Collateral damage: West African shockwaves from the fall of Afghanistan
Associate Professor of Development Studies Kate Meagher looks at the ramifications of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan for countries in West Africa. This article is part of a series on the ID blog, ‘Afghanistan: After the fall‘.
The ongoing ID blog series on the fall of Afghanistan has generated important reflections on the lessons to be learned from the dramatic turn of events. Valuable points have been made about the inherent fragility of Afghanistan’s aid-dependent Frankenstate, as well as the dangers of prioritizing foreign security concerns over local development needs, and the importance of civil legitimacy in state building processes. One lesson that has received less attention is that the fall of Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. The triumph of the Taliban over the Western-backed Afghan state has alarming knock-on effects for other regions struggling with Islamist insurgencies, particularly in West Africa. Far from making the world safer from Islamist terrorism, recent events in Afghanistan have intensified the vulnerability of wider areas of the world to the spread of extremism.
West Africa is home to nine Muslim majority countries, long viewed as places of religious tolerance and emerging democracy. While the region is celebrated by some as a seedbed of emerging markets, it is also plagued by poverty, desertification, corruption, and draconian market reforms that have left too many behind. Islamist insurgencies have been raging for a decade in the northern regions of Nigeria and Mali, and are posing a growing threat to the previously resilient Muslim-majority societies of Niger and Burkina Faso. The rapid US withdrawal and Taliban victory have intensified threats to stability in the region by emboldening extremist movements, shifting state incentives, and intensifying economic and security pressures on local societies. An assessment of lessons learned must extend to the worrying new incentives unleashed in West Africa.
First and foremost, the Taliban victory has been an inspiration for West African jihadi groups. The head of the Al-Qaida affiliate operating in Mali issued a congratulatory message to the Taliban in which he lauded Taliban patience and claimed ‘We are winning’. In Nigeria, the Islamist response has been more muted owing to ideological divisions between the local ISIS-affiliated leadership and the Taliban, but there can be no doubt that the Taliban victory has boosted the commitment and local influence of the insurgency.
Some argue that West African Islamist groups are not as cohesive as the Taliban, and remain too fragmented by ideological, ethnic and social divisions to defeat the region’s post-independence states. But years of draconian economic reforms and Islamist insurgency are taking a toll on previously durable West African states. Mali has suffered two military coups in the past year, and the Nigerian government is facing multiple insurgencies and successionist pressures.
At the same time, fragmentation seems to be giving rise to struggles for supremacy among jihadi groups in Mali as well as Nigeria. In Nigeria, the Islamist group, Boko Haram, is consolidating its forces since the capture and death of the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, at the hands of a better organized faction known as Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP) in May this year. This has brought huge stores of arms and many of Boko Haram’s fighters under the authority of ISWAP, strengthening the group’s territorial control in the north-east of the country. While bloody infighting continues, the prize just got bigger with the Taliban victory. The further potential for links between Boko Haram and the expanding banditry of Muslim herders in the Nigerian north-west is a sobering prospect. If the insurgency can accomplish so much in ten years, what might they do in twenty?
West African states are also taking lessons from the fall of Afghanistan. There has been a growing Western military presence in the region in response to the rise of Islamism. The French have had troops in Mali since 2013, while the United States has supported the struggle against Boko Haram by contributing troops and building a drone base in Niger. Growing popular resistance to the activities of foreign militaries has put pressure on the political legitimacy of West African states. In response to France’s intention to reduce its troops in Mali, the Malian military junta has accused the French of abandoning them midstream and turned to the assistance of the Russian mercenary group, Wagner. Despite their poor human rights record, Russian mercenaries are free of the colonial aura, and are also less likely to insist on the transition timetable mandating elections in February 2022. The blog post by O’Callaghan in this series suggests that the West may have to make some difficult trade-offs following the withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is worth noting that West African states are making their own uncomfortable trade-offs, which may involve similar tendencies toward deprioritizing democracy and human rights.
In the process, West African societies continue to find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Earlier comparisons between West Africa and Afghanistan involved a measure of hyperbole – pointing out that some of Nigeria’s north-eastern states had an HDI lower than that of Afghanistan, or referring to the terrorism in the Sahel as ‘Sahelistan’. But the parallels are becoming increasingly stark. After the Taliban victory, Nigerian commentators have focused on the need to avoid the road to Afghanistan by urgently addressing the root causes of extremism, which have less to do with religion than with decades of poor governance, injustice, lack of opportunity, and absence of basic services. By continuing to prioritize security concerns, both Western and West African states reveal a stubborn refusal to learn the lessons of the past twenty years.
Instead, ongoing neglect and aggressive counterinsurgency campaigns continue to push disaffected West Africans into the arms of extremists in search of security, justice, or economic opportunity, while others pray for better times or seek alternative futures, not by mobbing airports but by migrating in growing numbers across the Mediterranean. If a key lesson from the collapse of the Afghan state is the importance of civil society in state-building, it is clear that the task of West Africa’s tenacious civil society in helping to building stronger, more progressive states has been made materially more difficult by recent events in Afghanistan. The real tragedy of the fall of Afghanistan is not just about another failed liberal state-building adventure, but the seeding of more durable dynamics of extremism in even more vulnerable and porous regions of the world.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science. You can read more articles in this series, ‘Afghanistan: After the fall’ here.
Photo: Tents in Yola, Nigeria for families displaced from their homes in Michika, Madagali and Gwosa by Boko Haram attacks, 2015. Credit: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid on Flickr.