This year’s spring has arrived with the Americans singing a new tune about Afghanistan: the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily. While this was obvious for quite some time to most observers familiar with the Afghan scene, the Americans being slow learners needed extra time to grasp this reality. From US President Barack Obama down, most Americans are now singing from the same page.
In an interview he gave to CBS television’s 60 Minutes program that was aired on March 23, Obama for the first time brought up the subject of an “exit strategy”. This was along the lines of an interview he gave to the New York Times on March 6 (published March 7), when he announced that he was looking for “moderate” Taliban to talk to because there was no military solution in Afghanistan. In a BBC interview by US General David McKiernan, the commander of NATO and US troops in Afghanistan, on March 9, he admitted that the coalition was “not winning” the war against the insurgents. This was also the message delivered by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to CNN on March 1. That Harper chose to speak to an American rather than a Canadian TV channel to announce change of direction on Afghanistan reflects his stubborn nature. Since 2006 when he became the prime minister, albeit leading a minority government, he had insisted that the Taliban must be defeated otherwise they would pose an existential threat to the West. Afghan reality has finally caught up with Harper’s rightwing views.
While the Americans have been lowering expectations about a military victory, the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner took the idea even further, saying the West should accept a pro-Taliban leadership if Afghans choose such an administration in elections set for next August. In an interview published in the French newspaper Le Figaro on March 9, he said, “In Afghanistan, there will not be an exclusively military solution.” He went further: “We should accept the result of the forthcoming elections whatever it is” and admitted that there was “no question” of making Afghanistan a Western-style democracy. “If nationalist-minded Taliban come to power through the ballot-box and respect the constitution, that is the Afghans’ business,” he said. “What we reject is support for international jihad.”
So Afghanistan will not be a “Western-style democracy”? Mulla Omar must be chuckling in his mountain cave while sipping tea and munching on stale bread. The Afghan election commission had said in February that presidential elections would be postponed from May to August 20 because of the deteriorating security situation. Presi-dent Hamid Karzai first went along with this; later feeling the heat from his opponents and the US, he announced that elections should be held by April. He had another change of mind in early March when he said he would accept the August 20 date for elections provided he could “govern effectively” –” hinting that his opponents must not challenge his authority since constitutionally, he would be vulnerable when his term as president officially ends on May 21.
Afghan elections, however, are a sideshow; the Americans have planned a regional conference on Afghanistan for March 31 in the Hague (after Crescent press time) to which Iran has also been invited. The aim is to find a way out of the Afghan imbroglio without accepting defeat or completely withdrawing US troops. Nor is the Afghan situation comparable to that in Iraq where it was relatively easy to peel off Sunni insurgents from al-Qaeda operatives that had flooded the country after the US invasion. The Sunnis felt left out of governance and the largesse that comes with it. This was addressed by the Americans distributing suitcases full of dollars. In Afghanistan, the Americans are busy giving out sacks full of dollars but barring an insignificant minority, the overwhelming majority simply does not accept foreign occupiers. After foreign troops are gone, the Afghans will probably begin fighting among themselves as they have always done.
So what is the US up to in Afghanistan? The most interesting comment came from Fareed Zakaria, the new poster boy for American intellectualism. An immigrant from India, he has managed to curry favor with the US establishment and currently serves as editor of Newsweek. He also hosts the program, GPS, on CNN. He is considered something of an authority on the Muslim world. Given the level of ignorance, including among some US policymakers, Zakaria could easily pass off as an “expert”. It is not his expertise, however, that is of interest. In a long article titled, Learning to Live with Radical Islam in Newsweek (March 9) he wrote, “The Taliban have done all kinds of terrible things in Afghanistan. But so far, no Afghan Taliban has (sic) participated at any significant level in a global terrorist attack over the past 10 years –” including 9/11. There are certainly elements of the Taliban that are closely associated with Al Qaeda. But the Taliban is (sic) large, and many factions have little connection to Osama bin Laden. Most Taliban want Islamic rule locally, not violent jihad globally.”
So what does Zakaria propose to do with them? He questions –” rightly –” the policy of bombing by US Predators. “The Predator strikes have convinced much of the local population that it’s under attack from America and produced a nationalist backlash.” While describing the militants as “bad people” he nonetheless asks the right question: “But how exactly should we oppose them?… Is the answer to pour in more of our troops, train more Afghan soldiers, ask that the Pakistani military deploy more battalions, and expand the Predator program to hit more of the bad guys? Perhaps –” in some cases, emphatically yes –” but I think it’s also worth stepping back and trying to understand the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism.” He then goes on to make a distinction between the “good militants” and the “bad” ones. The “good militants” do not want to export global jihad even if their other policies are “ugly” and “reactionary”, Zakaria tells his readers but then warns: “We have placed ourselves in armed opposition to Muslim fundamentalists stretching from North Africa to Indonesia, which has made this whole enterprise feel very much like a clash of civilizations, and a violent one at that.”
He even trots out a former CIA analyst, Reuel Marc Gerecht, to reinforce his argument of dealing with the “good militants”. “What you have to realize is that the objective is to defeat bin Ladenism, and you have to start the evolution. Moderate Muslims are not the answer. Shiite clerics and Sunni fundamentalists are our salvation from future 9/11s.” So the objective has been redefined: Taliban are not the enemy, bin Ladenism is; that is a relief. And “moderate Muslims” are out. This needs to be communicated to the wise heads at Rand Corporation that have been burning midnight oil searching for “moderate Muslims” to promote them on TV talk shows. That much of what these so-called moderate Muslims have been saying is patent nonsense meant only to reinforce the prejudices of the West. It must be a huge let down for them that they are no longer relevant or, as Lenin put it: these “useful idiots” have outlived their usefulness.
Quoting David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert who has advised General David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command and the general in charge of formulating Afghan policy for Obama, Zakaria says that such a strategy would work in Afghanistan. “I’ve had tribal leaders and Afghan Government officials at the province and district level tell me that 90 percent of the people we call the Taliban are actually tribal fighters or Pashtun nationalists or people pursuing their own agendas. Less than 10 percent are ideologically aligned with the Quetta Shura [Mullah Omar’s leadership group] or Al Qaeda,” says Kilcullen. These people are “almost certainly reconcilable under some circumstances.” Kilcullen adds, “That’s very much what we did in Iraq. We negotiated with 90 percent of the people we were fighting.”
So, there you have it: there are “good Taliban” and there are “bad Taliban”, and the ones willing to make a deal with the Americans are naturally good. If this should come to pass, we might just see the end of the “moderate Muslims”, an end that would come none too soon.