One of the consultants that the World Bank brought to Nepal in 2006 to advise leaders here about post-conflict rehabilitation was Ashraf Ghani himself. The author of the book he co-wrote with Clare Lockhart, Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World, Ghani wrote in one of his columns for Nepali Times then: ‘Surely the people of Nepal deserve leadership from their politicians to ensure that Nepal embarks upon a path towards a new future. A new future is no longer a dream, it has become possible.’
Nepal has not been brutalised and ravaged by a series of proxy wars like Afghanistan has for the past four decades. It did suffer the violent 10-year internal conflict, but the peace process took hold, and the country held two elections to a Constituent Assembly that wrote the new Constitution. Afghanistan’s violence, the killing of innocents and religion-laced extremism, have been at a whole different level.
If it was soldiers that Nepal used to send to Afghanistan in the past two centuries, in the last two decades it was Nepali development experts, gender and media consultants and governance advisers who went to Kabul on behalf of the UN or other partners. And then there are the estimated 15,000 security guards protecting various embassies, hotels, bases and installations in Kabul. Nepali were attracted to dangerous work in Afghanistan because it paid much better, even though they were often hired as guards of the Western soldiers.
While some Nepalis are starting to return on repatriation flights this week, there are many stranded in Kabul and fearful about their future. The Nepal government must proactively establish contact with the new regime in Afghanistan in order to ensure the safety of its citizens there. It is also hoped that the soft language emanating from the Taliban victors, about allowing safe passage to all who seek to exit, reflects a genuine commitment.
Nepal is currently chair of SAARC, and it could use its tenure to bring Afghanistan back into the South Asian fold even as the Taliban go about establishing themselves. Kathmandu must strive to establish bilateral relations, while remaining outside sphere of Indian, Chinese, Pakistani, Saudi or Western interests there.
China and Russia have already made their moves to establish relations with the Taliban government. New Delhi has been stung by Ashraf Ghani’s downfall, given their steadfast support for him, while there seems to be some rejoicing in Islamabad. If Nepal takes a proactive diplomatic approach (in a manner that would be wholly new to it) Kathmandu could use its bilateral relations to usher a new era of peace in the region. For Nepal as a country that has been so insular in past two decades, that may seem a tall order, but some self-confidence in foreign policy can make it happen.
The immediate priority of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, is to ensure the security and repatriation of Nepalis presently in Kabul and across Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Nepali civil society members must reach out to their counterparts in Afghanistan and offer safe haven should it be required.
While the Taliban spokesman has said all are safe, there is no saying when Afghan journalists, gender and human rights activists may not need support and refuge. Afghanistan is the only country in South Asia whose nationals must get a visa to come to Nepal. In the name of South Asian solidarity, ‘visa on arrival’ should now also be available for Afghan citizens.
The Taliban has been using Sharia law to justify its extreme form of patriarchy to prevent women and girls from equal rights, agency and education. It has also been violently suppressing minorities like the Shi’a and Hazara. The group that blew up the historical statue of the Buddha in Bamiyan in 2001 is now ruling Afghanistan, and there are genuine fears that the Taliban will return to its old ways.
The fact that the Taliban is in control in Kabul is a fait accompli. Nepal must accept this and, while working to extricate its citizens from Afghanistan, must help Kabul rejoin the South Asian sphere.