Sinners, Saints and Sanctions

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The United Nations Security Council pushed by Russia and United States has imposed new tougher sanctions against the Taliban regime and tightened the previous ones. If the Taliban fail to deliver the demands set in the Resolutions 1267, their offices abroad will be closed, accounts frozen and the senior Taliban leaders forbidden from travel abroad. The Taliban will receive no arms supplies from any member of the UN, while their opponents have no such restrictions on the supply of foreign arms.

Sanctions are not the prudent way of conducting foreign relations with difficult regimes in difficult circumstances. Economic sanctions as wide ranging as recently imposed against the Taliban regime do hurt but not those who control the state apparatus. Compared to the rest of the population, they live well, eat well and do well politically by stoking nationalist feelings among the local populations and portraying as victims before the international community. Sanctions have never succeeded in pulling down unwanted regimes in countries where civil society institutions are non-existent or week. Take the example of Iraq, the most sanctioned country in the world: Saddam Hussain is alive and kicking, while millions of innocent civilians, hapless poor families have continued to groan under the weight of sanctions.

Theoretically, the purpose of slapping sanctions against any regime is to punish and modify undesirable behavior. We need to ask two questions: have the sanctions already in place against the Taliban succeeded in bringing about any change? Will the new sanctions push Afghanistan toward peace or change the policies of the Taliban regime? Washington and Moscow, who have transformed themselves to partners from deadly rivals in Afghanistan, argue that sanctions under the UN Resolution 1267, that were imposed last year, have failed to effect any change in the policy of Taliban. Instead of reassessing the efficacy of sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy, the major powers using their privileged position in the United Nations have chosen to do more of the same.

The second time, they have enlarged the scope of the sanctions, hoping that the Taliban leaders will feel the heat and come to their senses and do exactly what they have been told to do. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is an extremely complex case and it is not amenable to blunt blow methods that the two major powers have adopted. Ironically, Russia and the US do not appear to be showing the institutional memory of their associations and experiences with the Afghans. They have some of the best academic and diplomatic experts on Afghanistan who would counsel them caution, patience and empathetic understanding of the Afghan situation.

Not all Afghans are Taliban, and not all Afghans support the policies of the Taliban regime. Most of them have no choice but to go along with them. Ordinary Afghan’s main concern is how to survive tomorrow and have some food for the family. They have little will left to get into another bout of civil war in order to dislodge the Taliban regime. They would rather like to see the regime softening up and moving away from fighting to governing the country. The international community should view the Taliban regime through the prism of world history. All regimes that departed from the established international norms gradually embraced them and came back into the international fold. Most of the similar regimes were driven by the belief in the ultimate triumph of ideology and their leaders possessed by the ghost of transforming the society and the world in their dogmatic image. What happened to them all? Some would argue that without the instrumentality of a proper set of strategies, like containment, they would have stayed in place. The revisionist literature on the cold war suggests something different. The inner contradictions of the ideology, cruelty of leaders and unbearable weight of the system on the population to sustain itself were no less important factors.

The Taliban, in my view, have neither a coherent Islamic ideology nor any institutional power to sink deep roots in the frayed Afghan society. They have all the characteristics of a tribal militia that has succeeded in driving out all the rival claimants to political authority. Still engaged in a war with the northern rivals and with little in the kitty to undertake reconstruction of the war ravaged country on their own, they may remain a weak political force. The sanctions regime rests on the assumption that further isolation and denial of international legitimacy and economic resources would cripple the staying power of the Taliban leaders. That only under economic and other pressures they would honour the UN Resolutions on handing over bin Laden for trial against his alleged involvement in the bombing of US embassies in Africa. It is always dangerous to make prediction about the future, but going by the culture, values and attitudes of the Taliban, they may not surrender him. It is possible that they may agree to seek a way out on this issue, as they have been indicating, but Americans may not accept anything less than bin Laden in their hands.

The most troubling aspect of the new sanctions is one-sided arms embargo against the Taliban, as if they are the only sinners in the Afghan tragedy, and the northern warlords are saints. They are as guilty of perpetuating war as perhaps the Taliban. The arms embargo against the Taliban is likely to encourage the Tajik and Uzbek warlords who have taken sanctuary in Tajikistan and are operating from there. There is a large group of regional countries that are extending economic and military assistance to the anti-Taliban coalition and they may start pouring in more in the coming months to prepare them better for the spring and summer offensives. This will keep the country on the boil. A verifiable arms embargo against all factions could be the first decisive step toward resolving the Afghan conflict. The move by the UN Security Council is not only unjust and unfair but also a recipe for prolonging the conflict. This may raise the expectations of the northern warlords and prevent them from seeking a negotiated solution.

It will be more difficult for the UN to keep the Taliban engaged in a peace dialogue. It is no argument that since the peace dialogue among the Afghan factions was not moving forward, the whole process should be reversed. There is no alternative to peace process and some elements of the same like the six plus two and regional initiatives are already there. The lack of progress can be attributed to the Taliban alone. The security, economic and political interests of some of the regional powers are in conflict over the future of Afghanistan. Some of them have vested interest in keeping Afghanistan unstable and in conditions of war. Others have found an easy scapegoat in the Taliban because of their hostile international image. Afghanistan’s northern neighbouring are shifting the world attention from their own domestic failures to the Taliban by attributing them qualities of threat that they don’t possess.

In imposing sanctions, the Russia and the US have not heeded to the disaster call of the humanitarian agencies that have been working in the relief operations. The sanctions in the past have hurt the poor and the needy in Afghanistan and the new ones are likely to increase their sufferings more in the middle of drought and extremely bad economic conditions. They are going to create structural constraints in the way of social and economic reconstruction of Afghanistan and put greater burden on the ordinary people. May be, it is not what the sponsors of the sanctions believe, but it is most likely to follow.

The sanctions in part reflect the failure of the Taliban themselves. All regimes take time to go through socialization and learn what are the acceptable international norms. The Taliban have been very slow on the course. They have not been able to convince the world body anything about themselves, their domestic policies or on links with trans-national Islamic networks. Their claim that they are being victimized because of Islamic identity rings too hollow. They must do some soul searching in that they stand alone with a lone friend, Pakistan. They will have to be more realistic about their self and others. They need to realize that one against too many has never succeeded in history. At the same time, the dominant forces in the world community need a more nuanced and practical approach than slamming sanctions. They miss the target and hit the bystanders.

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