By Rita Payne
There have been dire predictions about prospects for Afghanistan after the bulk of NATO forces withdraw from the battle-scarred country in 2014. A panel of experts took part in a discussion in London on July 10, organized by the Commonwealth Journalists Association, to share their views on what lay ahead for Afghanistan.
BBC correspondent, Humphrey Hawksley, chairing the discussion, began by presenting a potted history of Afghanistan beginning with the two British Afghan wars of the 19th century, the years of relative stability under King Zahir Shah, followed by the Soviet invasion, the installation of President Najibullah, his subsequent overthrow and murder, the rise and fall of the Taliban, and the establishment of the government led by Hamid Karzai.
Tobias Ellwood, British Member of Parliament, who helped formulate the Conservative party’s policy on Afghanistan, said many mistakes could have been avoided if successive western governments had consulted history books and understood the culture of the place. “One important lesson was the need to win hearts and minds, it is not just about defeating the enemy,” he said.
Mr. Ellwood said in any conflict there were three strands which required attention: establishing security, following up with reconstruction and development aid, and ensuring good governance. He said governance was critical, it was important to create firewalls to prevent corruption. He said that under the current system in Afghanistan, the power of the President is supreme; he gets to appoint every person in a position of influence, even head teachers – and unchallenged power could be open to abuse. Mr. Ellwood highlighted the need to create a structure with accountability, saying, “There is a real possibility of peace, but we do need to see an end to corruption and set up good governance.”
Another speaker, General Khodaidad, was Minister of State Security under the first Mujaheddin government and later Minister of Counter Narcotics in the Karzai government. He agreed with Tobias Ellwood that foreign forces should respect the traditions and customs of the people of Afghanistan. He said this was the biggest mistake made by the west during the eleven years since the Taliban were ousted.
“You have to know how to behave with local people, how to talk to them. If you deal well with them, they will deal well with you.” He said what happened after 2014 would depend on how western troops conducted their withdrawal and whether there was a transparent election to keep Afghanistan strong. “How will we hand over to [the] next President of Afghanistan? How can we keep the nation safe?” he said.
General Khodaidad said that in order to have a unified nation, you require a strong army. He said that in Afghanistan, the army was divided into several groups, with warlords enlisting their own men; the leadership was politicized. As a military man, General Khodaidad was particularly unhappy about the caliber of the Afghan troops and their lack of resources. He said the army is made up mainly of poorly-trained infantry soldiers. It does not have adequate artillery, fighter planes, transport aircraft, or army personnel carriers. He did not mince his words – when NATO withdraws, he predicted, several areas of Afghanistan would fall under the control of the Taliban. General Khodaidad said the priority was to fight corruption within the army.