for killing her sister, The Wicked Witch of the East, by landing the farmhouse on her; but there were forces of good too, like The Good Witch of the North, and bumbling mountebank Wizard of Oz and the companions they made.)
So, what two things have brought me to this rather oversimple metaphor of the current situation in Afghanistan. The first is the sudden appearance of Russia as a force in the imminent Afghan humanitarian crisis, endeavoring now to lead a small group of Afghanistan’s neighbours in normalising relations with the Taliban government and pressing for the international community to give mountains of financial assistance to Afghanistan, and by doing so, stick a finger in the US eye.
This was manifest in the conference convened a couple of weeks ago by Russia for countries the press calls the regional stakeholders. In attendance were representatives from the Taliban government, Pakistan, China, Iran, India, and the Central Asian States of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.
The primary overriding common interest of these countries regarding Afghanistan is to prevent instability and/or civil war, and in the immediate future to ensure that the coming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is not so shattering as to provoke a level of political instability that threatens a civil war. The immediate purpose of this meeting was to agree to harmonise their engagement with the Taliban government somewhere short of outright recognition, and plan to put pressure on Western governments and International Institutions to stop worrying about their conditions for providing assistance to Afghanistan, (i.e., liberalising the rules for women, an inclusive government, etc.) and to get on with it.
These countries lack the resources to provide the immense amount of resources necessary to alleviate the Afghan crisis, and obviously fear the amounts needed will not arrive in time to prevent serious political problems unless the Western nations begin to provide it in larger amounts very soon. I believe some of the larger humanitarian organisations agree with this assessment.
The Russian bid to lead the group is somewhat surprising given the stigma that the country has had in the region because of its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan in support of its puppet government there and the nasty war that ensued for almost a decade. It was this invasion, of course, and the war that followed, that gave a common purpose to US- Pakistan relations in the same decade, the 1980s. After that, and because of 9/11, not surprisingly, Afghanistan became the prime cause of the difficulties of and the rupture in US-Pakistan relations. Russia has become more engaged in the past few years providing assistance to the Taliban primarily to discourage the US from establishing a permanent military presence in the region and to hedge their bets in case the Taliban ever took over.
At the conference, in addition to agreeing on policy of rapidly engaging with the new Taliban government, the conference called for quick start to providing much increased assistance to the Afghans and a international donors conference for financing pledges with a backhand swipe at the US and NATO that the cost of aiding Afghanistan “should be borne by the forces whose military contingents have been present in this country for the past 20 years.”
The second event that caused me to slip back to my childhood for a few minutes remembering that wonderful film was a zoom interview of Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf by Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute (MEI). Moeed was staying strictly on script, and it was clearly the same signal that the Moscow meeting clearly sent, that getting adequate assistance to Afghanistan to ensure that the crisis there is not as severe as experts now feel it might be.
This is an understandable message as the consequences of severe political instability and possible civil war in Afghanistan for these countries, especially its near neighbours, would be significantly bad. I understand this and sort of agree with it, as I would not want to see the region rife with the conflict and misery and danger that a return to instability and/or war in Afghanistan would create. And I surely would not want to see a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, for the sake of the Afghan people.
But I wonder if a rush to provide assistance would be counterproductive. The reporting I hear from Afghanistan is sending a more insistent signal—that Afghanistan is slowly imploding through the Taliban’s total inadequacy in governance. Government buildings are empty of government workers. There is almost no functioning government to provide even the most primitive service. The government is basically closed, as are the banks and most private companies. There is no money to pay workers or to buy food, and almost no food or service to buy. Throwing money into this anarchic situation without careful control may be more effective in helping the Taliban ratchet up their resistance to change than in preventing the economic crisis.
Research into other violent insurgent takeovers seems to indicate that the transition from insurgency to actual governance, or sometimes any governance at all, is neither smooth nor automatic, and at best can take a long time. Insurgents coming to power have no experience at governance, no money to learn, and sometimes no incentive to develop the necessary skills. Their skill is in violence, in insurgency itself. Thus, their skill set involves security, and the threat of violence is the way they guarantee security. It is, to quote the NYTimes, in a sense, a “country-level protection racket, exchanging public safety for obedience.”
Wouldn’t a rush to pour financial assistance into Afghanistan just strengthen the Taliban desire and ability to provide security and demand obedience as well as actually impede the ability of donors to buy some reform that would make the Afghan lives their assistance is saving a little more comfortable? Here we are, two months after the takeover, and the Taliban are demonstrating no actual interest in liberalising their policies toward women, including minorities, or any modernising reform as far as I can tell. In other words, they really intend to rule in the same exclusive, discriminatory, brutal way they did in the 1990s.
I am not proposing that we walk away from Afghanistan or from providing assistance at levels that will make the crisis much less costly and enjoin our allies to do the same. We owe the Afghan people that much. But we must seek ways that do not add to the Taliban strengthening their chokehold over those people. My guess is that this would be in Pakistan’s long-term interest too.