The Afghan people, adjustment variable


The loneliness of the Afghan people © PP

               The months of August are not disaster-free and there is no summer lethargy that can stand in the way. The sixtieth anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall on August 13, Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, the invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968, not to mention the submarine Kursk, a little over twenty years ago, and the Kabylia fires before our eyes… , the list is long. Today we are witnessing a new Afghan tragedy. The coming hours or days could remind us of the images of Saigon in 1975 and we can then say to ourselves thinking of all the civilian and military victims of all the camps in the past decades: All this for that? 

The capture of Kandahar by the Taliban in recent days, and the serious threats now weighing on the encircled Kabul, constitute an important first setback for the US Administration and may be the source of a marked turning point in the course of the Biden Presidency. It is furthermore also possible that things could have been worse – at least for the Allies of the United States who would not have had time to organize themselves – if, having been re-elected, D. Trump had made the withdrawal he had scheduled in May 2021.

The current situation in Afghanistan is an eternal new beginning – and this is not a full account of it -, a starting point. If the American withdrawal was fixed at a period beginning on September 11 in order to mark the end of a cycle, one could say in these circumstances, to paraphrase the title of a book on the Middle East (cf. A Century for Nothing), Twenty Years for Nothing.

The history of the Taleban movement, officially formed from the Pashtun areas in 1994, is in fact earlier and linked to the struggle – organized with the support of the West – against the occupation for ten years (1979-1989) by the Soviet Union. 

A dream could be caressed, from the end of the 70s. It would have consisted of supporting a power that was seen as religious and capable of transcending the tribes, appealing to the figure of a King – whose return from exile in Italy was sometimes evoked – and developing a vast economic project. It would have been to make Afghanistan a transit zone for hydrocarbons and gas from production areas to markets and ports in South Asia. This pattern, in essence, was reminiscent of a Saudi “model” and aimed at essentially strategic ends. 

Beyond mercantile interests, the economy can offer other perspectives. The TAPI pipeline project (NB: Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India), which is not abandoned, was intended to diversify supply routes but was also designed with a view to bringing the countries concerned closer together. Some experts even considered that the transit of Pakistan would be a greater obstacle than that of Afghanistan, where warlords could be eventually satisfied with an important source of income replacing an economy based on prohibited crops. It was estimated that securing the pipe would require 12,000 people, which is not out of reach. 

But the strategic dimension has always been particularly complex in Afghanistan. I personally had the opportunity to go – albeit briefly – to the country in the autumn of 1996, at a key moment. The occasion was given by the United Nations which had gathered in Central Asia a conference both political and of donors for Afghanistan. The fighting was already raging around Kabul and the Taliban took over in September. Since the capital was inaccessible, two possibilities were offered: Herat or Mazar-i-Sharif.



The wall at the bottom of the desert of Central Asia © PP

I opted for Mazar controlled by the warlord Dostom belonging to the Uzbek community. The logistics were precarious. The United Nations had each of the expedition’s volunteers sign a waiver beforehand and made a small plane available. The group was tiny and included the Dutch Minister for Development Pronk and my late colleague Olivier de la Baume, then Head of the Humanitarian affairs Department at the Quai d’Orsay. At the end of the flight a wall of 5,000 meters high, the barrier of the Hindu Kush at the bottom of the desert of Central Asia, marked a clear limit and also meant the enclave and impenetrable character of the country. This caused a shock and I realized as soon as I landed that Afghanistan immediately causes either rejection or lasting addiction. 

Our plane dropped us off and left, not being parked for security reasons. The day was intense. We did not met Dostom who was leaving for inspection or combat. In the bitter cold of the morning hour, we visited a village populated by elements of the Shiite and Persian-speaking minority Hazara, which was supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). I remember a young and remarkable British woman working for the Programme who introduced us to the pupils for whom she was responsible. I cannot imagine what happened next when the Taliban massacred the Hazaras in 1997 and 1998. The day continued with meetings with NGOs and various officials.

In the relative darkness of the end of the day, our take-off was delayed – while we were already at the end of the runway – by the landing of an Iranian military jumbo plane which was obviously making deliveries to Dostom’s forces. It was not planned that we would see this rather surprising and fascinating spectacle.

This fact alone expresses the strategic complexities of the region that must continue to be taken into account. Iran for its own reasons (cf. protection of the Hazara minority, rejection of a competing religious model, etc.) was an actor whose policy could not be considered solely anti-Western in this field of operations. 

The problem of the Taliban does not concern Afghanistan alone. All efforts to bring communities, political forces and warlords closer together have so far failed. A prominent UN representative for the region, Lakhdar Brahimi, even grew weary of these Political Assemblies called Loya Jirga, and he resigned from office in the late 1990s. He understood that the problem of Afghanistan would not be solved in Kabul. Everyone knows where the back bases of the Taleban are, in the so-called tribal areas, the very ones where the Americans ended up finding bin Laden.

After the Soviets, the Americans leave and the return of a few thousand of them with British is intended a priori to guarantee only the evacuation of the embassies. Some people talk about the Tour of China. It is likely that this will take into account previous experiences. The « new old » Afghanistan is likely to pose a problem for it and complicate its relations with states in the region. Will relations of New Delhi with Islamabad, however brothers enemies since the partition of 1947, be altered? Could New Delhi and Beijing find new convergences? Will the United States not have to «adjust» its relations with Iran somewhat? These are questions that can now be tackled.

What is certain is that the « Great Game » in the region, so called since the nineteenth century, will continue in another form. We can now consider that the Afghan problem will become entirely an affair for New Asia.

In any case, we must not forget the Afghan people, this adjustment variable of so many dramas who, for some of its members, notably the warlords, were actors of this «Kriegsspiel» but also an expiatory victim of the opposition of power. Conflicts and desolation are not a fatality of the populations supposed to be developing. We must always remember the wonderful francophones of the Kabul High School, the Hazaras children in the streets and schools of their village supervised by young people who had devoted part of their lives to the cause of progress; we must also keep in mind for tomorrow the entrepreneurial spirit of these young men and women or this Afghan woman who said she was proud to be the youngest President in the world of a Sport Federation. And, because other communities of the country were mentioned, we keep in our heart the memory of the former leader of the Tajiks, our friend Commandant Massoud.



A legitimate proud © PP


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