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Afghanistan: Building peace and nationhood after centuries of military adventurism in the graveyard of empires


Professor Tim Murithi is Head of Peacebuilding Interventions, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, based in Cape Town, and Research Associate, African Centre for the Study of the United States, University of Witswatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the author of “Ethics of Peacebuilding”. @tmurithi12

The Afghanistan crisis suggests that the global narrative needs to change insofar as how the international system enables countries to emerge out of conflict and build inclusive societies. Neither peacebuilding nor nation-building occurs through the barrel of a gun pointed at the so-called recipients.

The devastating images of Afghanis clinging to a US Air Force plane as it lifted off from the airport in Kabul were soul-wrenching. They illustrated the tenacity of human aspiration for freedom and rights to become the best versions of themselves and fulfil their potential as people.

The events that led to this scenario have a long trajectory in successive attempts to assert control over Afghanistan by global powers with imperial pretensions, including the British Empire (1839-1842), the Soviet Union dominated by Russia (1979-1989), and the US (2001-2021). Paradoxically, it is this imperial overreach that contributed to the gradual decline of these global nations.

In effect, the drive to dominate Central Asia has preoccupied nations with aspirations to global supremacy. Zbigniew Brzezinski in his seminal book, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives, argues that “Eurasia is the chessboard on which the struggle for global primacy continues to be played… and that he who controls Eurasia controls the world”.

George W Bush’s imperial conquest of Afghanistan, launched in 2001 ostensibly to quell religious extremism, was the assertion of American supremacy which was the defining feature of the 21st century. Today, the so-called religious extremists have resumed their control and $1-trillion and thousands of lives have been lost in this ill-thought-out military adventure.

Seen from the outside, this capitulation of American power reveals the perils and pitfalls of global military adventurism and exposes the abject futility and stupidity of imperial overreach. The precipitous withdrawal has left behind an interregnum of morbid symptoms, in which the old agenda of transplanting “Jeffersonian democracy” is dying, and the new order of what will replace it is as yet undefined and contested.

Afghanis holding American and European passports cannot travel to their adoptive “homes” and are now almost certainly due to face a fate worse than death if previous Taliban policies are to be revived against those who will be unjustifiably viewed as enemy combatants for their collusion with the occupying force.

President Joe Biden’s admission that the US was not involved in “nation-building” is self-contradictory because the basis for the withdrawal was the fact that the Afghanis now had their own government and an army that had been trained by America and its allies to provide national security.

This reveals the duplicitous and incoherent nature of US foreign policy, as well as the supplication and collusion of all members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries, including members of the European Union, who are now collectively the “owners” of the crisis that may engulf the country and the Central Asia region if the authorities in Kabul continue with the previous agenda.

The honeymoon period for the Biden administration is now formally over and it is clear that the legacy of America’s projection of its power around the world over the past few decades will continue to come back to haunt it. A period of introspection and self-reflection is now necessary in Washington if it has any interest in rethinking and reconfiguring its relationship with the parts of the world that it dominated for so many decades.

At the heart of such a process is the repositioning of US foreign policy towards an agenda that is supportive of peacebuilding processes that are locally owned and not externally imposed.

The catalogue of chaotic American interventions in Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011), straddling the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, are consistent with the excesses of an imperial power that does not believe that it has to abide by any international norms or rules. This chaos that has been unleashed in the Middle East, Central Asia and across Africa by the perilous spread of religious extremism is the unfortunate by-product of this imperial excess.

This is not exclusively an American process because other global nations with pretensions to world supremacy also have their own share of nefarious transgressions, including Russia in Chechnya and Crimea; China’s treatment of the Uyghurs; France’s military adventurism in Central Africa; and Britain’s wingman-cum-willing-executioner approach to US global power.

Collectively these five “global nations” are the five permanent members (P5) of the United Nations Security Council; it would be more appropriate for this body to be rebranded as the UN “Insecurity Council”.  

These self-appointed emperors of the world “have no clothes”, but through their conniving and overt control of the instruments of media, they are still able to “manufacture consent” and control the narrative about their righteousness. They have some observers complimenting them on how exquisite the tailoring of their attire is.  

The Afghanistan crisis suggests that the global narrative needs to change insofar as how the international system enables countries to emerge out of conflict and build inclusive societies. Peacebuilding and nation-building do not occur through the barrel of a gun pointed at the so-called recipients.

The UN, according to its founding charter signed in 1945, is supposed to function as the catalyst for promoting and sustaining peace. However, the macabre machinations of the P5 have rendered the UN Security Council an ineffectual mechanism for pursuing this peacebuilding agenda and it suggests that humanity must now advance an agenda to dismantle the morally bankrupt council. This requires convening a Review Conference of the members of the General Assembly (GA), as stipulated in Article 109 of the UN Charter, which was supposed to be convened 10 years after the formal signing of this document, which would have been 1955.

More than seven decades later the P5 continue to fight to retain these outmoded privileges as permanent members while they ply their insidious trade of destruction and the denial of human freedoms around the world. Specifically, Article 109 requires two thirds of the members of the UN General Assembly to stand together, led by a core group of visionary governments, to call for a review of the UN Charter.

Even as the P5 bully and cajole UN member states behind the scenes to prevent any change, this should not be a reason for the rest of the world to continue participating in the global charade which has now been exposed by the Afghanistan crisis. It remains to be seen whether any governments have the political courage to pick up on this issue because the majority of smaller and medium-sized powers have been browbeaten into submission through political elite pacts and blood money exchanged behind the scenes for so-called “development” and infrastructure projects, which remain instruments for geopolitical control and dominion.

Amid all these machinations, the overriding issue remains: what is to become of the people of Afghanistan? The initial rhetoric from the resurgent authorities in Kabul speaks of a new approach, including a claimed emphasis on women’s rights. The ultimate proof will be evident in their deeds and the world will be watching. If there is indeed a change of heart, then it is necessary for genuine peacebuilding and transitional justice processes to be anchored by the local actors themselves. This includes an honest dialogue and truthful accounting of the legacies and historical violations of the past, as well as an introspective reflection of how a new society can be built from the ground up.

The historical record of the Kabul authorities points to the unlikely nature of this scenario unfolding. However, if there is to be hope for the Afghanis, the national and communal dialogues must be frank and robust, and the authorities must meet their own people halfway and search for the common ground which can enable Afghanistan to pick itself up, process the psychosocial trauma of decades of dominion and continue on its journey towards a more peaceful future in which the rights of women and girls are respected, including the right to education, healthcare, improved housing and meaningful employment.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and other international civil society partners can accompany the Afghanis on this journey, but they cannot determine their pathway. The future of Afghanistan can be different from its past if the rhetoric of gender rights, amnesty and restorative justice can be translated into reality. Only then will Afghanistan shed its historic burden of serving as a proxy battlefield for self-proclaimed emperors of humanity, and their dastardly schemes for constructing illusionary empires.

This can be achieved if peacebuilding in Afghanistan, in its multiple dimensions, can grow organically from the grassroots of society upwards through genuine introspection and a commitment to the gradual restoration of human dignity. DM


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