Eighteen years ago in early May, Mujahedeen resistance fighters entered Kabul, laying claim to Afghanistan’s capital after the collapse of the Communist regime. At the time, the city had not been severely damaged by warfare and Soviet occupation. The 18 years since then have not been kind to Kabul, though. One reason that no one has been able to put a stop to Afghanistan’s cycle of violence is that regional and international political interests have, for the last 30 years, eclipsed the best interests of the Afghan people. Placing the people of Afghanistan at the center of the ongoing debate about how best to fight extremism and terrorism should be seen as a key to success in the international effort to stabilize Afghanistan. Unfortunately, popular concerns seldom have figured into discussions about the past, present, and future of Afghanistan. The moral obligation of helping Afghans build a strong state and a secure future appears to be a secondary consideration for foreign powers as they strive to defend their national security interests in Afghanistan. It’s very likely that the Afghan people would have long ago built a functioning, even prosperous state had the country not become the cockpit of Cold War confrontation between Russia and the West. Not only that, it’s also likely the September 11 terrorist tragedy would never have occurred. Afghans made extreme sacrifices during the 1980s on behalf of what was then deemed “the Free World.” It is dismaying, then, that those Cold War-era sacrifices are hardly remembered, or recognized in some NATO countries today. The tremendous loss of life and civilian displacement in Afghanistan (2 million killed and millions more turned into refugees) during that bygone era seems completely forgotten by many in the West. In addition, once the Soviet army departed Afghanistan in 1989, Western interest in the country evaporated. As a result, reconstruction was completely neglected back then. So it’s easy to see why Afghans are wary of international motives in this latest phase of Afghanistan’s 30-year war. They increasingly believe that international involvement has hardly been about them, about their rights, about their very basic expectations for peace and justice, or about their overwhelming demand for the institutionalization of peace and democracy in Afghanistan. As they daily listen to the official statements of our foreign partners, Afghans may begin believing that international involvement in Afghanistan is more about the national security or geo-strategic interests of the countries involved. These divergent and conflicting interests, Afghans may think, seem to determine what should or can be done, or what should not or can not be done to stabilize and rebuild the country. Despite their wariness, Afghans have not lost hope in their partners, or in the future of their country. A BBC-ABC-ARD poll released in January, 2010 confirms that a widespread mood of optimism and sense of unity exists among Afghans. It showed that 70 percent of respondents thought Afghanistan was going in the right direction, while 90 percent wanted the country run by the current government, and only 6 percent favored a return of the Taliban regime. The same survey showed President Hamid Karzai with a 72 percent approval rating, and 60 percent viewed government performance favorably. If the state-building enterprise for Afghanistan is to succeed over the long term, it has to be Afghan-centered and Afghan-led. In other words, international peace building efforts must henceforth be driven by Afghan hands, and not simply have an “Afghan face.” Without building peace by and for the sake of Afghans, the current drama will most likely turn into a tragedy again, not just for Afghanistan but for its nation-partners as well.
Shaida M. Abdali is Deputy National Security Adviser and Special Assistant to President Karzai. M. Ashraf Haidari is the Political Counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC.