How Big a Threat Is the Taliban?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jack Rothman Professor Emeritus at the UCLA School of Public Affairs

When I first heard President Obama announce an increase of US troops in Afghanistan, I had an instinctive "support-America!" response. Despite being critical of the war, as a WW II veteran that was my gut reaction. We have tens of thousands of our troops in that country, sent there by Bush, Inc. to strike Al Qaeda, who had flown passenger planes into the Twin Towers, killing multitudes of our citizens at work. Our troops have been insufficient for our goals there (foggy as they are) and pulling out or "losing" would be a black mark on our reputation and image.

I followed up my gut reaction with a more reflective reaction. I begin with the Taliban, about whom the American public knows very little. Who are the Taliban anyway? They basically are citizens of the Afghanistan nation (fragmented and underdeveloped as it is) who don't like the West and object to foreign intruders in their country. They are religious fundamentalists who want people of their persuasion to run the government and enforce a code of strict Islamic observance. They are authoritarian, harsh on women and ruthless, among other excesses I personally abhor; but not vastly different from other regimes in that part of the world that our government supports. Their major transgression is that when in power they allowed Al Qaeda to function in the country and use it as a base for plotting the Twin Towers assault.

There is documentation that the Taliban were not part of Al Qaeda nor that they necessarily knew of their plans. When the Taliban leadership did not turn over bin Laden and his cohorts for justice as quickly as the Bush White House demanded (the Taliban asked to review legal evidence) we bombed the hell out of them and finished them off. Taliban president Mohammed Omar and his followers then scattered to the countryside and neighboring nations. Bin Laden took to the bordering mountains, where he remains.

Over time, the Taliban has regrouped and begun an insurgency against the Karzai government we installed. "Our" Karzai government is outrageously corrupt, weak, inefficient, distant from the people and of doubtful legitimacy because of an appallingly fraudulent election. It has altogether failed over time to put together a functional police force or army.

Citizens in any country would be justified in opposing, by civil or armed means, such rule. Foreign troops, viewed as occupiers, serve as a recruitment tool for insurgents among the fiercely independent Afghani people. What is going on currently in Afghanistan is a civil war. The side that gains the greatest support among the citizenry and rallies the largest number to armed resistance will win it.

Should the Taliban prevail, what kind of anticipated nightmare will we witness? Currently they are dispersed and invisible. Our technologically impeccable military force is left to swat at mosquitoes. Should they take over the government again, they would be grouped, bureaucratized, formalized -- right out in the open and in a vulnerable position, where we could bomb and destroy them again. They have no organized army, significant firepower, or air force.

That being the case, they are highly unlikely to invite Al Qaeda back in so we would start the fireworks again. Al Qaeda would likely remain in the hills under cover, or continue to disperse globally through the Middle East, Europe and other countries as they are doing now.

Terrorism that is hostile to the West does not require a country or political party. It is at root an ideology, movement and a state of mind that doesn't have territorial requisites. If we didn't expand our armed forces in Afghanistan, and indeed removed those that are there, we would be no worse off and have resources to counter terrorist initiatives more broadly and effectively.
Taking steps to undercut poverty and illiteracy in the Afghanistans of the world is a powerful antidote to Islamic terrorism, especially if common people perceive representatives of the West as partners in their national development. This means switching from a military to a humanitarian strategy that benefits all. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote that we would do better building three hundred schools in Afghanistan than sending 30,000 troops. I agree. There would be more educated children, friendlier Afghanis, money to combat vexing problems back in the States and fewer American kids in body bags.
The best way keep from losing and to protect American honor is to get out of a blood-drenched rut with no visible light ahead.