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Obama and the Taliban


Among its many goals, Barack Obama's historic July 24 speech in Berlin sought to demonstrate the Senator's command of the world stage, particularly with regard to creating a united front with Europe against global terrorism. Given the largely positive reception it has received, the presumptive Democratic nominee likely achieved this goal.

But beneath the lofty rhetoric, Senator Obama's strategy for prosecuting the War on Terror is based on questionable, and potentially flawed premises -- one shared with his Republican opponent John McCain -- which would likely impede the ability of either administration to achieve "victory" against Muslim extremism.

In his speech Senator Obama declared that "America can't [win in Afghanistan] alone... The Afghan people need our troops and your troops; our support and your support to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda, to develop their economy, and to help them rebuild their nation. We have too much at stake to turn back now."

The linkage between al-Qa'eda and the Taliban has been made so often since 2001 that the terms have become almost interchangeable, as if they represent the same overall movement or phenomenon. Indeed, the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 through 2001 harbored and supported Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'eda, enabling the attacks of September 11.

But their cooperation then (and now) does not mean they can be fought along similar lines. Obama's close association of the two groups, which mirrors Bush Administration policy, simplifies a far more complex reality, against which a strategy based primarily on force and violence will likely fail.

While sharing a similar ideology to a certain extent, personnel, al-Qa'eda and the Taliban are fundamentally distinct entities. Al-Qa'eda is a deterritorialized, stateless organization that claims universal jurisdiction to wage violent, terroristic jihad against whomever its leaders declare to be Islam's external and internal enemies.

However hazy al-Qa'eda's ideology (at least to the uninitiated), bin Laden's organization of al-Qa'eda was based on the advanced and well-defined principles of corporate management he studied as a student of economics and public administration, and afterwards working in his family's transnational construction empire. Even smarter was bin Laden's grasp of al-Qa'eda value as a brand in the era of globalization, one which could -- and ultimately did -- survive and even thrive as a decentralized coalition of various militant groups who shared little besides the jihadi component at the core of the group's "brand identity."

For its part, the Taliban is essentially a territorially rooted and "largely ethno-national phenomenon," as the International Crisis Group describes it. It emerged as a coherent force in the early to mid-1990s, with the support of the Pakistani security services, as a loosely aligned movement of Pashtun Afghans, many of whom had studied at religious schools -- "madrasas" -- in or sponsored by Pakistan, or had fought against the Soviets during the latter's occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s.

The Taliban's rapid rise to power owed not merely to the movement's radically conservative ideology. It also stemmed from its support among Afghanistan's politically and economically marginalized Pashtun majority, along with its much-publicized war against the large scale corruption that had long plagued Afghanistan's political system and economy. Even many Afghans who opposed its harsh cultural and moral policies accepted that the Salifization of a previously more open and tolerant Afghan Islam was a price worth paying -- at least temporarily -- for the increased security and reduced corruption that initially accompanied the movement's rise to power.

But once in power the Taliban state, or "Islamic Emirate" declared in 1996, proved an abysmal failure. The movement's leaders and rank and file alike proved uninterested and unable to govern, and spent far more time enforcing moral prescriptions of questionable Islamic legitimacy and harboring extremists from around the Muslim world than building the national institutions and infrastructure Afghanistan so badly needed after a decade of brutal war.

When the US invaded and overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001 the "Taliban" again became a rather shadowy and hard to define -- and therefore fight -- entity. Judging its continued strong presence across the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan and into Pakistan's neighboring (and Pashtun dominated) Northwest Frontier Province, the movement continues to appeal to the most marginalized sectors of the two societies.

In this context, it is troubling that Senator Obama, and most of the US foreign policy establishment with him, chooses to describe the Taliban as if it were a clearly defined, purely terrorist organization with little support among Afghans, which can be targeted and fought with a fair degree of confidence by US, and Obama hopes, increasingly European forces. Such a view, which has also been applied to Hamas and Hezbollah, is equally inaccurate in all three cases. This lack of understanding helps explain why all three movements have remained so difficult to defeat by far superior military forces.

If the United States and its allies are to continue the war against the Taliban well into the next decade (or at least administration), It would behoove Senator Obama, and his Republican counterpart, to explain exactly who are the "Taliban" they plan to fight even more fiercely than before. Is there a hierarchical structure with a clear leadership and chain of command that can be identified and targeted? Is every religiously conservative Pashtun who is fighting against the US occupation a "taliban" and therefore a legitimate military target"? What about the far larger number of Afghans who merely support them; are they "enemy combatants?" Are the 78 Afghan civilians killed just during the month of July acceptable "collateral damage" in such a fight?

As important, does the United States and its allies have the right according to the UN Charter and international law to capture, detain and even kill Afghans merely because they are suspected of subscribing to political or religious beliefs that resemble those of the Taliban, or even have fought with them?

These questions might seem pedantic given the commonly perceived urgency of fighting Islamic extremism. But if we consider that (according to the United Nations) as many as 90 percent of American detainees have never involved in anything resembling terrorist activity, the importance of such questions becomes apparent. Moreover, the same slipshod logic that has governed American detention policies has also governed the use of torture, secret renditions and other policies that clearly violate internationally recognized standards of human rights and justice, and in so doing further frustrate the successful prosecution of the war against terror.

It is equally hard to imagine how the military and civilian strategists planning the ongoing war can design appropriate policies for dealing with the roots causes of the continued popularity of the Taliban without being able to answer these fundamental questions accurately.

The good news is that while we may not know exactly who is part of the Taliban, we do have a fairly good idea of what motivates the continuous stream of new recruits to its ranks. The British-based research group the Senlis Council released a report last month based on extensive research in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, which argued that frustration with war and unemployment was underpinning the insurgency against western forces (http://www.senliscouncil.net/modules/publications/iraq_angry_hearts). Similarly, The International Crisis group's just published report, on Taliban Propaganda (http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=5589&l=1), argues that the movement is a local product of the anti-Soviet jihad and the civil war that followed, and linked to transnational extremist groups for "mostly tactical rather than strategic reasons but divided over these links internally." It both lacks a coherent agenda, and survives by exploiting local tribal disputes.

In other words, addressing core economic, development and political needs of the majority of Afghans, and their brethren across the Pakistani border, would go a long way towards "draining the swamp" that feeds the malaria of religious extremism. But such a political reclamation process will not succeed as long as America's leaders don't understand the basic, if harsh, rationality underlying the continued salience of the Taliban message: that the movement will remain rooted in Afghan society, and therefore impossible to defeat, unless and until the large scale poverty, inequality, corruption and other endemic societal problems are addressed by the international community and the Afghan leadership.

In the meantime, among the most important shortcomings of the lack of a precise definition of whom the United States and NATO are fighting in Afghanistan is how much more inefficient it has made the prosecution of the war on terror. While thousands of people remain jailed for no reason and tens of thousands more have been killed, most of the admitted masterminds of the September 11 atrocitie -- a crime not just against the American people, but against humanity -- remain at large.

It would be nice if Senators Obama and McCain could enlighten Americans, Europeans, and Afghans, as to how they plan to rectify this problem without repeating the very mistakes that helped create and sustain the Taliban, and al-Qa'eda, in the first place.