The Taliban Must Be Destroyed Utterly, With No "Moderate Elements" Allowed to Remain As a Future Governing Nucleus
Anyone still mulling whether we should continue to prosecute our war against the Taliban during the holy month of Ramadan should read the reports that circulated last Sunday during the taking of the northern city of Taloqan. Apparently the "devout" Taliban held their fire against Northern Alliance enemies until they saw the soldiers kneel down to pray, at which point they opened fire.
About the only person?within the Islamic world or without?who is still urging the Ramadan pause is Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, and he's doing so for reasons that have nothing to do with religion. Those reasons can basically be summed up as follows: He hopes we will lose.
Musharraf is a deft politician who deserves credit for selling American involvement to the Pakistanis. But it's not as if he had much choice?an aggressive American alliance with India, with billions of dollars' worth of military aid, was otherwise in the cards. And that doesn't mean we should let him run our war. For the first three or four weeks of the Afghan campaign, the U.S. followed Musharraf's advice and got nowhere. Now that we have decided to ignore it, we have Mazar-e-Sharif, Taloqan and Herat. Now that we have Mazar-e-Sharif, Taloqan and Herat, Musharraf is urging us not to take Kabul, so that a "multi-ethnic" government can be set up first. And since we appear to be passing that advice along to our Northern Alliance proxies, the Northern Alliance seems wisely to be ignoring us.
They know what we pretend not to. The Taliban must be destroyed utterly, with no "moderate elements" allowed to remain as a future governing nucleus. To speak of moderate elements within the Taliban is like speaking of moderate elements among the Nazis. The problem is that the Taliban are the Afghan arm of the Pakistani state. They have heretofore been about as independent of Islamabad as, say, the Bulgarian army was of Moscow 20 years ago. According to the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, what Pakistan did for the Taliban was, first, to scuttle any peace process that would have resulted in a multi-ethnic settlement of the Afghan conflict; and, second, to enter the fray on their behalf, at a time when they were a slightly overmatched faction, by providing them with military hardware and tipping the whole country under their control.
Our strategy reflects the complicated way we're assimilating the lessons of Vietnam. The Bush White House realizes that Lyndon Johnson's selection of bombing targets in Vietnam was both embarrassing and feckless. It still needs to learn that letting a foreign president pick your targets?and your fighting schedule?is no better. Militarily we're doing one thing surprisingly right, which reflects an important Vietnam lesson: We're being extremely parsimonious in sharing equipment with the Northern Alliance. In the early 1960s, the U.S. decided to police the Vietnamese countryside by manning watch posts that the French had built throughout the country?basically sentry towers with two or three or a half-dozen soldiers in them. These worked fine when not a single Vietnamese peasant had a gun. They were a catastrophe once Russia and China started arming the VC. When those towers started surrendering to the guerrillas, the Pentagon did something stupid. It decided to "fortify" them by delivering rifles, machine guns, artillery and lots of ammo to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. These turned into virtual CARE packages to the enemy, so much so that the Communists were able to fight late into the 1960s with mostly American guns seized earlier in the war.
The Northern Alliance, like the ARVN, means well. But also like the ARVN, they don't always know what they're doing, which means that promiscuous "logistical support" can mean simply the delivery of state-of-the-art American weaponry into the hands of the Taliban. That's why, in Afghanistan, if there are targets to be taken out with sophisticated ordnance, we'll do it ourselves, from the air.
But there is something very different about this war that the Bush White House seems to have realized only imperfectly. It's that there's not a shred of important opposition to it in any corner of American society. There's not even a shred of potential opposition to it. There are two big reasons for this.
First is a shift in the role of intellectuals and elites. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the country's working and middle classes were solidly behind the war. During Vietnam, though, the more one knew about international affairs, the more inclined one was to be skeptical about our chances of success?and our reasons for being in Vietnam in the first place. It was a nationalist as well as a communist insurgency, the Vietnamese peasantry were not reliably pro-American, no foreign power had been able to defeat a dug-in Vietnamese rebellion, the Army was corrupt, South Vietnamese commerce was an annoying, bribery-based system that didn't have the confidence of the public, etc. etc.
Afghanistan is different. There, Robert Conquest's Law?that "everyone is conservative about what he knows best"?is vindicated in spades. The only people opposing the war are those who haven't read the papers enough to know the kind of ethnicity-based terror through which the Taliban reign, or who are shallow enough to absorb the Chomskyite propaganda that "our allies are just as bad as the Taliban"?which is simply untrue. (This is not to deny that the Northern Alliance?particularly those led by the man always described in press accounts as "the hard-drinking atheist Rashid Dostum"?has occasionally been very bad indeed.)
But the second and larger reason there's no opposition to this war is that no non-military option presents itself as a way of dealing with bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It's simply impossible to reason or negotiate with these people. They?and their sympathizers?never work from neutral principles. Their whole morality is applied asymmetrically. They expect honesty and are outraged when they don't receive it, but feel no obligation to offer it themselves. They have no sense of reciprocal obligation, of Hegelian "recognition."
Particularly tedious are those discussions about ancient history that bin Laden-style rationalizers bring up, along the lines of "You say we mistreat our women?but Muhammad allowed women to inherit property!" "You say we're religiously intolerant?but how about your Spanish Inquisition!" Look, quoting scripture is a perfectly legitimate form of argument, but, again, only if we're arguing from neutral principles. Only, for instance, if a Western lunkhead is entitled to take bin Laden at his word that he would restore a seventh-century Islamic society, which presumably means a seventh-century means of waging war.
In considering what that means, it's worth relying on Marshall G.S. Hodgson's reading of the Nakhlah raids of 624 AD in his magisterial study The Venture of Islam. With his movement struggling for survival in its early days in Medina, Muhammad decided to break treaties with Mecca and rob camel caravans. The first step in the direction of financial independence for Islam was the booty he hauled in from a caravan raid at Nakhlah during a sacred truce month. The principle by which Muhammad justified the raid, according to Hodgson, was "a revelation in the Qur'an that, while violation of the truce was bad, persecution of the faith was worse and justified the violation. Muhammad then allowed the booty to be accepted."
I don't want to fall into the Islamicist trap of behaving as if we were still living in the seventh century. But once fundamentalists start arguing for Islamic primacy rather than religious tolerance, then there is nothing wrong with bin Laden's opponents quoting the Qur'an, too, to dismiss Al Qaeda as adherents of the Stalinist policy of "What's mine is mine and what's yours we share." And at the very least, it ought to put the Qur'anic view of fighting during Ramadan in some perspective.
No Laughing Matter
A lot of things are scheduled to last two months. It has struck me during the past few days that the very last people for whom the world was as it was on Sept.11?i.e., those who'd left around Labor Day for 60-day drug-treatment programs, or 60-day Outward Bound adventures, or 60-day monastic retreats?must have been returning to society and getting the news.
Certainly, in the wake of the WTC attacks, newspapers and other media seem to have settled on 60 days as their unofficial period of mourning, during which lightness and levity were forbidden. Sunday's New York Times "Week in Review" section, in particular, was filled with all the lame gag-articles that had been pent up in the paper's servers for the last nine weeks. Lamest was Bruce McCall's questionnaire on Homeland Defense, which was designed to show that we don't know much about Homeland Defense. ("4. Yes or no: Homeland Defense officers in hot pursuit of a suspicious cow, tractor or turnip truck are authorized to enter cities." Cracks you up, doesn't it?) There was Tom Kuntz's send-up of the vogue for books about firefighting ("'What's the Number for 911?' by Leland H. Gregory III"). And Maureen Dowd was Maureen Dowd. What was sad about all of these pieces is that they reflected a felt need to joke?"otherwise the terrorists will have won," and blah-blah-blah?but also a felt fear of actually being funny. All the articles were at the level of those school-sanctioned junior-high humor magazines called Jest fer Laffs, or something like that. The evidence is in that any tally of "What We Have Lost" since Sept. 11 should include our sense of humor.
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