Jihad Rising: Will Afghan Failure Repeat Itself In Africa?

In Mali and elsewhere in northern and western Africa, al-Qaeda factions have been held back with the help of the French military. Fears are rising of a future pullout after watching the debacle in Kabul.

Jihad Rising: Will Afghan Failure Repeat Itself In Africa?

U.S. troops evacuating Afghan families at Kabul airport on Aug. 18

U.S. Marines/ZUMA
Morgane Le Cam

Iyad Ag Ghali did not wait for the fall of Kabul to celebrate the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. The jihadist leader of the West African branch of al-Qaeda (Group To Support Islam and Muslims, or GSIM) broke his long silence on Aug. 10, not having spoken since November 2019. In an audio message, he paid tribute to the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, for the withdrawal of the invading U.S. forces and their allies." He said the reversal "is the culmination of two decades of patience."

It is no coincidence that the Taliban's relentless offensive resonates to the far reaches of the Sahel region in northern and western Africa. When GSIM was created in 2017, Iyad Ag Ghali pledged allegiance not only to al-Qaeda, but also to Afghan Islamists. The Taliban and the Sahelian fighters are cut from the same cloth. "They share on-the-ground insurgency know-how, which is a byproduct of the al-Qaeda matrix," says Yvan Guichaoua, a researcher at the School of International Studies at the University of Kent in Brussels. "They also have the same ultimate goal: the application of Sharia law."

GSIM jihadists were not the only ones in the region keeping close tabs on Afghanistan's shift back into Taliban control. On Aug. 16, Malians were particularly disturbed to see images of Afghans clinging to military planes as they took off from the Kabul airport. For the past decade, Mali has been living under the threat of jihadists, sometimes those affiliated with al-Qaeda, other times with the Islamic State (ISIS). This is despite a French anti-terrorist intervention launched in January 2013 (first Operation "Serval" then Operation "Barkhane") at the request of the Malian government and under a mandate from the United Nations.

Even though public opinion toward French troops has become increasingly hostile, fears of a possible power vacuum remain. "Like the Americans who fled Afghanistan without asking for help, the French and the peacekeepers who are in Mali will one day run away and leave us face to face with the terrorist menace," said Cheick Oumar Konaré, a well-known Malian lawyer, in a televised debate broadcast on Africable on Aug. 15.

We should understand now what the consequences of a hasty, uncoordinated departure would be.

"Let's learn from this Afghan failure, while there is still time," says Tiébilé Dramé, who served as Malian foreign minister under Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, known as "IBK," who was overthrown by a coup d'état last year. "What lessons do the images from the Kabul airport teach us? For years, activists have regularly called for the departure of foreign troops, ironically also echoing the demands of warlords. But we must face reality. Foreign troops are doing a useful job. We should understand now what the consequences of a hasty, uncoordinated departure would be."

But this scenario is not on the agenda. Unlike the United States in Afghanistan, France is not about to disengage from the Sahel. Though President Emmanuel Macron announced the end of the Barkhane mission as an external operation on June 10, a "profound transformation" of the French military presence in the Sahel is set to take its place. The beginning of the withdrawal, at the end of 2021, will be gradual. While it will concern at least 40% of the troops (at a currently unknown date), between 2,500 and 3,000 soldiers will remain on the ground, operating within the framework of an international fight against terrorism.

Operation Barkhane troops in Tofalaga, Burkina Faso, in November 2019 — Photo: Philippe De Poulpiquet/Maxppp/ZUMAZUMA

However, the closure of French military bases in northern Mali (Timbuktu, Kidal and Tessalit) by 2022 is a concern. At the start of the war in 2012, Malian soldiers were forced to abandon some of their positions to a coalition of jihadist and rebel groups. Thiss begs the question: 10 years later, will these towns be retaken by the jihadists once the French bases are closed? The issue is on the minds of many observers because the Malian army, despite its nine years of Western support (i.e. training, weapons, funding), still seems unable to compete with an enemy that is spreading its influence southward.

In his Aug. 10 speech, Iyad Ag Ghali was quick to point out the "bitter failure" of France, arguing that victory was near. However, the battle is far from over for GSIM, as it differs from the Taliban in a few crucial ways. The group "does not have the government experience of the Taliban [in power in Kabul from 1996 to 2001] and remains, for the moment, the head of a jihadist insurgency with a very limited popular base," explains Rida Lyammouri, a researcher at the Moroccan think tank Policy Center for the New South. Another contrast is that GSIM does not have the unwavering support of a neighboring state, like the Taliban with Pakistan.

Even though the contexts and issues differ, Western interventionism nevertheless seems to fall into the same trap. "Whether it be a lack of specific knowledge of organizations or false interpretations: the experts fail to see the big picture," says Gilles Dorronsoro, a professor of political science at the University of Paris I and a specialist in Afghanistan who also conducts research on Malian institutions. "The same organizations produce assessments in Afghanistan as in Mali, and they typically come to the same conclusions. The circuit is closed. Part of the problem is that experts are judged by how they integrate decision makers and how much funding they can obtain rather than in building democratic institutions."

New political forces must emerge that correspond to the real aspirations of the people. This is scary for the West.

Elie Tenenbaum, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations also blames the effects of a "war economy" on undermining societal progress. "International aid increased suddenly, even though these countries did not have a state or government strong enough to manage it. This created an increase in corruption, a curse that has notably spread within the armies that makes the fight against terrorists even more complex."

Yvan Guichaoua says civilians have felt so disenchanted they have even switched over to the Islamist camp, less out of conviction than out of a lack of credible political alternative. "We looked the other way regarding their governance problems. And yet, these governments have been largely discredited by their own population," he explains.

"New political forces must emerge that correspond to the real aspirations of the people. This is scary for the West, because they will not necessarily be able to control them and their ideas could be similar to those of the Islamists, but they will be the only ones able to provide a sufficient counterweight," says Elie Tenenbaum, before offering a lesson from the Afghan crisis that could be useful in the Sahel: "Be modest in your ambitions. The international actors who are more focused on protecting their own interests must have their influence reduced to just enough to get by. The rest should depend on local actors."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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