Monday, July 28, 2008


LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock Religion and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam

Mark A. LeVine, History News Network - Senator Obama's strategy for prosecuting the War on Terror is based on questionable, and potentially flawed premises-one shared with his Republican opponent John McCain-which would likely impede the ability of either administration to achieve "victory" against Muslim extremism.

In his speech Senator Obama declared that "America can’t [win in Afghanistan] alone... The Afghan people need our troops and your troops; our support and your support to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda, to develop their economy, and to help them rebuild their nation. We have too much at stake to turn back now."

The linkage between al-Qa'eda and the Taliban has been made so often since 2001 that the terms have become almost interchangeable, as if they represent the same overall movement or phenomenon. Indeed, the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 through 2001 harbored and supported Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'eda, enabling the attacks of September 11.

But their cooperation then (and now) does not mean they can be fought along similar lines. Obama's close association of the two groups, which mirrors Bush Administration policy, simplifies a far more complex reality, against which a strategy based primarily on force and violence will likely fail.

While sharing a similar ideology to a certain extent, personnel, al-Qa'eda and the Taliban are fundamentally distinct entities. Al-Qa'eda is a deterritorialized, stateless organization that claims universal jurisdiction to wage violent, terroristic jihad against whomever its leaders declare to be Islam's external and internal enemies.

However hazy al-Qa'eda's ideology (at least to the uninitiated), bin Laden's organization of al-Qa'eda was based on the advanced and well-defined principles of corporate management he studied as a student of economics and public administration, and afterwards working in his family's transnational construction empire. Even smarter was bin Laden's grasp of al-Qa'eda value as a brand in the era of globalization, one which could-and ultimately did-survive and even thrive as a decentralized coalition of various militant groups who shared little besides the jihadi component at the core of the group's "brand identity."

For its part, the Taliban is essentially a territorially rooted and "largely ethno-national phenomenon," as the International Crisis Group describes it. It emerged as a coherent force in the early to mid-1990s, with the support of the Pakistani security services, as a loosely aligned movement of Pashtun Afghans, many of whom had studied at religious schools-"madrasas"-in or sponsored by Pakistan, or had fought against the Soviets during the latter's occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. . .

If the United States and its allies are to continue the war against the Taliban well into the next decade (or at least administration), It would behoove Senator Obama, and his Republican counterpart, to explain exactly who are the "Taliban" they plan to fight even more fiercely than before. Is there a hierarchical structure with a clear leadership and chain of command that can be identified and targeted? Is every religiously conservative Pashtun who is fighting against the US occupation a "taliban" and therefore a legitimate military target"? What about the far larger number of Afghans who merely support them; are they "enemy combatants"? Are the 78 Afghan civilians killed just during the month of July acceptable "collateral damage" in such a fight?

As important, does the United States and its allies have the right according to the UN Charter and international law to capture, detain and even kill Afghans merely because they are suspected of subscribing to political or religious beliefs that resemble those of the Taliban, or even have fought with them?. . .

It is equally hard to imagine how the military and civilian strategists planning the ongoing war can design appropriate policies for dealing with the roots causes of the continued popularity of the Taliban without being able to answer these fundamental questions accurately.


At July 28, 2008 9:45 PM, Blogger John Maszka said...

I think the best arrangement would be for the US to respect all other states' sovereignty and allow them to work out their own domestic politics. The US has played God so many times in other state's domestic affairs, and it has almost always come back to bite us.

We need to adopt a foreign policy that respects all other states' sovereignty, and allows for specific bilateral arrangements as needed without offsetting our overall multilateral commitments. This way, America can be the country that everyone else trusts. We can be the country that the world looks to for humanitarian assistant, economic assistant, technological assistance, and democratic leadership; rather than what we are today, feared and hated by the international community. How long can any state continue in such a way?

What if we were spending $500 billion/year feeding, educating and healing our own citizens, and repairing our own infrastructure? It wouldn’t be long before we could start extending those benefits to the rest of the world. Who would hate us for that? No state would want to be at war with such a country.

What other realistic choice do we have? As it stands, unless we intend to use nukes, or fight solely from the air, we can’t stand against nations such as Pakistan (or Iran) in traditional, boots on the ground combat; our military is far too small. Waging such a battle in a prolonged war against countless non-state actors is nothing short of insane, foolish and arrogant.

The most intelligent option we have is to adopt a new foreign policy that will ensure the all the current states of the world that the US no longer intends to encroach on their sovereignty (something the greater majority certainly do not believe today). That doesn't sound like Obama or McCain.

Consider Senator Obama. He’s just returned from a world tour, in which he proclaimed his intention to continue the military war on terror, and to take it to the soil of one of America’s own allies. It's ironic that Senator Obama has publicly proclaimed a unilateral policy of preemptive war, yet we still tend to associate Senator McCain with President Bush.

Now consider Senator McCain. He’s proclaiming the need to continue the military war on terrorism as well. How long will it be before either of these candidates has the United States in direct opposition to the greater Muslim world? Both candidates are blindly assisting the efforts to radicalize moderates against the United States. In this great political campaign, what we need is a candidate that understands that the hearts and minds of over a billion Muslim people hang in the balance; not between Obama and McCain, but between moderate and radical. And US foreign policy can tip the scales. What we need is a candidate that can wage war where it can be won, at the negotiating table.


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