In Afghanistan, China has need for caution, Indonesia for worry
- Afghanistan, like Iraq before it, shows that when foreign interventions prop up corrupt regimes without a care for their people, disaster ripples throughout the world
- China is the most important player in Afghanistan now, but it will be keen not to get carried away. In Indonesia, jihadism has been brought under control, but to what extent?
Isis was eventually eliminated as a territorial entity (it called itself a “caliphate”), but not as a movement – it is now more often known simply as Islamic State, due to its expansion beyond Iraq and Syria.
Clock ticking for US to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by August 31 deadline
Both countries are multi-ethnic and multi-confessional societies with a majority ethno-sectarian group holding a disproportionately large share of political and economic power (Shiite Arabs in Iraq and Pashtuns in Afghanistan). They are also tribal societies heavily reliant on networks of patronage and traditional mechanisms of powerbroking in the absence of functioning state institutions.
Institutional weakness and the absence of a political culture supportive of win-win compromise solutions perpetuate conflicts in society. Ethno-sectarian groups dissatisfied with skewed power-sharing struggle for equal opportunities and representation in both countries (the Sunnis in Iraq, the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara in Afghanistan). Absent adequate political conduits, this pressure feeds into tribalism and compartmentalisation, deepening social divisions.
Iraq and Afghanistan were also subject to prolonged foreign occupation. In the former, waves of violence followed – a bloody sectarian conflict, necessitating a surge in US forces, before the appearance of Isis.
Iraq is relatively quiet now, but far from a fully functioning state. Afghanistan’s emergence from American occupation has been marked by a violent overthrow of the US-installed government, a chaotic rush to the exit by occupiers and citizens alike, and that story is just beginning.
At the root of the two countries’ predicament were corrupt governments which served only group, family, and tribal interests with scant, if any, interest in the plight of their citizens. The sum total of proceeds from corruption in Iraq between 2003 and 2021 is estimated at US$1 trillion. US assistance to Afghanistan during its 20-year presence there amounts to a similar sum, and much of that has likely been lost to graft as well. These astronomical sums have made little difference in terms of material or human development in either country.
Although the US introduced plural politics in both countries, the initial enthusiasm among Iraqis and Afghans soon faded, and participation in elections has fallen rapidly. Poll after poll put corrupt and discredited politicians in power in Iraq, and corrupt and discredited warlords at the helm in Afghanistan. Neither government supported the functioning of independent institutions that could have served as checks and balances over executive power, or created transparency. Both countries’ justice systems were infamously corrupt and opaque.
This gave rise to armed insurgencies, and it is little wonder that poorly motivated and led government forces in both countries did not just melt away without a fight, but abandoned advanced military equipment paid for by their erstwhile overlords in the process.
Taliban blocks Afghans’ access to airport as thousands try to flee Afghanistan
The lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq are nonetheless clear: foreign interventions invite trouble. But when such moves prop up corrupt regimes with nary a care for their people, disaster results, affecting not just the countries involved, but rippling throughout the world.
Dr Gyorgy Busztin is a Visiting Research Professor at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore. A career diplomat, he served as Hungary’s Ambassador to Indonesia and Iran, among other postings