A lesson still not learnt

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Kabul has fallen. The Taliban are now in charge of Afghanistan, and Western powers are scrambling to evacuate their citizens and a few lucky Afghans. A German military plane managed on Monday to evacuate a grand total of seven people, and the first Australian Air Force flight left Kabul on Wednesday with 26 people. The plane had space for 128.

Ben Wallace, the British defence minister, has admitted that many Afghans who worked with NATO forces will be left behind to face the Taliban’s extremely harsh interpretation of Sharia law.

Not so for the now former president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani. He fled to Uzbekistan in, according to the Russian embassy in Kabul, a helicopter stuffed with cash. So much money that piles of it had to be left on the runway in Kabul because it wouldn’t all fit into the chopper.


Women’s rights, democracy and media freedom in Afghanistan no longer exist and neither will they for a very long time.


Women’s rights, democracy and media freedom in Afghanistan no longer exist and neither will they for a very long time. The Taliban’s control over the country is more complete than its rule between 1996 and 2001. Back then, Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance still controlled the north-east corner and the Northern Alliance was key to America’s invasion in 2001. But now there are no internal forces capable of overthrowing the Taliban.

Over the weekend the USA, Canada and a clutch of European countries all said that they wouldn’t recognise the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and that it would become a pariah state. With China, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan all likely to recognise the Taliban’s rule soon, that idea is wishful fantasy. The chance that any foreign power will ever invade Afghanistan again is exceedingly remote.

What the Taliban won with the sword and AK-47 will remain theirs for decades to come.

America and its allies’ war on terror has failed in everything except killing Osama bin Laden and spreading instability across the Middle East and Africa. Civil wars define Libya, Syria and Yemen and refugees from those conflicts are spread out across the world. Iranian-backed radical Shiite militias have de facto control over Iraq. Islamic State, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab continue to exist. Somalia is the exemplar of a failed state.

Quite arguably, America’s fight against terrorism has left the world a more insecure and less liberal place than it was a generation ago.

Despite the Americans’ spending nearly US$90 bn on building and training a 300 000 strong Afghan army, the latter proved to be a brittle paper tiger once the US military pulled out its troops. The Taliban’s routing of the Afghan army owes much to the corruption that blighted the country – army commanders frequently siphoned off money through ghost soldiers, collecting the pay of soldiers who existed only on paper. Military checkpoints demanded “transit fees”, and bribes for government services were commonplace. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index recently rated Afghanistan an appalling 165th out of 180 countries.

In March this year, Foreign Policy concluded that “Large-scale corruption, fuelled in part by an influx of US and international donors, poses as great a threat to the future of Afghanistan as do the Taliban.”

What is also outstandingly clear, given the rapid capitulation of government forces, is that the American generals grossly overestimated the ability and desire of the Afghan army to fight on its own. But the greater delusion is one that flows through the entire foundational thinking of the war on terror: believing that you can bomb people into democracy and peace.

The anti-war movement, in regard to both Iraq and Afghanistan, instinctively realised this even before the missiles started raining down. Recent events have adequately illustrated that, at the very least, it is exceedingly difficult for a foreign power to build a functioning liberal democracy after invading a country. Pax Americana has proven to be anything but peaceful.

Yet the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not inevitable, and neither was the rise of radical and anti-democratic forces. There’s a direct line from America’s funding and arming of the mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan war to the Taliban today. Likewise, if America was concerned about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction it should have imposed sanctions after Saddam Hussein’s gassing of Kurds in 1988: Colin Powell organised the Reagan administration’s opposition to trade sanctions and the ending of financial support for Hussein’s reign. Powell went on to become George W Bush’s secretary of state and, basically, lied to the UN Security Council that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, in order to justify the 2003 invasion.

Seeking a peaceful solution to the problems has never really been on the table. The approach has always been war, or war by proxy, and the result has just been more war.

America’s invasions and actions during the war on terror have elicited much criticism in South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s and Thabo Mbeki’s views on it severely strained relations with the Bush administration. On September 25, 2001, Zapiro depicted George W Bush as a warhead. And it would be a brave South African public figure who supports the American occupation of another country.

Yet the very legitimate criticisms of American actions are not being applied to South Africa’s present involvement in Mozambique’s civil war. South African media have been virtually silent on the fact that SANDF special forces, regular troops, armoured vehicles, Rooivalk helicopters and even one naval vessel have been deployed over the past month to the northern province of Cabo Delgado.


America’s invasions and actions during the war on terror have elicited much criticism in South Africa ... Yet the very legitimate criticisms of American actions are not being applied to South Africa’s present involvement in Mozambique’s civil war ... South Africa should not replicate America’s grievous mistakes ... As for taking in refugees? South Africa should join in on that. The conflict in Cabo Delgado has displaced over 670 000 people.


The military’s mission is to fight Ansar al-Sunna, known locally as Al-Shabaab, but not to be confused with the Somalian organisation of the same name, and Islamic State. Although tied to the conflict, the likelihood is that Islamic State is parasitically claiming Ansar al-Sunna’s battlefield successes for its own propaganda purposes.

The Mozambican army, not known for a commitment to human rights and financial propriety, has proven incapable of defeating the insurgents. In order to improve the capacity of the government to fight and hold territory, the American military is now training Mozambican special forces.

Local grievances in Cabo Delgado include the decades-long neglect of the province, the transfer of wealth from the north to Maputo, the evictions of artisanal ruby miners, inefficient local government, and the brutality of security forces. Transparency International’s corruption index ranks Mozambique 149th out of 180 countries, and while Cabo Delgado doesn’t have oil it has a huge reserve of offshore natural gas, the proceeds of which will go anywhere but to the province. Military conflict will not address these issues. On the contrary, the war will sweep them under the carpet where they will fester and breed another generation of insurgents.

In a 2020 study, Eric Morier-Genoud charted the development of Al-Shabaab in Mozambique. From 2007 to 2016 it was an Islamic sect seeking to withdraw from society and distance itself from the state. But starting in 2016, mainstream Muslim organisations started attacking it and destroying its mosques. The police started arresting people simply for being members of the sect. Morier-Genoud states that in 2017 the organisation “probably shifted to armed jihadism as a consequence of the repression”.

Along with other SADC states and Rwanda, South Africa has joined in a dirty civil war on behalf of President Filipe Nyusi’s corrupt and violent regime. To be absolutely clear, this is an offensive war of South Africa’s choosing. Jihadists are not swarming through the Kruger on their way to Pretoria, and neither will they ever do so. Nor is South Africa engaged in a peacekeeping mission, for there is no peace in Cabo Delgado to keep.

If the deployment swells from its current 270 personnel to the maximum of 1 495 over the expected next three months of operations, South Africa’s adventure will cost the taxpayer almost one billion rand. The rationale for the deployment is that it is to help the good guys fight the evil Islamic terrorists, which sounds all far too familiar. The delusion is that it will all be over in three months – Al-Shabaab will be defeated on the battlefield and a newly trained Mozambican army will keep the peace so that democracy can flourish.

The US and its allies deserve severe moral condemnation for the disaster in Afghanistan. Their entire strategy of using overwhelming military force to bring about social and political change in foreign countries has failed completely. And they have an ethical duty to evacuate all their Afghan employees and contractors and not hide behind slow bureaucratic immigration processes. 

South Africa should not replicate America’s grievous mistakes. Bombing Cabo Delgado will not end the conflict in the long run. That will require a peace deal between the Mozambican government and the insurgents followed by substantial economic development in Cabo Delgado.

As for taking in refugees? South Africa should join in on that. The conflict in Cabo Delgado has displaced over 670 000 people.

Tristen Taylor is a freelance journalist and photographer. He is also a research associate in the Department of Philosophy, Stellenbosch University.

More about the conflict in Afghanistan:

Reguit met Robinson: A Zoom conversation with Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of Gift of the Givers

Die einde van ’n asimmetriese oorlog

Afghanistan: “Dit is takties ’n moeilike situasie.”

More about the conflict in Cabo Delgado:

Die Islamitiese verset in Cabo Delgado in Noord-Mosambiek

Reguit met Robinson: ’n Zoom-gesprek met Willie Breytenbach

Quo vadis Mosambiek?

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  • Gustaf Claassens

    The West, led by America, are a bunch of war mongerers. They specialise in regime changes and destabilise countries at will. They act in own interest and are driven by power, money and greed. There are numerous examples of which Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and now Afghanistan, is the latest. When things go wrong, they just pull out and leave the countries in chaos. It’s an old habit with a long history.
    The media seldom, if ever, address this reality. They are in fact part of the problem, acting as propagandists for their governments. The media is even provoking war in the way they dish up 'news.' Do they learn? Never! They will just get involved in other countries, sooner rather than later. South American countries jump to mind. The only ones benefiting from this are big companies, corporates and politicians who have vested financial interests. The latest mess in Afghanistan shows that the so-called leader of the Western world, Joe Biden, is an incompetent liar. He actually is in Lala-land and doesn’t have a clue what’s going on around him. Everyone can see it. The media as well. Now why on earth are the corporate media trying to protect him, starting with CNN!? Has the world really gone that 'crazy?'

  • Johann Andersen

    Ek wonder of ek en Tristan koffie gedrink kan kry hier op Stellenbosch. Hy gee so 'n raak beskrywing van die Afghanistanse dilemma, maar om dit met die Mosambiekse situasie reglynig in verband te bring, is 'n bietjie dik vir 'n daalder. Sou die inwoners die oënskynlik terroristiese optredes dan goedkeur? Die politiese stabilisering van die noordelike Mosambiekse provinsies en die beskerming van bates wat vir Mosambiek inkomstegenererend is, is beslis in SA se belang. Die olie-/gasprojekte en die politiek is verstrengel. Kompleks.

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