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Picking and Choosing Enemies in Afghanistan

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It has been rumored that Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has reached out to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - leader of the Hizb-e-Islami Party in Afghanistan and a declared terrorist. Hearing such news, it is right to question just how far the U.S. will go in its attempts to engage warlords as a strategy to bring sustainable stability and security to Afghanistan.

Though arguably useful in the struggle to defeat Communism in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, cultivating warlords like Hekmatyar who were actually global jihadists is what gave us Al Qaeda. And therein lies the problem. We cannot ignore the ideological underpinnings of our enemy and empower them to fight us another day. The question is how do we tell the difference between a warlord and a global jihadist.

In Afghanistan, people use the term "warlord" to describe someone who ruthlessly dominates a locality and extracts often exorbitant revenue from bribes in exchange for just about anything -- security, business, drug dealing, or arms trade. However, not all warlords are global jihadists. Some are just in it for the money. In the case of Hekmatyar, it's easy to tell which camp he is in: Combining dangerous anti-American sentiments with a radical Islamist ideology is an obvious threat to American national security today and every day into the future.

And so at a minimum, US policy of engagement must distinguish between radical Islamists and criminals motivated by money and not ideology. These distinctions are critical to determining with whom peace is possible because while the latter may be reformed -- or at least brought into the political process -- the former are our sworn enemies who will never surrender. It's also important to distinguish between the two because empowering the forces of radical Islamism is how we alienate the local population and turn potential friends into fighters. When the tribal leaders and local populace are victimized by radical Islamists and neglected by the local government too long, they, too, become a source of aggression.

For example, take the recent events in the northern frontier provinces of Pakistan. Though scantily reported by world news agencies, Islamist extremists are brutalizing the local Muslim population and defiling the indigenous culture. Using a tactic popularized by Ansar Islam back in 2002 when they resettled from the caves of Tora Bora to the Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq, Islamist fighters in Pakistan have exhumed the corpses of Muslim holy figures and hung their bodies in the city square. These are revered religious figures of Pashtun culture and such blasphemy is correctly attributed to the "Taliban," which is a catchall term for the jihadi fighters. There has also been a rash of killings of traditional Sunni tribal leaders in the area -- with reports of up to 120 people murdered -- because they won't cede to radical Islamist demands for control of their communities. As a result of the inter-community battles and the failure to provide basic security to its citizens, the Pakistani government is left with very few allies in this territory.

And here is another complication. In war torn regions like Afghanistan and lawless areas like the FATA, Islamist radicals are easily incorporated into the local power structure because they establish order out of chaos and create a semblance of security with a draconian application of "Shariah" justice. I place the word Shariah in quotes because the Islamist radicals have hijacked this word in much the same way they have hijacked Islam, resulting in a horrific abuse of the entire concept of Shariah and an utter contradiction to the true intent and implementation of Islamic law.

By understanding the social and ideological influences in the region, the U.S. and its allies can devise strategies and aid programs that ensure we are supporting indigenous leaders with whom we have a set of shared values. We must provide aid and security only to those with whom we have a mutual interest in improving the lives of their communities. This is the only way to ensure that hard-earned US tax dollars are used to fulfill the promise of hope rather than worsening the cause for despair.

And if the overarching objective of U.S. policy is to prevent further terrorist attacks against America, rather than just expedite an exit strategy, seeking to partner with the leader of the Hizb-e-Islami Party is clearly not the way. We must pick and choose our enemies wisely.