The fall of Afghanistan echoes in Myanmar
The spectacular fall of the U.S.-supported Afghan state to the Taliban has sent shockwaves across the globe. The rapid collapse of the Afghan National Army (ANA), the flight of President Ashraf Ghani, and the ensuing chaos are bound to cast long shadows on U.S. credibility in the context of an increasingly unpredictable regional security situation.
On the surface, there is little to link Afghanistan to Myanmar beyond opium production, their similar-sized land mass, and the two nations’ immense suffering due to unending conflict. Yet there has been a flurry of online activity as Myanmar commentators and netizens have conjured up parallels between recent developments in Afghanistan and Myanmar’s own political crisis. How the Taliban routed a technologically superior national army, Afghanistan’s ethnic diversity, and the replacement of a pro-Western government with one that supposedly benefits Chinese geopolitical ambitions have all provided fertile ground for a wide range of analyses, analogies, and conjectures on developments that have taken place since the military coup in February.
Ministers from both the military junta and the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) have seized upon the recent turn of events in Afghanistan to shore up their own positions. On the junta’s side, the emphasis is on the failure of outside intervention and the need for a strong military, while the NUG side has displayed a worrying tendency toward rose-tinted appraisals of the Taliban’s lightning victory and calls to emulate their tactics.
Ko Ko Hlaing, a former advisor to President Thein Sein and now a minister in the military’s “caretaker” cabinet, wrote a lengthy opinion piece in which he took a jab against “externally enforced democratization” and portrayed the Karzai and Ghani administrations as glorified American viceroys who happily sold out their country’s sovereignty. This fits into the Tatmadaw’s mantra that Myanmar will undertake its own path toward a “disciplined, flourishing democracy,” and that regime change imposed through foreign intervention is doomed to fail, especially in the face of recent repeated calls for international action under the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, principle.
Ko Ko Hlaing also warned that the loss of Afghanistan will prompt the United States to conduct more “soft power” operations across the region to contain China, such as supporting pro-democracy movements and fomenting political instability. This segues well into the military’s perspective that its current opponents enjoy foreign support and that most members of the civilian Peoples’ Defense Forces (PDFs) are motivated by money, and reportedly receive cash rewards for carrying out bomb attacks and assassinations.
Other pro-military accounts have contrasted the ANA with the Tatmadaw, stressing the need for a strong and coherent military in order for democracy to flourish. This narrative supports the Tatmadaw’s self-perception that it has been entrusted with “historical duties” to serve as the ostensibly impartial arbiter of the country’s democratization process. Ghani’s hasty departure is also being held up as a way of gloating about important protest leaders and activists who urged fellow citizens to fight to the bitter end, yet have fled abroad.
Within the pro-NUG camp, there are some claims that the only reason the Taliban won was due to support from Russia and China, based on the Taliban’s assurances to Moscow and Beijing. This draws parallels to long-standing claims that these two major powers gave their blessings for Myanmar’s recent coup. Chinese and Russian officials had visited Myanmar in January 2021 and have subsequently shielded the junta in various international forums, fueling accusations that the two countries not only knew of the coup but gave it their advance approval. This narrative also seeks to equate the junta with the Taliban as Russo-Chinese stooges of comparable moral repugnancy that democratic states must band together to eradicate.
However, the bulk of the conversation centers around how the NUG and their subordinate PDFs can emulate the Taliban’s blitzkrieg as a means of uprooting the junta. The NUG, the PDFs, and their supporters have been calling for all-out civil war as the only way forward, and the recent Taliban victory after 20 years of grinding conflict against the U.S.-backed government is being cast as the inevitable triumph of a dedicated and popularly supported force, no matter how powerful the adversary may be.
There is a disturbing uptick in admiration of the Taliban’s military tactics and the projection of romanticized assumptions about the group, though this narrative has also elicited some pushback. NUG minister Tu Hkwang praised the Taliban victory in a Facebook post, saying the Taliban had routed a numerically and technologically superior force because they had the support of the Afghan population. Another observation was that the Afghan government had failed mainly because it did not practice ethnic federalism, while the Taliban supposedly were able to appeal to different ethnic groups (another example of commentators in Myanmar adopting an idealized view of the Afghan militant group).
Other netizens say that the Tatmadaw, like the ANA, is a paper tiger, with the bulk of its manpower allegedly made up of ghost soldiers. This narrative has been present since the early days of the anti-coup resistance, with claims that the Tatmadaw only had 10 percent of its paper strength and is vastly outnumbered by the different ethnic armed groups and PDFs combined. Thus the thinking goes that the Tatmadaw would fold like the ANA in the face of the NUG’s long-heralded “D-Day,” in which an all-out offensive would purportedly liberate key towns and cities and the fighting “will end within two weeks.” Despite warnings that Myanmar risks becoming the “next Syria,” these overly optimistic claims, interwoven with revulsion at the junta, have helped netizens romanticize conflict as the best option available to them.
With Myanmar’s devastating third COVID-19 wave apparently tempering despite the junta’s ineptitude and the approach of the post-monsoon “fighting season,” the Taliban’s victory has also provided a morale boost for the PDFs, as the NUG’s latest promulgation of an imminent “D-Day” sets off a buzz on social media. That said, how much online rhetoric actually translates into realities on the ground, and whether the vast majority of Myanmar’s population, trying to survive all the vicissitudes of the post-coup turmoil, would actually welcome more conflict and devastation with open arms, remains very much to be seen.
As the world continues to react to the unfolding tragedy in Afghanistan, the opposing sides of Myanmar’s political crisis seem set to ignore the humanitarian consequences of endless conflict. Instead, they are projecting their own fantasies onto the fall of Kabul, while regurgitating cherry-picked and highly filtered narratives to their supporters: one side entrenching its iron grip on power, the other pinning its hope on a cataclysmic endgame.