Days ago the United States and the NATO officially brought down the curtains on the 13 year old war in Afghanistan. Officially. Actually, nothing’s over till the fat lady sings. And there’s no script that says when she’ll sing in Afghanistan.
But there were speeches in muted rites of closure. US Gen. John Campbell, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the UN-authorized coalition to help Afghanistan, said: “We have lifted the people out of the darkness of despair and given them hope for the future… You have made Afghanistan stronger and our countries safer.”
Great speech. But he knows too well that the Taliban is alive and killing. Always on the lookout for targets of opportunity, it can inflict massive carnage. It can still host operatives of foreign terrorist organizations.
And if the new government in Kabul commits the mistakes that the erstwhile Maliki government made in Iraq, the Taliban can, with the help of powerful allies, sweep across the country a la ISIS and knock at the gates of the capital.
To be sure, hardly anybody wins this kind of war any more. It’s too asymmetrical for the stronger side to score an absolute victory. All the other side needs to do is survive and threaten.
Even if you wipe out the Taliban, you don’t necessarily erase the possibility of a future incarnation. Or ensure against the rise of new players who will more fiercely take up the battle.
The US invaded Afghanistan to get Osama bin Laden. US Navy Seals killed him in May 2012—in Pakistan. But Al Qaida didn’t die with him. It metastasized, grew new tentacles, and multiplied.
On the positive side, the US and the new Afghan government may have learned the hard lessons of Iraq. Thus the Kabul government promptly signed security deals with the US and NATO, so that the drawdown of their troops won’t create a vacuum. The 12,500 military advisers and trainors who stay to train and support the Afghan army can make a difference if and when the Taliban attempts a blitz.
If the Afghan national army becomes an effective fighting force that’s inoculated against the infections of politics, nepotism and corruption, it should hold its ground and take over the brunt of fighting the Taliban from the scattered, poorly supplied police force.
But much depends on the performance of the new Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani: will it deliver good governance? Will it improve on the lackluster performance of its predecessor administration?
Or will it be like the quondam Maliki government in Iraq: ethnically divisive, politically inept, reputedly corrupt and obviously incompetent? In that case no amount of foreign military advice and aid will prevent the Afghan national army from collapsing at the feet of a charging Taliban.
If the new Afghan administration makes good, Indonesia should be cheering. For more than three decades now, embattled Afghanistan has been the world’s biggest producer of asylum seekers. While most of them find their way to Pakistan and Iran, still a great many aim for Australia and make use of Indonesia as country of transit.
This creates social problems for both Indonesia and Australia, and sometimes wounds their bilateral relations.
Last November, Indonesia’s minister for law and human rights, Yasonna Laoly, lamented that by cutting its intake of refugees, Australia had burdened Indonesia with the problem of looking after thousands of asylum seekers—many of them Afghans.
Meanwhile the war in Afghanistan hasn’t ended. It has only evolved. The Afghans haven’t been lifted “from the darkness of despair.” Especially if the new government doesn’t do well, asylum seekers will keep pouring out of the country—into a new life elsewhere or into another darkness.