Afghanistan Is Not Iraq

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, announces a new comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Friday, March 27, 2009, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House campus in Washington.(AP Photo/Ron Edmonds) AP

This story was written by Stephen Schwartz.


Many of the initiatives by President Obama in the Middle East and Muslim countries rest on unrealistic expectations--desert mirages, one might say--surrounding the motives of terrorists and other enemies of freedom. The most obvious example has been Obama's flattery toward the Iranian dictatorship, expressed in his address to the authorities of the "Islamic Republic" on March 20, in which he offers friendship to the Iranian clerical tyrants while they torture dissenting intellectuals, and repress protesting students and spiritual Sufis.

On its face, this immoral option resembles the old "realism" toward China--and, lately, Putinite Russia--that puts "stability" in relations with authoritarians and mass murderers ahead of democratic principles. Let the Tibetans and Uighurs be subjected to cultural genocide, Falun Gong be brutally persecuted, and individual Chinese dissidents--some of the bravest of the brave--be tormented in horrific ways, the argument seems to go, as long as Washington can claim a "breakthrough" in relations. But other, and much more dangerous tendencies, are also evident in recent U.S. outreach to the Muslim world. To flirtation with Tehran, the attempted installation of Chas Freeman, a prime apologist for Saudi Wahhabism, as head of the National Intelligence Council, and the hallucinated concept of a "unity" government comprising the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, critical observers of American official initiatives toward Muslim countries may add a new gimmick: the search for "the moderate Taliban."

This latest delusion is often promoted by the State Department's Richard Holbrooke. Afghanistan, we are told, may become the scene of a "civilian surge" comparable to the strategy that diminished terrorism in Iraq. The "moderate Taliban" could furnish the Afghan equivalent of the Sunni Awakening, which provided allies for the U.S.-led coalition and the Baghdad government in fighting the so-called Iraqi insurgency.

But the differences between the Iraqi death squads that eventually split and produced partners for the battle against brutalization, and the Taliban, are unarguable.

* The Iraqi malcontents comprised an assortment of the disaffected--secular Baathists, Sunnis suddenly deprived of long-held privilege and power, simple religious bigots (rather than committed doctrinal fanatics, and there is a difference), and, to be honest, Iraqis who merely resented the 2003 intervention. Notwithstanding Beltway blather denying its existence--some emitted by now vice-president Biden--an Iraqi national identity, however limited, exists.

* The Sunni Awakening was encouraged when the Iraqis found their alleged "resistance" increasingly dominated by Saudi Wahhabis who had come over the long Saudi-Iraqi border in the "second Iraq intervention," as detailed here, here, and here. When "Al Qaeda in Iraq" manifested its Taliban characteristics--executing women caught without covered faces, possessors of music CDs, Sufis, and others they deemed apostates--the anti-coalition combatants perceived that the United States and Baghdad authorities were a preferable alternative to governance by lynching.

Wide as the horizons of their global ambition doubtless were, and dedicated as they were to using Iraq as a platform for reinforcement of Wahhabism in their own country, the Saudi radicals who streamed north were primarily interested in striking at the coalition, to stimulate new support for their perverse cause, and did not aim at immediate expansion into Jordan or Kuwait.

By contrast, the Taliban is not a mélange. They include no secular types comparable to the Baathists and few "Afghan patriots." Afghan national identity is much weaker than that found even in Iraq. The Pashtun base of the Taliban is tribal, but they have a lesser presence in local history than the Iraqi Sunnis that usurped power in Mesopotamia. The Taliban embody monolithic radicalism in the Wahhabi style, rooted in the Deobandi school of fundamentalism, and consider all Muslims who fail to share their ideology to be unbelievers deserving liquidation. The Iraqi Arab Sunnis, even at the height of their influence under Saddam, could not wipe out the Iraqi Shias or the Kurds, but the Taliban massacred the indigenous Hazara Shias in Afghanistan, effecting a nearly-successful genocide.

Further, the Taliban have demonstrated that their current goal, rather than mere power in Afghanistan, is the "Talibanization" of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed failing state. This would provide the running dogs of al Qaeda with unconcealed weapons of mass destruction as well as millions of fresh foot-soldiers in an environment that, along with its large and problematical diaspora in Britain, has become the main breeding ground of Islamist extremism worldwide.

Where, then, are the "moderate" Taliban? The Taliban themselves, and their Pakistani promoters, scorned news reports about the Obama conception of a "civil surge," in Urdu and Pashto comments translated and posted by the Middle East Media Research Institute. History affirms that there were moderate Italian fascists but no moderate German Nazis; moderate socialist labor radicals but no moderate Stalinists. Moderate Taliban, like "moderate Nazis" or "moderate Stalinists," are a fantasy. The only and unavoidable response to such extremists is to defeat them.

The Obama administration seems to have fallen back into American thinking about the Muslim world before the atrocities of September 11, 2001. Like Bill Clinton and his cohort, they see Islamist violence as an expression of protest against Western policies rather than as a manifestation of a very real and threatening phenomenon called radical Islam. To the new president, neither Ahmadinejad, nor Hamas, nor the Taliban represent an ideological movement capable of wholesale bloodshed and long-term atrocities. This misapprehension defies the knowledge shared by every ordinary Muslim in the world. Rather than a step toward a new and more benevolent relationship, propagating the myth of the "moderate Taliban" is a leap backward in American understanding. But the American way has always put freedom before peace, and Afghanistan should offer no exception to this rule.

The Afghan war cannot be won by trying to factionalize an ideological hard core or, as President Obama has lately suggested, by recruiting malcontents and deserters. Victory must be clear and be seen to be clear.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard
By Stephen Schwartz
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard

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