Dr. Chidi Amuta is Executive Editor of USAfrica magazine and USAfricaonline.com
When a great army retreats in stampede, a cascade of misfortunes often follow. War objectives come to be questioned just as unintended casualties could tumble in. National pride and esteem take a beating and the politics that powers wars assumes partisan belligerence.
This is perhaps one summation of what has turned out to be a bad week for the Joe Biden presidency. In its handling of the final leg of US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan, the administration has threatened the president’s reputation as a foreign policy major. The hastily executed troops withdrawal was, perhaps unknown to the CIA and other Western intelligence estimators, literally being followed in tandem by Taliban fighters in hot pursuit.
While the Afghan government thought it could negotiate an accord with the Taliban in Qatar, Taliban field commanders were putting finishing touches to their battle plans to overwhelm Afghanistan’s security forces. The Taliban overran Kabul quickly and by last weekend, my academic economist friend, Ashraf Ghani, was on an unscheduled quick flight out of Kabul. He landed in Dubai. A man who had pontificated profusely on how to fix failed states was himself fleeing from one that he had presided over for years. By last Sunday evening, a collection of unwashed Taliban fighters strolled into the marbled corridors of the presidential palace. One of them temporarily posed for photos seated behind Mr. Ghani’s former presidential desk. Soon enough, some of the Taliban fighters were treating themselves to dinner in the ornate comfort of the presidential abode.
The ongoing drama in Kabul is not exactly intended. The last leg of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has degenerated into a riotous stampede now localized at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai airport. That is the only patch of Afghan territory now occupied by the all conquering American military behemoth. In exactly 11 days, the entire Afghan security force of over 300,000 officers and men, trained and equipped by the best military force in the world, collapsed under the onslaught of a Taliban force of rural fighters and raggedy militia. For America, this looks somehow like Saigon in April, 1975.
For American, the cost of the Afghanistan outcome is considerably huge: over one trillion dollars of American tax money down a sink hole, 2,400 dead Americans, and over 20,000 injured combatants under four presidents (two Republican and two Democrat). There is of course the mounting reputational tragedy of an untidy retreat.
Yet, perhaps the United States can beat its chest that its core war objective was largely achieved. Since after 9/11, no successful terrorist operation against the US has emanated from Afghanistan. By and large also, Afghanistan’s reputation as a terror laboratory has been dulled. But in spite of its massive show of force and global PR operation, America did not defeat the global fear of the Taliban. Fear of the archaic and barbaric traits of the classic Taliban remain strong even after twenty years in the cold. That fear has fired the current global trepidation about a Taliban resurgence. Many ordinary Afghans do not want to relive the nightmare of Taliban rule and so are trooping out in droves to destinations they hardly know, preferring a refugee status in alien lands rather than being routinely flogged, hanged, or jailed for the freedoms that the rest of humanity take for granted.
Though hardly a week into their return, the new Taliban is swearing to a new image, a new set of doctrines and new values. They have so far indicated that Taliban 2.0 will respect the rights of women, will promote women’s education, respect freedom of speech and allow rights within the parameters of Sharia law and civic code. The precise details are yet unclear but one commitment that seems like an article of faith and a pillar of future survival is the undertaking by the Taliban hierarchy that their new Afghan state will not promote global terrorism or allow Afghan territory to serve as a launch pad for terrorist exploits against the West.
Observers and analysts remain skeptical on these commitments, regarding them as mere gimmicks to assure a Taliban return and entrenchment in power. In the present situation, however, America’s sovereign obligations in Afghanistan are now limited in scope and time. In terms of scope, it is a retreat mission with Kabul airport and its approaches as its immediate theatre. Its objectives are limited to the safe evacuation of all remaining US nationals left in the country. Secondly, it aims at assisting in the evacuation of citizens of all allied countries. Thirdly, it aims to extract all Afghan nationals- interpreters, informants and others- who assisted the US mission over the last twenty years. In terms of time frame, President Biden has set his commanders a deadline of end of August or a bit longer.
The end of US mission in Afghanistan is important to the rest of the world for what it means for the global fight against Islamic fundamentalist extremism and terrorism. It was necessitated by the the 9/11 attack on major US iconic structures. Those who are questioning the success of America’s mission in Afghanistan should look beyond matters of America’s ego. The mission neutralized Al Queda, took out Osama Bin Ladin and exterminated nearly all his major lieutenants. It literally liquidated Al Queada as a holding franchise of global terror. For twenty years, it confined the Taliban to fringe rural areas.
There is a whole crisis of interpretations in discourse on the Afghanistan outcome. The confusion is mostly in terms of a misconception of America’s war objectives in Afghanistan. America did not go to Afghanisatan on a nation building mission. It has never fared well as a nation building power. It does very well as a force of decisive outcomes in campaigns of limited duration in pursuit of its national interests. It is better at such brief encounters than in long drawn out campaigns against resilient nationalist forces.
The Taliban did not and cannot defeat America in any direct sense. No was the United States at war with a subsisting Afghan sovereign state. Instead, the US chased the Taliban out of power for 20 years. It was a US backed Afghan government that caved in under a resurgent Taliban. However, the solidarity of Afghans as a people, their recourse to an ancient faith and their national solidarity embodied in the resilience of the Taliban is what seems to have triumphed. It is quite likely that once the United States proceeded with plans to leave, the Afghan security forces literally melted away just as the puppet government that America had cobbled together caved in under weight of its own corruption and incompetence.
The return of Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban is majorly the result of the failure of the government in Kabul. The central government was hopelessly corrupt. Government officials either cornered major government contracts or made deals with the Taliban while pretending to be opposed to them. The 300,000 strong Afghanistan Defence and Security Force had over time become very compromised. They often leaked operational plans to the enemy or sold off armaments and equipment to the enemy through a thriving black market. The government on its part was not ready to push decisively to fight or defeat the enemy. They were more intent on prolonging the US mission and the flow of cash. They were also enjoying the increasing power play among international powers with their conflicting interests in Afghanistan. Among the US, Iran, China and Russia there are conflicting interests and schemes which Afghan politicians mined to personal advantage. The latter three are basking in the apparent failure of the US Afghanistan mission.
On its part, the Taliban funded the protracted insurgency from the proceeds of a long standing opium trade in rural Afghanistan. While presenting as ascetic Muslim zealots, the Taliban leadership was essentially a collection of ethnic warlords and opium gangsters. The Taliban was a stronger rallying force rooted in faith and fear. But fear of the return of Taliban fundamentalist extremism and brutality was not enough to buy the government enough support to survive in power once the US military force departed. Of course, the point has variously been made that fancy armaments and torrents of cash are not enough to defeat the will of a people who are steeped in the solidarity of faith and nationalism.
For us in Nigeria, the return of the Taliban to power is cause for concern. Our major terrorist nightmare remains Boko Haram. In addition to deriving original inspiration from the Taliban, Boko Haram shares traits with classical Taliban. Like the Taliban, Boko Haram subscribes to a medieval version of Islam which abhors western education and modernization. They have the same attitude to the status of women, women’s education and basic freedoms. They prefer men with scraggy beards without grooming and has no room for freedom of expression, respect for the media and other manifestations of the open society. Jihad is its driving force. Divine ordained violent retribution against infidels is its fuel while terrorist violence remains its principal vehicle. Most importantly, there is a disturbing operational similarity between Boko Haram and the Taliban. They concentrate on the ungoverned spaces in the rural areas where they recruit and convert foot soldiers to make incursions into the urban centres. They are armed with the element of surprise in their invasion of urban centres and government targets.
In Nigeria, Boko Haram has sustained a terrorist insurgency for over a decade. It has killed, maimed, burnt down places of worship and targeted public institutions. It has serially abducted school girls and forced states to close down schools as it has a declared mission to fight against western education. The fear of Boko Haram violence coupled with violence associated with armed herdsmen and the utterances of jihadist politicians has in recent times increased the air of suspicion among Nigerian Christians. There is an unfounded but widespread belief among Nigerian Christians that the government of President Buhari may have an Islamization agenda for the country.
For the avoidance of doubt, Taliban- type fundamentalist Islam has become the laboratory of most terrorist activities in the world, powering organizations as diverse as Al Queda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Al Shabaab in Somalia and the horn of Africa, Boko Haram in Nigeria, ISWAP in the Sahel, ISIS in Iraq, Syria and parts of Turkey. Even if Taliban 2.0 insists that it is repentant and determined to turn a new leaf, jihadist movements inspired by the original Taliban in places haunted by poverty and ignorance are not about to abandon violence and terrorism as political tools.
At inception, prominent Nigerian public and political figures were supporters and promoters of Boko Haram’s archaic version of Islam and its implicit terrorism. In his heydays as a preacher and imam, President Buhari’s Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Sheikh Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, was cited as openly expressing great admiration for Osama Bin Ladin and terrorists in general. He ended with a fervent prayer: ”Oh God, give victory to the Taliban and to Al Queda…” In the collapse of the US backed government in Kabul and the triumphant return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, the prayer of Mr. Pantami and his fellow Nigerian zealots would seem to have been answered.
By most sensible intelligence estimates, there is a clear and present danger that Boko Haram and its affiliate terror squads have their eyes trained on Abuja. They have all shown a common interest in disrupting the business of the government in Abuja if only to demonstrate their capacity to challenge the prevailing sovereignty. There are very recent indications that Boko Haram is expanding its theatre of operation southwards. From its original base in the North East, Boko Haram activities have spread to Yobe, Katsina, Zamfara and lately Niger State. The governor of Niger State recently revealed that Boko Haram has taken over control of five local governments in the state and was within two hours of Abuja. The highway between Abuja and Kaduna has become a favourite operational thoroughfare and playground of all manner of bandits and gunmen. Similarly, at the height of the Shiite campaign to free Mr. El Zakzakky, militants of the sect freely invaded Abuja and quickly turned the central business district of the city into a battle theatre of free exchange of fire with security forces. Taken together, therefore, there is a palpable but latent strategic instability around Abuja. The city is surrounded by both sectarian and criminal armed threats united by a common interest in subversive disruption of the Nigerian state.
For the avoidance of doubt, not all Nigerian Muslims see reason or subscribe to the insane violence and primitive fundamentalism of the Taliban modeled Boko Haram. In terms of inspiration, there are in fact three principal sources of Islamic religious and cultural influence in Nigeria. First is the Saudi Arabia driven Sunni inspired establishment version. Second is the Shiite driven version of El Zakzakky and his followers inspired from Iran. Among the younger more influential elite, there is a growing subtle cultural influence from the moderate more liberal ultra modern Arab nations of the UAE and Qatar. This school is powered by a more forward looking cultural orientation that wants to keep the broad outlines of Islamic faith while embracing the best western values of openness, cutting edge technologies, modern living, western education and basic freedom of expression.
Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari has recently tried to project a desirable counter terrorism support agenda for the US and the West post Afghanistan. In a recent Op-Ed in the Financial Times, Mr. Buhari argues that the help Africa now needs from the US and the West to defeat terrorism is not just armaments. Of course Africa needs the technical and intelligence support of the West. But the more urgent need is for investment and development assistance to combat the poverty and unemployment that lie at the root of terrorism in parts of Africa. For the leader of a country that has habored Boko Haram for a decade, Mr. Buhari’s viewpoint merits some attention. ”Though sheer force can blunt terror, its removal can cause the threat to return”. He places the weight of expectation of US and Western support for Africa on infrastructure and investment: “ We will defeat them (terrorists) one highway, one rail link- and one job- at a time.”
The argument that infrastructure development and landscape decoration will eradicate the extremism and fundamentalism that powers terrorism is defective. Instead, it is good governance and grassroots development targeted at the roots of poverty and fundamentalism that is the minimum condition for a sustainable counter terrorism campaign in Africa. Fancy infrastructure that does not address the living conditions and mode of thinking of ordinary people will merely provide attractive targets for future terrorist attacks.