The rift between Afghanistan and the United States is generational

By: Najibullah Azad

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Photo: Hamdullah Mohib (L), and Zalmay Khalilzad (R)

For the second time in 18 years, the United States finds itself at odds with the Afghan government. In 2009 President Karzai threw a fit with Richard Holbrooke and UN deputy special representative, Peter Galbraith for allegedly unseating him that brought the Afghan-US relationships to its lowest. Fast forward to 2019 the bilateral relationships is once again on the cusp of collapse.

The recent skirmishes between Washington’s envoy for peace and reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Afghanistan’s young National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib speaks volumes about the rise of this generation. Washington demands that Mohib apologize for his candor, or they will not work with him, the NSA refuses to budge and for now, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani seems to stick with his young advisor.

Will the Americans strong-arm Ghani to replace Mohib or will the President remove his loyal companion to assuage Kabul’s main ally is a separate story. We are also not debating what influence Mohib’s comments have had on the US policy or who’s right and who’s wrong. But what is most important about the aftermath of his remarks is the fact they were received so warmly at home; his popularity rose tenfold and countrywide rallies are all over social media. Is this enough to shift America’s position? No. But it lends a foresight into the demographic changes in Afghanistan, and their underlying influences over impending Afghan politics.

Of all the stories emerging from Afghanistan, none has more impact on the future of the country than the rise of a new technically savvy, globally exposed, and a generation holding progressive beliefs that feels emboldened in making its own decisions. This freedom, afforded, thanks to none other than the United States, is now pitting the young policymakers against their patrons in a way the Americans have not seen before.

As Ghani injects fresh blood in Afghan bureaucracy, he takes away power grip from the old guard. Elderly Afghan political elite exercise caution for fears of antagonizing their foreign allies. Their prodigy, however, is more confident in demanding equal footing. They grew up in a culture of freedom of speech, armed with knowledge and aware of their rights, independence, and sovereignty. Ironically the United States invested, empowered and paved the way for this new generation that it now finds hard to deal with.

More so, while political elite is divided, at a time when elections are around the corner, and peace negotiations are underway in Moscow, Doha et al, civil society, youth, and women in particular, have taken over the internet to voice their concerns about a possible ‘bad deal’ that will leave them stranded. These groups feel disenfranchised, will Kabul and Washington address their deep-seated anger? Analysts believe Washington, on the way out, is increasingly indifferent, and does not care what it leaves behind. President Trump’s statement that he will not accept a bad deal with the Taliban has calmed those concerns slightly, for now.

Younger Afghans largely mirror the progressive inclinations of the developed world, and walk away from extremities of all sides. Where they differ most with donor nations is the means of creating and sustaining a conducive environment for strongmen to monopolize state resources, and their failure to hold authorities accountable for neglecting economic woes. The United States being the key donor, and leading other NATO allies, is almost always singled out as the main culprit.

For Washington to reclaim the good-guy’s badge it must pay heed to three main areas of cooperation with Kabul.

First, the United States must recalibrate its relationship to cater to the country’s majority young population if it needs to remain in good standing. The diplomatic corps must go beyond the blast walls to listen, and understand the logic and anxieties behind increasing resentment among people concerning peace talks, America’s continued engagement in Afghanistan, and to end the war. Before any decision is made about troop withdrawal, young Afghans must be taken into confidence that their lives and dignity will not be sacrificed, that they must have a stake in the country’s future post a peace deal.

Second, previous ways and means of wheeling and dealing with the political elite is outdated. Distance between the people and the political class is narrowing, and the myth that Afghan politics is driven by elitisms is busting. Instead of believing that people have retracted from politics, the Ghani administration has given a new lease of life to popular opinions that had been comprehensively discarded before. Interconnected by the digital revolution, and increased access to technology, young people shape popular opinions at a whim—this rise in popular movements must no longer be considered irrelevant—for they morph into a white squall.

And third, the United States must adopt and maintain a ‘non-interventionist’ policy in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs. Despite carrying the burden and holding Afghanistan’s lines, Washington has always acted—at least in public—as a responsible ‘non-interventionist’ power—despite the contrary in some cases. Afghans have always grudgingly accepted that the United States holds sway in Afghanistan. Washington is now finding out that Afghanistan’s bulging youth population is more conscious of politics of indignation. When Washington so publicly demands changes in Afghan administration the legitimacy of the state, it wants to uphold becomes unwittingly fragile—giving those who want to harm it, unwarranted victory.  

Najibullah Azad is a political analyst, and a candidate for parliament from Kabul province. He previously served as the deputy spokesperson for the President of Afghanistan.

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