America’s longest war has come to a messy and chaotic end. With the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the Biden administration chose to bring down the curtain on a war that was increasingly unpopular with the American public. The manner in which the decision was reached, and how it was implemented, was however not ideal. It was taken unilaterally, with little or no consultation with NATO or the EU, America’s long time partners. There was also no consultation with the Chinese, who have an interest to make sure that Afghanistan does not become a haven for those who bear it ill-will due to its policy in Xinjiang with Uighur Muslims. China’s Xinjiang province shares a short border with Afghanistan. Indeed, there is a sense by America’s international allies that it has betrayed them, as its presence in Afghanistan gave cover for advancements in human rights and literacy, especially for women and girls, no matter how shallow.
The dramatic 10 days (6 to 15 August) of collapse of the government forces was several months in the making. The Taliban spent the last 12-18 months making deals with provincial governments and their security forces, to make their rapid advance largely bloodless. By the time the US withdrawal of combat forces was complete, they were ready to make their move.
The fact that the US was apparently unaware of how advanced the plans for Taliban control had gone, leading to Mr Biden’s 8 July statement about the “unlikelihood” of a takeover of the country, is viewed by many foreign policy analysts as an embarrassment for the administration and a black mark on American intelligence credibility and competence.
The Taliban takeover has raised fears that parts of Africa could suffer a similar fate after a French mission ends next year. France, as the former colonial power in much of the Sahel, has had troops in Mali since 2013. In an eerie similarity with the Afghan military’s lack of capacity, French troops intervened to help the Malian Army dislodge Islamist extremists who had seized towns in Mali’s north.
Some Islamist militant groups which are affiliated with al-Qaeda, which shares links with the Taliban in Afghanistan, are among the extremists that have their members spread across Africa.
President Buhari went on the record in the Financial Times, in an op-ed published on Sunday, 15 August, calling Africa the ‘new frontline of global militancy’, and saying that “international assistance has not followed in step”. This observation missed the two of the major lessons from the collapse of the Afghan government. First, no amount of international aid can make up for endemic corruption and lack of state capacity. Secondly, centrist governments in the West are coming under sustained pressure from more radical elements on both ends of the political spectrum.
Islamist extremism is a major concern on the continent and around the world, especially with the increase in militant insurgent groups. Majorities in most of the Muslim publics surveyed in a 2013 Pew Research Centre study expressed concerns about Islamic extremism in their countries.
The biggest impact the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan will have is not in terms of aid or resources, but it is that it will provide a morale booster for Islamist groups who are aiming to create caliphates of their own, albeit it will be harder to create these across states compared with the Taliban that has never aimed to gain control of territory beyond Afghanistan’s borders.
It will also reignite conversations about the role of Sharia law in Muslim-majority societies especially in societies that practise some from of democracy, and specifically where there is rising acceptance of the Salafist ideology that advocates for a theocratic government. A list of such countries will include Nigeria where 12 states in the Muslim-majority North of the country have introduced the full Sharia legal system, an issue that continues to be contentious in the region and across the country.
In this respect, Northern Nigeria bears similarities with Afghanistan. A 2013 Pew Study found that Afghanistan is more conservative than most other Muslim countries, with 99% of respondents in favour of making Sharia the law of the land, and 61% holding the view that it should apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In the same study, 71% of Nigerian Muslims polled were in favour of making Sharia the law of the land.
Politics, though, reflects a difference in approach to the same goal: while extremist groups such as the Taliban, ISWAP and al-Qaeda favour the use of violence, Northern Nigerian Muslim clerics and their followers believe that a better way to achieving their goal will be to control democratic governments and influence the actions of such governments to bring them in line with the demands of Sharia law.
It bears pointing out too that a number of these clerics find the tactics of the Taliban to be extreme, specifically its treatment of women in denying them a right to education and to work.
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