As decades of wars have destroyed Afghanistan’s society installing a war culture into communities, former ambassador Humayun Kabir thinks, Bangladesh has the scope to contribute to rebuilding the devastated country showing a development model of poverty alleviation and women empowerment.
In an exclusive interview with The Financial Express, the President of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute insists that Dhaka now needs to expand its strategic horizon from the immediate neighbourhood and focus on countries like Afghanistan, a gateway to the central Asia and the Middle East.
“Our schools, colleges, universities should teach about our neighbourhood because we have to prepare our generations about the neighbourhood how they are evolving, what are the opportunities, what are the challenges. Only then can we have a balanced kind of generation to look at the countries,” he says.
In the wake of the fall of the Western-backed government in Kabul and the victory of the Taliban last month, the retired diplomat has emphasised the importance of engaging with the Taliban leaders without being ‘unnecesarily derailed with indecision’ on Bangladesh’s part to seize new opportunities in Afghanistan in the coming days.
The full text of the interview is given below:
The Financial Express (FE): How far do you foresee stability and possibility of people’s wellbeing in Afghanistan this time around, after the takeover by the Taliban forces despite bitter experiences of the land-locked country located at a strategic crossroad?
Humayun Kabir (HK): I would like to mention a couple of points in this regard. When we build up a state or manage a state, trust is the most important element between the governed and those who govern. The activities of the Taliban in the past time or in the previous tenure is their nemesis. Taliban has to be counterintuitive. In the sense that they have to prove that they are not what people think about them. This is a huge challenge for the Taliban. My sense is that it looks like the Taliban has taken one or two lessons from their past mistakes. They are saying that ‘we have learned from our past mistakes, we will not repeat those, we will build an inclusive government, inclusive society, show respect to women’s rights, education, equal opportunities, we will not take revenge, etc.’. That’s what they are saying but the Taliban will have to prove themselves. Trust-building is a very important element in the current context of Afghanistan, between Taliban as ruler and the people of Afghanistan largely, I would say. There are many people who are leaving Afghanistan. Once a system grows, it creates its own interest groups. Fear dominates the return of the Taliban. Fear is an irrational thing. Nobody knows why one is fearful. But the Taliban is responsible for engendering that sort of fear among the people. It is up to them again to take some sort of initiative to remove the sense of fear from the people. If somebody feels insecure, they need to feel secure. Taliban will have to do a lot of work in that regard.
Security-wise, the Taliban had an ongoing conflict with both ISIS and al Qaeda in the recent years. I saw some reports that ISIS K was a tool that was created by some people in the previous regime to poke other sides. Taliban is dead against those corruptions. I must not underestimate the fact that the Taliban had a soft corner for al Qaeda. They need to show the world that they are no longer a part of that nexus. Even the Haqqani group which is branded as a terrorist organisation by many of the western countries are partly in charge of Kabul security and strong component of Taliban itself. Now, the Taliban will have to prove that they are not dominated by Haqqani group’s agenda or strategies or priorities. This is one security area where the Taliban will have to prove their worth.
The humanitarian crisis unfolded very deeply. A lot of people have been displaced. Now, these people are moving around the country. Some are taking shelter in Kabul and some are taking shelter outside. One has to address these issues because this is a humanitarian crisis. People have to be fed and properly kept. Also, just behind that is coming serious food crisis. WFP has indicated that Afghanistan’s food situation is not good. Prices are also increasing by leaps and bounds because the value of AfghanAfghani is falling. The World Bank, the other donors, have stopped the supply or commitment of funds to Afghanistan. The US is holding a supply of US$10 billion. This money has to be channelised or flown to the economy just to give the assurance that yes, money is there. The very assurance or very guarantee that money is flowing would have strengthened Afghan. This is a major problem how to manage the basic economic problems, inflation, and other issues. It is a major problem how to tackle major economic problems. Afghanistan has been under war for the last 40 years. The Taliban will have to have a completely different agenda and show to the Afghan people that they are different from the earlier dispensations. One of the challenges they will have to deal with is that for the last 20 years, the US cronies have spent billions of dollars. Where has that money gone? The Afghan people will have to see the value of development, really transforming their lives. At an individual level, they should feel that the government is with me. One of the challenges that the Afghan government has suffered is that they were a government divorced from the reality of Afghanistan for 20 years. As a result of that, there was a disconnect between what the people were thinking and what their supporters were thinking. This has been amply demonstrated when the Taliban came – these people just left and fled because they didn’t have any public support. Whenever a dispensation does not enjoy the support, then its value is very limited. That has happened. It has collapsed like a house of cards.
The Taliban will have to have a counter agenda just to give real hope to the people. Unless there are security, legitimacy of the Taliban through the acceptance by the international community, real serious economic plan, political viability of building inclusive Afghanistan, I think, all these things will be difficult. The military victory was the easiest part for the Taliban. They will now have much more difficult and daunting challenges to overcome in the days and months to come. Now, they cannot blame the Americans. Everything will come down to them. Afghanistan is in a very difficult transition. Something like what we experienced in 1971. In the last few weeks, the Afghan state has melted now. All the institutions just have melted. Now, they will have to rebuild all the institutions based on trust, participation, credibility, and so on and so forth. This would be quite a bit of a challenge. I think if they are honest and they understand the reality, many of their values, they will have to adjustto the reality. Reality dominates rather than values. Last time, they ruled by values and they lost. The Afghan people welcomed Americans then. Last time, in 1996, the Taliban was welcomed by the people against the bickering and the conflicts of the Mujahedeen. So, the people welcomed them. Now, again after five years, people welcomed the Americans and the Northern Alliance because they were fed up with the Taliban. Now, the Taliban will have to prove that they are not what people think or perceive about them which is a big, big challenge for them. I would summarise by saying that building up a state with new institutions, new participation, new credibility and also partnership with the international community will be a major challenge for Afghanistan. Taliban cannot rule without international partnership now because Afghanistan’s economy is in complete shambles. Last time, they were recognised by only three states. It was very difficult to survive in that kind of environment. If they have taken their lessons, the Taliban can perhaps find a new day. As a developing country, South Asian country, and SAARC partner, we wish them well.
FE: Is the latest Afghan episode going to be any kind of trendsetter for third world nations, especially Muslim majority countries affected by foreign interventions or civil war, and what could be the probable ramifications of the Taliban victory?
HK: There are both positives and negatives. Positive means if the people stand up, then even if they are apparently less powerful and helpless, they can win. That is one lesson. We have seen that lesson in the post-Arab springtime as well. But those successes could not be sustained due to subsequent mistakes. Power is good but power has to be exercised in a very balanced way. One negative point of view is that when the Americans came, people generally welcomed them. But American’soverexercise of power has destroyed the American influence.Many of the western countries came up with a tremendous amount of pressure. In many countries, those pressure didn’t work. Neither could they change the ground reality nor could they change society nor could they achieve their objectives also. So, the overexercising of power by anybody may prove to be counterproductive. We have to think about that in whichever way we want to explain it. One should be very judicial in terms of the utilisation of the power. Then, there is the issue of the credibility and connection between the government and the people. Any power that wants to sustain or survive has to ensure the people’s ownership of policies. Without people’s ownership, regardless of how much physical power one may have, ultimately, it does not survive. Some 50,000-60,000 Taliban chasing away a power like the United States, what lesson does one need to have? This is something that everybody should try to look at and understand the meaning of it and the depth of it. I believe one has to also understand this. Unless the rulers are accepted by the people, the imposition may not survive for long. The cost could be very high. One can see that in many of the countries we have seen this before. The external intervention either for regime change or regime retention does not produce desired results. For sustainability purpose, it has to be owned by the people. The value of power should be seen in the light of the service that it provides to the community. If the common people own the system, then it will survive. If not, the soviet Union collapsed without firing a shot. Why? People abandoned. People said ‘we don’t own this, I don’t believe in this system’. And the entire 70-years-old system had collapsed. One lesson we can learn from there and again also from Afghanistan, regardless of how powerful one may look, unless it is owned by the people, power cannot survive. Then again, I would say that one needs to understand that no matter whatever we boast from outside, unless it has some resonance with the local context, it is very difficult. Society does not modernise itself too fast. In Afghanistan history, we have seen the Taraki government in 1978. On April 28, 1978, the Taraki government came and they were sponsored by the Soviet Union at that time. Then, he introduced some of the very advanced measures which were radical at that time. That could not make much headway and the then Soviet Union itself entered Afghanistan in 1979 and tried to build up a socialist Afghanistan. After 10 years, they completely failed. It just ran with its tail between the legs. Twenty years ago, America came just to democratise Afghanistan and build up a modern Afghanistan. Now, look what has happened. Having said that, I would say that one needs to understand the gradual evolution in a society. We can see that Talibans are even talking about they do not want to let people go out. They are concerned that trained people and human resources are now fleeing Afghanistan. They understand that they need people to run the airport, they need people to run the economy. They need people to run the government structures, the businesses and so on and so forth. They understand that. I think it would be very intelligent of them if they could retain those people or incentivise for them to come back. It is not impossible. There are some examples: South Korea. One of the reforms that Park Chung-hee did in 1974 was to invite the Korean expatriates to come and incentivise them and that was one of the major policy plans that helped to modernise and industrialise South Korea. There are many other countries that have followed that line. I think if the Talibans are intelligent, they can do well. I am getting the first glimmer of hope that they may not be as stupid as people may think. If they can deliver on what they are saying, in my view, things will be different. Afghanistan has a huge potential. One has to understand why the British, the Soviets, the Americans are keen on Afghanistan. Afghanistan has huge hidden resources and also oil, perhaps. Afghanistan could be a regional hub because major gas pipelines like TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) stopped because Afghanistan was not stable. Now, China has BRI projects in Pakistan. Perhaps, Afghanistan could integrate it. A well-managed or reasonably good managed Afghanistan could give many lessons to counties such as these at that level of development and perhaps create a new model of development. As I said, I sympathise with the Afghanis. They are struggling for generations, 40 years of continuous war ’79 onwards, occupation after occupation. I must commend their heroism. Under that kind of pressure, that kind of torture, that kind of oppression, they survived and stood up to try to do something on their own. I wish them good luck.
FE: What are the strategic compulsions or choices left for Bangladesh in the Afghan ‘crisis’, until it is resolved, given the involvement of or evacuation by great powers?
HK: We are not a part of the evacuation process. Twenty-eight states have participated in that in different ways, i.e.: some giving temporary shelters, some providing planes, and so on and so forth. We are not part of that. But I think there are other options we could look at. For example, Afghanistan has been a historical friend for us during our liberation war. I can tell you that many people passed through Afghanistan in that time from Pakistan. There has been a soft corner between Afghanistan and Bangladesh. So, that historical connection resonates also. We can explore that connection. In terms of other connectivity, for example, one area would largely be the economy. Bangladesh has been an experimental ground for many of the development stories in terms of poverty alleviation and building an egalitarian society. There are issues. I am not underestimating that. But largely, Bangladesh is an egalitarian society. Our experience in building an egalitarian society, fighting poverty, managing poverty alleviation, family planning, etc. are the kinds of lessons which are not very visible but very useful. In very low-profile areas of development, Bangladesh could perhaps become a partner of Afghanistan. One needs to understand the geostrategic feelings as well. If I were an Afghani, what I would have thought Pakistan, neighbour, fine, but should we be too much dependent on Pakistan? Always remember that no one wants a dominant neighbour. Even the Canadians don’t like Americans as a dominant neighbour whereas they are the best two countries. Afghanis might be thinking that India, yeah, but Pakistan may be objecting to India, for example from a geopolitical context. But for both India and Pakistan, Bangladesh would be okay. We are a member of SAARC, a Muslim-majority country. So, Bangladesh has no other agenda. They will do just fine. That is an opportunity that Bangladesh can explore. This is a slightly wild idea but I’m just thinking if everything goes right, the TAPI that I am talking about, Bangladesh is hungry for energy. Where do we get energy? I mean, this could be one source. We can add Bangladesh to the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India gas pipelines. We claim it all the time that India is our friend. So, we can ask India to help us to extend the line to Bangladesh. If that happens, Bangladesh would be strategically benefitted from it. From a strategic point of view, we have openings for example. As we know, Afghanistan is a gateway to central Asia. We can explore those kinds of stuff. Not only from a geopolitical strategy perspective, economic strategy perspective, cultural strategy perspective, being a friendly SAARC neighbour will be beneficial. When Afghanistan was proposed by India, it was in Dhaka during the 2005 SAARC Summit. We have some connection between the larger regional dynamic for example. As we go along, technology could be another area where we could cooperate. We sell our bandwidth to India for example. We could do that with Afghanistan. Another important area is Afghan women's empowerment. Bangladesh’s achievement in the women empowerment domain could be replicated. I know you may be tempted to raise that question. But our NGOs have been working, BRAC has already been working in Afghanistan. We don’t try to talk about this much but this is one area where we could help them. Afghanistan is such a country where government access is very difficult. It has very unreachable, very remote areas. In those local areas, the NGOs can work together and build up a society. And as we know, war destroys any other culture and it instills a war culture. From that violent proneness to a peaceful mindset, that is something that NGOs can do it in their own way and Bangladesh is one of the best NGO destinations in South Asia. Many NGO interventions including microfinance can be implemented there. Already, BRAC is working. In many soft ways, Bangladesh can build strategic relations with Afghanistan.
FE: Why should, or should not, Bangladesh establish and maintain a direct contact with the Taliban leaders when the situation is still uncertain? Who are the players that can help Bangladesh in reaching out to the Afghan leaders?
HK: As diplomats, our job is to build bridges. We do not always build bridges with our friends. We are trained to build bridges with our enemies also. We can have a word with them via intermediary; China, Russia, Iran are there. Or we can have direct discussions. They have offices in Qatar and other places. We can drop fillers and say that we are interested. If you think you are ready, just look at what are the areas where we can cooperate. We can leave our markers for example in terms of recognition. Even Pakistan has stated that they will not unilaterally recongise the Taliban government. Pakistan also wants to coordinate with other regional countries, i.e: China, Iran, Tajikistan, Russia. We can tell them, ‘yeah, we can work with you but we will be working with our other partners’. Then, we can offer them that if you need, we can help you to build up your communities. Our NGOs can help you. I am sure they know about BRAC already. BRAC has been working there for so long. Taliban is now in power. Even when they were not in power, they were a factor in Afghanistan particularly in the rural areas. So, we can mention that. We have been working and we can come back to work in the health sector, education sector, agricultural sector, women empowerment. I think the Taliban will not hesitate because particularly, there is a strong sensitivity of the Taliban in the women empowerment sector. If we can present our work empowering the women in Bangladesh, I am sure they will be willing to look at it. These are some of the issues we can highlight before them. If they are interested and ready, then definitely we can work together. I would say in the SAARC member countries, government changes but we as a state continue to maintain our relationship at an appropriate level for appropriate kinds of results.
FE: What are the specific areas, as you see, where the two countries can cooperate for maximising their interests once normalcy is restored there?
HK: As I said, agricultural cooperation, civil society cooperation, education could be potential areas. Lots of Afghanis come to Bangladesh for education. Lots of Afghan women come to Asian University for Women. We can open up our universities for Afghan students for scholarship. There can be other trade cooperation. We are a country that can provide a lot of cheap quality stuff, i.e.: garments, low tech engineering products, various health items, soap, toothpaste, etc. In a developing society, these are in great demand. I found that to be in some demand in Nepal for example. We can very well do the same kind of trade with Afghanistan.
FE: Despite historic relations with Afghanistan, do Bangladeshi policymakers and stakeholders properly understand the Afghan people and their culture for maintaining warm relations? What needs to be done in Dhaka to connect to Afghan authorities and people?
HK: I would say that our relationship or understanding about Afghanistan is basically two-dimensional so far. One dimension is that Afghanistan helped us during our Liberation War. The second is: the Taliban are in Afghanistan and they are promoters of violence and extremism in Bangladesh. These are two general perceptions. I think there is much bigger dimensions than that in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a nation, an old nation. Afghanistan has a multi-ethnic group of people. Afghanistan has a society, a culture, an economy, politics, everything. We should look at Afghanistan from that multidimensional perspective. I think, then, we can build a balance. Do we have anything to be concerned of? If there is anything negative about which we are conscious, we should be careful about that. As a friendly country, definitely if we have got particular concerns, we can raise that issue that we are concerned about. At the same time, we should open up areas where we can cooperate with that country. And this goes in our relationship with every country. No relationship is monolithic. Every relationship is multidimensional. There are areas where we converge, there are areas where we diverge. So, we always try to improve the convergence area. For Afghanistan as well, if we have a concern, we should raise it. I admit there is genuine concern about Talibani philosophy, Talibani value system and somehow sadly their contribution to creating extremist groups in Bangladesh. Of course, we admit that’s a problem. We can well guard against that kind of challenge in the future. At the same time, we can go beyond that and explore the other areas. Why is Israel interested in Iran? Iran is not an Israeli neighbour. Why? Because that is a strategic horizon. For Bangladesh, our strategic horizon should be much larger than our immediate neighbourhood. We have to have that kind of approach. In order to understand that, we need to have good research. Good research is required. For these regional countries, if possible, I would recommend, not only for Afghanistan, our schools, colleges, universities should teach about our neighbourhood because we have to prepare our generations about the neighbourhood how they are evolving, what are the opportunities, what are the challenges. Only then can we have a balanced kind of generation to look at the countries. We have a tendency of dividing a country as good or bad. No country is good, no country is bad. Every country is good, every country is bad. It depends on what issues we are talking about with them. The same thing goes for Afghanistan. We have to have a good understanding. It is a part of SAARC, it has a Muslim population, and you can see that during the crisis, we need support of some core issues, for example. On the Rohingya issue, it was the OIC that stood by us at the end of the day. Sometimes, we don’t talk about it. Sometimes, we think OIC has not done anything. But they stood by us at the United Nations General Assembly, the United Nations Human Rights Council. They stood by us, co-sponsored the resolution. That has a value. So, we have to understand that entire gamut of relationship and multidimensional perspective. We need to mature in terms of our understanding to research, to study through education to build up a future generation.
FE: As a former ambassador of Bangladesh, what will be your advice on this issue at the political level and at the diplomatic level?
HK: The same thing as I have just said. We should try to understand the dynamic. I have always said that. In order to understand a nation, one has to understand the domestic dynamics in the sense that what kind of Afghanistan will now be created would be decided by whether Afghanistan has an inclusive society or not. If it is an inclusive, participatory, democratic society, then Afghanistan is likely to pursue democratic, peaceful purpose. Why? Because building up a domestic coalition requires a lot of the exercises which would need to build up a peaceful neighbourhood also. At one point, I asked former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu regarding this. I asked him what would have happened had you become Prime Minister of India. He said, the government would not have fallen. I said that how can you guarantee that. He said,“I’ve been running this coalition for so many years. Hence, I know how to work with so many others.” That is a democratic spirit. On the other side, I can tell you just to substantiate what I just said, I asked a Minister how does JyotiBasu rate you. He said I am more than CPM part. I said, ‘how come?’ He said ‘he(JyotiBasu) values me more than CPM because CPM was in his pocket. I was outside. He values my words more than what he values his own party’. That is what I am saying. If you see a country is developing its own consultative process of governance, that country is more likely to be more consultative with its neighbours. How a country is developing domestically, if a country is becoming monolithic domestically, you can be sure that country is likely to be more monolithic in its external perspective as well. We are seeing that in the region as well. So, I would very deeply study Afghanistan. And if it is possible and the situation permits, we should try to engage with the Taliban as soon as possible in coordination with our other neighbours. But we must not be unnecessarily derailed with indecision whether we should go or not. I can give one example where we were indecisive and missed the chance. In the case of Kosovo, the Kosovo and the Bangladesh war are almost similar. It is domestic or internal colonialism. But we hesitated to recognise Kosovo for a long, long time. Kosovan diplomats expressed their unhappiness with us. I would say that we should not be that. We should be open, objective and have a good analysis of the situation and based on that examine our pros and cons and then move ahead in coordination with others. As you know, there are regional coordination and international coordination going on. So, we must keep in touch with both the coalitions and networks and understand what they are thinking. If they are positive, we will engage without hesitation. I mean, there are many emotional angles. We should not be driven by that emotion. Emotion might take away many good things from us. Bangladesh is now a country that is moving ahead. We need to understand and lean forward whenever required in terms of our foreign policy.