While the 20th century concluded with the fall of the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) which was triggered by its defeat in Afghanistan, the 21st century is witnessing the embarrassing failure of United States (U.S) in Afghanistan.
It appears as if the US is in denial with President Biden and his administration insisting that they have achieved their objectives and are satisfied with the outcome.
Apart from the ongoing discussion about who won and who lost, there are certain lessons to be learnt from the successive failures of two self-assumed superpowers. First, USSR and US tried to impose self-assumed agenda of development and social reforms. They came up with idea of liberal social setup. Both powers advocated and tried to impose the systems, which were entirely different from Afghan society at large.
1n 1979, USSR entered the Afghanistan with the objective to end power struggle accompanied by economic development and more rights for women. In 2001, US entered Afghanistan with similar objectives and added the flavor of terrorism. Both of them failed to understand the governance system and dynamics of Afghanistan. They tried to define the system by using the lens of Western democracy or communism.
Thus, they started to use term of tribal society for Afghanistan by using lens of their own governance system, without appreciating the Afghan governance system. It can be said that Afghanistan has another form of federation-based system as every tribe represents a section of society, and every section represents a unit of political and geographical identity. All the units have decided to forge a partnership to run a country like federation and the system has worked for Afghanistan for centuries.
Unfortunately, both powers did not accept this successful of system and started to push for systems according to their own perception. In a nutshell, both powers tried to introduce some reforms which society did not like and were hence prone to failure.
Second, the disconnect from the tribal society was the leading reason for this failure. USSR and US both forged partnerships with the elite class of Afghanistan. The elite class was living in cities and had little understanding of rural areas. The majority of elite was already in favor of more liberties and open society. However, the elite does not represent the country, as they constitute a minor part of the society, as the majority of the population lives in rural areas.
According to the World Bank data in 1979, 84.5 percent of the population was living in rural areas. Along the course of time, the proportion changed, as in 2020 the share of rural population was 74.5 percent. However, some researchers do not consider it as a true reflection, as millions of people from rural areas had been displaced to other countries due to wars and conflicts.
Unfortunately, the huge majority was never consulted by both powers, leave alone forging partnerships, under the influence of elite. The elite has captured the society so well that it seems that they are the majority. Media and intellectuals also became part of the elite. Thus, both powers tried to believe what the elite were telling them.
In addition, think tanks and media from both powers tried to compile reports while sitting in their own countries. They hired local elite to do the ground work for them. As a result, pseudo intellectual and media class emerged which further widened the disconnect.
Third, social and economic inequalities also contributed to the failures. There is a huge difference in the living standards of rural people and elite class. Corruption made life even more complicated. It was present during the invasion of USSR and the elite made a lot of money from corruption. However, the invasion of US gave it an added lift. In recent years, corruption was more prominent in media and government circles. The US was continuously asking Afghan government to control the corruption and try to focus on the development of people. Unfortunately, the government did not give this any importance. More importantly, the elite class of Afghanistan did not consider it a problem and was busy making maximum money and sending it to safe heavens. This elite class also engaged many US companies and NGOs in corruption.
The elite class diverted attention from the real issues by playing to the gallery. They appeared on all forums and criticized foreign interference with little evidence. The elite class found an ally in the form of India and started to malign Pakistan for everything.
Fourth, the USSR and the US tried to promote their favorites. They selected a section of society and gave them blind support which created bad blood among other sections of society and gave rise to civil conflicts among different sections.
These are four lessons which need to be studied. There can be many reasons for the rise of Taliban, but these factors contributed massively and attracted people towards them. Taliban made their base in rural areas and built on that base. The argument can be supported from the fact that even before the withdrawal of the US, Taliban were ruling over the rural areas. After the withdrawal, there was no fight or violence in rural areas. Moreover, Taliban also used the sentiments against the imposed systems of governance and social reforms. They declared it against the social setup of Afghanistan and Islamic values.
These lessons have special relevance for China since it is emerging as a new power and is implementing a global agenda of economic development and cooperation. Although the agenda is different from US and USSR, but Afghanistan will play an important role in connecting Central Asia and South Asia. More specifically, it is also critical for the connectivity of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and China Central-Asia West-Asia Economic Corridor.
China must avoid reliance on elite class, both from Pakistan and Afghanistan, to remain aware of the ground realities. China should try to enhance its efforts to connect with rural population and less privileged groups. China has options to avoid relying on the elite. First, China can build alumni networks of students of training programs. Second, China can ask its companies to engage with communities in their areas. Third, sport is a good avenue to engage masses without any political interference. Lastly, China should launch a training program to end corruption and share its experience.
The writer is a political scientist and defense analyst.