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Afghanistan, its future, and why China matters

By John Simpson

 

The Khyber Pass is one of the world’s great invasion routes – forbidding, steep and treacherous, stretching from the Afghan border to the Valley of Peshawar, 20 miles (32 km) below, in Afghanistan.

For three thousand years, armies have struggled through these rocky defiles and camped in its valleys. You can still see the insignia of regiments from the British and British Indian armies, which continue to be carefully maintained, along the sides of the road, overlooked by the forts they once built and guarded. From the rocks above, Pashtun tribesmen armed with ancient jezails, or flintlock rifles, would snipe at passing soldiers with amazing accuracy.

Nowadays trucks laden with agricultural produce from Afghanistan labour round the sharp bends, sometimes with men and boys clinging to the side of them for the ride. On the pathways beside the road, old men trudge along, bent double under boxes of smuggled goods.

The Khyber Pass ends at Torkham – Afghanistan’s busiest border crossing with Pakistan.

 

Several years ago the Pakistani authorities completely revamped it. Now the crowds waiting there are better marshalled than they used to be, but there’s an atmosphere of fear and urgency as people try to escape from Afghanistan’s new rulers, the Taliban. You can see them from the Pakistani side, crowding together behind the wire in the midday heat, waving their documents and begging to be allowed through. For the most part, only people who have permission to leave Afghanistan on medical grounds can cross, together with their families.

 

The long line, cluttered with wheelchairs and suitcases, shuffles slowly forward through the various checkpoints.

On the road, where the actual border runs, a couple of Pakistani soldiers stand face to face with Taliban guards wearing makeshift uniforms.

 

The Taliban had no objection to talking to me. I asked one of them, a big man with a bushy beard covered by a face-mask, why the national green and red flag of Afghanistan wasn’t flying over the border post. It has been replaced by the white flag of the Taliban, inscribed with the Shahada, the basic statement of the Muslim faith: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His messenger.”

“Our country is now an Islamic Caliphate,” the border guard answered proudly, “and this is the correct flag for the whole country.”

There are occasional moments of tension, but for the most part the Pakistani and Taliban border guards face each other without hostility.

 

There is no question of fraternising, though. Many Afghans blame Pakistan for the Taliban’s success. They believe implicitly that the militants were founded and promoted by Pakistan, and especially by the ISI, its notorious spy agency. In fact Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban have not been nearly as close since Imran Khan became Pakistan’s prime minister in 2018, and its influence over the Taliban has been noticeably on the decline.

 

The power of China
To most governments, a relationship with the Taliban is distinctly embarrassing right now. The militant group has links with Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states, though not close ones.
The country which has the closest relationship with the Taliban is China, which doesn’t show the slightest sign of embarrassment at all. With so many ordinary Afghans trying to flee their country, its economy seems certain to crash, as it did when the Taliban were last in power, from 1996 to 2001. Therefore, Chinese economic support will be needed to keep Afghanistan afloat, and that will give Beijing a sizeable degree of control over Taliban policy.

 

We can also be pretty certain that the Taliban won’t challenge China on awkward issues like the treatment of its Muslim and Uighur population.
The Taliban take-over of power has been disastrous for the United States, Britain, Germany, France and other countries which have helped Afghanistan over the past 20 years. It has also brought India’s policy to a dead halt. India injected large amounts of money and expertise into Afghanistan, and had a good deal of influence with the governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani – both of whom wanted India as a counter-balance to Pakistan. That is all finished now.

 

Last time they were in control, the Taliban were treated as international pariahs. The economy got so bad that by 2001 there was no money to buy fuel. The few cars that were left were forced off the road. Most people couldn’t afford generators, and power cuts were widespread. The streets were dark and silent at night, and in the daytime most people preferred to stay indoors as much as they could, fearful of the gangs of Taliban vigilantes.

Will it be the same now?
The difference is China. If Beijing decides that it will gain sufficient economic and political advantage, it will save the Taliban from going under. If not, they’ll be on their own.

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Recent events in Afghanistan: Quick lessons for Nigeria

Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Zabi Karimi)
On Monday 16 August 2021, the sight on CNN of an American military aircraft C-17 taxing on the tarmac of Kabul Airport with several Afghans, some hanging, clinging, and running alongside for a possible boarding out of the country, is one that will linger for years to come.
Of course, examples abound of such historic and memorable sights on television; the killing of 12 US soldiers and dragging of their bodies through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia in October 1993 and the toppling down of Saddam Hussein’s effigy in Firdos Square in Baghdad after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 drew global attention and remains indelible in our memory.
Not a few watchers of events in Afghanistan were surprised at the turn of events that led to the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan’s political capital back into the hands of the Taliban.
The blitzkrieg fashion with which the Taliban seized every important town around the capital was no doubt exacerbated by the actions and inactions of some of the global powers, particularly the US.
Observers would recall that in his remarks on the drawdown plans on 8 July 2021, President Joe Biden was emphatic that the US mission in Afghanistan will conclude on 31 August 2021.
On that occasion, Biden stated clearly that “we did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build, ….it is the right and responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”
This statement was obviously not lost on the Taliban as events after that would reveal. By the second week of August, Taliban fighters have surrounded Kabul and claimed key towns of Aybak, Kunduz, Taluqan, Faizabad, Maidan, and Jalalabad, the fifth largest city in Afghanistan just about 130 km from the capital Kabul.
Suddenly, all the foreign intervention has come to nought, and truly Afghanistan has been left in the hands of not the legitimate government but the Taliban who have fought for nearly 20 years since it was ousted in 2001. As of now, there is great uncertainty in the country and no one is sure of the future.
One question that keeps begging for an answer is, what has been the impact of all the assistance offered to the Afghan government by the US and its NATO Allies for the past two decades?
From account, the US and NATO Allies including their partners have trained and equipped over 300,000 current serving members of the Afghan National Security Force, not including hundreds of thousands trained in the past two decades who are no longer serving.
Apart from this, the Afghan security forces have had the opportunity of training and operating with the US and its Allies providing them with intelligence and many of their military officers trained in some of the best military institutions in the US and UK.
There is no doubt that the Taliban takeover will have some global implications. Firstly, it will present some human rights problems going by their antecedents while it held sway from 1996-2001.
In the past, the Taliban has been known for carrying out public executions of its perceived opponents, denying education to women and persecuting minorities. There is also the issue of Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for extremists and a likely astronomical increase in the growth and trade of illicit and hard drugs.
Afghanistan currently stands as the third-largest producer of opium in the world. Worst of these fears is the likely domino effect on other extremist groups in Asia, the Middle East and Africa and the spillover of weapons through illegal means to countries with extremist networks such as Al Qaeda, ISIS and ISWAP.
What lessons, therefore, are there for Nigeria to learn putting into context the activities of ISWAP and the Boko Haram Terrorists in the North East and also the incessant calls for the government to seek international assistance in the counter-insurgency operations and other threats across the country?
Events in Afghanistan have zoomed home to all Nigerians that as a nation, our destiny is in our own hands. Now and then, Nigerians are quick to call on the government to seek international assistance anytime there is a little setback in the military’s campaign.
Of course, the government has never shied away from seeking assistance but the divergent point remains the extent of such assistance. Since 2015, there has been a renewed synergy among countries around the Lake Chad Basin.
The Armed Forces of Nigeria has continued to operate with forces from Chad, Niger and Cameroon, all Nigeria’s neighbours along the North East under the Multi-National Joint Task Force.
Outside the region, it continues to receive assistance from countries such as the US, UK, France, and Germany in areas of training, provision of equipment, logistics support and intelligence sharing.
The notion of having international forces coming to operate in Nigeria is an illusion that would be inimical to Nigeria’s national security and the events in Afghanistan should discourage it now and in future.
The collapse of the Afghan’s security forces like a pack of cards in the face of the advancing Taliban fighters reflects a serious lack of popular support. Many Afghans have always perceived the foreign-backed Afghan security forces as appendages of the invading western forces.
In spite of the foreign support in training, operational vehicles, equipment, logistics and intelligence assets, the foreign-backed Afghan security forces could still not sustain the legitimate government of Ashraf Ghani in place as they do not enjoy the popular support of the people.
Securing and gaining local support is a critical success factor in counter-insurgency operations such as we have in Nigeria’s North East. This factor underscores the efforts placed by the Armed Forces of Nigeria at winning the hearts and minds of the people.
It thus beholds the populace to reciprocate the efforts of the military by providing useful information to security forces and shun any assistance of any means to insurgents. The act of using social media to denigrate and disparage the military only serves to embolden the insurgents.
The Armed Forces of Nigeria deserve all the support it could get. It has shown courage and resilience and has never failed in its constitutional role of ensuring the territorial integrity of the country.
Since it fled Kabul in 2001, the Taliban regime’s use of vast mass of ungoverned areas across Afghanistan provided it with the enabling conditions to sustain its military activities. It continued to expand its control such that by July 2021, the Taliban controlled an estimated 54 per cent of Afghan districts.
Thankfully enough, the military has identified the importance of this given the recent decision of the Nigerian Army to conduct exercises in Falgore Forest, a game reserve located about 150 km from Kano city. Similar uninhabited areas exist in some parts of North West which provides safe haven for bandits.
We also have the wide space between Shaki and Nigeria’s border with Republic of Benin running up North through West of Kwara and Niger States, as well as several others within the states which could offer abode for bandits.
Leveraging the efforts of the military, the government may need to design a comprehensive strategy to integrate all the relevant MDAs responsible for border security and forest/game reserves, the military, police, and other security and paramilitary agencies for the sole task of ensuring presence and monitoring of all remote uninhabited spaces across Nigeria.
Johnson Olawumi, a retired officer of the Nigerian Army, writes from Abuja.
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