Picking up the pieces in Kabul

The tremors from the fall of Kabul are likely to be felt far and wide – most keenly in nations transiting away from traditional identities to modern forms of nationalism. Dampening conflict through developmental assistance as a carrot for winning hearts and minds and measures to empower national governments, have been standard international tools for promoting good governance. There was also a consensus that giving shelter to forcibly displaced persons – the numbers of which are a metric for determining the extent of national fragility- was necessary to establish the good faith and humanitarian credentials of external actors. 

Hardened hearts and closed minds

The popularity of far-right wing politics in the United States and Europe and continued fiscal strain, post the 2008 western financial crisis, hardened the stance of the developed world against accepting open-ended responsibility for state fragility and conflict elsewhere. Meanwhile violent conflict spiked, post 2010, driven by inequality and climate-related calamities. 

Fragile hot spots have increased

The World Bank estimates that by 2020 there will be 82 million forcibly displaced persons, 86 percent of whom are hosted by developing countries. Bangladesh is a good recent example which was left to its own devices to accommodate Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. By 2030 two thirds of the world’s poor will be in fragile, conflict or violence affected countries. 

The rapidity with which Ethiopia, a star African performer in governance and development and home to the African Union, descended into fragility and conflict, is a reminder of the impermanence of institution building, which ticks all the right boxes of good governance sans its essential ingredient of participation and voice.

Climate change an existential threat

The global mind-space also seems to have shifted from the immediate challenge of saving human lives and preserving normalcy within 41 strife ridden nations in 2020, to managing the increasingly visible and dispersed ravages of climate change. 

Money sans social development

To be sure international finance will still flow, even to desolate political landscapes where the extraction of natural resources primarily funds elite extravagance. Mozambique is a good example, where French interest in extracting natural gas has resulted in support for the government in tackling Al Shabab militants, resisting the gas extraction project. Tiny Rwanda’s superbly trained and battle-hardened defense forces are at the forefront, possibly as a proxy for interested international supporters, in helping the hapless Mozambique security forces oust the militants. Not surprisingly, little thought is spared, beyond the immediate security challenge, to how the economic benefits are to be shared within Mozambique.  

This “gun-boat” style diplomacy offering transactional support for establishing a secure environment for commerce, is a throw-back to the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, when European imperial powers dealt similarly with China.

No help without self help

More generally, the fig-leaf of aid-money fostering democracy has been blown for now. If people don’t help themselves, then no one else can, is the underlying message from the United States, till recently, the global protector of democracy, western style civic rights and state accountability to citizens.

Afghanistan is not the only fragile hot spot left to fend for itself. Sudan shrugged-off the rule of strong man Omar Bashir in 2019 through a military coup and is navigating another round enshrining democratic institutions, whilst South Sudan – a majority Christian nation of warring tribes, carved out of a larger Islamic Sudan in 2005 via an internationally mediated “Peace Accord”, struggles for enduring democracy (per Western templates), despite significant international aid inflows, some of it with an eye to monetizing its oil reserves. 

Of course, the crusade to democratize Sudan began relatively recently, less than two decades ago, in the wake of the 9/11 imperative to drain potential breeding grounds for international terror. Afghanistan is different.

Afghan exceptionalism

The British, were the first, in the mid-19th century, to attempt extending their imperial control from India, with an eye to denying space to Russia, another imperial power, but they failed. 

Through the second half of the 20th century, the Shah of Iran to the west and Pakistan to the east baby-sat Afghanistan for the United States. The Iranian revolution in 1979 and the split of Pakistan in 1971, created space for the Soviet Union to usurp power in Kabul in 1979. But burgeoning fiscal liabilities forced the Soviets to pull back from Kabul in 1989, leaving it to the US and Pakistan backed Mujahideen and eventually to US backed “democratic” governments, sanitized of the Taliban, since 2001. 

Much like the Soviet Union, the rush to leave Kabul after two decades by the US, is also dictated by fiscal constraints. The United States fiscal deficit has exploded to a never-before level of 13.4 percent of GDP or US$ 3 trillion (more than India’s GDP), courtesy President Biden’s extraordinary domestic fiscal stimulus $1.5 trillion. Additional spending of US$ 3 trillion to rebuild America is proposed. 

Peace and democracy slip slower as global priorities

To be honest the US is not alone in navel gazing. The predicament of spending up to US$ 50 trillion of global GDP over the next two decade, just to mitigate and adapt to climate change is sapping surpluses all around and pushing debt levels higher. In this scenario of strained finances, allocating resources to distant, overseas “peace” projects, where the timeline and the volume of the payback is uncertain, no longer appears as urgent. President Trump was direct in his curt assessment that the United States would no longer support “free riders”. President Biden’s exit is more of the same.

India’s regional leadership will be tested whilst working, against the grain, with the Taliban

India has generational links and a solid reputation in Afghanistan of being a benign collaborator and a true friend. The religious or political beliefs of the national government in Afghanistan should not be a barrier to continued co-operation for its social and economic development. India is a significant regional power and no stranger to the binding force of religion, including Islam, and recognizes its facilitating role in social development. There could be synergies between two countries, marching to different drumbeats, if both are responsive to a common agenda of sustainable economic development, for mutual benefit.

Also available at TOI blogs August 16, 2021 https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/opinion-india/picking-up-the-pieces-in-kabul/

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