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'The West allowed Afghanistan to rot'

Last updated on: July 8, 2010 11:34 IST
A US Army soldier provides security from a tower at Forward Operating Base Lane in the Zabul province of Afghanistan. (Inset) William Dalrymple

'In the West, the Taliban is known for its medieval barbarism, public executions, stoning of women for adultery. But for many Afghans now, they are respectable -- as the Taliban provides security,' says noted writer William Dalrymple in a two part interview with's Arthur J Pais.

Read Part I: 'Americans in Afghanistan know their game is over'

In the concluding part, Dalrymple also describes Indian involvement in Afghanistan as a major strategic error.

You fault the West for ignoring developmental work in Afghanistan

Whatever intentions the West had to improve the roads, schools, hospitals and other services in Afghanistan were forgotten by the focus on getting rid of Saddam Hussain in Iraq. Because of the obsession with Saddam, Afghanistan was allowed to rot. Obama could have changed the situation but he has been busy on the war front.

We had a real opportunity to show that we represented education and development. We could have proved that we were there for the Afghans and not just for our own sake. By helping the welfare of the Afghans, we could have demonstrated that we were not building a fortress there for our own strategic interests.

Despite the US pouring approximately $80 billion into Afghanistan, the roads in Kabul are still full of potholes. They are in a worse condition than in the smallest provincial towns of Pakistan. And this is true for most of Afghanistan. The health care is also nonexistent for most part.

'For many Afghans now, the Taliban are respectable'

Last updated on: July 8, 2010 11:34 IST
A US Marine writes on a chalkboard with an Afghan boy during a renovation planning visit at a school in the Nawa district of the Helmand province of Afghanistan

People with some money and who have severe medical conditions fly to India. Schools are badly equipped, and studies have shown that a quarter of all teachers in Afghanistan are themselves illiterate.

This is largely because most of the money has been spent on military and security and millions on international consultants -- some of whom are paid over $1,000 a day, according to an Afghan government report.  

When an Afghan hears about the money spent on his country, he often asks: Where is the evidence that it is being used for the people? The cost of food has been steadily rising and living standards have been declining.

Worse, the training of the police has been dismal and that has led to a lot of insecurity. And not all the insecurity is created by Taliban.

In the West, the Taliban is known for its medieval barbarism, public executions, stoning of women for adultery. But for many Afghans now, they are respectable -- as the Taliban provides security. 

'There's no clear and easy military solution'

Last updated on: July 8, 2010 11:34 IST
US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft from the 335th Fighter Squadron drop 2,000-pound joint direct attack munitions on a cave in eastern Afghanistan

Many Western liberals dislike the Taliban -- and they have good reason for doing so. But in a way the Taliban are the voice of rural Pashtun conservatism.

For years now, the Pashtuns have been ignored in Kabul and are largely excluded from power. The Pashtuns resist the regime and the insurgency is widely supported by this ethnic group, especially in the Pashtun heartlands of the south and east. 

Is there any surprise then there is a great slippage of power in Afghanistan? Meanwhile, there is no clear and easy military solution to Afghanistan. There is a plan to equip an army of half a million troops but it is not realistic. This is supposed to be done at the cost of roughly $2 billion a year. How is it going to be supported when the entire revenue of the Afghan government is about $1.1 billion?

This kind of an army will never be able to guarantee security or shore up such a discredited and hated regime. Besides, given the corruption in the country, the army could be bought over by the Taliban. Even without the money incentive, many soldiers could join the Taliban as they surround Kabul and are about to take over. Karzai too might do it. He has already threatened to do so.

The US and NATO have spent $25 billion so far to rebuild the Afghan army but the security gets worse and the area under government control becomes smaller every week.

'The West should negotiate a political solution'

Last updated on: July 8, 2010 11:34 IST
A US oldier warms his hands by a fire alongside locals in the Zanbar province of Afghanistan

What are some of your most indelible impressions of the Afghan people?

I can never forget the hospitality. There is also some sort of egalitarianism across the tribes. The poorest of the poor are welcomed into the house of the rich people from time to time and are offered food which they eat sitting on beautiful carpets. But this is also combined with cold-blooded violence that includes honour killing.

Their moral code is very different from ours.

Many Western countries are preparing to pull out of Afghanistan. America has announced that it will start withdrawing next year. Why then is there a need to negotiate with the Taliban now?

I wrote many weeks ago that the Karzai government is crumbling before our eyes and if we delude ourselves that this is not the case, we could yet face a terrible replay of 1842 and face bombings and killings. The alternative to not negotiating could be to let the Taliban take over the entire country. I feel the West should negotiate a political solution while we can do still do so. 

Karzai said recently at his peace jirga that he would work with any Taliban leader willing to lay down arms, and that jobs and monetary incentives would be available to the Taliban who joined the government. I don't know if the new Tory government (in Britain) would support this but Obama is not in favour of it. 

I also believe that if we leave some basic infrastructure behind, there would be some goodwill for the West.

I was shocked when the new British leaders say they oppose goodwill-building measures such as improving the current basic infrastructure. (British Defence Secretary) Liam Fox said in a newspaper interview recently: 'We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country.'

'Indian involvement in Afghanistan was a major strategic error'

Last updated on: July 8, 2010 11:34 IST
Graffiti on a demolished building as a police vehicle drives on the road in Kabul

What has been happening to Indian workers, planners and social workers in Afghanistan?

Look, what I am saying now may raise a few eyebrows in India. But this is coming from someone who deeply loves India. I know that India went into Afghanistan with the best of the intentions, and that India has had a warm relationship with Kabul for decades before the mujahideen started the insurgency against the Russian opposition and then the Taliban took over. India did not need encouragement to be in Afghanistan.

India welcomed the opportunity to be in Afghanistan with the fall of the Taliban. 

During my visit to Afghanistan, I met the Indian ambassador in Kabul. He is a very bright person and he made a coherent argument why India is backing the present government and why Indian workers, technicians, managers and businessmen are there.

He talked of the Afghan government ending terror bases. But I believe Indian involvement in Afghanistan was a major strategic error.

Though Indian presence is not enormous there, it has made Pakistan more nervous. Even as Afghanistan is reverting to being in Pakistan's sphere of influence, the attacks on Indians continue in that country.

'India must think of a deal with Pakistan that is workable'

Last updated on: July 8, 2010 11:34 IST
Boys fly a kite from a crumbling wall in Kabul

I can understand Pakistan's increasing paranoia. For one hand, it has a superpower (India) across the border, and India is also a player on the other side. Pakistan feels sandwiched by India. Because of this fear the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) in Pakistan is holding tenaciously to its Taliban connections.

It may be too late but I wish India could have said to Pakistan, 'We understand Afghanistan is your backyard but you get out of Kashmir and cut off all support to the insurgents there '

I would say to India, be realistic and think of a deal with Pakistan that is workable. This could be a foundation for durable peace based on mutual interest. Right now, Kashmir and Afghanistan are two sides of a proxy war. One of the reasons the Taliban is coming back is not just because of the anger against America and the allies but as a result of Pakistan's paranoia.

In an ideal world, I feel India could take a lead and reduce the money spent on defence by about 20 per cent and encourage Pakistan to do so. The system of education in Pakistan is very, very poor.

On the subject of education and creating wealth, India's astonishing economic success story has been powered by a far smaller participation of the population than in China. A super educated elite, computer whiz kids and businessmen and entrepreneurs are powering it. But in China, a larger segment of the population is involved in creating the wealth.

I am no admirer of the authoritarian Chinese system of government and clearly prefer the Indian model to it, but I wish India involves more people in creating and increasing its wealth. The chip invented in California could be the brainwork of two Indians but in building it into a product China would use thousands of workers.

'Who knows what could happen tomorrow in Afghanistan?'

Last updated on: July 8, 2010 11:34 IST
A US soldier walks to a joint district community centre after securing combat outpost Rajankala in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan

What makes you think that India and Pakistan can build a lasting peace?

Of course, some people refuse to believe that there could be genuine peace between India and Pakistan but there are many examples of bitter foes -- who have opposed each other and fought each other for centuries -- coming together.

The English and the French hated each other for over 1,000 years but they are allies today. Now, it is not a love affair but they have a cordial relationship. Germany and France fought three wars in 100 years but they are allies today.

I have believed there are more things common between Delhi and Lahore than Delhi and Chennai (chuckles).

Besides, who knows what could happen tomorrow in Afghanistan? What if the Chinese, while fighting the Muslim insurgents in its border states, push into Afghanistan to punish the Taliban for backing the Chinese Muslims? Pakistan then could severe its connections with China and come closer to India.