Zero sum nation: Afghanistan’s unending struggle with insurgency, peace and corruption

Afghanistan is on the verge of a possible but uncertain peaceful settlement with the Taliban, an insurgent group fighting the Afghan government and its coalition allies for nearly two decades. Previous efforts to engage with the group through dialogue were often marred with deception and a zero sum status quo to no avail. The turbulent history of this ancient land gifted with a geo – strategic location, and enriched natural resources involves hostile foreign expeditions and constant internal unrests to control its foreign policy and reap on tangible economic prospects by its close and distant neighbors, bankrolling radical proxies.

The systematic spread of corruption in all tides of government venues is draining out sizable chunk of national revenue from public welfare projects, into personal accounts of corrupt state officials with hefty offshore bank accounts. This havoc trend of condoning corruption and blessing corrupt officials with state medals and unaccounted public finances has forced the country into a Mafia Narco – state that operates within inner circles of loyalists with an absolute immunity from legal prosecution and grind of justice. These officials are constantly shuffled between various capacities within the government with no patriotic commitment to the country and its citizens. Unfortunately, both the current president and his precedent adhered to selective approaches when it came to handling cases of corruption and misuse of authority by close aides and family members.

These incompetent heads of state never pushed the country in gaining the capacity to develop a coherent roadmap in preserving national institutions from concurrent annihilation and quelling rising insurgencies with implementation of grass root economic projects with a bottom up approach in the rural areas. In retrospect, the central government is excessively obsessed with focusing in a handful of cities in its vision of economic transformation, neglecting a vast majority of its rural geography with meager inclusion in its annual infrastructural outreach. This flawed undertaking undermines the very core philosophy of parallel growth that is nothing but bridging the gap in the standard of living between urban and rural dwellers.

“Afghanistan and Pakistan have a huge potential to engage in joint economic ventures”

In Afghanistan, the trajectory of sustainable growth, social reform and peaceful transition of power exceptionally follows subsequent spans of chaotic armed scuffles and episodes of anarchy, reversing the country back to ground zero. The largely conservative Afghan society is intrinsically religious and ethnically divided, posing the country in great danger of social mayhem in a blink of eye. For any sustained economic revolution the presence of a transparent bureaucracy and more importantly strong bureaucrats are the key ingredients. Regretfully Afghanistan has always lacked these very core elements within its high-level decision making hierarchy throughout its contemporary and distant history. The endemic nature of corruption in all respective branches of governance is draining essential financing from critical long-term public projects, in lieu enriching a handful of state officials and forming an axis of powerful oligarchs and economic mafia with adjacent ties to the ruling political elite.

The country is suffering from a nonexistent strong bureaucracy aimed to absorb career bureaucrats and set up a non-partisan and professionally oriented foundation with accountability and efficient public service at its core mandate. The prevailing governance structure acts as a quagmire often promoting corruption as the sole mean of surviving within the system and achieving higher status in pleasing the higher up chain of command with healthy ransoms.

Regretfully, Insurgency and Afghanistan have become synonymous in political literature in global stage. The idea of forging a political agenda through the barrel of gun rather than ballot boxes are the ideal and official approach for change by the so-called political movements with substantial armed attachments. From bloody military coups to ruthless assassinations and regime change are a few examples of an incurring struggle the Afghan public have become accustomed to in the recent past. On the other side, the few elected administrations is largely confined behind barbed wires in fortified compounds in the capital, hugely detached from its surroundings and concerns voiced by the people.

History suggests that the natural transition of power from an outgoing to an incoming political takeover always detours to unfavorable stalemate and futile disruptions in all aspects of socio-economic outlooks. Afghan elections supposedly the flag bearer of robust democratic processes is marred with rampant ballot irregularity and rigged outcomes to a point that lacks credibility and general entrust in the public eye. This declining trend carries an influx of corrupt axis around the center of power in the presidential palace. The centralization of power and absolute autonomy taken by the president in the Afghan constitution prevents tangible oversight and impartial accountability in fostering sound governance and rule of law.

The stakeholders involved in presumptive peaceful integration of Taliban in an inclusive settlement with the Afghan government is conversely scattered and politically diverged.  The US administration fosters its own version of ending a costly war that will pave the way for a seemingly decent exit and minimal presence in the country as inked with the Taliban political office in Doha. Taliban on the other hand, with establishing amicable ties with regional powers and US adversaries, (China, Russia), duly understand the importance of using this leverage in subduing Afghan and US officials in embracing the conditions set forth as the prerequisites for the intra-Afghan dialogue soon to began. As part of the agreement with the US diplomats in Qatar, the group recently managed to force release over 5,000 prisoners from Afghanistan prisons despite initial reluctance by the government.  

The government and political powerhouses look at peace from an absolute different perspective; one that circle around securing a tangible presence in any futuristic political setup with the Taliban and a commitment on not questioning the accumulation of illicit wealth ransacked since 2001. The fallout of the Taliban regime followed with an influx of foreign aid to the country turned these penniless politicians and infamous warlords with unprecedented riches and multimillionaire statehood.

Thirdly, the Afghans tired of endless bloodshed and destruction look forward to a peaceful settlement to finally get rid of this endemic lawlessness and constant promotion of corruption and abstraction of justice in punishing hardcore criminals. Taliban’s uncompromising approach in enforcing strict sharia law and unification of the country during their de facto reign in Afghanistan is still praised by the general population across the country.

Fourth, Pakistan as the nurturing sanctuary of exporting insurgency to Afghanistan throughout the years has an exceptional take on the ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Pakistan army is the prime facilitator in arranging meetings between the group’s leadership in Qatar and American top diplomats in 2019. Islamabad and GHQ in Rawalpindi have a strong grip on the resident leadership of the group also known as the Quetta and Peshawar councils. The ISI advisors and assets within the Taliban closely monitor and advise the core leadership in every step of the way. Pakistan has undoubtedly incurred a costly undertaking and pounding public pressure in providing mentorship and logistics to the group since its inception in 1995. Islamabad has always justified this role the as a top national security concern with an aim of having a friendlier government in Kabul, or at least asserting hegemony in provinces adjacent to its de facto borders fearing growing Indian footprints.  Intelligence reports and analysis suggest that the country will never entirely handover the Taliban to the Afghan government rather retain and regroup the hardcore elements under ISIS for future leverage in case it loses ground and auspices over the Taliban after the Intra-Afghan reconciliation.

Ideally, Afghanistan and Pakistan have a huge potential to engage in joint economic ventures and gradually turn this cloud of ambiguity and skepticism into tangible cooperation and feasible growth on both sides of the border, requiring immediate cease on all malign activities aimed at destabilizing each other. Fortunately, Pakistan’s top military brass and strategists rightly acknowledge the stalemate and duly understand the prevailing status quo in Afghanistan. Islamabad cannot unilaterally install Taliban in Kabul’s throne as was the case in 1996 or military takeover, leaving the handlers to reintegrate a sizeable portion of the group into legit Afghan political scene and gradually ease the economic burden on Pakistan’s declining economy and restoring its global image, that of safe haven for international terrorists. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan need to come in terms with all outstanding issues and most importantly address the elephant in the room: border management and assessing key hurdles in normalizing relations.

Last but not least, the start of the Intra – Afghan dialogue in the near future and shaping a shared regional and international consensus on ending Afghanistan crisis holds the key for a prosper region. The dragging of the current status quo will continue hurting these stakeholders at different levels and deprive the region from embracing an unprecedented opportunity in regional connectivity and transnational regional projects such as CASA 1000, Chabahar port, CPEC, and CBRI that can uplift the whole region in so many spectrums.