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How Obama Can Split the Taliban

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Ideology Matters in Building a Sustainable Afghanistan

As the Obama Administration finalizes its 60-day review of the U.S. Afghanistan-Pakistan policy, President Obama announced recently that he was open to reaching out and reconciling with moderate elements of the Taliban.

It's a controversial issue. Pakistan was recently criticized for negotiating with the Taliban, as the Taliban agreed to a cease fire in the Swat region of Pakistan on the condition that its oppressive version of Sharia law be enforced. Ceding to the radicals' demands will not serve U.S. or Afghanistan's long-term national security interests, and the U.S. must not support it.

However, we must remember the Taliban is not a monolithic entity. It's worth attempting to separate the "accidental guerilla" from the "global jihadist".

Of course, doing so will be complex and difficult. Even if the Obama administration is open to the possibility, the million dollar question is how the U.S. can actually achieve it.

The first step is to recognize the ideological component of the problem. While economic aid, political stability, and reducing criminal activity all are very important elements of U.S. policy, they alone will not solve the biggest threat of all -- global Jihadism.

Understanding the appeal of the theological paradigm offered by the "original" Taliban is a critical component of how to solicit the help of local tribal leaders in our mutual struggle against the radical Taliban-Al Qaeda faction. It cannot be done effectively without some interpretation of Islam on the U.S. side.

Specifically, the U.S. needs to separate the traditionalists from the radical Salafi-Taliban figures and negotiate only with the former on issues such as development, political power-sharing, and economic growth -- all of the elements critical to creating a sustainable Afghan central government. The local population needs to believe that they and the Americans have a common enemy, though it may be for very different reasons, and that turning against Taliban-Al Qaeda is siding with truth and justice.

One way the U.S. government could do this would be by enlisting Muslim scholars and leaders to discredit the Islamic legitimacy of the Jihadist rhetoric. The U.S. could request its allies in the Muslim world -- particularly in countries where Sufism predominates like Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Indonesia, and Turkey -- to have their scholars write fatwas or religious edicts that unequivocally ban the drug dealing, wanton killing, and brutalization of women that is a hallmark of the Taliban-Al Qaeda faction. Such verdicts from respected Muslim theologians would force the local populace to seriously consider supporting the radical Taliban as an evil sin that earns the wrath of God.

Historians and academics who study the culture of Afghanistan know that its indigenous Islamic tradition is not the Arab influenced Salafism of Al Qaeda, but instead is a combination of traditional Sunni Islam and the esoteric science of Sufism. Similar to the stories told of the Muslim warriors fighting against Tsarist Russia in the 19th century, many of the Afghan fighters who defeated the Soviets were pious Muslims defending their people against foreign invasion. Though later joined by a rag-tag group of "Arab Afghans" and Al Qaeda, the majority of these Afghans were not fighting to recreate the caliphate or to join the global jihad.

The rise of the Taliban during the post-Soviet period of chaos was not just about bringing a sense of security and justice - they also cloaked themselves in the mantle of traditional Islam. The indigenous population considered the Taliban "one of them," and trusted that they would uphold traditional Islamic laws of justice, compassion, and mutual respect. Unfortunately, the Taliban was quickly corrupted by power, money, and the theological influence of the Salafi-dominated global Jihadist movement, and the world witnessed their slide into fanaticism, oppression, and wanton violence.

Ideology is not a silver bullet for solving our problems in Afghanistan, nor should the U.S. settle for the short-term cessation of fighting by agreeing to the radicals' demand for draconian enforcement of Sharia law.

But sifting the Taliban along ideological lines will illuminate the true will of the majority of the Afghan people. Reconciling with moderates is key to diminishing the oppression imposed by the radicals and shutting down a conveyor belt for future terrorists.