Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Political Polarisation Widens

 By Yuba Nath Lamsal

The world recently saw some turns of events in the political landscape which are likely to have far-reaching impact in the global order. The change of guards in the 10 Downing Street, general elections in Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Israel, Brazil and the United States will definitely have their consequences both at home and abroad in multi-fold ways. Politics in Europe and North America has almost an identical trend. So were the election outcomes. However, the political trend in Latin American countries often tends to go a little different way and the election in Brazil is its manifestation. 

Britons’ woes

London continues to suffer aftereffects of the Brexit since Britons chose to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum. The far-rightist conservatives were particularly behind the Brexit bandwagon and they called the shots. Their principal argument was that Britain surrendered its sovereignty and interests in the name of European integration. However, many Britons now may be regretting as UK has entered a new cycle of political uncertainty and economic crisis. Its fallout is visible in the British politics as the UK saw five prime ministers—David Cameroon, Teresa May, Boris Jonson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak — in a period of five years. Last month, Giorgia Meloni, leader of Brothers of Italy party, took charge of political affairs as Italy’s first female prime minister following the general elections. Italy went to polls after prime minister Mario Draghi offered to quit over his failure to cobble up majority in parliament.  The new Italian government is assortment of several right-winger parties. The rise of far-rightist in Italy is a bad omen not only for Italian politics but for the entire Europe. 

Sweden, known as social democratic model in the world, seems to be deviating from the Nordic model and sliding to rightist path. In the general election held this year, the rightist coalition of the Moderate Party (Moderaterna), Sweden Democrats, Christian Democrats, and the Liberals together mustered majority in Rigstag, unicameral Swedish parliament, paving the way for Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson to assume Swedish premiership leading a rightist coalition government. However, Denmark polls went to traditional way retaining the left of the centre government headed by Social Democrat leader Mette Frederiksen. In the general election for the unicameral Folketing, the Red Block, a pre-poll alliance of the left and left of the center parties, won the majority.

Similarly, the election in Israel, a Jewish state in the Middle-East, took rightist turn. The election results for Knesset, Israeli parliament, paved the way for Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the rightist Likud party, to head hardliner coalition government in Jerusalem.  The left leaning labour party has been pushed to political oblivion for at least until another election. Although the election has resolved the ongoing political ruckus for the time being, the new government is not likely to resolve the long running problems and instead is expected to further sharpen political divide in this Biblical holy land.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the United States went to election for the Congress or the US parliament to select members of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of US Congress, and Senate, the powerful upper house of parliament. Congress elections are held in the United States in every two year in which all 435 members are elected from the 50 states. One third of the Senate members or 33 are elected in every two years. 

According to US constitution, all states get two senators each irrespective of their physical and population size and the tenure of the senators is six years, whereas the tenure of the member of the House of Representatives is just two years. The number of representatives of the states is determined in every ten years following the national census on the basis of the population of each state. However, every state gets at least one representative but total number of House of Representatives should not exceed 435. 

US global presence

 However, Democrats retained their hold in both Houses, although the Republican Party, too, continues to have its strong presence. Since the Congress is the powerful institution in formulating laws, its make-up will definitely have impact both at home and abroad. In the US, Democrats are often seen as left leaning and Republicans as right winger. But in reality, both are rightists -- Democrats soft rightist and the Republicans hard-rightist. With US being the only superpower having global presence, its policies will definitely impact worldwide which, together with Europe, will definitely encourage right wingers across the world.

However, Brazil has shown the other way as left winger Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva and popularly known as Lula emerged victorious defeating right winger incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro in the recent presidential election. The South American politics is generally left-wing trend and Brazil has retained this trend. Brazil’s election outcome has sent ripples to Latin American politics also serving a blow to Washington. It seems the overall global politics is taking right-wing turn which may further accelerate polarisation of global politics and sharpening ideological divide. In the emerging multi-polar world, the sharpening political polarisation may be both boon and bane for the rest of the developing world. 

(The author is former ambassador and former chief editor of this daily.


Published in The Rising Nepal on Nov 16, 2022

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Vote conscientiously

 'Bad officials are elected by good citizens who don’t vote'

Yuba Nath Lamsal 

Modern democracy begins with the ballot box. There can be no democracy without elections, and free and fair elections are not possible in the absence of democracy. Democracy and elections are inseparable. An election is thus the heart and soul of a democratic system. 

The 2022 general election in Nepal is just round the corner – barely three weeks from now. The election fever is picking up momentum. As French political philosopher and historian Alexis de Tocqueville says ‘people get the government they deserve’, the November 20 election is the acid test for the Nepali voters as to what type of government they seek to have for another five years.

Voting is the power of the people like former American President Abraham Lincoln said, “the ballot is more powerful than the bullet". It is through the ballot papers individual citizens hand over their sovereign power to a particular party or a candidate to use on their behalf. In the wise and conscious decision of citizens on polling day lies the fate of our democracy and country for the next five years.  The people must follow the diktat of their conscience.  

Every vote counts in the election because it helps elect the type of government taking office after the polls. If we do not vote, there will be a high chance that bad people will be elected as American author George Jean Nathan says, “bad officials are elected by good citizens who don’t vote.” Voting is not only a right but also a civic duty and obligation of a citizen. We all must exercise our voting rights and choose the best representatives capable enough to govern and steer the country towards a better and brighter future. 

Promises galore 

As the election date is getting closer by the day, political parties and candidates are scrambling to turn the tide in their favour. Given the track record of earlier elections, parties and candidates promise to the people to get votes. But they lied and betrayed the people. This is why people have the least trust in our politicians and political parties. 

Nikita Khrushchev, a diehard communist who ruled and ruined the erstwhile Soviet Union for eleven years with an iron fist, ridiculed multi-party democracy as a political sham and said, “Politicians are the same all over and they promise to build bridges even when there are no rivers.” Khrushchev made these remarks to discredit parties and politicians and defend what Alexander Solzhenitsyn called ‘The Gulag Archipelago’. But it illustrates the present-day reality of electioneering and electoral practice in Nepal, where leaders promise anything and everything. Leaders and politicians make tall promises despite knowing they cannot be achieved. This blatant betrayal of the people’s trust makes a mockery of the democratic system. 

This is not an isolated case of Nepal alone. The phenomenon of election and electioneering in most developing countries is almost identical.  Politicians and parties lie to the voters and break the promises made to the people during the elections. The parties' election manifestos are mere rituals that hardly exhibit consistency in the promises and reality on the ground—a clear manifestation of how parties lie and deceive people.  As a result, political parties are slowly earning the reputation of ‘gangs of liars’.

Same shame

In developing countries, elections are often manipulated and engineered by people in power. Three ‘Ms’ play a decisive role in the elections — muscle power, money power and media power. As money plays a bigger role, elections have become expensive and unaffordable for ordinary citizens. This is not a fabricated story but felt and realized by leaders themselves. Nepali Congress leader Sashanka Koirala publicly said that he spent Rs60 million during the last parliamentary elections in 2017, far exceeding the Election Commission's limit. As a Russian proverb goes, “When money speaks, the truth remains silent”, money’s decisive role has pushed the sanctity of the election to the back burner. 

In the wake of rising perversions and distortions in the election, the Election Commission seems strict on executing the election code of conduct. The Election Commission has already asked for clarifications from candidates, including some high-profile leaders, namely, Puspa Kamal Dahal of CPN-Maoist Centre;  Madhav Kumar Nepal of CPN-Unified Socialist; Gagan Thapa and Sashanka Koirala of the Nepali Congress and warned them to adhere to the election code fully. If the Election Commission ensures strict compliance with the election code of conduct, the election would be, to a large extent, much more affordable and protect the sanctity of the election. Money and muscle powers will have little impact and people’s genuine verdict will prevail. 

Everyone's test 

Democracy beckons truth, honesty, integrity and accountability from parties and politicians. That alone commands the goodwill and the trust of the people. Elections are the instruments to gauge the popularity of the parties and candidates.  Political parties behave as though they are private limited companies of some leaders, treating workers as employees and the people as their customers. In principle, the political parties are not limited liability companies but public entities accountable to the people.  

Voters are not customers but the ultimate arbiters in the decision-making and governance of the country. Political parties should not treat one another as enemies. Instead, parties compete to serve the country and the people best. The candidates in the elections are also not rivals but competitors or partners. 

The fate of our democracy lies in the sanctity of the election. Political parties and candidates must respect the fundamentals of the election and democracy. However, the Election Commission alone cannot ensure the purity of the election if all other stakeholders, including political parties, leaders and individual candidates, extend positive support. The election is not only a test of parties and candidates but also a big test of voters’ judgement and conscience.

Xi’s 3rd Term Amid Strategic Tensions

 Yuba Nath Lamsal

Over the last one week, all eyes were on Beijing to see the turns of events in the China’s grand political event to be held once in every five years. The 20th national congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) kicked off on October 16 and concluded on October 22 re-electing President Xi Jinping as general secretary of the CPC for unprecedented third tenure, signifying that he would continue to lead China at least for another five years. 

The national congress consisting of 2,300 delegates from across the People’s Republic China elected 205 central committee members and 171 alternate members. Apart from it, the powerful politburo standing committee has been reshuffled in which four veterans have retired from politics and the new and younger ones have been replaced them. The politburo standing committee members to retire are Premier Le Keqiang, National People’s Congress chairman Li Zhansu, People’s Political Consultative Conference chairman Wang Yang, and Vice-Premier Han Zheng. Now the new powerful politburo standing committee consists of Xi Jinping, Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang and Li Xi. Li Qiang will also take over premiership in March 2023 replacing Li Keqiang. 

The CPC is the heart and soul of the Chinese nation, which has been at the helm of affairs for more than seven decades since 1949. The national congress of the CPC is the highest decision making body. Its first national congress was held on 23–31 July 1921 with the participation of 50 members. Now it has grown to be world’s largest political party with over 96 million members. The CPC is the ruling party and its national congress is, definitely, an important political event for China and the Chinese people as its decisions impact every sector of China.  

Standing tall

At the same time, it is important also for the world. China, being the world’s second largest economy and also an emerging super power, the ruling party’s congress and its decision definitely send ripples globally. Thus, the CPC national congress was being watched very closely and carefully by all in the world. Napoleon Bonaparte once said “Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world”. So goes in practice. Similarly, Mao Zedong, soon after the 1949 revolution, said “China has stood up”. China is definitely standing tall and shaking the world. China’s meteoric rise has caused unease and nervousness to some countries while many are contented.  

The western world including the United States are filled with worry and apprehension as China’s rise has challenged their global hegemony while the countries in the developing world are happy to see the emergence of an alternative power in the unipolar state of global order. China is world’s longest continuing civilization. It carries the civilisational history of more than 5000 years. When Europe and the western world were in the rudimentary stage, Asia including China was a bustling civilization with several inventions and innovations. For Europeans, Asia was a greener pasture and they voyaged to different Asian countries to make their fortune. Having relations with China was a matter of pride for European countries. 

In 1873, Britain, a principal industrialising power in Europe, sent its emissary with valuable gifts to the court of China seeking to establish embassy in Chinese capital. However, with much humility, Chinese ruler of that time, returned the gift and denied permission to establish foreign embassy in China. This is a manifestation of China’s historic glory and power in the world until late 19th century. But the same British returned to China in 1830s with opium and gunboats to force open trade that gave birth to a series of external interventions and occupations in China until early 20th Century. A revolution under the banner of Mao-led CPC established People’s Republic of China in 1949 heralding a new era in China’s history. The period from 1949 to 1976 is foundational phase during which China basically focused on stabilisation and consolidation of the revolution. 

With the rise of Deng Xiaoping in 1976, China entered the era of reforms and opening up boosting China’s economic growth and development in a miraculous way. The period of two decades under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao from 1976 to 2012 gave continuity to the economic reforms and growth. Xi g rose to power in 2012 and he focussed more on economic growth accompanied by raising income of the people and ensuring developmental balance in all regions of China. This is modernisation and national rejuvenation era under which emphasis was laid on poverty alleviation on the one hand and modernisation and innovation in all sectors on the other.


Now China has grown as world’s second largest economy and a global power with the capability of challenging the power of the sole superpower the United States of America. The western countries have adopted a common strategy to contain and counter China and its rise. They have accordingly built alliances of different kinds in Asia and the Pacific region. The Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) and different wings and programmes under IPS as well as alliances like Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or QUAD consisting of four countries -- United States, India, Japan and Australia -- and a trilateral security alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States or AUKUS are a few initiatives taken by the West against China.  

China too has come up with its own strategy and programmes to counter the US and its allies. China has not built any specific alliance targeting the West. But Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and recently announced Global Security Initiative (GSI) and Global Development Initiative (GDI) are being portrayed as Beijing’s strategic arms to enlarge and expand China’s interest in the world seeking to undermine western influence. Tension, thus, are high between China and the United States. Against this backdrop, Xi Jinping has assumed the CPC leadership and the government for the third term. It is yet to be seen what impact Xi’s third term will have both in China and in the world. 

(The author is former ambassador and former chief editor of this daily.

First published in The Rising Nepal on November 2, 2022

Friday, October 21, 2022

Opportunistic alliances ruin Nepali politics

 November elections will witness a ferocious battle not among individual parties but between two rival alliances

Yuba Nath Lamsal

Nepal at present has witnessed a sharp political polarisation giving rise widespread general impression that the politics is becoming unpredictable. Given the turns of events unfolding in our political landscape over the last couple of years, one cannot predict the direction and course our politics is heading towards. While political parties are key actors in a multi-party system the general people see the political parties and their leaders as the least trust-worthy and least credible.

The more the politics becomes polarized, the more the society becomes fractured. Over polarization leads to over radicalization which may be fatal to democracy. The soul of democracy is tolerance and plurality. In a divided society coupled with radicalized politics, plurality and tolerance find the least space.

Superstructure vs substructure

American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, in his book, ‘Political Order and Political Decay’ says ‘political decay is a condition of political development: the old has to break down in order to make way for the new’. In Nepal’s case, the old system has collapsed but the new one has still to develop and take roots. In the aftermath of the ‘third Jana Andolan’ or the People’s Movement of 2005-2006, Nepal’s superstructure changed. The country transformed from monarchical system to a republican set-up, from a unitary state to a federal system.   However, the inner institutions and mind-set of those in the helms of affairs continue to be the same old frame of mind, unable to adapt to a new course. In the interregnum of political transition, this often happens. But Nepal’s case is unique as politics continues to be in perpetual transition since the country's unification.

In its chequered history, Nepal has experienced and experimented with different types of systems and regimes ranging from feudal monarchy to family oligarchy to absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy to a federal republic. Until 1951, Nepal remained under the dark feudal and oligarchic system, when certain clans ruled and ruined the fate of Nepal denying even the basic rights and conditions for the people. Under the feudal oligarchic rule, people were treated not as citizens but as subjects.

The wave of decolonization and national liberation movements sweeping across the world and, more particularly, India’s freedom movement had a greater impact on Nepal. The family oligarchic rule of Rana clan was overthrown by the people’s movement in 1951 ushering in a new era of multi-party democracy in Nepal.

Wasteful decade

The new found democratic set up went through a tumultuous phase of trials and tribulations in a decade following the 1951 political change. The king whose power was restored by the democratic movement went against the very spirit of the movement and created a height of political instability with frequent changes of government pitting one set of people against the other. The king staged a coup and imposed his absolute regime in 1960 sending the democratically elected prime minister to prison and disbanding the multi-party democracy. An astute king, however, manage to ensure survival of the absolute regime for almost three decades by dividing people at home while tactically manipulating the geopolitical advantage Nepal could offer during the hey days of the Cold War.

Return of democracy

The 1980s and '90s saw what Harvard professor and political scientist Samuel Huntington called ‘the third wave of democracy’ across the world tearing down the iron curtains and walls of tyrannies of different kinds. Nepali people, too, joined this global bandwagon and triumphed in the battle for restoring the once-hijacked freedom and democracy in 1990, but soon started facing assaults from both the rightist and leftist camps. Inability to manage the internal rifts and failure to live up to general expectations of the people through delivery of goods and services gave rise to popular resentment towards the parties from which both the far rightists and extreme leftists took advantage. The violent armed rebellion launched by the Maoists spread like a wildfire across the country, while the king again took over power against the fundamental spirit of multi-party democracy attesting that monarchy was an arch foe of democracy.

When the king acted against democracy yet again, the political parties and people came to the conclusion that monarchy would pose a perennial threat to democracy. The Jana Andolan III not only reinstated the democratic polity but also paved the way for bidding adieu to a well over two centuries old monarchy.

General apathy

Nepal, now, is a federal democratic republic. However, the public resentment is high against the political parties as they have failed to deliver what they had promised to the people, which has also caused public apathy towards the system itself. We have experimented different types of systems and regimes but the fundamental problems remain unresolved. The problem is not with the system but with the people who handle it. Sheer incompetence of leaders accompanied with malice intention has led to systemic failure, the manifestation of which is the conflict between three branches of the government — legislative, executive and the judiciary.

Opportunistic alliances

Amidst this systemic dysfunction, general elections are scheduled for November 20. The upcoming elections will witness a ferocious electoral battle not among individual parties but between two rival alliances. Nepali Congress has formed an alliance consisting of ruling parties namely, the CPN (Maoist Centre), CPN-Unified Socialist and the National United Front. Similarly, the CPN-UML has formed a rival alliance with Janata Samajbadi Party and Rastriya Prajatantra Party to face the ruling alliance. This is a unique scenario in Nepal’s electoral history. Alliances of different hues had also been in the past but they were in some isolated cases. The pre-poll alliance has been more institutionalized since 2017 election.

In the local election in 2017, there was an alliance between the Nepali Congress and the CPN-Maoist Centre. Other parties contested the elections on their own strengths. In the general elections held the same year the Congress-Maoist alliance broke up.  The Maoists switched its allegiance and formed the alliance with the CPN-UML. The alliance achieved close to two-thirds majority in the federal parliament. The UML-Maoist combine could form governments in six out of seven provinces keeping the Nepali Congress out of power both in the federal as well as provincial levels.

The UML-Maoist alliance later morphed into party merger forming the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) and boasting to have accomplished the historic task of unifying a communist movement in Nepal. But the unity lived short due to opportunistic and cunning behaviour of the two principal leaders – KP Oli and Prachanda. This time the party split into three factions, each scrambling to outclass the others. Now the alliances have changed. Two rival alliances — ruling alliance versus opposition alliance — are in the fight. Both are opportunistic alliances not based on ideology and values but only for power, which makes the politics further unpredictable.

 -Originally published in on October 14, 2022

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Afghanistan: A Graveyard Of Empires

 Yuba Nath Lamsal

It’s been over a year since Taliban reigned in Kabul after withdrawal of the NATO troops. Afghanistan’s elected president fled the country in a helicopter even without giving a hint to his own staffs and advisors. Afghanistan fell in another dark cycle of chaos. All institutions built over two decades collapsed and failed to function. Afghan security forces, which consisted of over 3, 00,000 strong men at least in papers, did not fire even a single shot when a few thousands Taliban fighters swooped on Kabul and took control of all strategic installations including the President Palace. 

It was the second triumph of the Taliban. They had taken control of Afghanistan in 1992 after the fall of Moscow-backed communist government of Mohammad Najibullah. Taliban were evicted from power in 2001 by joint military operation of NATO forces under US command following the September 11 terrorist attacks in America planned and executed by the Al Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden.  

Graveyard of empires

Afghanistan is often called a graveyard of empires. All external powers that invaded Afghanistan have ultimately bit the dust. British failed, Russians failed and now United States has failed. Big powers were attracted to Afghanistan because of its geopolitical position.  Once Afghanistan served as a buffer between Russian and British powers. The Durand line separated the British and Russian spheres of influences in South and Central Asia.  

In the height of the Cold War, Afghanistan turned into battle field of proxy war between two super powers. The western narrative was that Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and installed Moscow’s puppet regime in 1979, which prompted the United States to support Islamic Mujahedeen groups and mobilised them against Soviets in Afghanistan.  However, the reality is different. Former director of the CIA Robert Gates, in his memoirs, said that CIA had started covert operation in Afghanistan six months earlier than the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

US covert operation in Afghanistan had twin objectives. The first strategy was to provoke Moscow to invade Afghanistan. Should the first strategy failed, the second strategy sought to infiltrate the trained Mujahedeen groups into southern Muslim dominated parts of Soviet Union like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and destabilize the USSR.  However, the first strategy succeeded as Moscow was rightly seduced to invade Afghanistan on December 24, 1979 and got entangled in Afghanistan that eventually led to the fall and disintegration of Soviet Union. 

In an interview to a French magazine ‘Le Nouvel Observateur’  in January 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, said President Carter ‘signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul’ on July 3, 1979. United States did it to provoke Moscow for intervention in Afghanistan so that it would fall into ‘the Afghan trap’- something like what US faced in Vietnam in 1960s. Apparently, the war in Afghanistan was between Mujahedeen groups and Soviet armies. But, in reality, the war was between the United States and the Soviet Union. 

After USSR withdrew in 1989, Americans prevailed but they too got badly entangled in Afghanistan and had to come out of it with humiliation. 

China is currently trying to engage Taliban but it should be cautious that too much engagement in Afghanistan would be counterproductive. Afghanistan is a lesson that interference and invasion in another sovereign country is fatal, no matter how mighty the invader may be. Invasion in Afghanistan marked the downfall of Soviet Union and now America had to withdraw from Afghanistan after costly engagement of two decades.  US entanglement in Vietnam in 1955 and Iraq’s invasion in Kuwait in 1990 are other examples. Now Russia has invaded Ukraine which is also bound to fail. 

Since Afghanistan became a geopolitical battleground of big powers, Afghan society was highly divided and polarised. Religion was politicised and politics was radicalised for which domestic zealots, regional hawks and international powers are responsible. Politicisation of religion and radicalisation of politics lead to the rise of either rightist authoritarianism or left extremism. If such a trend further grows, it will give birth to terrorism. 

Afghanistan is the case where politicisation of religion and radicalisation of politics fractures society and promotes extremist politics, from which this South Asian country has not come out. The flame of extremism and radicalisation is not limited to Afghanistan alone and its neighbourhood is also feeling its heat. 

Fanatical groups

Taliban, Al Qaeda and other religious fanatical groups are the product of this radicalisation process. Whoever may be behind their creation, the victim has been the entire humanity. When Soviet Union withdrew its troops, hopes were high for the modernisation and democratisation of Afghanistan. Out of the power vacuum in the aftermath of Soviet withdrawal, Taliban came to fill in the power void. By both conviction and action, Taliban proved to be Islamic terrorist group opposed to modernity and democracy. Taliban seeks to impose Islamic Sharia law that denies democracy, human rights, and women rights. Girls are not allowed to go to school and freedom of expression is summarily restricted. Democratic and other institutions are destroyed and total dysfunction reigns in Afghanistan. 

Afghanistan’s unique geography and its ethnic composition needs to be taken into consideration for any political process in this country. But that was not thought of in the Bonn conference in 2001 where powers-sharing agreement was reached on the future governance of Afghanistan. The Pashtun is the dominant ethnic community in Afghanistan and Taliban claims to be Pashtun’s representative. Pashtun ethnic group felt under represented or unrepresented in the post-Taliban government. Thus, Taliban won public sympathy in Pashtun dominated regions and emerged as rulers in present Afghanistan. Afghanistan will not come out of the cycle of violence and instability until Taliban renounces terror tactics and respect human rights and democracy. International community needs to work with civilian forces in order to exert pressure on Taliban to come to peaceful terms.

(The author is former ambassador and former chief editor of this daily.

This was published in The Rising Nepal on October 12, 2022

Monday, October 10, 2022

Lessons From Afghanista


Published in ' Afghanistan: Way Forward', a book published by Consortium of South Asian Think Tanks (COSATT) and Political Dialogue Asia Programme, Konrad Adenauer
Stiftung (KAS)

Yuba Nath Lamsal

United States pulled out its last contingent of troops from Afghanistan on August 30, 2021, ending the two decade-long what Washington called the war on terror. Analysts and historians often like to draw parallels between America’s war in Afghanistan and Vietnam in terms of the protracted nature and the eventual outcome. Unlike other wars, the United States returned from Vietnam and Afghanistan in disgrace paving the way for its nemeses to come to power.  In Vietnam, Washington fought hard to prevent communists seizing power but after 20 years of the hard fight the United States had to withdraw from Vietnam setting a stage for the same Vietcong communists to take control of Vietnam.  Afghanistan is also the repetition of Vietnam like syndrome as America’s troops withdrawal brought Taliban against which the US and NATO troops fought for two decades into the saddle of power in Kabul.

The United States declared war on terror in furious response to the terrorist attack in New York and Washington killing 2977 and wounding about 6000 mostly civilians holding Al Qaeda terrorist outfit and its mastermind Osama bin Laden responsible. Exactly two weeks after the September 11 terrorist attack, on October 7, 2001America like a wounded tiger, started pounding with bombs in Afghanistan formally beginning the war codenamed as ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ to break the bones of Al Qaeda terrorists including bin Laden.

Some people also likened the September 11 attack with the Japan’s December 7, 1941 Kamikaze attack on Pearl Harbour. But September 11 attack was more shocking to Americans than the one in the Pearl Harbour because ‘Pearl Harbour was 2500 miles away from the continental US in what was then not a state but the Territory of Hawaii’[i] and the September 11 attack was at the heart of America’s government and economy.

The Congress, US parliament, passed a law authorising the war against the Al Qaeda and countries that supported the terrorist network. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), too, joined the bandwagon of US global war on terror. The United Nations Security Council not only condemned the terrorist attack in the United States but also called upon all countries in the world to join hands in bringing all responsible for the terrorist attacks to justice. Ultimately, the war turned out to be a humanity’s war against the perpetrators of terrorist attacks and their network worldwide. Even countries like Iran, Russia and China expressed solidarity with the United States.[ii] 

Initially, US president George W Bush anticipated that the mission in Afghanistan would be accomplished in a couple of years but ultimately US was stuck so badly that it turned out to be US history’s one of the longest and most devastating wars. Started merely targeting the Al Qaeda, the war finally came to be war against Afghanistan and its civilization from which it became difficult to come out with grace and had to find a face saving device to ward off humiliation in the eyes of the world. Four presidents—Bush, Barrack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden— had to be preoccupied in Afghanistan war and America’s huge precious resources in trillions of dollars were drained which otherwise could have been used for the bettering the battered economy.

Graveyard of Empires

Historically, Afghanistan has earned the reputation or notoriety as a graveyard of empires. Afghanistan historically was unconquerable country and one who enters with enmity is destined to be defeated.[iii] From Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, from Babar to British, Russians and lately the Americans, external invaders have met with fierce resistance, a strong tribal culture of Afghanistan, and they were ultimately defeated. Invaders including British and Russians suffered humiliation at the hands of Afghans, which is attributed to the lack of their understanding of Afghan tribal culture, its geographic complexity and strong Afghan nationalism. Aware of this and also learning lesson from the Vietnam fiasco, the Bush administration had initially applied some diplomatic manoeuvrings and pressure tactics on Taliban through different channels including Pakistan to hand over bin Laden and his associates to the United States. The Taliban had also initially condemned the September 11 attacks and declared that those responsible for September 11 attacks must be brought to justice.[iv] However, the United States was not satisfied with it and wanted more pound of flesh from the Taliban. George W Bush, who had recently been elected to White House on his hawkish plank, was seeking to demonstrate tougher posture with Al Qaeda and Taliban to give the message to voters back home that America under Republicans is safe. President Bush wanted to accomplish his mission and get out from Afghanistan at the earliest stating the limited objective of Afghanistan mission as being ‘to disrupt al Qaeda’s use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime[v]’. Although the US action crippled the Al Qaeda’s ability to strike the United States again it took eleven years to kill bin Laden and the spectre of Taliban continued to rule the roost which prolonged the US presence in Afghanistan for two decades until August 2021.

Convergence of Interests

Bin Laden’s sanctuary in Afghanistan goes back to mid-1980s during the Soviet occupation as he landed with a charity mission to support Afghan refugees in Pakistan and later founded Al Qaeda with the objective of launching global jihad against ‘infidels’.[vi] He recruited, trained and encouraged Afghan and foreign mujahedeen to fight against Soviets. The United States had a little interest in Afghanistan until 1970s but suddenly jumped up after Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1989. It was the height of the Cold when two super powers—United States and Soviet Union— vied to enlarge their influence across the world and contain one another in places of vital strategic interest. Soviet presence in Afghanistan was considered a geopolitical threat to US interest in South Asia, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, while Pakistan considers Afghanistan as its backyard or sphere of influence and did not want military presence of its arch rival India’s ally Soviet Union next to its border. Soviet Union and India were Cold War era allies and India had recognized the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan while the rest of the world had condemned. The Al Qaeda took the invasion in Afghanistan as an aggression against the Islam. This is how triangular interests of US, Pakistan and Al Qaeda converged. Washington and Islamabad collaborated in Afghanistan while the Al Qaeda’s resistance against Soviet invasion gave an extra bonus to America. In course of action in Afghanistan, Pakistan and America came closer with bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and together they succeeded in evicting Soviet troops from Afghanistan. The years following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the world saw a number of events in the international arena that marked a far-reaching geopolitical shift.  After the disintegration of Soviet Union, the United Stated emerged as a sole super power with none to challenge Washington’s prowess. The United States lost its interest in Afghanistan and left Afghanistan creating power vacuum from which Taliban came in. The oil-rich Persian Gulf became more important for the United States than Afghanistan and thus focussed more on Iraq war making Saudi Arabia a base for military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that turned bin Laden, a Saudi national, and the Al Qaeda against America. Al Qaeda took military action in the Middle East as an outright aggression and declared jihad against America. The terrorist attack in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 was its aftereffect.

The United States entered into Afghanistan war in 2001 in vengeance purportedly to destroy the network of Al Qaeda and its Taliban ally and also to establish a stable democratic regime which would ensure that Afghanistan will not be a safe haven for terrorists in future. Since nation building was not an agenda in the beginning, Washington anticipated to complete its mission within a couple of years. But America got badly mired in a quagmire of protracted war in Afghanistan and became difficult to come out.

US targeted Taliban simply because it provided shelter to Osama bin Laden, who lived in a camp in Tora Bora mountainous area of Afghanistan. However, Taliban claim that America attacked them for the mistake committed by others.  In fact, Taliban was domestic Islamic extremist group and had no ambition beyond Afghan border nor had it any intention of antagonizing the United States. Taliban fought against United States only in Afghanistan that too because they were attacked. Al Qaeda and Taliban also did not have cosy relations as Taliban was not happy with Al Qaeda owing to its terrorist activities particularly targeting the United States. Taliban chief Mullah Omar once in a face to face meeting with bin Laden and also through messengers told Al Qaeda not to engage in terrorist activities in Afghanistan and also not to carry out activities harming the United States. However, bin Laden ignored the Taliban’s request and continued terrorist activities against the United States. Carter Malkasian writes in his book ‘The American War in Afghanistan A History’ that Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, foreign minister under Taliban government in 2001, said Taliban sympathized with bin Laden and the Arabs but questioned his attacks on other countries from Afghan soil.[vii] Taliban chief Mullah Omar often proposed to Pakistani officials and others to surrender bin Laden to a third country but he changed mind as other Taliban scholars and leaders were opposed saying surrendering the guest to enemies is against the Islamic and Pasthunwali culture.[viii]  

Strategic Blunders

Soviet Union was America’s principal geopolitical and ideological rival during the Cold War. Washington’s core interest outside the Western Hemisphere was Europe, South East Asia and the Middle East. America’s main concern in Europe was to check Moscow’s aggressive muscle flexing in Eastern Europe and not to allow it to cross the red line further towards Western Europe, while rapid spread of communism in South East Asia mainly in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and China and North Korea was yet another America’s big geopolitical challenge.  US’ primary concern in the Middle East and Persian Gulf was due to oil and its strategic location. The core strategic goal of the United States worldwide was to contain Soviet Union and check the advancement of communism. The strategic significance that Afghanistan possessed during the Cold War, due to its proximity with the Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf and border with Soviet Union was the primary interest of both US and Soviet Union. Washington considered south-western frontier with predominantly Muslim dominated areas of Soviet Union as one key fault line that can be useful to penetrate into Soviet Russia, for which Afghanistan could be a great pivot.

When Moscow sent its troops and completely brought Afghanistan under its sphere of influence 1979, the United States suddenly came out of strategic slumber and together with Pakistan backed Afghan Mujahedeen warriors with arms and ammunitions to eject Soviet Union from Afghanistan. But after the disintegration of Soviet Union, this strategic worth of Afghanistan diminished and the US also lost its interest in Afghanistan. Washington then completely washed off its hands not only from Afghanistan but from South Asia as a whole which created a power vacuum in Afghanistan ultimately setting the stage for Taliban in Kabul. The dramatic rise of Taliban in religio-politics interrupted the power equilibrium and disrupted political stability, social cohesion and religious and cultural harmony not only in Afghanistan but in the region thereby creating a chaotic society which turned out to be a fertile ground for terrorism.

With the Taliban toppled in Kabul and pushed to hinterlands following the aerial bombings by US and NATO forces and ground assault from the Northern Alliance fighters, the United Nations hosted an international conference in Bonn of Germany in December 2001 to find a political settlement of Afghan crisis and work out a framework of future governance in Afghanistan. The Bonn Conference, participated in by major international powers including US, Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan and representatives of Northern Alliance which was composed of different minority ethnic groups and warlords chose Hamid Karzai as a future leader to head the post-Taliban interim administration of Afghanistan until the election was held and the elected government was formed. The Bonn Conference ignored the ethnic make-up and Afghan national sentiment as the Taliban were excluded in the Afghanistan’s political process and the interim government, which was viewed by the dominant Pashtun ethnic community to have orchestrated by foreigners and outsiders and was dubbed as yet another aggression to Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Pashtun ethnic group constitutes over 42 per cent of Afghanistan’s population and Pashtuns call themselves as the sons of soil while other ethnic groups as outsiders. The Northern Alliance is a ragtag coalition of different minority ethnic groups (Tajik 27%, Uzbek 9% and Hazaras 3%) and warlords, which did not represent the overall Afghan national sentiment. Afghanistan’s nationalism is Pashtun nationalism which Taliban represent.  Exclusion of Taliban in the Bonn Conference and Afghanistan’s future governance was a strategic blunder on the part of the United States and the international community.

Soon after September 11 terrorist attacks on Washington, Virginia and New York, the United States started pounding Kabul and other Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan with bombs and missiles. In fact, Taliban were not perpetrators of terrorist attacks in the US. The September 11 terrorist attacks were designed and executed by Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his followers hiding in Afghanistan, who were not Afghans but Arabs. The September 11 terrorist incidents had been caused mainly by the “broader events in the Middle East, such as the policies of the government of Saudi Arabia and the presence of the United States in the Arabian Peninsula”. [ix] Taliban were against the attacks in the US and Taliban chief Mullah Omar had time and again asked bin Laden not to use Afghan territory for terrorist activities against the US. However, the United States targeted the Taliban as the primary enemy and the US goal faltered.

Afghanistan is a country with complex geography and bitter ethnic divide. More than that is the geopolitics and its curse. Afghanistan is the massif of Hindukush and Himalayan mountain ranges with difficult geographic terrain. Afghanistan’s geopolitical pivot drew major powers like Russia and Britain in the past but both powers were defeated due to their lack of understanding of Afghanistan’s tribal sentiment and complex geography. Well cognizant of this fact, Americans wanted the least involvement in Afghanistan’s future political course and exit as early as possible.  However, it got so badly stuck there and could not come out of the quagmire as it had initially thought. In the first place, the US strategy failed to achieve its goal of flushing out Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. Although Taliban were pushed out of Kabul, the US had no clearly defined exit strategy. The US politicians and military strategists entered Afghanistan without thinking how and when they will leave Afghanistan. Coming to Obama administration in 2009, the US, contrary to its earlier stance, got bogged down in Afghanistan’s ‘nation-building’ project which not only bled America’s precious resources but further discredited the US presence in Afghanistan. The burgeoning friction with Afghanistan government dominated by warlords only gave benefit to the Taliban. At times, situation reached a point when Americans had to be confused as to who was friend and who was enemy in Afghanistan. The warlords who amassed money and revenue by ‘illicit means, such as drug trafficking and collecting bribes’ made corruption a defining feature of the new afghan government.[x] As a result, Taliban won greater sympathy of Afghans mainly Pashtuns as a better alternative to the US-backed Afghan government and attracted young Pashtuns to join the insurgency. The security forces Americans created and trained to defend Afghanistan was so inept and incompetent that matched nowhere to a relatively smaller size of Taliban force. Taliban were confident of their victory believing that both ‘God and time were on their side’ as they were fighting for liberation and for religion against ‘infidel invaders’. Taliban used to say ‘Americans have watch whereas Taliban have time’, which gave fundamentalists strength to sustain fight.[xi] But the US soldiers were fighting on foreign land against the battle-hardened and ideologically indoctrinated enemies that had lowered American soldiers’ morale.

Propaganda machine

The Bush administration right at the time of announcing war in Afghanistan in 2001 had promised to avoid Vietnam like disaster and planned for an early exit once its two core objectives—smashing Al Qaeda network and defeat Taliban—were met. However, the war was getting nowhere and public opinion in America too was slowly turning against the war. Despite the fact that some positive developments took place in some sectors, the rampant corruption, sense of insecurity, illicit drug trafficking and violence dwarfed the positive achievements. However, propaganda machine ran amok claiming everything was going goody downplaying all negative things. Finally, the US generals, security experts and even politicians realized that Afghanistan war was a waste of resources and a losing project and they sought a face-saving device to come out of Afghanistan seeking to focus on other strategically more important fronts. It was eventually realized that the entire strategy went fundamentally wrong right from the beginning as the dominant stakeholder and political force in Afghanistan was excluded in the political process and political stability was not possible without the engagement and involvement of Taliban. President Obama, although half-hearted, initiated attempts for political process with Taliban in 2010. But it didn’t make much headway as US kept on insisting that Taliban break ties with Al Qaeda and renounce violence, while Taliban demanded release of its key leaders. In response, US released five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo prison to initiate dialogue and political process but this process derailed as Hamid Karzai government scuttled the process.  However, Ashraf Ghani after being elected as Afghanistan president in 2014, promised to recognize Taliban as political force and offered to hold unconditional peace talks. But Taliban turned the tables stating that they would negotiate only with Americans upon complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.[xii] Finally high level talks with Taliban were held in Qatar in 2018 in which both sides agreed a compromise that included withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and Taliban breaking relations with Al Qaeda. Accordingly, a final deal was signed by both parties in February 2020 agreeing to end the long-running war.   

Soon after NATO troops withdral, Afghanistan once again went to the hands of Taliban as the elected Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani could no longer hold on power despite the creation of security forces including the Afghan National Army, police and intelligence agencies with the size of almost 300 thousand personnel. Taliban having less than 75,000 fighters, a fraction of what government security forces comprised, took over. President Ghani fled Afghanistan one gloomy afternoon even without informing his aides and security people. The President’s chief of staff knew his boss’s fleeing Afghanistan only after the helicopter he boarded took off.[xiii]  This marks the disgraceful end of two-decade long Afghanistan war setting a stage for Taliban to take charge of Kabul.

On the surface, the situation in Afghanistan appears to be stable but deep down in the heart of Afghan nation, complex problems still abound. The international community has not recognized the Taliban regime while their past atrocities and hobnobbing with the terrorist groups continue to haunt. Afghanistan is politically ungovernable, financially in a mess, and socially chaotic. A new round of conflict is likely to flare up among different ethnic groups if the ethnic divide was not addressed in the governance from which external powers may try to extract geopolitical advantage. One key lesson learnt from Afghanistan is that solution imposed from outside is always short-lived. The home-made solution involving all stakeholders alone brings about lasting peace, stability and development. Instead of seeking Afghanistan’s solution in Washington, London, Beijing, Moscow, Islamabad, New Delhi and Brussels, it has to found in the soil of Afghanistan from among the Afghans themselves.


[i] Richard Halloran, Asia 2002 Yearbook, Far Eastern Economic Review

[ii] Craig Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers, A Secret History of the War, Simon  and Shuster

[iii] Barnett R. Rubin, Afghanistan: What Everybody Needs To Know

[iv] Carter Malkasian, The American War in Afghanistan A History, Oxford University

[v] Craig Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers, A Secret History of the War, Simon  and Shuster

[vi] IBID

[vii] Carter Malkasian, The American War in Afghanistan A History, Oxford University

[viii] IBID

[ix] Craig Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers, A Secret History of the War, Simon  and Shuster

[x] IBID, page 123

[xi] Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau, ‘ YOU Have The Watches, WE HAVE THE TIME’ Newsweek, October 10, 2011

[xii] Craig Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers, A Secret History of the War, Simon  and Shuster

[xiii] Brian Brivati, Losing Afghanistan: the Fall of Kabul and the End of Western Intervention