Our Chances of Success in Afghanistan
Nearly eight years ago, in the month that followed 9/11, a group of religious scholars got together to discuss what the conditions are that most favor religious extremism and fanticism. They came up six such factors on their list. But when it comes to dealing with the Taliban and el Quaida, I think there are particularly three that figure most prominently.
First on this list is religious fundamentalism, most often characterized by a literal reading of whatever holy books or scriptures are being promoted. That such a reading is often badly distorted seems to make no difference to the "true believer" who is often too poorly educated to know the difference. Members of the Taliban (a word that means "student) taught only how to read and to memorize the Koran in their Maddrassas or religious schools certainly fit into this formula for fanaticism.
The next item of special note in this case is the sense of being an embattled minority. If this feeling aflicts the Muslim world today, it especially afflicts the Pashtun ethnic group -- from which most of the Taliban membership is drawn --living in eastern and southern Afghanistan and in western Pakistan. This generally mountainous region, has been long known for its backwardness except for one thing -- the uncanny ability of its blacksmiths and gunsmiths to fabricate copies and repair small arms and other lethal weapons and to make life miserable for anyone who tries to control their territory.
Finally, there is the influence of charismatic leaders, among them being, most outstandingly, the exiled Saudi troublemaker, Osama bin Laden. Not that there aren't also numerous home-grown leaders among them, but by far and large bin Laden remains, the model for the rest and the most influential.
So what are our chances of success? Even our top generals admit that there is no merely military solution. Most recently the Russians, like the British before them learned this the hard way (partly due to us, who unwittingly supported the same people we are now fighting). As one retired Russian general who offered his advice recently said, Afghanistan, if it can be won at all, probably can only be done so by bringing a better life (employment, infrastructure, etc.) to its people. But considering the way we messed things up in Iraq on these counts, much success with this in Afghanistan seems somewhat unlikely.
Second, when it comes to counteracting religious fundamentalism and the extremism it generates, I doubt we'll ever make much headway in that. Just look at the persistence of the same kind of thinking among many Christians in America. This is a long term generational problem, usually left behind only when the mental or intellectual pressures it generates finally become unbearable.
Finally, as for getting rid of the charismatic leadership, I just don't think that will turn the tide all that much. While I think everyone can sympathize with the American obsession with "getting even" with Osama bin Laden, I very much doubt that will change things at all. He has already become an immortal symbol of resistance to western -- primarily U.S. -- influence. Killing him or capturing him will, in itself, change little. Yes, no doubt he is still planning possible ways to attack America and other nations who join in uniting against him. But planning attacks is far from being about to carry them out, while killing him would only make him a revered martyr among those who have dedicated themselves to the cause he represents and who would then plan take revenge on us for killing him.
In the end I think that it would be much more effective simply to concentrate on a policy of containment of the Taliban and bin Laden much as possible. Yes, US and NATO troops will probably be necessary to defend, at least for awhile, that part of the Afghanistan not under Taliban control. And we must do all we can help Pakistan do the same on their side of the border. But instead of spending billions and losing more lives more to get rid of bin Laden, most of all we need to organize international aide and development to the point where those under Taliban rule or under the spell of bin Laden's influence themselves decide they have had enough of living sometime far back in the last millennium.
R W Kropf 4/4/09 Afghanistan.doc 09-04-04.html