The chaotic departure of Western powers from Afghanistan has exposed the brutal reality of the relationship between occupiers and their local servants. The analogy can apply to Africa as well, says Onyekachi Wambu
As the very recent chaotic and humiliating US/NATO retreat from Kabul played out over the 24-hour news cycle, a short spiteful social media presentation from Katie Hopkins, a stridently anti-immigrant voice in the UK, raised important questions about occupation and local collusion.
The points inadvertently raised in her simple but poisonous discourse are especially relevant for us in Africa, as the predictions from many are that as NATO retreats from Asia and the Middle East, the alliance will increasingly seek to expand in countries in Africa that are seen as easier to manage.
The rapidity of the collapse in Kabul after 20 years of blood and treasure will shake the world for years to come – all that was solid seemed to simply melt into air over a week.
As city after city fell, sometimes without a shot fired, it became abundantly clear that it was only the occupation that had allowed the illusion to exist, with the majority of Afghans welcoming or recognising the new Taliban power equation and reality. That however still left a large number of people who had worked with the occupiers to maintain the old illusion – and the scenes at the airport of many wanting to escape Taliban rule were sobering.
Many had complicated reasons for wanting to leave so quickly – some anticipated a new dark age, where their rights (especially for women) would be curtailed, while others were particularly fearful given their active collaboration with the occupiers.
Even amongst this latter category there would have been a continuum of collusion with the occupiers – from those who worked for NGOs, those who worked with their armies (interpreters etc), to those in Special Forces, who would have been involved in bombings and targeted operations.
Once the world that the occupation had created disappeared, it is possible to understand the urgency with which the latter group would want to escape potential retribution. However, the chaos at the airport as the occupiers attempted to extract these assets also reveals the minefield of morality and obligations between occupiers and the local servants of occupation, which has led to a huge amount of hand- wringing.
Katie Hopkins, who has a reputation for making provocative statements against immigrants, in her social media contribution during the final weekend pull-out, vigorously argued against taking in all the refugees, including many of those direct servants of occupation. For her the issue was not the moral obligation to such servants but the fact that many of those who had advanced UK interests were actually evil and dangerous people.
She claimed to have reliable evidence that during the occupation, the British Army had been instructed to look away when their local partners engaged in a number of criminal and dangerous practices. She dealt at length with one practice where many of the local Afghans participated in predatory sexual behaviour, especially involving underage children, asking whether such dangerous people should be allowed entry into the UK.
Her short social media presentation inevitably created the controversy she craves, not least because it exploded the human rights messaging that was being used retrospectively to justify the occupation, begging the question how this was accurate if the army was tolerating widespread sexual abuse amongst local servants in order to do its work.
Her methodology is of course to over-exaggerate, magnifying small infractions to normalise her anti-immigrant positions. So the practice may have just been one or two instances, but her rantings do expose the tendency for occupiers to exploit criminal activities by local elites, militaries and ordinary people before abandoning them.
We know that rampant corruption in the African context is frequently the practice that is ignored until there is a need to weaponise it, when the local servant of occupation ceases to cooperate in the designs of empire.
Of course, not all of this is one way. Local servants are also making their own calculations, betting that they too can use the occupier to advance their interests against their local competitors. Why they often refuse to just reach local agreements by themselves, which would ultimately disempower and cut out the cynical occupier, remains the big question of history.