The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I’ve seen the Taliban’s brutality in Afghanistan. Boko Haram might be worse.

An aerial view of road blocks in the destroyed town of Gwoza, Boko Haram's former base in northern Nigeria. (Jane Hahn for The Washington Post)

GWOZA, Nigeria — Flying into northeastern Nigeria, I thought about southeastern Afghanistan.

I was in an MI-24 helicopter last week traveling with the Nigerian army toward Boko Haram’s former headquarters, trying to imagine what the insurgents had left behind after they were forced to flee in the face of a major military operation.

[Related: War-torn Nigerian town shows devastating legacy of Boko Haram]

One of the complications of covering insurgencies is that you can typically visit the militants’ strongholds only once they’ve left. And so we assess what we can based on what those groups have left behind. It’s not a comprehensive indicator, but it’s a glimpse into the way militants use their power.

In 2½ years as a Post correspondent in Afghanistan, I often found myself in Taliban strongholds newly vacated by the insurgents. Many of them were pockmarked by bomb blasts and cratered by airstrikes, full of residential structures that had been turned into munitions depots.

But there were always signs that the Taliban was there to do more than fight. In the Tangi Valley, I once embedded with the Afghan army on a mission into a well-known insurgent haven. The road had been mined to keep intruders out, but the valley itself showed few signs of destruction by the Islamist extremists — it was a stunningly pristine landscape of well-irrigated farmland, neat wooden bridges over a mountain stream, a functioning clinic.

On another trip with the U.S. military into a small Taliban-run village in Paktika province, we saw an active bazaar and government-operated schools. None of this detracts from the horrors of the Taliban: the senseless killings, the abuse of women, the attacks on helpless civilians. But I was reminded of these details — the Taliban’s attempts at bringing about order — as our helicopter descended last week upon Gwoza, the capital of Boko Haram’s self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate.

The scene was post-apocalyptic, an entire city destroyed. Almost every building, it seemed, had been ransacked or set on fire. Schools were in ruin. Bodies decayed in a pile. Gwoza felt orderless and uninhabitable.

[Report: Boko Haram has forced nearly a million kids from their homes]

It was impossible to know whether all the destruction was due to Boko Haram; the military had been conducting airstrikes in northeastern Nigeria, and it engaged in a fierce firefight with the militants to drive them from their stronghold. Nigerian soldiers certainly had committed abuses in the past. But residents blamed the insurgents for much of the damage. The burning and looting corresponded to reports of the insurgents’ behavior in other areas.

In videos and statements, Boko Haram, like the Taliban, has presented itself as a religious alternative to a dysfunctional, irreligious government. But it has made no attempt to govern. Unlike the Taliban, it has won no public confidence.

As we sped through the devastation of Gwoza in a military convoy, this fact seemed to me a reason to be hopeful. Defeating the Taliban means conducting a nuanced counterinsurgency campaign — clobbering the appeal of the insurgents as much as their ability to fight. In religious and insular parts of the country, that can be a near-impossible prospect.

[A Nigerian soldier walks by a secondary school destroyed by Boko Haram. This is in the insurgent group's former stronghold -- just retaken by Nigerian forces. The entire city has been demolished. (Kevin Sieff/The Washington Post)]

In Gwoza, no one seemed to long for the days of Boko Haram. When people who had been displaced began to return, they told of unspeakable horrors — their husbands killed, their wives raped, their children gunned down.

I thought of the relics of a Taliban court I once saw — a symbol of an archaic and inhumane system of justice, but nonetheless evidence of an attempt to govern. Gwoza appeared to have had nothing like this.

Walking through the ruins here, there was an aspect of the destruction that felt almost meticulous. There are thousands of homes in Gwoza, and insurgents appeared to have been intent on marking or destroying each of them. For now, trying to document those acts, the speed or breadth of the violence, is an act of imagination.

We know little more about the specifics of Boko Haram’s reign than we do about Gwoza’s future.

And what of its future? In Afghanistan, when I left a town from where the Taliban had been pushed out, it was typically only a matter of time before the insurgents returned. The fighters were from those villages, and it seemed that they would always have some support there, particularly if the Afghan government didn’t develop a permanent and robust presence.

In Gwoza, victory should be easier, but the fight ahead is still a massive one. I passed groups of Nigerian troops sitting in their makeshift posts, seeking shade in the scorching heat. None of the Boko Haram checkpoints had been cleared away. Even as civilians came back, there seemed to be no plan to house them.

One senior commander said he hoped “organizations” would come to assist the returning residents, referring to aid groups and the United Nations. But for the foreseeable future, the problem was theirs alone.

Related coverage:

War-torn Nigerian town shows devastating legacy of Boko Haram

Report: Boko Haram has forced nearly a million kids from their homes

Children rescued from Boko Haram are so traumatized they forgot their names

South African mercenaries join Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram.