Strengthening our democracy to achieve internal cohesion is what will protect India
T K Arun
On the face of it, with the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI)now has secured a second state to control. Whether or not the celebratory exultations of assorted jihadi groups in West Asia and North Africa are followed up with Taliban-led Afghanistan serving, once again, as a training ground for anti-West terrorists, we can certainly expect anti-India non-state actors to be trained in and despatched from Afghanistan, as Pakistan and China nod in approval. The biggest reinforcement of its national security India can make is to strengthen democracy within, and enhance societal and national cohesion.
o, the Taliban did not rout the Americans and expel them from their country. That feat still remains the exclusive achievement of the Vietnamese. The Americans had secured their goal in Afghanistan, of dismantling al-Qaeda camps, wanted to leave, negotiated a deal with the Taliban and left.
Of course, the manner in which they left has turned out to be an unseemly mess. But did anyone expect the Americans to fast-forward Afghan evolution from a collection of clans and tribes into a unified nation governed by the rules of democracy that it never has been?
No, Not an American Rout
The anthropologist president, Ashraf Ghani, failed in the face of his country’s social complexity and relapsed to the stereotype of the leader of a kleptocratic state that commands little loyalty from the people. The soldiers of the state he led gave up without a fight, no armed uprising of the ordinary people swore to defend their state against a medieval threat.
What Joe Biden has done is to let all those Afghans down, who had collaborated with the Americans and its Nato allies. These people could be hunted down and subjected to vengeful punishments. The Americans should have evacuated them before it began dismantling its airbase at Bagram. Even now, the US retains enough clout with the Taliban to strike a deal to allow the evacuation of these people.
Hasn’t the US let the women of Afghanistan down, leaving them to the medieval mores of the Taliban? The rights that individuals and groups enjoy in a society are a function of its internal politics, and beyond a point, outsiders cannot mould them. William Bentick did succeed in banning sati in India. But Hindu widows continue to be shunted off to Vrindavan, or otherwise discriminated against.
In most parts of India, women have to be married off with a dowry large enough to secure their safety in their marital home. The Indian Constitution proudly proclaims equality for all and non-discrimination. Dalits continue to bear the brunt of extreme social oppression. Social reform is part and parcel of democratising society. And if Afghanistan proves anything, it is the fallacy of trying to impose democracy on an unwilling society at sword-point. Women in India have to fight to secure their rights as citizens. No ruler is going to gift them those rights on International Women’s Day. Similarly, the women of Afghanistan will have to fight for them and secure them as part of democratising Afghan life, quite distinct from holding periodic elections.
China will have the satisfaction of seeing the US withdraw in ignominy. But that does not diminish America’s hard or soft power.
Could the Americans have done more? Probably. When General Douglas MacArthur gave the Japanese their post-war constitution, he had written into it the right to collective bargaining as a basic right. The general saw the rise of a strong trade union movement as the only viable guarantee against a possible return of militarism and the culture of the samurai. And that worked, because the Japanese already were an industrial society, and had a large body of workers ready to be organised into unions. Even in Harry Potter’s world of wizards and magic, there are five things that magic cannot create. Let us not be too hard on the Americans if they failed to create democracy out of Afghanistan’s thin, mountainous air.
The Americans can be faulted for allowing the Taliban to ply a profitable trade in opium and its derivatives, and even run a mining business. The Americans can be faulted for letting Pakistan off the hook for aiding and abetting the Taliban, even after capturing Osama bin Laden from Abbottabad, Pakistan. If we take a more expansive view of history, the Americans can be faulted for imposing on the world the worst iteration of Islam in its existence, by aborting the growth of democracy in the most evolved parts of the Islamic world, Iran and Iraq, for fear of losing them to the Soviet Union in the post-World War 2 decades, as well as in Indonesia, where it supported the murderous Suharto dictatorship.
But apportioning blame will not take us very far. If the Taliban are smart, they will not let Pakistan or China dictate Afghanistan’s future. Rather, they will play the Russians, the Chinese, and the Americans one off against another, to extract the best terms, and not allow al-Qaeda to give Americans a reason to return with their warplanes.
The rise of the Taliban makes the danger of Islamic radicalism in South Asia more potent. Islamophobia will only feed it. Democracy and inclusive growth alone can counter it. That will be India’s biggest challenge.
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About the Author:
T K Arun, Consulting Editor, The Economic Times, New Delhi.