Saturday

4th Feb 2023

Opinion

Lessons for the EU in Sahel, from Afghanistan

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Much has been made of how the Taliban's victory will inspire jihadists in the Sahel. Equally important is for governments to reflect on the lessons from the Afghan intervention for their own strategies.

Having worked on both issues, here are my own personal reflections while recognising they have wider relevance to other crises.

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  • Former ambassador Cat Evans. In Afghanistan, 'lofty statements bore little relation to the messy reality on the ground' (Photo: UK FCDO)

Security solutions cannot fix fundamentally political problems.

One reason the intervention in Afghanistan failed, was the overwhelming focus on security solutions. These should only ever be part of, and subordinate to, a wider political strategy, but in Afghanistan it was usually the inverse.

Lofty statements bore little relation to the messy reality on the ground, while ever-changing and often competing priorities undermined progress.

Poppy income

In 2004 I remember discussing how eradicating poppies would provoke a backlash from poor farmers, yet years later soldiers were supporting counter-narcotics efforts in the Pashtun-heartlands with predictable effects. Meanwhile, billions of dollars poured into Afghanistan contributing to profiteering and corruption, which only served to compound the underlying political challenges.

This included co-opting power-brokers who lacked local legitimacy.

Despite widespread recognition that the Sahel's problems are political and governance related, governments are falling into the same trap by prioritising security over political and development responses.

If as much effort was dedicated to implementing existing commitments such as the 2015 Algiers Peace Agreement in Mali and pursuing wider governance reforms to help re-establish social contracts between the state and its citizens, there would be more grounds for hope.

Governments must re-calibrate to avoid failure, and start responding to consistent demands from its citizens, such as those outlined by the People's Coalition for the Sahel. As well as being right, it's also the smart thing to do as failing to address grievances only leaves them open for exploitation.

The language of 'terrorism' can deflect from addressing legitimate demands and creating more inclusive political settlements.

Opportunities to explore a genuinely inclusive political settlement were consistently missed in Afghanistan, starting with the decision not to engage moderate Taliban figures who were initially open to dialogue.

By the time Donald Trump came to 'negotiate' the US withdrawal, many of these had been eliminated and replaced by more extreme, battle-hardened fighters who saw no reason to compromise when their end goal was in sight.

Meanwhile, international troops were often unwittingly exploited to pursue local rivalries that had nothing to do with 'terrorism', but still helped fuel conflict.

Indeed, indiscriminately labelling groups 'terrorist' can deflect from having to address legitimate demands or governments' acknowledging their own shortcomings.

In the Sahel, outsiders have often exploited previous injustices, particularly amongst historically-marginalised groups. Some communities have become stigmatised and the target of tough security action as a result of having to co-exist with terrorist groups, which often only alienates them further. Focusing on addressing their underlying concerns would be more effective in separating them from such groups.

Equally, if people do not see a way to achieve their objectives through political means, this will only incentivise violence as a means of pursuing change. This often results in moderate voices being squeezed out due to disillusionment.

Governments (including internationals) therefore need to be willing to engage and listen to all legitimate constituencies on the ground, not just those that are seen as convenient partners.

Don't underestimate the corrosive impact of corruption and impunity. People can forget that when the Taliban first swept to power in the 1990s they were popular. Afghans welcomed the increased security and access to swift justice that was largely regarded as fair, even if brutal. It was a welcome change from the corrupt, predatory officials and warlords who acted with impunity.

The failure to tackle rampant corruption amongst the new political elites and punish abuses not only undermined efforts to 'nation build', it left ordinary Afghans disenchanted.

Similar concerns over corruption, impunity and a lack of service delivery are common in the Sahel, as reflected in the excoriating conclusions of Mali's 2019 National Inclusive Dialogue and frequent popular protests. Corruption gnaws away at a state's institutions, undermining its ability to deliver on its social contract with its citizens and ultimately affecting their view of, and loyalty to, the state.

The speed at which the Taliban re-took power surprised many, given the international investment in the Afghan security forces.

But training and equipment isn't enough; individuals need to believe in what they're fighting for to be willing to sacrifice their lives. This is not something that outsiders can create.

More honesty

International partners certainly have an important role to play, but it's local leadership, vision and ownership that makes the difference between a country that is able to unite disparate groups to see beyond narrow, vested interests and work together to overcome conflict and instability to secure a better future for its people.

My final reflection is the need for more honesty. In Afghanistan, the coalition and Afghan government were too willing to believe their own propaganda and reluctant to tackle the real issues undermining progress.

Being a true partner means helping others to see their blind spots, and also being willing to acknowledge your own; as real friends tell you what you need, not necessarily what you want, to hear.

Author bio

Cat Evans was formerly the UK ambassador to Mali and Niger from 2018-2020 and worked on Afghanistan from 2003-4 and 2009-12 as part of her UK government career. She is now director of European operations and African outreach at Independent Diplomat.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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