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Sally Armstrong

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Adieu Afghanistan

Posted: 08/04/11 08:59 AM ET

Ah, Afghanistan. Everything old is new again. When the Soviets pulled out in 1989 with their tails barely intact, the international community left like a school of minnows -- suddenly and all together to a new feeding ground.

Afghanistan had been the last violent crucible of the Cold War. The world had been funding and feeding the so-called freedom fighters who were presumably saving the country from the dreaded communism. But then the decade-long battle was over and the mass exit began. The vacuum left behind was quickly filled by seven different factions of war lords who switched their mantles from freedom fighting to arming themselves to the teeth as Mujahideen and seeking a power grab. What happened next was a fratricidal bloodbath that would see horrendous atrocities committed (e.g. the scalping of Hazara women), the infrastructure of the country decimated and the rise of an unlikely mob of 20-something Taliban who won the spoils of the Cold War by claiming to a mostly illiterate population that they were acting in the name of God.

Now the game repeats itself. The international community, fed-up with the failures, the corruption, the "blame the west" (blame anyone but themselves) hardline in the country today are doing another school-of-minnows withdrawal. And as in other civil wars -- to wit Bosnia, Somalia -- the international community declares victory and leaves with a promise of continued humanitarian aid and a scant collection of soldiers to advise those who are left behind. Hillary Clinton calls these war-stoppers "ceasefires of exhaustion" and says of the 39 civil wars going on in the world today, only eight are new wars, the rest are the predictable implosions that occur when the trouble that started the insurrection in the first place was never resolved.

In Afghanistan, that trouble was initially named as the Taliban and al Qaeda. But the prolonging of war was neither. The Taliban were knocked off about six weeks after the Oct. 7, 2001 invasion by American forces. Al Qaeda slunk off to safer shores even sooner. What kept the war kettle boiling was the same root cause of conflict in dozens of places -- poverty, lack of education, tribalism and a distrust of the government. That is Afghanistan today. After billions of dollars spent, how is it that the country hasn't the capacity to run its own hospitals and schools. A decade after the international community arrived with a promise to rebuild, the electricity system is still fragile, the roads are a mess. There are excuses of course -- the Taliban firebomb the schools, the discontents blow up the roads; suicide bombers create monstrous instability with their cowardice.

So what happens now that a weary world is pulling up its military stakes? The Taliban could wait until everyone's gone and reclaim the turf for Allah (and/or for money and power and revenge). But they're more about bluster and cowardice than power so will likely remain on the sidelines as a nuisance factor. Some worry that the gains women have made will be traded for a so-called peace with the fundamentalists. Don't believe it -- the women are poised to yank this primitive place into the 21st century. They are the reformers and they won't go home again.

Afghanistan has never been a simple piece of work. Tribalism, revisionist history and a totally bizarre interpretation of the Koran keep the country off-balance. To complicate matters, Afghans have made innuendo and gossip an art form -- they'll diss anyone who reaches the top of the pedestal and plant seeds of distrust for those who throw their Pakol hats into the ring. It's not a formula for success.

But don't count them out. Afghans have a way of surviving insurmountable odds. They need new leadership -- men and women who can bring the tribes together, come to terms with the past and convince the war lords that their interests are better served with a functioning government. Rumours persist that a leadership team is waiting in the wings; that they may have the support to take this hard scrabble-land forward as the international effort limps toward a close. The great game becomes a waiting game.