Former ambassador Humayun Kabir in an exclusive interview with Khawaza Main Uddin of The Financial Express
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): When we build up a state or manage a state, trust is the most important element. The activities of the Taliban in the past is their nemesis. Now Taliban has to be counterintuitive, in the sense that they have to prove that they are not what people think about them. It looks like Taliban has taken one or two lessons from their past mistakes. They are saying that 'we will build an inclusive government, inclusive society, show respect to women's rights, education, equal opportunities, we will not take revenge.' etc. Trust building is a very important element in the current context of Afghanistan. Fear dominates the return of Taliban. But Taliban is responsible for engendering that sort of fear. It is up to them again to take some sort of initiative to remove the sense of fear.
Security-wise, 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. I must not underestimate the fact that Taliban had a soft corner for al Qaeda. They need to show the world that they are no longer a part of that nexus. Taliban will have to prove that they are not dominated by agenda and priorities of Haqqani group.
The humanitarian crisis unfolded very deeply. People have to be fed and properly kept. Also, just behind that is coming serious food crisis. The value of Afghani is falling. The World Bank, the other donors, have stopped the supply or commitment of funds to Afghanistan. The US is holding supply of US$10 billion. This money has to be channelized or flown to the economy just to give the assurance. The Afghan government had been divorced from the reality of Afghanistan for 20 years. This has been amply demonstrated when the Taliban came -It has collapsed like a house of cards.
Unless there are security, legitimacy of the Talibans accepted 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. They will now have much more difficult and daunting challenges to overcome in the days and months to come. Afghanistan is in a very difficult transition. They will have to rebuild all the institutions based on trust, participation, and credibility. If they are honest and they understand the reality, they will have to adjust to the reality. Last time, they ruled by values and they lost. Building up a state with new institutions, new participation, new credibility and also partnership with international community will be a major challenge for Afghanistan. Taliban cannot rule without international partnership now because Afghanistan's economy is in a complete shambles. If they have taken their lessons, Taliban can perhaps find a new day.
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 probable ramifications of the Taliban victory?
HK: When the Americans came, people generally welcomed them. But American's over exercise of power has destroyed the American influence. Neither could they change the ground reality nor could they change society nor could they achieve their objectives. So, over exercise of power by anybody may prove to be counterproductive. Any power that wants to sustain or survive has to ensure the people's ownership of policies. Some 50,000-60,000 Talibans chasing away a power like the United States, what lesson does one need to have? The external intervention either for regime change or regime retention does not produce desired results. The Soviet Union entered Afghanistan in 1979 and tried to build up a socialist Afghanistan. After 10 years, they completely failed. Twenty years ago, America came just to democratise Afghanistan and build up a modern Afghanistan. Now, look what has happened.
We can see that Talibans are concerned that trained people and human resources are now fleeing Afghanistan. They understand that they need people to run the airport, run the economy and run the government structures, and the businesses. It would be very intelligent of them if they could retain those people or incentivise for them to come back. It is not impossible. 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. Afghanistan has huge hidden resource 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. 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. I sympathise with the Afghanis. They are struggling for generations, 40 years of continuous war 1979 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!
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: Afghanistan has been a historical friend for us during our liberation war. There has been a soft corner between Afghanistan and Bangladesh. We can explore that connection. In terms of other connectivity, one area would largely be the economy. Our experience in fighting poverty, managing poverty alleviation, family planning etc. could be 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. Strategically, for both India and Pakistan, Bangladesh would be okay. We are a member of SAARC, Muslim-majority country. If everything goes right, Bangladesh can be added to the TAPI gas pipeline. We can ask India to help us to extend the line to Bangladesh. Afghanistan is a gateway to central Asia. Economic strategy perspective, cultural strategy perspective, being a friendly SAARC neighbour will be beneficial. Technology could be another area where we could cooperate. Bangladesh's achievement in the women empowerment domain could be replicated. Our NGOs have been working, BRAC has already been working in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is such a country where government access is very difficult. In remote areas, the NGOs can work together and build up a society. War destroys any other culture and it instils 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 of South Asia. Many NGO interventions including microfinance can be implemented there.
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, we build bridges not just with our friends, but also with our enemies. 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. We can drop fillers and say that we are interested. If you think you are ready, just look at what the areas are where we can cooperate. We can leave our markers for example in terms of recognition. We can offer them that if you need, we can help you to build up your communities. We can come back to work in the health sector, education sector, agricultural sector, women empowerment. I think Taliban will not hesitate because particularly, there is a strong sensitivity of Taliban in the women empowerment sector.
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: 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. We can provide a lot of cheap quality stuff, i.e.: garments, low tech engineering products, various health items, soap, toothpaste etc. 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: Our relationship or understanding about Afghanistan is basically two dimensional: Afghanistan helped us during our Liberation War and the Talibans are in Afghanistan and they are promoters of violence and extremism in Bangladesh. I think there is much bigger dimensions than that. Afghanistan is a nation, an old nation. We should look at Afghanistan from that multidimensional perspective. If there is anything negative, we should be careful about that. At the same time, we should open up areas where we can cooperate with that country. We can go beyond past challenges and explore the other areas. We need to have good research. 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. Only then can we have a balanced kind of generation to look at the countries. We have to have a good understanding. We need to mature in terms of our understanding to research, to study through education to building 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: 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, democratic society, Afghanistan is likely to pursue democratic, peaceful purpose. 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. So, I would very deeply study Afghanistan. And if it is possible and the situation permits, we should try to engage with 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. In Kosovo case, we hesitated to recognise it for long, long time and Kosovan diplomats expressed their unhappiness with us. We should be open, objective and have good analysis of the situation and based on that examine our pros and cons and then move ahead in coordination with others.
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. We should not be driven by 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.