Aug 23, 2021
‘’You have nothing to fear. Between Vietnamese there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been defeated.’ This was the statement of the North Vietnamese Colonel Bui Tin when Saigon (South Vietnam) fell into the hands of the Communist North Vietnam and he accepted their surrender on 30 April, 1975. By that time, not less than 58,000 Americans had been killed because of the US intervention on the side of South Vietnam.
President John F. Kennedy first sent a large American force in 1961 to assist the South Vietnamese government. In 1964, President B. Lyndon not only approved the bombing raids on North Vietnam, but also the use of US troops. In fact, there were 300,000 US soldiers in the country by that time and the number of soldiers reached 550,000 in 1969. While the number of soldiers was on the increase, so was the number of deaths and casualties, a situation that led to heated opposition and protests against US intervention back home. President Richard Nixon was compelled to begin the withdrawal of US troops, even though he still authorized an increased air bombing, which was to no avail. The same was also true of the Paris Ceasefire Agreement done by the US, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and Viet Cong (National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, a Communist revolutionary group) in January 1973. North Vietnam did not respect the ceasefire accord. In short, 30 April 1975 witnessed the airlifting out of South Vietnam of the last batch of Americans. The United States had not succeeded.
Many politologists have likened the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan to the Saigon experience, and therefore do believe that the United States has failed again. But has the United States really failed? What really is the US military objective in Afghanistan when compared to the Saigon experience? While the immediate main objective in Vietnam was to prevent the spread of communism in Indochina and ultimately also contain the communist takeover in Thailand, Laos, and Malaya, the ultimate objective in Afghanistan was to put terrorism under control, following the September 11, 2001 saga.
Ending Terrorism and Talibanisation
The Vietnam War, generally referred to as the Second Indochina war, was fought from 1 November 1955 through 30 April 1975. The US anti-terrorism war in Afghanistan began from 11 September, 2001 when a Boeing 757 hit the Pentagon and the nose of American Airlines Flight 77 also hit the second floor. Comparatively, the Vietnam war lasted for over nineteen and a half years. That of Afghanistan lasted for twenty-one years.
In terms of war objectives in Afghanistan, the immediate and long-term objective was to neutralize al-Qaida and the Taliban that are playing host to terrorism and extremism. The US also had a secondary objective of laying the foundation for democracy and liberating Afghan women and children in the country.
Following the notice of withdrawal of US troops on 1st May, 2020, first under the Donald Trump administration and then part withdrawal under President Joe Biden, on 2nd July, 2021 and final withdrawal on 31st August, 2021 to take place before the 20th anniversary of 9/11 this year, the Taliban insurgency was consciously heightened, forcing the Afghan President, Professor Ashraf Ghani, to abandon his office and flee to United Arab Emirates for safety. His reason for that, allegedly, was to prevent unnecessary bloodshed with the imminent takeover of power by the Taliban who already overran Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
This re-Talibanisation of Afghanistan raises many questions of interest to be answered by academics, politicians, policy technocrats and students of Afghan politics. The Taliban, ousted from power in 1999 by a US-led Euro-American coalition forces, returned to Kabul on Monday, 15th August, 2021 and changed the name of the country to Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Before then, the country was referred to as the Emirate of Afghanistan from 1823 to 1826, and also in 1829; Islamic State (or Islamic Republic) of Afghanistan from 1992 to 2002. Even though the country has a motto that says ‘there is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah,’ and a national anthem saying ‘The Home of the Brave,’ the bravery of the country amounted to nothing under the superior fire power of the US-led coalition forces and with the American mainmise of the country until 2021. The coalition force comprised over 70,000 US troops and about 35,000 NATO and coalition forces. Their mission was codenamed Operation Enduring Freedom. The Coalition operated on the basis of Article V of the NATO Treaty according to which ‘an attack on one is an attack on all.’
One question of interest that has been raised is how to explain the fact that the President of Afghanistan, Professor Ashraf Ghani, authored a book entitled ‘’Fixing a Failed State,’ with Clare Lockhart, but has not been able to fix a failing Afghanistan. Rather than wait to fix it, he fled to United Arab Emirates (UAE), when the Taliban soldiers arrived in the city of Kabul. In the words of the UAE government, President Ghani was given asylum on the basis of ‘humanitarian considerations.’ From the perspective of Professor Ghani, he left Kabul to prevent the loss of Afghan lives. In this case, is the Taliban government legitimate under international law? Is Professor Ghani right to abandon his people without leadership? What is the likely new face of the Taliban in government?
With this development, and particularly with the emerging heightened situation of insecurity in the country, have the Americans done well or miscalculated strategically? The experiential explanation of Admiral Stavridis, the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, is quite relevant at this juncture. He wrote on August 16, 2021 on his 20-year experience in Afghanistan and pointed to the success and attainment of US objectives, but at a heavy cost.
As he put it, ‘over three thousand US and allied dead, tens of thousands with significant wounds, and a few trillion dollars expended – to say nothing of hundreds of thousands of Afghans killed and wounded as well.’ But is the whole worth it, Admiral Stavridis asked and also answered as follows: ‘in some ways, every war is a tragic waste of time, treasure and, most importantly, blood… [T]he troops who fought in Afghanistan can hold their heads up with pride in one crucial way: we were sent to Afghanistan to find and bring to justice the 9/11 attackers, and, more importantly, to prevent another attack on the US homeland emanating from that ungoverned space. For twenty years, we did that. Those troops stood on a wall on the other side of the world defending our nation.’
Speaking specifically on US gains in Afghanistan, Admiral Stavridis has it that ‘millions of people can now read and write, many of them girls and women. Life expectancy has increased dramatically, while child mortality is significantly down. Access to information, tech start-ups, better infrastructure and medical treatment are real, although much is at risk as the Taliban seize power.’
In the words of President Joe Biden, on Monday, 16th August, 2021, ‘American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.’ This statement is a justification for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Another justification, Joe Biden has also said, is that the objectives of US intervention in Afghanistan have been achieved, and therefore, there is no justification for staying any longer in the country.
More important President said he stood strongly behind his decision to withdraw US troops. In his words, ‘after twenty years I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That’s why we’re still there.’ And true enough, the US has been giving active support to the Taliban since the Soviet-Afghan war that lasted from 24 December, 1979 to 15 February 1989. It was a guerrilla war fought by many insurgent groups against Soviet invasion of the then Democratic Republic of Afghanistan during the Cold War. The Afghan Mujahedeen then fought the Soviets to standstill and compelled the Soviets to withdraw and sign the 1988 Geneva Victory Accords, while the war continued. But the strategic calculations of the former Soviet Union were in direct conflict with those of the United States. The Soviets acted on the basis of their Brezhnev doctrine, according to which a country that became Socialist would not be allowed by the Kremlin leaders to return to the capitalist camp again. As for the United States, the main challenge is the application of their own Doctrine of Containment of communism. It is on the basis of these conflicting doctrines that the US support for the Taliban should be seen and understood.
The Taliban, founded by Mullar Mohammad Omar, who led the militants until he died in 2013, was essentially comprised of the Mujahedeen. The Taliban emerged in 1994 in Kandahar and the United States had to give active support to the Taliban through the Mujahedeen who not only were fighting against the Soviets but who also joined the Taliban following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. The withdrawal was immediately followed by a civil war. The Taliban took control of Kandahar in 1994 with very little resistance and captured Kabul in 1996.
The fundamental problem with the Taliban government that warrants international hostility against it and on the basis of which there may be serious implications for Nigeria’s foreign policy is the Taliban ideology: belief in the strict application of Sharia law in accordance with its own interpretation. The Taliban impose public executions and floggings; prevention of women from working and studying; wearing an all-covering burqa by women in the public; destruction of cultural artifacts that are different from theirs; hostility to Western education; and perhaps most disturbingly, provision of sanctuary for terrorist activities, especially in the mania of Osama Bin Laden. When the Twin Towers were brutally attacked on 9/11, the US-led coalition forces invaded Afghanistan in December 2001 and compelled the Taliban government to flee to the south and east of Afghanistan, and across the border to Pakistan. It is from these areas that the Taliban began to launch counter-bombing attacks on the US-backed government in Kabul.
And more importantly, in 2020 the United States opted to negotiate a peace agreement with the Taliban on the timetable for US withdrawal of troops in exchange for stoppage of Taliban attacks on Americans and entering into talks with the Afghan government. Unfortunately, the agreement was to no avail as the peace efforts were those of peace-making through intensified warring. In the tradition of Von Clausewitz, if you want peace, prepare for war. It is within this context that there are issues and challenges for Nigeria to address and that the thick and the thin issues have to be addressed.
Thick and Thin Issues from Afghanistan
There are two categories of issues that not only threaten national sovereignty but also have the potential to impact on Nigeria’s foreign and defence policies: the thick and thin issues. The thick issues bother more about core national interests, while the thin issues are the related peripheral questions. As regards the thick issues, there is the first question of military attitude in Afghanistan. The Afghan Defence Forces did not bother to resist the Taliban onslaught. Why is this so? Were they overwhelmed? Were they protesting against the Professor Ghani government? Were they in support of the Taliban struggle? How do we explain the fast speed of the Taliban takeover, especially in light of the fact that not less than $83 billion was incurred to train and equip the Afghan army and in spite of the factor of military personnel of 300,699 people compared to 80,000 men for the Taliban?
Indeed, the United States predicted the eventual takeover by the Taliban but never anticipated the fast speed and ease with which the takeover took place. More surprisingly, the fall of the Afghan government is another question entirely. One explanation for this is that the Afghan army is formidable on paper, but in reality, they are plagued ‘by corruption, payoffs, poor leadership, lack of training and plummeting morale for years.’ According to France 24, ‘the government outpost in Imam Sahib, a district of Kunduz province, held out for two months against the Taliban. But resources and supply run soon dwindled. In the last days, there was no food, no water and no weapons.’
More noteworthy is the fact that ‘troops on the front line in Afghanistan’s second largest city Kandahar were given one cardboard box full of slimy potatoes for an entire police unit’s daily ration last week.’ The Washington Post adds that the Kandahar police had not been paid for more than six months before the Taliban took over.’ Thus, the environmental conditioning of national resistance to the Taliban was not good. It was already and unnecessarily compromised.
In the context of Nigeria, is the environment of battle against the Boko Haram any way better than that of Afghanistan? Can there be a time when the Nigerian military can react to insurgency the Afghan way, that is, to the attacks of the Boko Haram insurgency by not attacking the insurgents or simply letting them have their way into political governance?
Can there be a time when the Aso Villa can be overtaken, not by coup plotters, but by armed bandits and Boko Haram insurgents? These questions look strange, but the truth is that the boko haramists on the battle fields are quite different from the invisible boko haramists sustaining those on the battle field. The war on Boko Haram in Nigeria goes beyond the territorial limits of Nigeria. It includes war against funding stakeholders and all those aiding and abetting the cause of the Boko Haram outside of Nigeria.
A second thick issue is the Nigerian Taliban and the Boko Haram in government. It is on record that the Boko Haram expressed open support for Osama Bin Laden in Nigeria. By then, Bin Laden was operating from Afghanistan. Even though Nigeria’s official relationship with Afghanistan is not much to write home about, the people-to-people or the terror-to-terror solidarity between the Taliban in Afghanistan and their supporters in Nigeria cannot but be a major issue of concern.
Additionally, it has been suggested that Africa is now the destination of the Al-Qaida which is currently reorganizing itself. In this regard, it is most likely that Nigeria would be the first and most attractive place to be targeted by the Al-Qaida for one simple reason: there are Boko Haram agents in government. If there are boko haramists in government and Boko Haram insurgents have special relationship with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida which is operating in Afghanistan, and if the Al-Qaida is re-strategising to make Africa its new operational base, it means that the traffic of Afghan terrorists to Nigeria is likely to be higher than ever before. Such inflows of heavy traffic cannot but also have the potential to strengthen boko haramism, not only in Nigeria, in particular, but also in the Sahel region, in general.
One main rationale for this observation is the consideration that the takeover of government by the Taliban truly has the great potential to pave an easy way for the reorganisation of the Al-Qaida, particularly in Africa. Although the Taliban government has promised not to allow the use of Afghanistan for the purposes of terrorism, international observers do not believe in such a promise.
Most unfortunately, Africa is currently playing host to many battle fields which the Al-Qaida can easily take advantage of. Many observers believed that all the tentacles of Al-Qaida the world over are most likely to be mobilized against the global efforts aimed at the maintenance of international peace and security. How is Nigeria preparing for this new development? With the current armed banditry, Boko Haram insurgency, secession struggle, new agitation for self-determination, Fulani-herdsmen imbroglio and the new threats of Al-Qaida in Nigeria, will the PMB government and the soldiers not be overwhelmed in the foreseeable future? Shouldn’t the Government begin to seek a review of the attitudinal disposition towards the many crises in the country?
One example of the thin issues is the reliance on foreign help to survive. The Afghan forces, according to France 24, put up strong resistance in some areas, like in Lashkar Gah in the south, ‘but they were facing the Taliban without US air strikes or military support. Confronted with smaller but highly motivated groups of Taliban insurgents, many soldiers and even entire units simply deserted or surrendered, leaving the Islamists to capture city after city.’ Put differently, the Afghan forces could not do much without the intervention of the United States. Why should this be so? Shouldn’t any sovereign state be self-reliant?
Another thin issue is the question of recognition of the Taliban government in international relations. Nigeria has the tradition of generally recognizing States and stricto sensu, not governments. Governments are recognized by Nigeria within the context of her policy of State recognition. By implication, it can be expected that relations with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will remain, even if the relationship is still nothing to write home about.
However, if any attempt is made to Afghanise Nigeria by way of heightening terrorist insurrection in Nigeria, the relationship cannot but become seriously strained and the recognition of the Taliban cannot but also become a new major issue. Above all, the thick and thin issue is not only the national unity in Afghanistan, but also in Nigeria. How do we prevent the saga in Afghanistan from becoming a new threat to Nigeria’s corporate existence? How can Government evolve a policy of self-reliancism in the mania of Professor Kolawole Ogundowole of the University of Lagos? Without scintilla of doubt, Nigeria needs a well-articulated special policy of self-reliance that will be driven by high motivation and serve as a basis for Nigeria’s international engagements. #radiobayelsa