Paradox of US Politics in Afghanistan By Dr Syed Akhtar Ali Shah

The galvanisation of al-Qaeda and their orchestrated attacks — in Bali, US Embassy in Kenya, Europe, and New York’s World Trade Centre — jolted the world. It gave new definitions to the words ‘terrorism’, ‘radicalism’, ‘militancy’, ‘extremism’, and ‘insurgency’. The 9/11 attacks changed the entire discourse of world politics. The national policies of most countries, especially the big powers, were refocused on countering terrorism. The incitement, inducement, utterances, and glorification of terrorism in one form or the other are now enough to invoke penal sections of terrorism-related laws. The new phenomenon of militancy targeted the West and its allies. Al-Qaeda surfaced at the top of the organisations advancing militant activities amongst others.

The international community, which is dominated by the big powers, was roused against the use of terrorism to advance political objectives with trans-border ramifications. As soon as the Western countries considered the organisations as a threat to their national interests, they embarked upon a strategy to go after them before those organisations could reach their soil in the West. In pursuit of this strategy, which one may choose to agree or disagree with, they launched missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Iran. Haunted by the attacks against the US, the Western countries and Saudi Arabia widened the scope of their definition of terrorism without understanding its causes and remedies. To rationalise their actions, terms such as “axis of evil” and “epicentre of terrorism” were coined.

With this backdrop, the US Department of Defense defined terrorism as “the calculated use of violence or threat to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in pursuits of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological”. The UK defined terrorism as “the use of threat, for purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological course of action, of serious violence against any person or property”. To eliminate international terrorism, the United Nations General Assembly Resolution of 1999 defined acts of terror as “criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are, in any circumstances, unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious, or other nature that may be invoked to justify them”. The common denominator of all these definitions is the use of force, violence, and such threat emanating from those.

On the other hand, many consider terrorism a relative and value-laden concept, which is to be understood in the background of its eruption. In this parlance, ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ is commonly used. This then sums up the nature of terrorism as a highly subjective political concept.

Considering these definitions and the world’s viewpoints, the US and Europe exhibited paradoxical behaviour and moral values in Afghanistan. In its zest against terrorism, the Secretary of State under section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act declared approximately 61 organisations as foreign terrorist organisations (FTOs). These included the Afghanistan branch of the Islamic State, the Palestinian group Hamas, al-Qaeda (all branches), Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Ansar al-Islam, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq), and Haqqani Network. It is rather intriguing to discover that Tehrik-e-Taliban Afghanistan was not placed in this category. Even though the organisation regularly carried out suicide bombings, killed civilians with impunity, and adopted all brutish tactics of a terrorist group, they remained off the list.

James Dobbins, a former US Special Representative for Afghanistan, and Pakistan, admitted that the Taliban who indulged in intentional and not accidental attacks on civilians fell within the definition of terrorism. However, they were not put on the aforementioned list because the US wanted to keep diplomatic ties open for the purposes of engaging in talks with them. Thus, the notion that politics is the art of possible, and the interest of a nation is paramount than ideals is an accurate one. The question is whether it would serve the US. (and then Afghan government’s) purposes for that step to be taken. This approach clearly establishes the ascendency of realpolitik over moral values. Thus, any action is considered proper if it suits the vital national interests even when it costs diplomatic relations with friends.

To engage with the insurgent group known as the Taliban, the US did not place them on the category list, allowing them a political office in Doha, thereby paving their way into mainstream politics — something that ultimately happened with the fall of Kabul to them. The lessons to be learned from this are that the “US has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests”. Minor powers should try to stay away from superpower politics. The main policy option is non-alignment and peaceful coexistence because when the elephants fight, it is the grass that is crushed under their feet. Countries should refrain from engaging in conflicts with superpowers. Instead, they should pursue a nuanced perspective to avoid diplomatic tensions.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2021.​

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