Africa after Afghanistan
Posted on 1st September, 2021 in Director's Blog
In Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, a hapless British RAF officer (played by Peter Sellers) tries to prevent a maverick US general precipitating nuclear Armageddon. Spoiler alert: he fails. So did Boris Johnson in trying persuade President Biden to delay his precipitous and damaging withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Almost all the commentary on Afghanistan has been about the implications for the country, for the US’s role in the world, and for “the West”. But there are profound lessons for Africa and for the world’s engagement with it. Five of these stand out:
- Nations can only be built from the inside, not the outside.
- That process depends not on governments but on people.
- It depends on a political process that delivers for people security, accountability, balance, and trust.
- Terrorists, jihadis, guerrillas, secessionists, rebels, call them what you will, sniff out whichever of these elements a government is not providing and make that the point of political attack.
- Their violence only works if the politics is already failing. But if there is political failure, no amount of foreign intervention short of de facto occupation can keep a government in place for long.
It has been pointed out that the Taliban was as much a nationalist movement as a jihadi one. At the root of NATO’s failure was an inability to understand Afghan politics, derived perhaps from the belief that everyone everywhere wants to live in a Western-style democracy if they can. Don’t misunderstand: I believe that most people want to live under a system that keeps them safe, enables them to earn a living, and provides them with redress for grievances and a say in how they are governed. But the form of that political system can only be found by each community or country on its own terms and in its own time.
There are lessons here for African leaders as well as for Western countries working with Africa. Former British Foreign Secretary William Hague (in The Times on 23 August) urged Western leaders to pay more attention to Africa if they want to avoid similar crises erupting there, with disastrous consequences for both Africans and, potentially, Europeans. But what sort of attention should that be? More military support for the fight against terrorism (however defined)? More financial assistance to Africa’s own peace-keeping efforts? More conditionality or more aid to encourage improved governance, human rights and democratic institutions?
It depends. No two situations are the same. But it is worth looking at what has worked and what has not worked up to now.
Somalia is an example of a transition which, while rocky and uncertain, is pointing in the right direction. From the chaos of inter-clan conflict, al-Shabab brought temporary order but gross intolerance, and only the intervention of AMISOM eventually created political space for the creation of an informal federal structure with a weak centre and strong regional authorities. This provides a degree of balance and local accountability that Somali citizens can live with, but is not militarily strong enough to resist al-Shabab alone. So AMISOM remains – if the EU and UN will continue to pay for it. But attempts to build a federal army strong enough to defeat al-Shabab have so far failed – for mainly political reasons. So if AMISOM is forced to leave, al-Shabab will be back and Afghanistan’s fate will be replayed in the Horn of Africa.
The threat from Islamic extremism in the Sahel, on the other hand, still seems to be spreading. As I argued recently (Mis-Understanding Terrorism in Africa) there is a long history of jihad in West Africa as a way to redress grievances against iniquitous governments. The governments most under threat, especially in Mali and potentially in Chad, have most signally failed to deliver what their people needed. Mali’s cycle of civil war, coup, civilian government and conflict will not end until the political class recognise the need for a wider political settlement that includes the Tuareg in the north and provides genuine security for the population there as elsewhere. In Chad, neither a strong man nor strong military can keep forces of disorder at bay indefinitely. It needs a more inclusive political system. Niger, the poorest of all, does have one and therefore has a better chance of resisting terrorism.
Most worrying is Nigeria, where the situation appears to be slipping out of the control of the federal authorities without them even realising it. Despite years of counter-insurgency effort supported by intermittent British training, Boko Haram continues to flourish, threatened more by the jihadis in ISWAP than by the Nigerian military. But elsewhere in the country, insurgents, rebels, bandits and even communities are increasingly taking the law into their own hands in the absence of either government security or a responsive political system. No external support can help if the Nigerian politics cannot produce leaders able to deliver security and jobs.
Mozambique has also opted for military rather than political means to tackle the Islamist insurgency in Cabo Delgado. The Rwandan and SADC forces have been able to recover territory from the rebels. But how long they can hold it, or afford to do so, remains to be seen. Without a profound political re-engagement with the north, FRELIMO and its allies will still be fighting this war in 20 years’ time too, if they are still around to do so.
So what should Britain and others do?
In terms of external involvement, it is striking how much more perceptive the French have been than either the British or Americans, in Africa as in Afghanistan. Macron and Le Drian are a foreign policy team with a knowledge, experience, strategic vision and commitment that Johnson and Raab have signally lacked. France has been adapting its assessment and engagement with counter-terrorism in the Sahel, reducing its exposure while keeping its presence. Britain, France, the EU and US must all recognise that the AU and other African governments have a bigger role to play in collective security on the continent in the future than they have in the past, and building that capability is a political even more than a military task. Which underlines again how counter-productive for Britain’s own interests its drastic cut in aid and its disengagement from Africa has been.
Philip Larkin summed up the feeling of superpower decline in 1969, at the time of Britain’s withdrawal from East of Suez, in ‘Homage to a Government’:
‘Next year we are bringing the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is alright.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home…’
Without political stability, it is never just the soldiers that come home; it is many of the people they guarded too, unless their own governments are ones they want to live under.
Nick Westcott is director of the Royal African Society.