The world is still trying to get over the shock of the speed with which the Taliban have returned to power after a 20-year battle against the US and its western allies. The implications, both from a global security perspective and particularly from an African viewpoint, are very worrying. If the West is no longer willing to engage with international terror groups, what is to stop them from running riot in Africa, which seems to be their preferred new base? Analysis by Neil Ford.
That the Taliban would be able to exert growing control over Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US and other international forces was to be expected. Yet the speed and ease with which the group assumed power took almost everyone by surprise, perhaps even the Taliban leadership itself. Its success will undoubtedly invigorate Islamist militants in Africa, where long-running predictions that the continent was becoming the frontline in the fight against international terrorism sadly look like being borne out.
Islamist insurgents in Africa, including al-Qaeda offshoots such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, were among the first to welcome the Taliban’s victory. Such groups hope to exploit the same weaknesses that determined Afghanistan’s fate. The same poor governance and limited socio-economic development that saw Africa host many of the battlefields of the Cold War are again providing a fertile environment for Islamist violence but it would be wrong to see the militants as united.
There is no unified ideology, strategy or organisation behind such movements – and groups aligned with ISIS and al-Qaeda are increasingly fighting each other for influence.
As al-Qaeda and ISIS have experienced setbacks in the Middle East, the relative success of their African affiliates has seen them shift their focus to the continent. However, as Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari recently warned, Western governments have been bruised by their experiences in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq and so fear becoming caught up in African conflicts. The big fear is also that they are not paying enough attention to the continent.
The implications of the Taliban’s victory for Africa are likely to be profound. The group appears to have few international ambitions, limiting its focus to Afghanistan itself, but its military and strategic successes will undoubtedly inject some enthusiasm into Islamist groups in Africa.
US President Joe Biden and his allies may try to dress it up as otherwise but the fall of Afghanistan is a big failure for the Western powers and has shown that they can be defeated.
As under the previous Taliban regime, which ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, Islamist terrorist groups could find a safe haven in the country. However, Western governments appear to have hinted that they will grant the Taliban limited recognition as long as they prevent international terrorist groups from operating in the country and take human rights a little more into account than during their previous incarnation.
For its part, the Taliban is already fighting Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) in a conflict that is attracting foreign fighters to Afghanistan. Ongoing conflict between the two sides would allow a wide range of terrorist groups to operate from within the chaos, taking advantage of limited government control and remote locations. A non-Islamist internal rebellion at some point also seems more likely than not.
Many commentators discuss the Taliban as if it were one, homogeneous organisation, with a single centralised command, strategy and priorities, and complete control over the entire country. However, although there is a centralised command structure, much of its power derives from more localised leaders and fighters who have allied themselves to the organisation and can easily drift out of its orbit.
Although the details have obviously not been made public, the group took control of the whole country through a succession of localised agreements and payments, with remarkably little actual fighting. Even if the Taliban central leadership want to crack down on terrorist bases within Afghanistan, it will be unable to enforce its wishes across the entire country.
There were reports in September that some of the earlier top leadership had ‘disappeared from public view’, with some speculating that they had been killed. It is very likely that there will be a tussle for power within the governing clique itself and the country could descend into civil war.
Globalisation takes many forms but one of its lesser-known incarnations is global Islamist terrorism, with adherents moving from conflict zone to conflict zone, as evidenced by the many ‘foreign fighters’ who have materialised in Iraq and Syria, as well as more recently in northern Mozambique. The reach of any terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan will therefore comfortably extend into the African continent.
Key African battlegrounds
Sahelian governments may view the fall of Afghanistan as a threat to their own integrity. If 20 years of substantial Western military operations and tens of billions of dollars invested in building the Afghan national army could be so easily swept aside following the Western withdrawal, more limited international support for Mali and Niger, for instance, could have just as little long-term impact.
Yet there are big differences between Afghanistan and the Sahel, in that the former was a failed state with no central government before the US-led invasion in 2001. Bamako and Niamey have their problems but are not in the same category.
Somalia is perhaps the closest parallel to Afghanistan in Africa, with its government failing to control much of its territory and reliant on foreign military forces to keep it in power. The government is being propped up by African Union troops operating under a UN Security Council mandate. Yet progress has been painfully slow, corruption allegations abound and the national army seems to lack cohesion. The Somali state appears even weaker than the previous Kabul government, while its military looks far weaker – on paper at least.
The Islamist militants have one virtue on their side – patience. The deployment of international forces always comes with a time limit, albeit one that is unknown at the outset. Such operations are expensive and often unpopular with the populations of the countries they come from. The Taliban waited two decades to return to power and al-Shabaab seems to be demonstrating similar staying power, with its determination surely strengthened by the former’s victory.
Two different approaches to tackling Islamist insurgencies are usually advocated. One is military, where the debate centres on whether any particular national army can maintain territorial integrity and overcome militant fighters; or whether help from other African and international forces is required. The other is developmental, as violent insurgencies invariably spring up in countries with high levels of poverty, limited economic prospects, often poor governance and deep-seated corruption.
The narrative is that sustained and substantial economic, social and governmental development erodes the environment within which terrorists and militants can prosper. The prevailing sentiment at present seems to be that individual terrorists can be killed in combat but terrorist movements can only be tackled through political, economic and social development.
This brings us to one of the most difficult aspects of the Taliban victory and international terrorism: such groups usually only tend to prosper when there is at least a measure of popular support from which militant fighters can emerge and by which they are sustained. Insurgents are mainly attracted to uprisings for two reasons: the money and prestige that involvement can bring; and because they believe in what they are doing. The financial attraction should not be underestimated, even for many Taliban, as many adherents feel that they have few economic prospects.
Moreover, for every person who is impelled to take up arms in a particular cause, there are many more who support the cause in question but do not follow a violent path.
There are cases where it is difficult to identify local support. The apparently Islamist group Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaa (ASWJ) sprang up in northern Mozambique without warning in 2017, for instance. Yet it is difficult to believe their hundreds or possibly thousands of fighters emerged spontaneously. More needs to be known about their origins.
Developmental solutions were tried and failed in Afghanistan. The physical appearance of Afghan cities has changed beyond all recognition over the past 20 years, with modern buildings and massive investment. Yet development never reached many predominantly rural, war-damaged areas, partly because of ongoing conflict but also because of corruption and poor governance. Development and social and economic growth are not merely the result of physical investment.
Military solutions are rarely lasting and one lesson that should be taken from Afghanistan is the danger of over-reliance on international forces. Although most African militaries lack the resources and finances to operate in other African countries, there has been a gradual increase in intra-African peacekeeping and peace-enforcing operations over the past 20 years.
Such operations have highlighted big variations in the quality and effectiveness of different African armies. The Mozambican army has surprisingly struggled to retake towns and territory seized by ASWJ in a conflict that has seen more than 3,000 people killed and 820,000 flee their homes.
By contrast, the 1,000 Rwandan soldiers deployed to the area in July were able to retake Mocímboa da Praia, which the militants had held for over a year, with relative ease. The Rwandan military is widely regarded as particularly effective, born as it was out of a devastating civil war and it is now the dominant military force in the Great Lakes region. Yet this is no long-term victory as militant forces are invariably adept at melting into rural areas before reforming.
Are international forces effective?
International forces are usually deployed where domestic armies are too weak to resist insurgents with the intention of buying some time for domestic solutions, such as building up local military capabilities, allowing democracy to grow, improving standards of governance and promoting socio-economic growth. This approach was tried on a massive scale in Afghanistan and failed spectacularly.
Mali has relied on international troops to keep militants at bay for the past nine years but some Malians fear that the country could become the next Afghanistan, warning that their armed forces are too weak to resist the insurgents.
France has provided the biggest military contribution but Paris has announced that its forces will be cut to as little as 2,500 troops by early 2022. Moreover, instead of operating as an independent force, they will now be rolled into the wider international Takuba Task Force.
The move appears to have been partly triggered by two coups in Mali and the new Bamako government’s decision to hold talks with the militants, while the impact of the conflict on French public sentiment in the run-up to the 2022 French general election has surely also played a role.
French forces have operated in Mali, Chad, Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso over the past eight years, fighting a wide range of militant groups that had shifting allegiances and loyalties, while many were allied to either ISIS or al-Qaeda.
In mid-September, Emmanuel Macron said French military forces have killed the leader of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi. Last year, al-Sahrawi personally ordered the killing of six French charity workers and their Nigerien driver; in 2017, the fighters killed four US troops.
The governments of the five affected countries are holding talks to determine their response. A solution to the conflict will ultimately have to come from within the region, so the French withdrawal may at least serve to sharpen minds.
Chad’s decision to withdraw half of its 1,200 troops deployed to regional military efforts may be the result of domestic priorities – and in any case the Chadian contingent had only arrived on the battlefield relatively recently – but it also creates an impression that opposition to the militants is weakening. This could be a dangerous precedent.