It is an open question if the Taliban-US agreement and the US-Afghan government declaration would lead the country to the road to peace and stability. The former which was signed in Doha on February 29 and the latter issued in Kabul on the same day are essentially meant to facilitate the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Many imponderables remain but the agreement provides a small opening to begin the end of the conflict which has gone on for almost four and a half decades. That opening may rapidly close if the country’s current political leaders across the country and including the Taliban are unable to bridge divides and reconcile differences. That will bode ill not only for Afghanistan but the region but will be in keeping with past experience when successive Afghan leaders failed to turn the country away from the path of conflict.
Historical evolution does not entirely depend on leaders. Natural and man-made changes play a large part in the lives of countries and peoples. The forces which such transformations unleash, however, only operate through men and women. They influence and often constrict the options before leaders but the true test of leadership lies in navigating through these changes to lead their peoples to safer and positive futures. That can only be so if leaders are able to focus on the feasible even while holding on to their vision. That can also only be so if leaders rise above narrow personal and sectional considerations to carry all their people together. This is especially so in multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian countries such as Afghanistan.
Over these long decades how did successive Afghan leaders through their personal predilections and ideological and theological choices cause a once peaceful and stable country get mired in violence and disruption?
It began in July 1973 when Daud Khan overthrew his cousin King Zahir Shah and with that coup ended the monarchy to establish a republic. Zahir Shah had ascended the throne in 1933 on the assassination of his father Nadir Shah. He had succeeded in giving the country a sense of calm leaving the day to day governance in the hands of more assertive members of his family including Daud Khan who served as Prime Minister from 1953 to 1963. The Daud coup tore the fabric of a conservative country. He was driven by personal ambition not by a commitment to republican principles. A ruthless political leader he relied on the army which had been penetrated by communists.
The 1960s and 1970s witnessed ideological ferment across the world, including in Afghanistan where communist and religious zeal infused different groups who sought to actively promote their respective causes. There was no common meeting ground between them. In 1978 the communists overthrew and killed Daud Khan but fell out among themselves leading to the Soviet military entry into the country in December 1979. The country largely revolted in a jihad against a foreign presence and against communist ideology and governance practices which were considered to be anti-Islam. When it became clear that the Soviet leadership had decided to cut its losses and would leave Afghanistan President Najibullah who came into office in 1986 attempted to don the nationalist garb and also reconcile with religious leaders but by then it was too late.
The Soviets left the country in 1989 and two years later the Soviet Union itself collapsed. In 1992 Afghan jihadi leaders came into their own but could not sink their differences. Consequently, Afghanistan became embroiled in a bloody civil war which laid waste to large parts of the country adding to the misery of two decades of dislocation and turbulence. The jihadi leaders were remarkable men; many of them deeply pious and patriotic but they lacked the willingness to compromise which would lead to bridging ethnic and sectarian divides. Not one among them had the qualities necessary to carry all the people together capture their imagination with a vision of a progressive and inclusive future in a world moving towards the digital age.
The internecine conflict of jihadi leaders paved the way for the Taliban under the banner of Mullah Omar who was one time a low ranking member of a jihadi tanzeem himself. The Taliban, in the 1990s, simply lacked the thinking and the capacity to run a modern state. Their vision of a pristine past condemned the people living in territories under their control to obscurantism. Interestingly, the US did not find them unacceptable per se. What they objected to was the Taliban allowing the Al-Qaeda to operate from Afghanistan. Even after 9/11 the US asked the Taliban to hand over Al-Qaeda leadership which the Taliban refused to do. This led to war in which the Taliban were pushed south of the Durand Line.
The establishment of the Islamic Republic under a relatively liberal constitution held the promise of reconciling differences in the Afghan polity and society. However, President Hamid Karzai who led the country from 2001 to 2014 did not prove himself the great leader who could heal the country; he remained the quintessential Pushtoon tribal leader. His successor Ashraf Ghani who came to office on the back of a flawed election is modern in his outlook but has not been able to reconcile the country’s many contradictions. It is not promising that he has been re-elected in another flawed election.
Great leaders in countries with diversity have to be large hearted to calm anxieties and relentlessly pursue the vision of inclusive societies. Afghanistan has been waiting for such a leader for decades.