Afghanistan, the eye of the Hurricane

               This is clearly the time for Afghanistan’s disorderly, if not chaotic, retreat. But, paradoxically, the time for a rethought “intervention” has also come. Humiliation, fear, resentment, should not lead to inertia and even paralysis, but on the contrary to mobilize in a reflex that is both humanitarian and in line with our security concerns. Because Afghanistan is in the eye of a threatening hurricane.

The first emergency is at the outset and a tribute should be paid to those who, on the spot and also in our capitals, organize and carry it out. There is no other short-term solution. The tragedy may occur for the Afghans who remain, but the tragedy also affects those who leave a country to which they remain deeply attached in the foreseeable future. The escape of their President is not theirs, it precipitated it.

For the international community, the primary concern will be to try to ensure that the de facto extension of Pakistan’s tribal areas will not become the uncontrolled heaven of the most extremist activities. The spectre of terrorism on a vast scale, which had not dissipated since the events of 2001 that precisely provoked the last war in the country, will haunt the world. This danger justifies diplomatic efforts such as the Doha talks with Taliban representatives. Their sponsors will have to be closely monitored.

The second short- and medium-term objective, regardless of the power that will be set up, will be to work for the stabilization of the country and the region. Our humanitarian duty and our security interests are at stake. Although rural areas have largely been deprived of these developments, the past 20 years have made it possible to transform and modernise, in terms of infrastructure and way of life, a country whose population doubled during the reporting period to 40 million. Honesty must lead to the recognition that not all the considerable resources spent by the United States and its allies have been wasted. It was in any case impossible to implement nation building with only armies. The question today is what can be preserved.

This latter approach can be a justification – even if it is not the only one – for the decision of certain powers to remain there and to keep their embassies. It is difficult from a distance to appreciate the reality on the ground, but it is unfortunate that Europeans have not done the same. Maybe it’s not too late. This would not necessarily imply a recognition of the new power. The Quai d’Orsay would have no difficulty – technical in any case – in exhuming the unwritten doctrine, but long applied, according to which France does not recognize governments but states. That is what it complied with when the Taliban came to power in September 1996.

The in situ presence is indeed irreplaceable to inform oneself, to negotiate, to testify and also to bring a minimum of moral comfort to populations having today the feeling of abandonment. David Miliband, former Foreign Office Secretary and currently in charge of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) today warns that Afghanistan’s “empire cemetery” should not become the “innocent” one. He points out that half of the population is in desperate need of humanitarian aid and that regardless of the fighting the health crisis has also struck.

This general situation increases the number of internally displaced persons (NB: currently estimated at 350,000) while 30,000 Afghans are already fleeing their country on a daily basis. The internal destabilization of Afghanistan can therefore quickly fuel that of neighbouring countries. Pakistan is already hosting 2 million refugees. Iran can rejoice in the Western retreat, but the fate of the Shiite minority Hazara – victim of massacres committed especially in 1997 and 1998 by the Taliban  – can force a country already in great economic difficulty to welcome and take charge of newcomers. The porosity of Afghanistan’s borders with several Central Asian countries is great and the states concerned (cf. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) will not be immunized against these uncontrolled migrations.

The mention of the Afghan question from a political point of view can only lead, at this stage, to an impasse in the UN Security Council. On the other hand, seeking consensus on the economic and humanitarian aspects, or even on the more general question of regional stabilisation, is not absolutely unrealistic in such a forum. This would involve defining a new form of “engagement”, a term that is probably preferable to that of intervention, albeit defined as humanitarian, since the latter concept has often been perceived as an unstated strategy of regime change.

At the level of regional political organizations, the Afghan crisis will have to lead to a thorough review if not restructuring. The American intervention in 2001 gave rise, for the first time in its history, to the activation of Article 5 of the Charter of the Atlantic Alliance implying the solidarity of the members with an aggressed partner state. It is clear that NATO’s action outside the scope defined during the Cold War was a failure, even in the calamitous management of the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. On the contrary, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation could find reasons to strengthen itself in the crisis.

The visibility of Europe has been little marked despite the strong involvement, over the last twenty years and on many levels, of several of its States, whether it is the United Kingdom, Germany or France.  Reflection on the European continent cannot dissociate the EU and NATO. The prospect of a European defence will remain a myth in the foreseeable future, but Europeans will be able to continue to count on the United Kingdom and France, inseparable partners in this field – including regarding the nuclear deterrent – to which other States will be able to join. The perception and realization of Brexit will then be likely to evolve and to make clear the strength of links of a “geological” nature, to use an inimitable expression of the British Prime Minister.

In any case, the worst option would therefore be to turn our backs on Afghanistan today, either because of the specious argument that peoples have the right to live according to their own habits and customs, even from our point of view considered the most backward, either because the frustration felt would be accompanied by this type of punishment affecting the greatest number. 

Indeed, Afghanistan is in the eye of a cyclone of great magnitude. Over the Gulf of Mexico, every late summer, specially equipped aircraft fly over and track tropical storms that could turn into a Hurricane. The air travel for these specialized crews is particularly harsh or even dangerous until the apparent calm of the heart of the depression. From Afghanistan today there are bad winds  blowing that we must approach for the benefit of the greatest number. We have no choice.

Steppe in the springtime ©️ PP

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