Afghanistan, Ungoverned Spaces and ECOMOG, By Simbo Olorunfemi 

Afghanistan, Ungoverned Spaces and ECOMOG, By Simbo Olorunfemi 

Again, West Africa not only offers an insight into the danger that ungoverned spaces around the corner can pose to the security of other countries in the neighbourhood, with the effect of the collapse of Libya reverberating with dire consequences around the region, as terrorists ravage parts of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria. But West Africa also offers hope or direction in terms of properly situating the challenge as a regional threat…

Beyond the prevailing narrative that has largely reduced the Afghanistan situation to one of a Taliban takeover and the end of civilisation in the country, are salient issues that make finding a lasting solution to the Afghanistan conundrum so difficult. Therein are lessons for other countries, especially Nigeria. And also for those genuinely invested in a resolution of the Afghanistan situation, by considering the way that Nigeria and her neighbours have handled their own challenges.

The Afghanistan story is simple, yet complicated, in the sense that it is a puzzle that remains unresolved by external forces, even with decades of ceaseless battle, and the investment of enormous human and material resources. America, after 20 years and expending an estimated $2 trillion in prosecuting a war – even though part of that sum also went to Iraq, has beaten a retreat, in what many see as an admission of defeat. It is left with counting costs, funded with credit which, with interest factored in, is estimated to rise up to $6.5 trillion by 2050. What a huge price to pay.

Beyond that is the human cost incurred in prosecuting the war. Records put American service members killed in Afghanistan, through April this year, at 2,448; U.S. contractors – 3,846; and Afghan national military and police – 66,000. Other allied service members, including those from other NATO member states lost 1,144 people; Afghan civilians – 47,245; the Taliban and other opposition fighters – 51,191; aid workers – 444; and Journalists – 72.

While America initially went into Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks, to take out al-Qaeda and the Taliban leadership, which had offered it safe haven, a task accomplished militarily within a few months, she would get detained by the objective of remodelling the country by exporting democracy there, introducing a different way of life and rebuilding institutions, so that it would become impossible for the Taliban and other militants to make a comeback or retake control of government.

America then invested huge resources in rebuilding the infrastructure, education, health, agriculture, democratic institutions, the judiciary, and security services; also in rebuilding and equipping the army, spending about $90 billion; retraining the police force; pushing a new economic agenda, including reforms of the Central Bank. This massive effort at nation re-building apparently did not succeed in changing the ingrained culture of the people nor did it stand in the way of a massive rollback by the Taliban forces, leading America to reluctantly accept failure and negotiating with the same forces, under President Trump, for a tactical withdrawal from the country.

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Perhaps things might have been different if the Afghanistan problem had been approached differently, recognising the peculiarities of the country and the interplay of forces, which made the Talibanisation of the problem rather simplistic and reductionist. If anything, the Taliban are as much a part of Afghanistan as anyone else, with some measure of support, especially from the Pashtun base. They have a stake in the state, like others, even if they assume that they have earned a right to leadership it on account of decades of relentless battle.

But beyond the internal dynamics, the treacherous terrain that makes a military conquest by external forces difficult, is the regional dimension to the Afghanistan conundrum, which I believe is fundamental, and I see as relevant, both as a source of lesson to Nigeria, and one which can also benefit from Nigeria’s approach to tackling regional conflicts, even if each has it’s own peculiarities.

Without doubt, the Afghanistan problem is as much as internally propelled as it is externally induced. It is caught up in a web of forces with deep-rooted regional and international dimensions, that a dismissal its situation as simply an Afghan problem is an indulgence in illusion. It is a problem with global ramifications, as ungoverned or malgoverned spaces constitute a threat to everywhere else.

Afghanistan is completely landlocked, with borders to the East and the South by Pakistan (including those areas of Kashmir administered by Pakistan but claimed by India), to the West by Iran, and to the North by the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. It also has a short border with Xinjiang, China.

While it does not have a direct border with Russia, the country has deep ties with the region, and through its invasion and years of war with the country, this makes it a formidable and interested actor in Afghanistan. There is also Turkey, just as there is the bit player, Kyrgyzstan, in the mix. There is also Saudi Arabia. Obviously, Pakistan is the most significant actor, with many of the militants finding a safe haven there, as there is virtually no distinction between parts of that country and parts of Afghanistan.

Not only are its borders in many parts long and porous, Afghanistan is tied to its southern neighbours on the account of ethnicity, culture, history, politics and language.

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Beyond the complicated regional configuration, there is America caught up in the web, starting with its covert operations in support of the Taliban to undermine the Soviets, then getting sucked in by the desire to transform a country with a complicated history into its own image. Yet, there is China, just around the corner, uncomfortable with the U.S. presence or base close to its border. At the centre of it all is this landlocked, battle-hardened land, for some reason targeted as a huge prize by empire builders, yet refusing to go down to external interests.

Without doubt, the Afghanistan problem is as much as internally propelled as it is externally induced. It is caught up in a web of forces with deep-rooted regional and international dimensions, that a dismissal its situation as simply an Afghan problem is an indulgence in illusion. It is a problem with global ramifications, as ungoverned or malgoverned spaces constitute a threat to everywhere else.

But the Afghan problem is one that is best fixed within a regional framework. Any solution that does not take into consideration the complicated regional dimensions cannot truly work. Indeed, it is difficult to fix Afghanistan without fixing Pakistan. But how do you fix Pakistan without taking India and the rivalry between the two into consideration? Where do you put China and Russia in the equation? Where do you place the countries of Central Asia?

Nigeria and West Africa showed the world in 1990 how to resolve internal insurrection with potentials for escalation into a regional crisis or throwing up ungoverned spaces that might eventually impact immediate neighbours and other parts of the world negatively.

Ungoverned spaces are as much a threat to the immediate neighbourhood as it is to other parts of the world. A concerted effort across board is in the interest of every international actor, especially the West, which sees what is going on as some sort of clash of civilisations.

Of course, the decision by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to set up the West African peacekeeping force to intervene in Liberia, was initially not well received outside the region, especially as it lacked precedence and did not have a proper legal foundation. But with what was achieved in Liberia, Sierra Leone and other places, in comparison to what eventually played out in Rwanda, Somalia and even Libya, many authorities, including the United Nations, have come to appreciate the place of such regional forces in managing conflicts, bringing to bear their relative knowledge of cultures, temperaments and terrains in the better management of crisis.

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Perhaps things might have turned out differently if America had done the initial heavy lifting in Afghanistan, leaving the task of specifying and rebuilding to a regional force, while rendering support from behind, just as they did, to a minimal extent, with ECOMOG.

Of course, no two situations are the same. In any case, there was no such regional framework in place there. It is also a difficult one to put together, given the disparate and conflicting interests in the region. Yet, there is no other way, but the regional approach, with the West African model as a possible guide.

Unfortunately, all the actors are overtaken by their interests, history and fractious relationships to be able to clearly see the danger posed by the narrow pursuit of their selfish agenda.

Again, West Africa not only offers an insight into the danger that ungoverned spaces around the corner can pose to the security of other countries in the neighbourhood, with the effect of the collapse of Libya reverberating with dire consequences around the region, as terrorists ravage parts of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria. But West Africa also offers hope or direction in terms of properly situating the challenge as a regional threat, then doing everything to pull together as a regional bloc to drive the solution. That is what Nigeria has done through the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) set up by the Lake Chad basin states – Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria – to pool resources against terrorists.

Of course, the situation is not quite the same, even if it might have slightly been similar. The opportunity might have already been lost and the conditions for that level of cooperation might not be there. Yet, there is no substitution for a regional framework, with support and resources from the G7 towards addressing these challenges.

Ungoverned spaces are as much a threat to the immediate neighbourhood as it is to other parts of the world. A concerted effort across board is in the interest of every international actor, especially the West, which sees what is going on as some sort of clash of civilisations.

Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy and publisher of Africa Enterprise. Twitter: @simboolorunfemi

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