Why Is the Taliban the Enemy?

I don’t claim to have deep knowledge about Afghanistan, but it seems to him that the current US approach is destined for failure.   Over the past year violence has gotten worse and the US continues to lose soldiers and waste money there.  But here’s my question:  Why is it important that we destroy the Taliban?  Why is the Taliban being treated as an inevitable enemy that has to be eliminated in order for security to be achieved? 

Afghanistan becomes a security threat to the US and its allies when it serves as  a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda types to use as a base to plan and launch attacks against the US.  For what other reason is Afghanistan important to the US?  The situation that existed in Afghanistan before 9/11 was clearly a security threat to the US as Al-Qaeda could do whatever they wanted, and as we well know, they did just that.  But why is the Taliban being lumped together with Al-Qaeda as an implaccable enemy that must be destroyed? 

The Taliban and Al-Qaeda are not natural allies.  Al-Qaeda are Arabs from a far away land, who speak a different language and are seen by the locals as being arrogant and having a sense of superiority.  Although there is a shared religion, Islam, in some ways, Afghani Arabs are seen by the locals as foreign occupiers just as much as the Americans.  In the mid-late 1990s, Mullah Omar made a calculated decision that the money and material equipment that Bin Laden could supply made it worth the political and diplomatic costs that such a decision would cost.  Keep in mind, since the US was barely intersted in Al-Qaeda or Afghanistan at this point the price was very low.   But even at this pre-9/11 point, Omar seems to have had some doubts about the wisdom of such a decision.  According  to Lawrence_Wright, Mullah Omar made a verbal commitment to Prince Turki Al-Faisal to turn Bin Laden over to Saudi Arabia, which he later reneged on but this shows how this was an alliance of convenience.  Clearly, after 9/11 the Taliban had to be thinking the cost-benefit equation.  With the US suddenly attacking Afghanistan it became alot more costly.  And the Taliban’s leaders know this. 

The Taliban is a local movement which is stricly limited to Afghanistan whereas Al-Qaeda is a global movement.  Their interests clearly conflict.   Furthermore, there is a strong sense, both within the Taliban and within various Islamist movements, that the Taliban had founded the first modern truly Islamic state, but all of these gains were wiped out by Bin Laden’s recklessness.   Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the US, especially 9/11, are considered strategically idiotic by many within the Islamists movements.   If given a second chance in Afghanistan, they would certainly be more careful about who they let into their country.   And from a counter-terrorism perspective, the Taliban’s fighters are local, uneducated tribesman who know little if anything about what goes on outside their borders.  Most could probaly not locate Afghanistan on a map.  They have neither the language skills or worldliness to make it past Kabul airport.  I am  not aware of one member of the Taliban or even an Afghani who has ever participated in a terrorist attack against the US. 

And does their political program for Afghanistan necessarily conflict with US interests?  If the Taliban wants to run an 8th century theocracy,  why does the US care, as long as they don’t also allow Al-Qaeda types to enter their country?   Certainly they are probaly a better bet to keep the country stable than the US-trained Afghan army.  I see no reason why some kind of unwritten understanding can be reached between the US and the Taliban:  We’ll leave you to govern Afghanistan as you wish, as long as you do everything possible to keep all Arab Al-Qaeda types out.  Oh and the second we find that you’re not doing that, we’ll attack.  Sure, this is an unlikely plan because it would mean selling out the pro-US Afghan government.  But is that such a bad thing?  Are we going to keep spending billions of dollars and have hundreds of soldiers die to fight against an enemy that doesn’t necessarily have to be our enemy?  Or are we going to adopt a better, albeit hard-core realist plan, that perhaps better takes into account local realities?  

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Battle In Doha

When I first started this blog, I did a weekly report on the Al-Jazeera talk show Al-Itijah Al-Muakis (The Opposite Direction), the Arab world’s most popular political talk show, known for its intense debates.    For example, in February, it was hosting  raucous debates between former officers in the Egyptian Mukhaberet and Algerian intellectuals over the question “Do Arab security serve serve the people or the regimes.”   But because of the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar (Al-Jazeera’s host), there now seems to be some kind of limit on the scope of topics that can be discussed and so the show has become boring.   Maybe its just me, but a discussion of the threat  posed to Arab culture by foreign soap operas just isn’t as interesting. 

However, yesterday’s show was a notable exception to this unfortunate trend.  Guests debated the general question “to what extent is Britain responsible for the major disasters in the Middle East (such as Palestine, Iraq because of her colonial policy)?  “100% responsible,” said Nour Ad Deen Al-Farjani, an Arab intellectual who lives in Germany.  Taking a cool diplomatic position, was Dr. John Wilkes, a representative for the British government, who argued that its not useful to dwell in the past. Instead, we should move on and focus on the future.   

I have a special interest in watching non-native Arabic speaking Western diplomats, especially those from countries whose foreign policy is not welcomed in the region (US and UK) go on Mid Eastern TV programs to defend their government’s policy.  Wilkes gave a textbook lesson in how to successfully execute public diplomacy. 

First, he spoke perfect Arabic.   Its one thing to “speak” a foreign language, amongst friends, taxi drivers, etc when there is no pressure.  Its a whole different level of linguistic skill to go on TV, under pressure, being watched by millions of viewers who mostly will disagree with everything you say.  Wilkes made almost no grammatical mistakes during the 50 minute session in which he was always on the defensive, under pressure, responding to difficult questions and accusations from his opponent.  He also spoke very good formal Arabic.  Grandmasta is a big believer that, in formal situation, US or British diplomats should speak in Classical Arabic, as it brings with it a sense of prestige, which is important in diplomacy.  Speaking in colloquial Arabic on tv, especially a program on Al-Jazeera, which some diplomats do is degrading.  For those who aren’t familiar with Arabic, speaking in Colloquial would come across as only slightly more prestigious than the way Ali G  interviews Boutros Boutrous Ghali.  Maintaining prestige is huge. 

In these types of situations, there is no way a British diplomat is going to “win” the debate.  He is operating on the “road” in a hostile environment.  Right off the bat, the question was posed to the audience; 85% said Britain is responsible.  And from an objective historical perspective, Britain can be blamed for Palestine and Iraq  so it would be dumb to even try and challenge the question.  Therefore, the best strategy is to sit back, be modest, and maintain a defensive argument, focus on the present and future, and gain Arab “street respect” for use of good language skills and being willing to go on the such under such hostile conditions in the first place.  All of this he did very well. 

Al-Farjani’s central argument is that Britain was directly responsible for the disaster of Palestine.  Without her colonial intervention, ie  allowing Jewish immigration to Palestine in the decades before 1948, Israel’s foundation would not have been possible.  He was especially angered with Britain’s alleged failure to formally apologize in comparison to Germany which quickly owned up to its transgressions after WWII.

Wilkes, clearly an experienced diplomat, refused to get caught up in historical details, saying we need to focus on the here and now.  The most he would say is that the British government has an obligation to the Palestinian people, and is working hard to find a solution to the conflict.  His central them was “get over it – its time to move on and stop dwelling in the past.”  He noted how the US and Brits used to be bitter enemies; In 1812 the Brits even burned down the White House, but shortly after they reconciled and became the closest of allies.  Relations between Germany and Britain, especially at the popular level were extremely bitter after WWII, but they moved on. 

Farjani constantly lost his composure, at one point saying Iraq under Saddam was “50 million times better” than it is now. Wilkes responded by saying “you live in Germany, with all these freedoms of speech, religion etc and you speak of Iraq being better under Saddam… what are you doing to help the Pals from Germany?”  This point was repeated several times which seemed to really strike a sensitive spot in Farjani. 

Wilke’s only technical mistake  was to try and (respectfully) cite passages from the Quran to back up his argument.  Unless he is a Muslim convert, or unless his grasp of the Quran is so good his point will be clearly understood, this is something that should probably be avoided as it sounds patronizing.   It definitely riled up Farjani. 

In conclusion, it was a very good performance for Wilkes and the British government.  To be fair, he was helped out by his opponent’s general lack of composure.  Several times throughout the show, host Dr. Faysail Al-Qasem, had to stand  to  calm him down.   Everything Wilkes said was completely predicable, coming from a diplomat, but Farjani seemed to be shocked, as if he didn’t expect to hear these arguments.  Surely, Al-Jazeera could have found someone better to debate the Arab view?   A more composed debater would have made it alot tougher for Wilkes.  It almost seemed as if Al-Jazeera was trying to do Britain a favor……