Afghanistan : A curious beacon of hope

Col Ajay K Raina
Is there anything called threes time lucky? Not referring to Sheila Turnage but to my two earlier articles on Afghanistan, wherein I did stick my neck out to predict what was against the currents of those days!
We are going through a phase of global uncertainty and an unpredictable future. A large swath of geography is staring at the food and energy crisis because of ongoing trade and military wars. And worse, treaties, agreements and understandings are being trashed; even goodwill gestures like allowing the supply of grains from the conflict zones remain prone to disruptions thanks to certain invisible actors playing a spoilsport and an overreaction to alleged sabotages. On top of these, there are compulsions related to existing alliances, and such compulsions prevent many voices from calling a spade a spade; the net result is chaos in the world order.
The cognisable impact of all such developments is visible in the economies of various countries and associations. For example, the UK is reportedly already across the line that separates a slowdown from an economic recession. While the energy crisis is a clear-cut threat to complete Europe, the European Union is doing no better than the UK. In fact, the EU appears to be headed towards a bigger mess. Though the US Dollar is rising while all significant currencies are plunging southwards, many observers predict a recession in the US economy over the next four quarters. Such predictions are based on some solid reasoning.
The ongoing US-OPEC/OPEC+ tussle, when seen in the light of the fact that many economies, including China, India, Russia and so on, are working towards a non-US Dollar based international trade, leads one to conclude that the US Dollar is going to peak out before it takes a steep nose dive in the foreseeable future. Likewise, China is going through a rough patch with its real estate and banking sector tanking and Covid playing havoc across its geography; an unprecedented drought leading to the drying up of its major rivers is another issue. Its collapse, however, is still some distance away, courtesy of its colossal gold and forex reserves.
Amid all this chaos, some harsh truths have come to the fore. While a superpower like the US and a super economy like China continue to exist, at least as of now, the term ‘developed world’ or global north has lost its meaning. Barring countable nations, most so-called developed world countries have no military capabilities nor the power to sustain themselves amid ongoing chaos. With hitherto written-off military conflicts remaining a reality and trade wars adding another dimension to any conflict, such nations stand vulnerable and insecure.
On the other hand, things are looking so different in a country that has been ravaged by wars from the time immemorial and where modern-day indices don’t show any promises. Afghanistan makes a curious case study while sitting at the bottom of the ladder of the global south. When the US left in a hurry and froze its funds, the world remained focused on predicting a doomsday scenario under the Taliban government. No country ever recognised the government, nor the freeze on their funds was lifted, yet the Afghans have survived. If one switches off the TV news channels for half an hour and digs into the vlogs coming out of Afghanistan, an entirely different picture emerges. A more practical Taliban govt has brought stability like never before. Yes, Taliban fighters are seen all across the country, and there are issues with girls’ education and women’s rights, but in their own traditional world, they are doing much better than expected. In fact, a video posted by an Indian traveller a few days back shows some swanky restaurants in places like Jalalabad and fresh apples being sold for less than 20 INR per kg. Many locals appearing in such videos claim that the present-day Taliban is different from the one of the 1990s. But that can’t be the sole reason for Afghanistan to do better than predicted. Let’s dive in a bit and try to understand this phenomenon’s hows and whys.
With no forex reserves and with their legitimate funds frozen, the landlocked nation should have collapsed by now. But that hasn’t happened. Some of the reasons that also contrast with the so-called global north, include an almost zero dependence on exports, adequate domestic produce, the toughness of collective character as a nation and the ability to look beyond modern-day associations and clubs. Let us see these points one by one.
China is one example of a nation’s vulnerability if it depends only on exports. With world opinion building up against the Chinese mindset and new supply lines being put in place, many manufacturing facilities are already leaving China for other destinations. Real estate and its exports form the backbone of the Chinese economy. Thanks to an ongoing trade war between the US and China and also the world’s impression of their role in Covid, both sectors are crashing now. Afghanistan, on the other hand, has traditionally been an exporter of gold, fruits, dry fruits and cotton, besides opium-based drugs. All these exports except for drugs have been stopped, thereby bringing down the food prices and preserving its natural reserves of metals and minerals as of now. With aid-in-kind from the countries like India, they have been able to tide over some grave food crises triggered by earthquakes, floods and general chaos during the initial days of the Taliban takeover.
Unlike most developed countries, Afghanistan produces its own grains, and when droughts and crop failures happen, they manage to get aid from friendly nations to survive. While such dependence may appear to be a weakness, the fact remains that much of it is happening because of the freeze on their money and banking by the US. People sleep hungry in Afghanistan more because of such restrictions than anything else.
Afghans are hardy, proud people. Even during the worst of times, they come across as great hosts. Referring to the vlog already mentioned, a roadside shawl seller refused to take money from the YouTuber once he knew that the latter was from India. Such large-heartedness, even during a crisis-like situation, is a great strength. Compared to the white-collared intellectuals calling Europe a garden and the rest of the world a jungle, this quality is what can help one tide over the troughs in life. Incidentally, a Russian minister’s reply to the garden-jungle jibe has been pretty amusing, if not epic!
Afghans had all the reasons to thank the Americans for the development done over the past two decades. However, a hasty retreat and resultant chaos have left a bitter taste in their mouths. On the contrary, India is loved by Afghans across its society both because of our historical relations and some practical aid rendered by India over the past decades. Even the Taliban have shown a willingness to work and learn from India. The very fact that unlike many members of NATO (they continue to cooperate with the US policy of creating conflicts everywhere despite their own reservations), Afghanistan has practically broken ties with Pakistan. On historical, cultural and religious grounds, there are reasons for two neighbours to remain friendly, but Afghans have shown pragmatism in dealing with the land that is an IT exporter of another kind; IT being International Terrorism.
There are issues and very vital ones in Afghanistan even today, but one would like to believe that Afghans will tide over whatever crisis may come their way. Can we say the same for the countries like the UK, the US or those in the EU? If this trend of reducing dependence on China continues, will China be able to sustain so many ambitious projects it has recently launched? If ‘No’ is not an answer to these questions, a ‘Yes’ will be equally improbable, and that is a simple fact.
Undoubtedly, there are tough times ahead as the major economies spiral into recession, and another world war seems probable. In such a scenario, only those nation-states that have resources to sustain their populations, have the power to preserve their territorial integrity and have the nerve to stay away from the existing power centres while looking after their own interests will sail through the impending chaos.
Afghanistan’s voice stands gagged in the international forums, and its banking system is non-functional. And yet its citizens retain the ability to make do with whatever they have; they can defend themselves (and also poke an evil neighbour at will) whenever the need arises, thanks to their war-like culture. Even though it stands at the bottom of the ladder within the global south, it appears to be holding a beacon of hope for many others. The bottom line that it wants others to understand is that some essential ingredients, rather than a combination of privileged lifestyles and bloated egos, will help us survive the impending turmoil.
Any resemblance of Afghanistan with India is purely intentional!
(The author is a military historian and a Founder-Trustee of the Military History Research Foundation, India.)