February 12, 2019
Reaction to President Trump’s sudden announcement of troop pullout from Syria and the talks between Washington and the Taliban have reignited the debate on the war on terror.
On February 3, the New York Times editorial titled “End the War in Afghanistan” said:
“But as part of any withdrawal discussions, it should be made clear to the Taliban, the Afghan government and neighboring nations that if the country is allowed to again become a base for international terrorism, the United States will return to eradicate that threat…”
It then mentioned the possibility that the Taliban and regional players like Pakistan, Russia, Iran, India and China might work together on a cooperative solution to stabilize Afghanistan and deny terrorists a regional base. And, it concluded by saying that America needs to recognize that foreign war is not a vaccine against global terrorism. (emphasis added) (1)
On February 10, in its editorial titled “The Observer view on the premature celebrations on the defeat of Isis” the Guardian welcomed ISIS’ loss of territory in Syria but said:
“… it’s not the end of the story. Isis is a pernicious, bigoted idea as well as a vicious fighting force and this idea, rooted in extreme religious fundamentalism – of all-out, violent opposition to “apostate regimes” in the Muslim world and to the western powers – is far from vanquished…
“… Trump says US troops must leave Syria, while Congress says they must stay. He also wants out of Afghanistan, but offers no clue as to what happens if, as seems possible, the Taliban and assorted jihadists sweep into Kabul.
“At the same time, Trump misses no opportunity to vilify Iran as the “world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism”, a phrase repeated to applause in last week’s State of the Union address. Is Tehran where this endlessly misconceived, never-ending tragedy leads next?” (2)
The former editorial was an admission of defeat in Afghanistan and the latter the expression of the continuing need for a coherent strategy to fight what is referred to as “terrorism”, “extremism” and “Islamic extremism” according to one’s vantage point.
Indeed, once the US withdraws the Taliban will likely sweep into Kabul. A “cooperative solution” to stabilize the country, a dream, will thus become the next episode of Afghan people’s ordeal. The challenge for the Afghans would continue to be proving that they are a nation. The question for the West will be whether the Taliban would continue to harbor al Qaida and its likes. If it does, as The New York Times says, the US can return to eradicate that threat. The question is how and what price?
In an essay in the January/February 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs, Robert D. Blackwill gave a hint. This was based on the assumption that Afghanistan could be partitioned between the Taliban and Kabul which the author saw as the best available alternative to strategic defeat. If the Taliban did not behave, he thought, the US could “apply deadly pressure”.
In clarifying what this meant he said, “…. The sky over Pashtun Afghanistan would be filled with Predators targeting not only terrorist activities but also, if necessary, the new Afghan Taliban government in all its dimensions. Taliban civil officials (governors, mayors, police chiefs, judges, tax collectors, and the like) would wake up every morning not knowing if they would survive the day in their offices, during routine outside activities, or in their homes at night. There would be no mountain caves in which they could hide and at the same time do their jobs…” (3)
Even in the case of de facto partition of Afghanistan this couldn’t be an option, if for nothing else, the risk of incalculable civilian loss and the impact on Pakistan.
Last week, Secretary Pompeo started his opening remarks at the “Meeting of Ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS” with the following:
“… What a glorious group to see assembled, and thank you all for traveling here to Washington for this important meeting. Over the course of the last year, five partners have now joined the coalition, which is now 79 nations strong. To our newest members, Kenya and Fiji: Welcome to the fight.”
Yet, despite the glorious 79-nation coalition, the mission is still not accomplished. ISIS will soon lose all the territory it once held in Syria, but this will not be its final defeat. Because, its reach now extends from central Asia to Somalia and from Nigeria to the Philippines. And, it is not possible even for a major power to deploy troops in all those countries. Notwithstanding, Secretary Pompeo’s remarks again reflected an essentially military response to the challenge.
An alternative is to build a new ideological coalition or to adopt a progressive agenda for present coalition. In the latter case, the agenda can still have the military defeat of ISIS but not as the top item. For such an agenda the West must look at Ataturk’s reforms, not to try to impose them on other Muslim countries but to learn how to inspire peoples of the Middle East. There is not a shadow of doubt that had secularism been allowed to take root in the region, today’s sectarian wars could have been avoided. Reactionaries and the weakness of governments in standing up to them prevented that. It still does. Muslim governments every now and then condemn ISIS’ vicious acts of terror which they say, “do not represent true Islam”. They need to be convinced that condemning murders is not enough. They must step forward, put their fears of internal reaction aside and challenge ISIS’ jihadist ideology. This is the only way to build a strong and truly multicultural coalition. What is important is the message not numbers.
Despite the war in Yemen and despite the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Washington continues to stand by Saudi Arabia and Prince Salman. Perhaps now it is time for them to start paying back by raising the flag in the ideological battle against ISIS.
During the years following the Revolution, Iran resorted to unlawful methods to spread the message. It interfered in the internal affairs of neighboring countries including Turkey. This has remained mostly in the past. No Iranian national was involved in 9/11. As for the Syrian conflict, like every other state actor which joined the proxy war, Tehran also fought for its narrow interests using the same methods. And for now, it seems to be on the winning side. Does this make Iran world’s largest state sponsor of terror?
At the end of the month Mr. Trump is going to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam. North Korea is already a nuclear power and likely to remain so, but Tehran remains in compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA which clearly shows that engagement the better policy. Washington needs to deal with this contradiction.
This not a time to open new fronts in the Middle East.