Thursday, 2 December, 2021
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China: Good Governance Rooted in an Ancient Civilization (22)

Lessons from the Blood in the Sand

Li Jiming

Lessons from the Blood in the Sand
Li Jiming

Popular News

Things look both different, and the same, in Afghanistan two decades after the US-led forces started the war. From the Taliban’s quick return to power to the chaotic withdrawal of US troops, fundamental changes have taken place. Yet the current landscape in the country not only resembles what it was like 20 years ago, but also reminds us of what happened in Vietnam 46 years ago. While the Afghan people have come to another crucial juncture for peace, unification and stability, some lessons need to be drawn, particularly the dos and don’ts to build a true democracy that can take root, grow strong and prosper for long.

Costs and Losses

The war in Afghanistan is expensive, no matter by which standard it is gauged. According to The Cost of War Project launched by Brown University, the US has so far spent 2.313 trillion dollars on fighting in Afghanistan, excluding future interest payments on war borrowing and future costs for veterans care. That’s around 16,000 US dollars per tax payer in the US. In terms of human costs, more than 176,000 people have lost their lives in the war, including 46319 civilians, 69,095 Afghan police and soldiers, 52,893 opposition fighters and 2,324 US troops, and moreover, 5.3 million Afghan people have been displaced. Researchers from Kabul University estimated that around 250 people were injured or killed everyday during the two-decade-long war.

While financial costs and casualties are easy to measure in numerical values (and big ones they are), other costs are not. Throughout the war, the troops of the US and its allies have engaged in serious war crimes and human rights violations, including abuse of drone attacks, “killing for fun” and torture in prison, according to media reports. In 2010, the infamous “Kill Team” from the US infantry slaughtered at least 3 local civilians and collected their body parts as trophies. In November 2020, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) released findings showing “credible evidence” that Australian elite soldiers unlawfully killed 39 people during the Afghan war. Just before their withdrawal, the US troops launched an air strike, only to have left 10 civilians dead, the youngest of whom was only two years old.

Branding itself as a “champion of religious freedom”, the US couldn’t show less respect for Islam in Afghanistan. In 2005, the US stunned the world by allowing its soldiers to cremate deceased Taliban combatants in Kandahar, and in 2012, soldiers in Bagram Airfield even burned The Holy Qur’an. The accounts can go on and on. At this point, what Khaled Hosseini says in The Kite Runner resounds in my mind: “War doesn't negate decency. It demands it, even more than in times of peace.”

There is no doubt that from a cost-benefit perspective, the Afghan war isn’t a good deal. Despite the astonishing expenditure and the gargantuan waste of resources, terrorism is still business as usual, if not more rampant, in Afghanistan. The number of terrorist groups has grown from single digit to over 20 now, excluding those that are yet to be listed by the UN. This reminds me of Xinjiang, but in a different way. Once plagued by extremism and terrorism, the autonomous region has not seen a single case of violence for the past 4 years. Instead of waging an all-out war, the Chinese government only used limited force against a small group of diehard malefactors, and focused on the rehabilitation of those who were misled. China believes that development can help destroy the hotbed of terrorism, while bullets and bombs will only make things worse. It is obvious that the US believes otherwise.  

In fact, during its over 240 years of history, there were only 16 years when the US was not at war. From the end of WWII to 2001, the US has started 201 of the 248 armed conflicts in 153 places. Since 2001, illegal wars and military operations of the US have claimed more than 800,000 lives, including about 335,000 civilian lives, and displaced tens of millions of people. If what happened in Afghanistan is just a tip of the iceberg, how much more is enough?

Lost to the People

The costly debacle of the US and its allies in Afghanistan marks the end of a failed attempt to “democratize” a piece of ancient land featuring complex historical legacies and unique realities. This is not new. Since the end of WWII, the US has indulged itself in exporting its ideologies and values “from a position of strength”. But from Vietnam to Afghanistan, we see the same pattern: whenever the US withdraws its forces, the regime it supports crumbles. The fall of Kabul has once again shown to the world that a model copied from one country can hardly fit or stand in another distinctively different country. It has never worked, nor will it ever work, to impose certain system on other peoples and civilizations.

Sarcastically, the reason why the US and its allies failed in Afghanistan lies in the word “democracy”, which originated in ancient Greece, meaning “rule by the people”, or “sovereignty of the people”. A basic criterion of democracy should be whether the people have the right to govern their country, whether their needs are met, and whether they enjoy the benefit fairly and have a sense of fulfillment and happiness. Without the support of the people, any value, system or regime is just like a tree without roots. The US-led forces didn’t lose to the Taliban, but to the people of Afghanistan. Individually, the people may not know too much beyond their own day-to-day life, but collectively, they represent a will formidable enough to rout even the strongest power in the world.

The failure in Afghanistan is one for the US political culture and for the belief that the solution to every political challenge is military intervention, since facts have repeatedly shown that military intervention leads nowhere. The US didn’t see that by committing so many hideous war crimes and human rights violations, it had stood on the opposite side of the Afghan people, who would never yield to the US’s military might, or welcome a government propped up by the US. The US didn’t see that in a country with profound Islamic traditions, an imprudent switch towards western parliamentary system would detach the state apparatus from the people they should represent. The US didn’t see that in a nation torn by warfare and depleted by power politics, the true aspiration of its people lies in a safe, stable and peaceful life, rather than a shining western facade. What the US did see is that by controlling Afghanistan, it could grab “the heart of Asia”, clamp the artery of vital resources and drive a nail into the periphery of several “enemies”. Ignoring the essential factor of “the people”, however, any sophisticated calculation is doomed to fail.

Upon Ruins Rises Hope

On September 17th this year, President Xi Jinping said during the Meeting on Afghanistan among the Heads of State of the SCO and the CSTO, that affairs of a country should be decided by the people of the country, and that we should support the implementation of the “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” principle and let the Afghan people decide independently the future and destiny of their own country. President Xi’s statement not only demonstrated the characteristic of non-interference of China’s foreign policy, but also reflected the idea of “putting the people first”, be it domestically or internationally.

The people-centered political philosophy didn’t germinate only recently in China. It dated back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046 B.C. to 256 B.C.). Witnessing how the previous tyranny was toppled bottom-up, people at that time believed that “the heaven would follow what the people wanted”. Later, Confucius championed the idea of “benevolence”, saying that “governance lies in loving the people”. Mencius, an icon of the Confucian philosophy, held that “the people came first, the country came second and the ruler came last”. Xunzi, another Confucian philosopher, made the statement that “the people are like water and the monarchy is like a boat; water can carry the boat, but can also overturn it”. Since then, the idea of “putting the people first” has been passed on generation after generation. Inheriting this ancient wisdom, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has taken “serving the people wholeheartedly” as its motto, and “for the people’s wellbeing” as one of its original aspirations and missions.

With the needs of the Afghan people in mind, China has announced to offer food, winter supplies, vaccines, and medicines to Afghanistan, and is willing to help the country build livelihood projects and support its efforts for peace, reconstruction and economic development. China has also called upon all relevant parties to help Afghanistan tackle the humanitarian challenge, the counter-terrorism challenge, the economic challenge and the political challenge to support the Afghan people in pursuing a bright future and safeguarding lasting peace and stability in the region.

The fate of Afghanistan is once again in the hands of the Afghan people. Countries in the region expect the new regime to be inclusive, anti-terrorist and friendly to its neighbors. Shaking off the shackles of power politics, military intervention and the forcibly imposed “democratization” step by step, the Afghan people will eventually see new hope rising from the ruins.

 

The writer is the Ambassador of China to Bangladesh