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The surprisingly quick collapse of the Taliban over the past month has seriously embarrassed Western political commentators, military analysts, ex-Russian soldiers defeated by the Mujahedin and the Taliban who were all united in their warnings of tough battles ahead and about Afghanistan being ‘the graveyard of foreign invaders’.

Three key factors contributed to the retreat of the Taliban and the victories of the Northern Alliance. Firstly and most importantly, the end of the cold war meant that the US Air Force had a free hand to utilise superior air power to its full advantage and drop almost everything except tactical nuclear weapons on the Taliban. In the days of the cold war, the US Army, Navy or Air Force could never have moved into any country or territory bordering the Soviet Union without risking a serious military confrontation and plunging the world into potential nuclear annihilation. All this is underlined by the fact that while Kabul fell, Russian President Putin was a guest of President Bush in Texas. The circumstances were so unreal to many Americans that President Bush found it necessary to repeatedly explain to confounded Texans fed on cold war propaganda by Ronald Regan and Bush senior amongst others that Russia was no longer the ‘evil empire’. That role he implied has now been taken over by Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida. Putin, the former KGB colonel obliged by playing along and informing sceptical Texans that ‘they’ had always known in Russia that ‘Texas’ not Washington ‘is the most important place in America’.

This means that unlike during the Soviet invasion when the US government supported the Afghan and Arab fighters with over $300 million a year over ten years and CIA and military training, the Taliban have nowhere to turn to for support. Even Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that had previously provided financial and strategic support have now turned against them, leaving them isolated.

Putin’s co-operation is not without benefits. The US government attacks on Afghanistan, has done the dirty work for the Russian government of destroying the training bases of Chechen separatists. Putin also has a ‘free hand’ to crush Chechen rebels and other internal dissent without worrying about any serious Western objections.

The second and no less important factor contributing to the collapse of the Taliban is the fact that most Afghans had suffered enough of Taliban extremism. Imprisonments and punishments for listening to non Taliban music or watching television, no cinemas, no libraries, no schools or jobs especially for women, forced growing of long beards for men, dehumanisation of women, arbitrary executions and sustained human rights violations have all exhausted the Taliban’s political capital. All governments based on fear and intimidation loose their moral authority and will sooner or later become overripe fruits ready to fall at the slightest gust of wind. Twenty years of war and drought that had already created a refugee crisis even before September 11 also meant that millions starving to death welcomed any change even if it is the Northern Alliance that massacred an estimated fifty thousand civilians during its four year rule which was characterised by factional fighting and was ended by the Taliban. At the time the Taliban were also similarly welcomed as ‘liberators’.

The third factor, which the Taliban did not at all consider was that the US government, would by pass the public relations tragedy of engaging the Taliban directly with American troops. By utilising the Northern Alliance as a first wave following the massive bombing campaign, the US military was able to sidestep the most potentially potent weapon of the Taliban – the sight of US troops on international news attacking and occupying a Muslim country. If this had happened, not only would it have generated massive protests which would have destabilised the mostly undemocratic governments of the middle east, any serious American casualties would have also strengthened the anti-war movement in the US and Europe.

The second and third factors have made it easier for some key local warlords to switch sides without blinking and transfer loyalties from the Taliban to the Northern Alliance overnight.


It is not only in Chechnya that human rights have been sacrificed in order to build and sustain the ‘anti-terror coalition’. As regards rights violations, the major difference between the Saudi regime and the Taliban is GDP and Per Capita Income. For instance, although Saudi women are better educated than Taliban women, they are still subject to similar level of restrictions and are segregated in public institutions such as banks, schools and restaurants and are not permitted to drive. Also, every Friday ‘convicted criminals’ are beheaded and amputated in what has been described by some publications as ‘Chop Chop Square’. Alleged vices of western materialism such as cinemas are banned and the religious police roam the streets searching for offenders just as in Afghanistan. More importantly, democratic opposition to the Saudi ruling family’s autocratic rule is virtually a criminal offence. But as a Western ally, the fact that no elections are held and that democratic opposition is not tolerated does not attract Western condemnation, just as human rights violations in Afghanistan were condoned when the Taliban and Mujahedin where on the ‘right’ side of the cold war.

In Pakistan the fact that General Musharraf heads a military regime that ousted an elected government has been buried by the ‘strategic’ need to win over the Pakistani government. Musharraf in turn has opportunistically become ‘civilised’ and sacrificed his Taliban friends for Western support, which will bolster his consolidation of power. It is almost impossible to believe that this is a regime that was only recently suspended from the Commonwealth. Tony Blair and Colin Powell’s visits to Pakistan and Powell’s talk of ‘strengthening relationships’ and ‘long term cooperation’ all but restore credibility and recognition to the regime. There is little doubt that in the short and long term, any democratic opposition to Musharraf will be ruthlessly crushed in the ‘war against terrorism’ and will be sacrificed by the ‘international community’ as the regimes reward. If this happens, what will be the long-term implications for democracy and how the UK and US governments are perceived by civil society in Pakistan? Muslim fundamentalists will no doubt again tap into any resentment of apparent western support for a military dictatorship.

In China, Chinese Foreign ministry officials have linked ‘Chinese support for the global campaign against terrorism to US support for China's campaign against those advocating independence for Tibet and the Muslim province of Xinjiang.’ Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao has been quoted as stating, ‘The United States has asked China to provide assistance against terrorism. China, by the same token, has reasons to ask the United States to give its support and understanding in the fight against terrorism and separatists.’ President Bush’s surprise visit to China which was unthinkable prior to September 11, appears to provide this ‘understanding’. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have for a while now been highlighting the Chinese government campaign called ‘Strike Hard’, aimed at people suspected of supporting independence in these two ethnic minority regions. The campaign has led to many arbitrary arrests and summary executions, with little or no due process.


The new wave of anti-terror legislation across the world threatens to undermine democracy especially in Africa where in the past, proxy wars resulting from Cold War rivalry between the ‘East and West’ led to full support and recognition of all sorts of dictatorships for decades. Now it appears that all any corrupt, undemocratic or insecure government needs to do to ensure the support of the ‘West’ is to sign up to the anti-terror war and introduce ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation which is sure to be used to suppress or undermine democratic opposition and humans rights. At best, even if not put to immediate use against civil society, such laws are likely to be a sword of Damocles dangling over the neck of anyone overly keen on exercising democratic rights even in the most peaceful and law abiding way possible.

For instance, journalists, lawyers, trade unionists and human rights organisations in Nigeria are alarmed at recent statements by representatives of the Nigerian police about ‘the need to revive’ the anti terrorist squad set up by the late dictator General Sanni Abacha. In all its years of existence, not a single terrorist was arrested or prosecuted. Instead, it was used to terrorise the media, human rights community, the pro democracy movement and other real and imagined enemies.

In Uganda, critics of the government have stated that ‘the anti-terrorism bill seeks to lower the standard of proof on which one can be held and convicted on a terrorism charge. If passed in the present form, the minister of internal affairs will be given powers to add any organization to the terrorist list. By the stroke of a pen, the minister can add all opposition parties to the terrorist list, and its leaders will be rounded up and thrown in jail’.

In South Africa, the government is currently preparing a terrorism bill to comply with calls for a clampdown on terrorism in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the United States. The bill, which was originally drafted to replace the draconian apartheid anti-terror act, which was used to suppress opposition to white minority rule, may now be fast tracked and become law by mid 2002. Many South Africans are alarmed that the proposed bill contains clauses, which allows for detention without trial for interrogation purposes. The recent memories of Apartheid and the persecution of ‘freedom fighters’ as terrorists means that in South Africa at least, any anti terror laws are likely to meet stiff resistance if they are perceived as anti-democratic. Many lawyers have stated that they would oppose ‘any detention for the purpose of interrogation’.

In countries such as Zimbabwe where regardless of any merits for the argument for land distribution, Robert Mugabe has wielded the entire matter like a cudgel against all opposition, any accusations of terrorism are sure to be accompanied by very severe repercussions. For instance, the Zimbabwean government has recently accused journalists of being ‘agents of terrorism’ which is no small misdemeanour considering the local political climate.

This trend will no doubt be spurred on by the introduction of anti-terrorist legislation in the US, UK, Italy and other Western countries which more or less give governments ‘dictatorial’ powers to detain people (foreigners or not) indefinitely on mere suspicion and without charge or any publicly stated reason. In some cases, even the detained persons will not be told of the reasons for their detention and if charged, will have lawyers chosen for them or be tried by military tribunals. The well publicised statements of the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi likening anti-globalisation protesters to terrorists or boasting about the alleged superiority of western civilisation over other civilisations will not comfort those that fear these laws will be abused.

Considering that the United States government is likely to push for African governments to ‘demonstrate full commitment to tackling evil’ and ‘make it impossible for terrorists to operate within their borders’, it is no exaggeration to caution that democracy on the African continent may be in for a rough ride. The number of Muslims in countries in Africa and Asia that indicated their opposition to the attacks on Afghanistan on religious grounds will not have escaped the attention of the US government and such counties in particular may come under pressure to ‘act swiftly against terrorists’.

As can be seen with the case of Pakistan, the terrorist atrocities in the US have been clearly seized as an opportunity for an undemocratic government to reintegrate itself into the respectable ranks of ‘the international community’ and address the United Nations General Assembly after being suspended from the Commonwealth.

No matter how unpopular it may seem, the point must be made that it will be a serious mistake to sacrifice democracy in Africa on the altar of ‘eradicating Bin Laden and Al-Qaida’. The ‘rise’ of the likes of Saddam and Bin Laden also shows clearly that ‘short-termism' in foreign policy is to put it crudely ‘a ticking bomb’. The only way to defeat and keep terrorism and its sympathisers out of Africa and by doing so reducing their potential bases, is to ensure more, not less democracy. Africans must make it clear, that while they condemn terrorism, the fight against it cannot be used as an excuse to create more Mobutus on the continent. The tragedy of these latest developments is that by introducing legislation in their countries which before September 11 would have been unthinkable, the governments of the US, UK other Western countries may have robbed themselves of the moral right to speak up when similar laws are introduced and used to undermine democracy in Africa and strengthen governments which may in the long run turn out to be eventual enemies of ‘civilised values’.

Sankore is a Human Rights Campaigner and Journalist with a keen interest in Freedom of Expression and Associated Rights