How Do Afghans Debate Terrorism?

06/10/2015 06:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

Geography is Destiny: Terrorism in Afghanistan is the result of a calculated rational strategy used by Pakistan. An extension of Islamabad's foreign policy, terrorist groups serve as tools of an unacknowledged proxy war that Pakistan wages to force Kabul to acknowledge the Durand Line as an official border. The strategy works because constant terrorist attacks undermine the main source of Kabul's legitimacy -- its capacity to provide security.

The previous Afghan government believed that America was crucial to solving this problem. Former President Karzai expected America to use its power to force Islamabad to abandon its support for terrorism. When Washington refused to do so, Karzai became convinced that the U.S. was secretly allied with Pakistan in a conspiracy to spread terror in Afghanistan. Hence, he refused to sign the bilateral security accord with the U.S.

President Ghani, by contrast, does not rely directly on the U.S. to solve this problem. His approach is direct engagement with Islamabad. With this new approach, the expectation from the U.S. to weigh in and solve this problem by taking Kabul's side against Islamabad, has almost entirely disappeared from the public sphere. Instead, debate focuses on whether Afghans can trust Islamabad to cooperate rather than wage war with Kabul.

Hence, at leadership level, there's a shift away from looking at America as crucial to ending terrorism in Afghanistan.

At the level of opinion leaders whose views trickle through the social media, Afghans' debates on terrorism reveal a strong ethnic prejudice. Vocal non-Pashtun opinion leaders view terrorism through an ethnic lens. They connect the Taliban's terrorism to their ethnicity and conclude that terrorism is an exclusively Pashtun problem with non-Pashtuns their innocent victims. In such debates, the fact that the Taliban use religious rhetoric to justify their violence is dismissed. Equally disregarded are the voices of vocal Pashtuns who are anti-Taliban and anti-terrorism. The Pashtun victims of terrorism are also ignored. In this manner, debating terrorism has become a means of enforcing ethnic division and group identity.

The Role of Islam: Here, public debate is divided along the following lines. Secular Afghans acknowledge that in Islamic theology there's room for a violent interpretation as much as for a peaceful interpretation. This group focuses on the relationship between the state and religion. It argues that the state must take control of religion, enforcing a peaceful interpretation of Islam and prioritizing civil rights vis-à-vis popular religiosity. They argue that uncontrolled popular religiosity feeds terrorism through an unchecked violent interpretation of Islam. Furthermore, such religiosity contests the state's own legitimacy by presenting democracy as an un-Islamic Western import. But in Afghanistan as in the rest of the Muslim world, the collapse of alternative ideologies has resulted in religiosity becoming a dominant strand of thinking. For this reason, secular views are not exactly popular in the public sphere. But still, they do exist and they are out there as a regular part of debate. They offer an alternative take on terrorism as homegrown and connected to religion.

Opponents of this secular view insist that Islam is a peaceful religion. They disown Islamist terrorist groups, calling them soldiers of Satan. This view matches the vocal voices in the Liberal-Left American public sphere who equally argue that violence is a misinterpretation of Islam. In the context of America, such views are about protecting Muslim minorities against racism and Islamophobia. They are also linked to cultural relativity as a morally-sound discourse against racism. But as an accidental side-effect, this view that is normally held by secular Liberal-Left Americans (as well as American-educated Afghans and liberal Afghan-Americans) ends up further lending moral support to religious Afghans. As a result, a global solidary group is forged, bringing together religious Afghans with liberal, secular, Americans as well as influential American-educated Afghans. In the process, secular Afghan voices pushed further more to the sidelines and the range of alternative interpretations of terrorism is narrowed down.

Afghans who believe that Islam is a religion of peace are left with the unpleasant task of having to explain the religiously-inspired terrorism of the Taliban and more recently, ISIS. It is in this context that conspiracy theories are introduced as explanation. A popular, widely believed conspiracy disowns terrorist groups not only as un-Islamic, but also as a creation of America. According to this conspiracy theory, America is pursuing an anti-Islamic agenda by creating terrorist groups who masquerade as Muslims. With their violence, such groups achieve two goals. Firstly, they bring Islam into disrepute, creating doubt, suspicion and sectarian violence among Muslims. Secondly, in doing so, they break the unity of the Muslims, weakening their faith and resolve, especially in their struggles against American imperialism.

The rhetoric of anti-imperialism which up until the collapse of the Soviet Union used to be chiefly part of a socialist discourse re-emerges here as a popular mode of explaining regional terrorism. In this explanation, America has created terrorism to pursue exploitative, imperialist, goals. Since this anti-imperialist sentiment resonates with anti-war and anti-globalization movements of the West, such groups unwittingly lend weight to this conspiracy theory. The consequence is a further narrowing down of the scope for alternative explanations of terrorism.

Alternative explanations: The focus on ethnicity and interpretations of Islam has crowded out alternative explanations of terrorism. One such alternative explanation we find reflected in the story of the ISIS leader, Al-Baghdadi. He started his career as an unknown but radical cleric but terrorism gave him the structure to rise up socially, ultimately becoming the head of a 'state'. In this example, terrorism is evidently a tool of rapid social mobility, a short cut to the kind of power that normally is won either through military coups or democratic elections. This alternative explanation of terrorism not only demystifies terrorism, it also explains why it appeals to young people to whom the doors of social mobility are closed both the West and the Muslim world. As a possibility, this alternative explanation does not feature in the public spheres of both America and Afghanistan. It goes unacknowledged because the predominance explanations focus on Islamic theology and anti-imperialism. Both are familiar, long-standing and seen as morally sound. Their appeal is natural but their unintended consequence is that there's no room for even imagining alternative explanations. The debate hence becomes repetitive, stale and fruitless, leading to apathy rather than agency.