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Beyond the Taliban in Afghanistan

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The world was jolted recently by events in Afghanistan. Barely two weeks after US president, Joe Biden, confidently declared that the Taliban could never take over power in Afghanistan because there were “over 300 000 US-trained army personnel in the country, compared to just 75, 000 Taliban,” Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country, leaving his palace and its opulence for the Taliban that invaded the capital, Kabul.

It all came on the heels of the phased withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, a process initiated by Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump. President Trump’s administration had made a deal with the Taliban in 2020 that all US troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of April 2021. The militants became angry when President Joe Biden decided to delay a full withdrawal to a new deadline of September 11, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that triggered America’s invasion of the war-ravaged country, which was later scaled back to August 31. True to type, Trump joined Biden’s detractors to blame the incumbent US president for the catastrophe. It does not matter to them that Trump set the withdrawals in motion and that Biden would have been accused of continuing to risk the lives of American troops and waste American resources in Afghanistan if he had reversed the decision or discarded the programme. But that is another matter.

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For the Taliban, this is a sweet victory. Perhaps, nothing captures their elation over the triumph more than visuals of their members celebrating in the presidential palace, exercising with unfamiliar gym equipment, and dancing in the street to the music of Canadian rapper and actor Aubrey Drake Graham, simply known as Drake. Their dance steps were obviously not learnt overnight, and the lyrics of the music titled ‘In my feelings’ seemed not to bother the puritans who frowned on such Western ‘frivolities’ during their rule of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

They moved with palpable ecstasy, rifles in hand, dancing to Drake’s music that contains the following lyrics:
Say you’ll never ever leave from beside me
‘Cause I want ya, and I
Skate and smoke and ride
Now let me see you
Bring that ass, bring that ass, bring that ass back
Bring that ass, bring that ass, bring that ass back
Now let me see you …

In contrast, there were visuals of Afghans trying desperately to get out of the country. Tens of thousands, old and young, male and female, converged on the Hamid Karzai International Airport, scrambling to get on the last few aircraft flying out of the country before a total takeover by the Taliban. Some were seen clinging to the outside of a US Airforce carrier in a suicidal bid to flee.

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But who are the Taliban, and how did things get this way in Afghanistan?

According to the American religious leader, political activist and head of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, in one of his many preachments, “Afghanistan is a Muslim country, and socialists and communists had started ruling Afghanistan. This is a period of Islamic revival all over the world. And the Muslims are rising up to come back to the pristine purity of the Faith. So, when the Muslims rise, they challenge a socialist government … I went into Peshawar, where the Mujahideen were, and we met with the leaders of the Mujahideen. Mujahid means a struggle, a person involved in jihad or an intense struggle for God. The Mujahideen that we met in Peshawar were fighting the Russians or the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The United States said, ‘Well, we are God-fearing, and you Muslims are God-fearing, and the Soviet Union is godless. So, let’s back to the Mujahideen. So, the CIA funnelled money, weapons, information to the Mujahideen. And those are ancient warriors. And they whipped the Soviet Union, and we could see the Soviets taking their tanks and getting out of there. But what happened? America promised that when the Soviet Union was defeated, that they would help the Mujahideen rebuild Afghanistan. But America is not interested in building any nation that will be true to Islam. So, once the Soviet Union was defeated, America backed down on its promise, the Soviet Union collapsed, and America became the only power in a unipolar world. Osama (bin Ladin), mad as hell. The Mujahideen, mad as hell. So, a civil war broke out in Afghanistan between the warlords who controlled the poppy, the heroin, mostly your heroin coming out of Afghanistan. So, the Taliban arose in a civil war, and they win and conquer Afghanistan.”

What is clear from Farrakhan’s account is that America used the Taliban to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. But that did not make the Taliban friends of America as they had diametrically opposite ideologies. They worked with Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who had a score to settle with the US, to attack America on September 11, 2001. In retaliation, the Americans invaded Afghanistan, drove away from the Taliban and spent trillions of dollars to train an Afghan army of 350,000.

However, America did not reckon with the corruption of Afghan civilian and military leaders who cornered into their private pockets money meant to build a strong Afghan army. This brazen graft not only created disenchantment among the people but also left the Afghan army weak. Thus, the decision by America to withdraw its troops after 20 years and trillions of dollars spent on an unending war made it possible for the Taliban to virtually stroll into the capital on Sunday, August 15, after the president had fled.

Amidst the shock, outrage, blame and pain, analysts have been commenting on the developments in Afghanistan with an eye on the struggle against insurgency and banditry in Nigeria. The Reverend (Prof.) Anthony Akinwale, Vice-Chancellor, Dominican University, Ibadan, Nigeria, raises a few questions and proffers a prognosis:
What then can Nigeria learn from Afghanistan? Could Boko Haram by Nigeria’s equivalent of the Taliban? If so, is there a possibility that Boko Haram may one day overrun Nigeria the way the Taliban overran Afghanistan?

The ingredients are there, he says: “a right or false claim to Islamic vocational consciousness, a militant disposition towards conquest in the name of a version of Islam and a threat to impose this version on those who live on conquered territories, a Nigerian military in whose name a lot of money has been spent without seeing credible results, a civilian ruling class that is either unwilling or incapable of providing requisite leadership in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious entity, a civilian ruling class that is willing to mismanage our religious and ethnic diversity for what it perceives to be its advantage.”

Professor Akinwale notes that it took the Taliban 20 years to return to recapture Afghanistan. Boko Haram has sustained its insurgency for over a decade, now compounded by the menace of militant Fulani herders and banditry.

To the discerning, there is an uncanny similarity between what happened in Afghanistan and the macabre drama in Nigeria. The Taliban did not get to the capital in one day. Boko Haram and ISWAP operatives have reportedly taken control of parts of the North, amidst feeble attempts by the authorities to debunk such reports. But no one has been able to deny that they are in parts of Niger State, which is just a loud bang away from Abuja, the Kabul of Nigeria.

The Taliban takeover was facilitated by their militants recruited into the Afghan military and trained by the US. In its wisdom (which has never been justified), the Nigerian government is currently reintegrating ‘repentant’ Boko Haram militants into the society, with chances that they could apply and be recruited into the Nigerian army. A viral video on social media shows busloads of such former insurgents (by their confessions) being ferried to different destinations. The symbolism of the colours (green-white-green) of the buses transporting them is bone-chilling. They are like heroes being deployed for a national assignment.

The plaintiveness of the voice of the narrator in that video clip and the body language of the spectators underpin the callousness of this decision. What you see is like a shocked audience watching a horror movie on a giant screen in broad daylight. This reintegration and rehabilitation is one accomplishment that the government megaphones deliberately underplay. They have yet to begin trumpeting the benefits of this enterprise and how it palliates the pain and the scars of the ‘repentant’ insurgents’ victims, possibly because there are none.

Where is the wisdom in granting enemies of state amnesty during a war that has not ended? Should they not instead be treated as prisoners of war, be prosecuted, and leave the decision to the judges to pardon them based on verifiable evidence of penitence? Is it morally justifiable to fete these ‘repentant’ insurgents and transport them in school buses, whilst some of the school children they abducted and violated are still in captivity, and displaced families who lost loved ones to their atrocities are agonising in refugee camps within and outside the country? These are some of the questions observers of this unique method of fighting insurgency are asking.

But some will readily jump to the defence of the government, citing the amnesty granted Niger Delta militants by former president Umar Yar ‘Adua as a precedent, despite the fact that the Niger Delta militants were not killing adherents of faiths different from theirs, nor abducting school children, sacking whole communities, and taking over sovereign territories.

Like Nigeria, Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic country. The constitution recognises 14 main ethnic groups, of which five - Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, and Turkmen – are the most prominent. The five groups are large communities and play a prominent role in the country’s political life. Pashtuns, the largest group, have historically asserted a “right to rule”. However, ethnic tensions are mitigated by religious homogeneity. Afghanistan’s population is estimated to be 99 per cent Muslim, including 84-89 per cent Sunni, 10-15 per cent Shiite Muslim, and the rest (0.3 per cent) of ‘other religions, such as Hindus, Sikhs and Jews.

Ethnic and religious tensions are significant factors in Nigeria’s political calculations. The fissions caused by ethnicity have never been so profound as now when agitations for self-determination have heightened due to the perception that a particular ethnic group, the Fulani, consider themselves the ones to determine who governs the country and who gets what. This perception is not helped by the utterances of prominent Fulani politicians with the tendencies of the Taliban, like the president of the Northern Coalition Movement, Awwal Abdullahi Aliyu, who declared recently that the next president of Nigeria should be a northerner because the North accounts for 120 million with an additional 40 million people out of Nigeria’s population currently estimated to be about 212 million.

Given the intractable nature of the Boko Haram insurgency, now compounded by banditry and kidnappings; the murderous campaign of some criminal Fulani herdsmen largely suspected to be foreigners; corruption within civilian and military echelons; and the masses’ disenchantment with the ruling class, fuelled by poverty and deprivation, Nigeria appears to be heading the Afghanistan way unless deliberate steps are taken by those steering the ship of state to recalibrate the nation’s social, political, religious, and ethnic compass.

Ekata, a communications consultant, member Nigerian Guild of Editors and Professional Editors’ Guild, South Africa, writes from Pretoria.

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