JALLOZAI, Pakistan — With the release last week of photos confirming the destruction of the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan, Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders lost their last remote hope for a reconciliation with the world over the act.
Across the Pakistani border in Jallozai, home to more than 50,000 Afghan refugees who have arrived in the past eight months, there is even less hope for a decent future. These refugees have little expectation of returning to their homeland any time soon, especially as prospects for international reconstruction assistance diminish further.
Says Walid Khan, an Afghan school teacher who arrived here in January with his five children, his wife and his elderly parents, “the Taliban are now completely isolated from the world and there’s no hope for Afghanistan.”
That view is echoed across the camp by many others who live there in extremely squalid conditions. Most have no access to basic needs and have to huddle at night under thin plastic sheets as there are very few tents.
Food shortages and inadequate water supply are daily problems that residents of the refugee camp face. Afghan children wile away the days, waiting for a time when they will have a chance to go to school. Many members of the generation of Afghans that have grown up in the period since the country’s war began in 1979 have had little opportunity for formal schooling.
While the world is clearly outraged over the destruction of Afghanistan’s rich historical treasures that date back to its pre-Islamic days, there are no easy answers to the many questions surrounding the future of the central Asian country.
In the decade since Afghanistan’s last Soviet-backed communist regime was forced out of power by Islamic guerrillas, the country has lurched from one crisis to another with no settlement of its political problems. The economic breakdown has only added to the uncertainty facing Afghanistan. Faced with a combination of bleak prospects, there are no easy answers to the question of whether Afghanistan can be rescued from its years of total malaise.
The Taliban, whose claim to fame is its strict advocation of the world’s most rigid form of Islam, has established control over 95 percent of Afghanistan’s territory. But its leadership is solely made up of members of the Pushtun tribes, who represent about 60 percent of the population.
The remaining 40 percent of Afghanistan’s population consists of tribes that speak Persian and related dialects such as Darri, and who have a distinct identity of their own. These minorities back the so-called Northern Alliance that controls the remaining 5 percent of Afghanistan’s territory.
This alliance, though in control of a modest portion of the country, nevertheless has the potential to make a comeback due to two factors.
First, some of the surrounding Central Asian republics that were formerly under Soviet control are concerned by the spread of the Taliban’s brand of militant Islam across the region. Their interests have increasingly become tied to factions opposing the Taliban.
Moreover, Iran, a key player in the region, also has many reservations about the Taliban, some of which stem from its persecution of Shiite Muslims, which form a minority in Afghanistan but are the dominant religious group in Iran. As the Taliban remains locked in a complex situation in which its relations with the rest of the world are become increasingly polarized, surrounding Central Asian countries and Iran are increasingly likely to support the anti-Taliban factions.
Second, worsening economic conditions within Afghanistan coupled with the Taliban’s harsh attitude on issues such as the treatment of women are bound to foster antigovernment sentiments. While public unrest leading to demonstrations is unlikely to happen any time soon in Afghanistan — where the most convenient escape route from repression has been seeking refuge in Pakistan — the country’s internal situation is nevertheless untenable. When push comes to shove, the Taliban will learn the cost of its isolation from its own people, such as a further breakdown of the economy or growing social problems.
Faced with these harsh realities, Afghanistan’s Taliban remains locked in a situation in which political resolution appears to be a distant prospect.
The isolation of the Taliban from the rest of the world has also meant that its prospects for entering a dialogue with its adversaries, either directly or through the auspices of the United Nations, remain a bleak prospect. The difficulty for Afghanistan is that irrespective of its growing unpopularity, the Taliban remain a key player in the country. Any negotiated settlement of the country’s political future must include the Taliban.
While the actions of the Taliban suggest that it is prone only to irrational action, it will have to eventually recognize that the future of Afghanistan will remain murky without access to international economic assistance.
For years, international assistance has come on a shoe-string basis — not even enough to cover the costs of some of the most necessary humanitarian and relief operations. While donor fatigue has only further exacerbated Afghanistan’s dilemma, the reversal of that fatigue remains a difficult prospect.
There’s a large gap between the need to sensitize donors to the economic distress facing Afghanistan, and sensitizing the Taliban to the overwhelming concern of the world regarding many of its policies. In the end, a deadlock that has prevailed for years over a political resolution to one of the world’s most troubled and war-ravaged countries is bound to continue.
While the destruction of the Bamiyan statues is undoubtedly the ultimate sign of irrational behavior, it is just another milestone in a long trail of tragic events facing the Central Asian country, where many must brace themselves to face the unexpected and irrationally conceived events yet to come.
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