Building a Better Future for the People of Afghanistan: More Plural Politics

By Keith Best TD MA

Speech delivered on the 29th February 2024 at the London School of Economics

First, despite the failure of the Taliban to be there, we should recognise that at the Doha Conference ten days ago some progress was made in the decision to appoint a UN Special Envoy to coordinate and facilitate the world’s engagement with the country and we must now wait to see how events unfold. Relevant to our discussion today is that the envoy’s task may be “promoting dialogue between the extremist group and exiled opposition political figures.”

Here we are in the UK, with an Afghan audience of those who have managed to get here and it is easy for British people living in a land that has not been occupied by an invader for a thousand years to underestimate the sense of trauma, resentment, disappointment, longing and horror suffered by the Afghan diaspora at the plight of their country and, if nothing else, I hope that this conference will be reported widely and be an education as to the desire to see a new Afghanistan emerge from the current black days of misery and backwardness.

It is the equivalent of the British living through the fictitious nightmare portrayed by Len Deighton in his chilling novel SS-GB which describes a Nazi occupation of the UK in 1941, had history been different, and which was adapted into a gripping BBC television series. The abhorrence of occupation felt by European countries in the Second World War with its lasting legacy of partisan loyalties and collaboration has been experienced by Afghanistan under Soviet Russian occupation and, once their presence became resented by some, by NATO forces subsequently summed up by Lord Peter Ricketts, the former national security adviser, in his book, “Hard Choices”, where he states “We became the problem, not the solution” – although I make no other comparison between the strife and pillaging by the Soviets and the assistance that was intended by NATO.

Coupled with that present trauma is the knowledge, within living memory, of how Afghanistan was – not only in the freedoms of the swinging sixties and seventies but also the twenty years prior to the disastrous withdrawal in 2021 in which educated women, half the population of Afghanistan, played a full role in society and were helping to build a civilised state that could stand alongside other cultivated nations.

Now, at last, there may be some hope as the diaspora meet here and, with other Afghan communities both in the UK and in other countries, take a positive step towards planning the future for their country. The idea of a Coalition for Afghanistan’s Future has been some time in gestation but is becoming a reality. Fundamental to the concept must be a sense of inclusion of all the disparate tribes and elements in Afghanistan so that it is truly representative. Secondly, it must be prepared to agree by consensus on what the future should be and, to that end, must engage with an authoritative voice with the current Government in Kabul so as to influence the present leaders and show them the way to take the country forward rather than backwards.

During the recent Westminster Hall debate in Parliament there were cross-party calls led by Tobias Ellwood MP and others for the re-establishment of a British Embassy and the Minister (Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP) stated: “Afghanistan remains a priority for the Government and is of enduring importance to UK interests in the region and far beyond. We want to see a sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan and we remain committed to a leading role in the humanitarian response.”  He stated that senior officials speak regularly to the Taliban, including to secure the release of four British national detainees last October. Officials also visit Kabul when the situation permits, including a visit last December from the British chargé d’affaires to Kabul, where he met a wide range of senior Taliban figures. The Minister promised to keep under review the re-opening of the British embassy.

Such engagement cannot and must not imply support for the repressive measures of the Taliban but must be more showing an alternative way of governing while respecting the traditions, religion and culture of Afghanistan. That engagement should be with the willing and we must understand that some of the warlords and those with more atavistic views will not wish to – but there is also now in Government a younger generation which has grown up in the last twenty years and seen what can be achieved – they will be ambitious both personally and for their country and we should use that. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle.

What needs to be achieved? In the short-term the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid that reaches those in need and is not diverted elsewhere or is suspended for ideological reasons. There are, after all, $9 billion of frozen assets. Both UNHCR and UNICEF are appealing for funds for Afghanistan. The latter estimates that there are 29.2m people in need of humanitarian assistance with nearly 16m children in need requiring US$1.4 billion. Close to 20 million people – 45% of the Afghan population – suffer from hunger, and nearly 6 million survive on less than 1 meal per day.

Secondly, the rebuilding of the economy free from corruption and partisanship so that, by way of example, once again, as described by Tobias Ellwood, Helmand can become the breadbasket of Afghanistan and beyond, thanks to two decades of US investment just after the Second World War, when the same company that built the Hoover dam created the massive irrigation systems around the Helmand river, which to this day continue to help to grow the crops that feed the nation. Afghanistan, with a stable democratically elected Government, must be seen as a desirable and safe place in which companies can invest. The natural resources are there: chromium, copper, gold, iron ore, lead and zinc, lithium, marble, precious and semiprecious stones, sulfur and talc among many other minerals, estimated in September 2021 as worth more than $1 trillion. It is a large producer of saffron and cashmere. The energy resources consist of natural gas and petroleum. There is no reason why, with correct political leadership, it should not prosper. No wonder the Chinese are so interested in gaining a foothold. Yet Afghanistan remains among the world’s least developed countries, ranking 180th in the Human Development Index, the legacy of inept, corrupt and self-interested leadership and military conflict and intervention. Yet no foreign Government has ever succeeded in permanent conquest of this land of proud and resilient people.

Modern technology must be used to overcome geographical and infrastructure problems such as remote learning and meetings which do not require travel over long distances – believe me, having rattled though the whole of Afghanistan on local buses I know what that means!

Underpinning all this must be, as I have stated, a stable and corrupt-free Government and executive free from hypocrisy exemplified by Taliban leaders in Kabul, understanding the rules on schooling, sending their girls to school in Dubai.

The Coalition for Afghanistan’s Future has as part of its proposal the setting up, with United Nations support, a transitional assembly or government in Balkh. I know Mazar-i-Sharif the provincial capital but have not visited Ballkh, the ancient capital of Bactria, yet I can see that it is a beautiful city on the Silk Road with an historic mosque and fortifications; historically an ancient place of religions, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, and one of the wealthiest and largest cities of Greater Khorasan described by Marco Polo as a “noble and great city.” More importantly, for today’s discussion it is ethnically diverse, including substantial TajikHazaraPashtunsArabUzbekTurkmenand Sunni Hazara (Kawshi) communities. An ideal location.

I mentioned the role of the Coalition in engaging with the Kabul Government but it also will have another important function which is to engage with other Governments and bodies around the world, such as the European Union and United Nations, building interest and support for Afghanistan and demonstrating that there is a sensible alternative to the Taliban. Making the case of the strategic importance of Afghanistan and persuading countries that it is not a basket case but is not only worthy but essential to global peace for it to be saved can be one of the key aspects of the Coalition.

I end by stating a principle that should be glaringly obvious to all but which is so often overlooked or misapplied by governments and agencies seeking to become involved in the affairs of another and from the lack of observance of which Afghanistan has suffered. It is the principle that any political solution to a nation’s troubles must take into account the history and traditions as well as the culture of that country. It is no good, for example, trying to impose a form of democracy on a country which has no recognition of that in its background. A governance constitution for an integrated plural society is very different from one that is tribally, linguistically and socially diverse. At the end of the day, a new regime must be recognisable to the people and have their support – otherwise, inevitably, it will fail.

As some here will know, I have been privileged to travel widely in Afghanistan and appreciate the beauty as well as the tragedy. Previously a somewhat settled country the last fifty years have seen turmoil, invasion, external interference, conflicting ideologies and tribal warfare.  We must remember that just as Kemal Ataturk was modernising Turkey and abolishing the fez so King Amanullah was introducing reforms: Article 68 of Afghanistan’s 1923 constitution made elementary education compulsory. Slavery was abolished in 1923. Yet the abolition of the traditional burqa for women and the opening of co-educational schools alienated many tribal and religious leaders and led to the Afghan Civil War (1928–1929). Under King Mohammed Zahir Shah the 1930s saw the development of roads, infrastructure, the founding of a national bank and increased education. All this happened before the disastrous communist coup in 1978 and the subsequent Soviet invasion the following year which led to a decade of occupation. After the US involvement in October 2001 and the overthrow of the Taliban we saw the attempt to build some democratic structures, adopting a constitution in 2004 which was approved by consensus in January 2004 after the 2003 loya jirga of 502 delegates. It had evolved out of the Afghan Constitution Commission mandated by the Bonn Agreement. The constitution provides for an elected President and National Assembly, consisting of two houses: the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People) with at least 64 of its 250 representatives being women and the Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders).

This may not be perfect but it is a starting point for further improvement trying to ensure that the different tribes and ethnicities have a say. There is also the importance of the 34 provincial councils and the village and town councils. The independence of the judiciary is crucial in ensuring compliance with the constitution and the rule of law and, maybe, there needs to be a system other than appointment by the President of the members of the Stera Mahkama (Supreme Court). The point of this brief history lesson, however, is to demonstrate that Afghanistan is no stranger to stable Government and a democratic process. It follows that we must build on what has gone before rather than coming forward with a completely alien new plan. As is so often the case, the secret is not in re-inventing the institutions but ensuring that they work and function well and as intended. It is that spirit of reconstruction rather than revolution that must guide Afghanistan’s future.