You Have the Watches, We Have the Time say the Taliban. The implication is that the Americans will eventually leave and they will inherit the country. This implication is wrong. Their race is not with the Americans who will indeed leave, but with modernization that is there to stay. Modernization will sweep them aside. How to promote that sooner rather than later is now the core challenge in Afghanistan.
The Taliban's central claim to legitimacy is that they are the true defenders of Islam, and they support this with selected references to the Koran and to Islamic tradition. They have taken a concept of jihad -- purifying one's soul and defending Islam -- and perverted it to justify intolerance, mass murder, and suicide bombings. The West authenticates this perverted view by linking extremists with "jihad," a core value of Islam. David Kilcullen recommends instead referring to radical Islamacists as takfiri, with more of a meaning of heresy. They need to be widely labeled not as martyrs, but as murderers. The Taliban vision of simplicity and purity appeals to uneducated, frustrated youth who are ready to blame infidel foreigners for their problems and join in struggle against them. The first task needs to be to more forcefully challenge this medieval view and de-legitimize it as a perversion of Islam.
This is an internal struggle within Islam, and has to be led by Muslims. There is, in fact, a wide range of authoritative Muslim voices that have denounced the extremist vision, from the Grand Mufti of Egypt to the Amman Message crafted by some 500 Muslim scholars. Within the region, Benazir Bhutto's posthumous call for Reconciliation spoke eloquently of Islam's commitment to tolerance, equality, and respect for women while denouncing those who murder innocents as "going astray from the right path" and lamenting that "the greatest crimes against humanity have been those carried out in the name of God." Indeed many extremists have simply dropped out of terrorist groups, others have been de-radicalized, while some Muslim intellectuals are determined to find a way to wrestle the faith back from extremists. The West in general and the United States in particular watches these debates from the sidelines, but that does not mean we are neutral. Everyone has a vested interest in denouncing those who kill in the name of God.
Modernizers within Afghanistan, foreign supporters among them, have to provide a wider public appreciation of the mainstream Muslim rejection of Taliban perversions. This needs to include a loud and continuous publicity and denunciation of clearly non-Islamic practices by the Taliban, including the killing of non-Muslims and Muslims alike, their disrespect for women, and their continuing support of opium production, as well as their unfounded rejection of traditional cultural elements, including music, kite flying, singing and dancing. Millions of people in the region have seen what Taliban rule looks like, from Kabul in the late 1990s to the Swat Valley last year, and they reject it. Yet local mullahs and leaders naturally hesitate to bluntly denounce it for fear of harm to themselves and their families. Such intimidation is particularly challenging when only a few dare to raise their voices. The more who do, the less intimidation is effective. So protecting those who do is a priority task, while publicizing their denunciations and encouraging others to join in. We have seen recently where local leaders in the Pakistani border region have come to recognize they cannot sit back and watch, but must actively stand up and defend themselves. The same phenomenon is also visible in Afghanistan tribal areas where the rise of local militias is presenting the government with both a challenge and an opportunity. These are exactly the kinds of movements that can sweep the Taliban aside, permanently.
The other half of the effort to sweep the Taliban aside has to be making modernization actually happen, demonstrating that foreign elements are not in Afghanistan to assert control but to support real development. This means local projects drawn up at the local level and carried out by a maximum involvement of local businesses and local workers, receiving not only pay but training and encouragement. Nothing would give a bigger boost to Afghanistan than a shared vision of better lives.
Plans to reduce troop numbers can support this objective, but must be accompanied by clear commitments to long-term development support. The more nations that join in, the more credible this is. Indeed NATO is specifically seeking a broader range of partners, including China, Russia, India and the republics of Central Asia. Against this background proposals to re-invigorate the regional transport network become particularly pertinent. Development right now can be most easily accomplished in the quieter areas of the country. Such development can demonstrate what is possible and provide further incentive for the more unsettled areas to turn to positive evolution rather than continuing destructive turmoil. This can also serve to energize US public opinion which now often sees Afghanistan as hopelessly backward and bogged down with interminable fighting, rather than as a dynamic region resisting intimidation by brutal thugs.
Most of all, positive development can serve to destroy illusions of any inevitable Taliban domination. That's a prerequisite for building a new Afghanistan.