Of Taliban and ‘Repentant’ Boko Haram
There are different accounts of how ‘Afghanistanism’ became an English word. But the most popular is the one that traces its origin to the 1947 American Society of Newspaper Editors Convention in Washington DC. In their column, ‘Behind the Front Page’, Robert H. Stopher and James Jackson wrote that it was coined by Jenkin Lloyd Jones of Oklahoma’s Tulsa Tribune who said: “The tragic fact is that many an editorial writer can’t hit a short-range target. He’s hell on distance. He can pontificate about the situation in Afghanistan with perfect safety. It takes more guts to dig up the dirt on the sheriff.” In another account of the convention, Jones was quoted as saying, “I don’t wish to belabor this subject of Afghanistanism, this business of taking forthright stands on elections in Costa Rica, while the uncollected local garbage reeks beneath the editor’s window.”
Regardless of who first used it, the word essentially depicts a situation where people ignore pressing domestic challenges to focus attention on problems in some distant parts of the world. But as the Americans have learnt in recent days, there is really nothing like ‘Afghanistanism’ anymore. In the world we now live in, ignoring what happens in far-flung places like Kabul can be perilous. It is a lesson that will also serve us in Nigeria, especially now that the authorities are sending ‘repentant’ Boko Haram killers back to their communities, almost as if they just returned from the Tokyo Olympics with gold medals.
I arrived New York, United States, on Sunday night to the news that Taliban fighters had finally taken Afghanistan barely a week after launching a nationwide attack. And since then, American media have gone ‘Afghanistan’ though this time, in a different context: Kabul has become the most defining political issue with far reaching implications for President Joe Biden. On Monday, the New York Times led with this headline: ‘Taliban Capture Kabul, Stunning U.S. as a 20-Year Effort Unravel in Days’. In the accompanying news analysis, the newspaper wrote on how what Biden said five weeks ago has come back to bite him.
However, Biden is not alone in proving that talk is cheap. As a scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins University (and later, UN and World Bank official) in the United States for more than two decades, the run-away Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani was a regular opinion contributor to the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, etc. In a post in Los Angeles Times in February 1979, Ghani wrote: “The Soviets have left Afghanistan, making the collapse of the besieged puppet regime in Kabul, just a matter of time.” The last image of Ghani (co-author of the 2009 book, ‘Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World’) was of him peeping through the window of an aircraft as he fled Kabul, following the collapse of the American ‘puppet regime’ he also headed!
It is instructive that the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan on the day President Muhammadu Buhari wrote, in a Financial Times opinion article, that Africa has become the new frontline for terrorism. It is an apt summation of the challenge now confronting us, made more complex by the likely resumption of Afghanistan as the global operational headquarters for the training of terrorists. Therefore, events in Kabul should compel a rethink of some of the choices we are making in the war against insurgency in Nigeria.
There are quick lessons to draw from Afghanistan. One, the capacity for endurance and staying the course by terrorists is grossly underrated. The Taliban waited out the Americans for 20 years. The moment their troops left; they simply took over the country without much trouble. To rub insult on injury for the United States, the Taliban reportedly captured an array of modern military equipment, including combat aircraft, guns, ammunition, helicopters etc. Two, the ease with which the Taliban achieved their military objective indicates that democracy has not served Afghan people well, so they apparently saw no reason to fight for a government that has made little or no impact in their lives. Flowing from that is how the civil populace in a badly governed country can easily surrender to anything when disenchanted with the status quo. The less said on this the better but I hope the political class in Nigeria gets the message. Three, there is no magic wand in Washington for resolving complex security problems. We have for years listened to American experts on how we could have ended Boko Haram insurgency within days but after spending more than a trillion dollars, as confirmed by President Biden in his broadcast on Monday, all the political, military and security structures the Americans built in Kabul collapsed within days. Four, when people are desperate, they will take stupid risks as we also saw with the Afghans climbing the underside of the departing American plane on the tarmac. Five, terrorists are smarter than we give them credit for, especially in Nigeria. The manner of the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan is similar to the seamless way Boko Haram operatives dissolved into the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP), following the death of Abubakar Shekau. That speaks to dexterity in leadership by the insurgents that some people delude themselves into believing have been ‘technically defeated’.
This is where I come to the controversial ‘Operation Safe Corridor’ initiative of the Army started in 2016. Few people subscribe to the idea, which means there was never a buy-in from critical stakeholders prior to implementation. The Shehu of Borno, Abubakar El-Kanemi said it would be difficult to cohabit with insurgents who have killed thousands, including at least 30 traditional rulers. “Many people were killed along with their property for 12 years. And you people and the media expect us to forget and forgive the repentant terrorists?” he queried at the weekend. Chairman of the Senate Committee on Army, Ali Ndume, is no less vehement. “The war is not over and some criminals that have been killing people you say that you are doing Operation Safe Corridor for them. I am completely against that idea. They know my position on that,” said Ndume last week. “You are just telling people to go and join Boko Haram and then repent…that’s a totally unacceptable way of solving the problem.”