MELTDOWN IN KABUL
By Femi Olugbile
On the 15th of August, 2021, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan ceased to exist. Its President, Ashraf Ghani, a Professor of Anthropology, fled north to Tajikistan. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was declared.
Afghanistan is a land where a great deal of bloodshed has taken place over the centuries. Foreign invaders have come and gone. Alexander the Great. Muslim Arabs. The British Empire. The Soviet Union.
And, since 2001, following the 9-11 terror attacks, the Americans and their NATO allies.
Not for nothing has it been called been called ‘The graveyard of Empires’.
Afghanistan is also a land where ambition can lead to great reward and the most cruel punishment. The fate of Dr Mohammad Najibullah, second president of Afghanistan, who held office in the Soviet era from September 1987 to 16th April 1992 as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan is instructive. When the Taliban entered Kabul, on the evening of 26th September 1996, long after the Russians had departed, long after the dream of a communist Afghanistan had crumbled, and long after Najibullah himself had resigned from office, they abducted the President, castrated and tortured him to death, then dragged his dead body behind a truck through the streets of Kabul, before hanging him along with his brother on a traffic light pole outside the presidential palace to mark the commencement of a new era.
In October 2001, Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks in America, the Americans and their allies invaded Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power and destroy al-Qaeda. The developments of the past few weeks are the denouement of that twenty-year story. The Americans achieved their original objectives – sort of. They even managed to kill bin Laden, who was hiding out in nearby Pakistan. The Taliban were driven from power, at least in the major cities.
The real issue became – after apparently winning the ‘War on Terror’, how could the Americans win the peace?
The answer that suggested itself was that an effort should be made to help Afghans build a strong, ‘modern’, ‘democratic’ nation where they could run their own affairs, focus on developing their nation, and stop their land being a safe haven for terrorists. Americans, in effect, began the task of ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan.
The adventure, or misadventure, has come at a very steep price for everyone. Two thousand three hundred American soldiers and more than half a million Afghans have died. Two trillion dollars of American taxpayer money have been expended.
There were seemingly positive developments. Elections. Presidents. A parliament. Girls were going to school. The aspirations of a large number of Afghans for liberal-democratic ‘freedoms’ and a cosmopolitan way of life had been stoked, and were burning brightly.
There was a growing sense that Afghans were ready to run Afghanistan and to defend its people and its freedoms. An army of three hundred thousand men. Special forces. If they were not ready to take their destiny in their own hands now, when would they be ready? Two years? Five years? Ten?
An American leader was going to wake up some day and pull the plug on the endless war. Donald Trump prepared the ground. It fell to Joe Biden to pull the plug.
Everybody has been surprised at how the structure of the nation funded and nursed by the Americans over two decades has collapsed in two weeks. Nobody, it seemed, saw it coming. At least not so fast.
Perhaps they would have thought different, if they had looked closer. The ‘three hundred thousand’ soldiers were an illusion; many of the names were ‘ghost’ workers. A lot of the ‘development money’ that came to the government had simply been siphoned off into private pockets. The dream of a strong, viable new Afghanistan was really only that – a dream.
A lot of grieving and soul searching has gone on in the past few days. The young English and American soldiers who died in Helmand province and other parts of Afghanistan – was it all in vain? All that money and all that blood down the drain? Thousands of veteran soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and life-changing injuries left to live their broken lives with nightmares about firefights on barren Afghan hilltops.
City-dwelling Afghans are now educated and have developed modern aspirations and a taste for the good life, with Netflix, and Facebook and holidays abroad.
Since their arrival in the seat of power, the Taliban have been making promises of good behaviour. They are now mature and moderate, they say. The women can go to school and go to work. But it must be according to Sharia, they warn ominously, without expatiating. They are not looking for revenge. Afghan citizens who are not Taliban will be safe.
Very few people are taking them at their word. Thousands of their countrymen are scrambling to run away.
Could this dark day have been prevented? Should the new Afghanistan have been given more time to mature? Another year? Five? Ten? Or would it have been the same story, no matter how long the bitter end was delayed?
There will be hand wringing and blame-setting in the Western world for a long, long to come. Beyond all that, there is worry that the reemergence of Taliban will recreate the spectre of ‘ungoverned space’ for the efflorescence of terror groups, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. Will there soon again be bombings planned in Afghanistan and executed in the cities of Europe and America? Will the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ start again to radicalise vulnerable youths such as Nigeria’s famous ‘underwear-bomber’? Will it give a fillip to ISWAP and Boko Haram, and further worsen Nigeria’s already desperate security problems? What about other African countries facing mounting ‘Islamic’ insurgency, such as Mali, Mozambique and Burkina Faso?
There is certainly cause for great concern.
The question will be asked ‘Who lost Afghanistan?’ To which a cynical historian may give the riposte ‘Why did anyone ever delude themselves they had Afghanistan?’