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Sweeping the Taliban Aside

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.

Comments (6)

Ed Corcoran Author Profile Page:

Send by Ali Seraj, 9 Feb 0504 PST


I read your article with deep interest. I agree with you that the Taliban must be introduced as a source of evil, not as champions of Islam. They do not promote Islam in any shape or form. They represent the lowest form of humanity and it would behoove the world at large and the Islamic world in particular, to not only vent their disgust verbally,but also to air it visually.

It is time that we initiated a psychological war against this infestation of blood thirsty animals, by using television as a means to air their atrocities to the world. Every suicide bombing of the innocent, every beheading, every destruction of properties, especially mosques, and all other nefarious actions must be televised 24/7. Reciting of the Holy Quran, condemming such actions must be aired by prominent religious leaders.

While this is being done, we must empower the Tribal elders of Afghanistan, to once again assume their rightful and honorable posts, as the true leaders of the tribes. Through the elders we must re-establish the position of the Tribal Malik. These were destroyed by the communists, but the foundation is there for it to be rekindled.

Afghanistan's problems are four fold: Tribal, Economical, Social and Political, in that order.
While I agree that modernization is one way of getting rid of the Taliban, but modernization without tribal support will not work. Once we have the support of the Tribes, this can be followed by economical programs which will create jobs and thus tie the Society, which in turn will bring peace and security, thereby getting rid of the Foreign Talban on the one hand, and reconciling the Native Talibs on the other hand. Politics is last to follow.

This is the only workable way to bring peace to the country. Afghanistan needs an evolution not a revolution. The Coalition forces must understand this and change their policies accordingly if they want to avoid further bloodshed.

Caving in to the Taliban by "buying their allegiance" will only encourage them to prolong and widen the fight by attracting more of these blood thirsty animals from far and wide.

This is the reason behind the establishment of the National Coalition for Dialogue with the Tribes of Afghanistan. A movement of the People, by the People and for the People. They are ready to serve only if someone was there to ask for their service.

Ali Seraj

Ed Corcoran Author Profile Page:

Sent by SC 0502 9 Feb
An interesting piece with elements I strongly agree with. But I think you miss the key point, that is that radical Islam is often an expression of politics, a vehicle for expressing frustration at political exclusion and humiliation. Look for example at the role of the warlords in creating insurgency in Afghanistan through cruel (zalem) predatory behavior and through exclusion of their political rivals from power and patronage. I think the west constantly underplays this element, partly because it legitimizes the opposition, partly because it is hard to deal with, but it is absolutely critical. NB other factors play a part as well, including lack of development and jobs, but it is so frustrating that this aspect is underlooked. It's the politics, stupid. And that means the solutions are political.

Ed Corcoran Author Profile Page:

From Ralph Lopez, 9 Feb 2010 10:36

I am in agreement with these general principles but want to insure that the development actually includes hiring lots of Afghans doing the labor so they can obtain a steady wage. Having a school plopped in the middle of your valley by a foreign contractor doing the work does little good if you still can't eat. Labor should be substituted creatively for machinery, for example using men with shovels for digging rather than backhoes. This is the essence of our initiative at Job for Afghans. It is the dignity of labor and a good day's wage which will pull men away from the Taliban and it's $10 per day wage. Have copied our recent press release below, and link to our white paper "Stabilizing Afghanistan Through a Cash-for-Work Initiative" is here: the web site at also links to a variety of other resources.

Thanks for the article.

Ed Corcoran Author Profile Page:

From Ahmed Rashid, 10 Feb 2010 05:37:57 +0000

I think your point about modernization is very important and well taken and needs to be stressed as much as helping create a really indigenous economy that provides jobs rather than a short term aid donor economy that provides jobs only for the short term. But we also need to consider how to frame this argument if Karzai and the US are going to be talking to the Taliban who are basically anti-modern. And nobody, neither Afghans nor the West, wants to give up their achievements in things like education, women working etc.

Ed Corcoran Author Profile Page:

Sent by Khalil Nouri, 0000 11 Feb 10

It will be worthwhile to engage the Muslim world in a summit dialog defining the true vision of Islam. In this case recognized religious authorities e.g. Islamic Seminaries of Al-Ashar of Cairo, Dar Ul-Uloom of Deoband-India, Umm Al-Qura University Saudi Arabia and many more worldwide including Turkish and Jordanian Islamic seminaries to form a "Pan United Islamic Front"(PUIF) for a true understanding as why Islam is in deviation from its grace and no longer resembles a religion as it was a millennium ago. Once the exact cause is defined then a genuine solutions to overcome these confusions must be dealt with. For example, any Palestinian-Israeli conflict must be addressed and worked in all levels to resolve the issues.

Thereafter, on the issues of suicide bombings and many other atrocities by extremists should be dealt in a different form;

Most religious establishments are critical assets in this war against radical ideology. Senior religious and legal figures should issue public condemnations of terrorism in both moral and religious terms, and prohibit youth worldwide from traveling into terrorist hubs to engage in Jihad. The Council of Senior Ulema should launch official Fatwas that act as guides to Muslims against the Fatwas issued by terrorist groups. This move is an attempt to ensure that Fatwas issued by authorized scholars are given prominence; and to avoid Fatwa chaos and confusion when unqualified Muslims issue Fatwas that clash with the true interpretation of Islamic Shari'ah.

Ed Corcoran Author Profile Page:

From Stephen Ulph, Feb 10, 0930:

Many thanks for sending me your excellent and stimulating article. It is highly refreshing to read an analysis that understands the struggle beyond the (preliminary value of) kinetic operations.

You very accurately pinpoint the source of the Taliban's strength: their claim that they are "the true defenders of Islam." The effect of such a claim is to immunize them to a great degree from the potential PR disaster of military defeat.

Jihadism as demonstrated by the Taliban shows unique resilience in that it is immune from the test of performance. George Orwell thought that "the quickest way to end a war is to lose it." This truism does not apply to the jihadist struggle. German Fascism needed victory to consolidate itself. Marxism too had to "perform" - it had to deliver economically and scientifically or it was compromised. But for the jihad there are no such ready benchmarks for success or failure, and this for two reasons.

Firstly, the "insurgent" nature of the militancy means that the benchmarks for success are not so easily measurable, and the actions undertaken have fewer implications for the militant cause. The point was succinctly made by the counterinsurgency theorist David Galula:

[t]he insurgent, having no responsibility, is free to use every trick; if necessary, he can lie, cheat, exaggerate. He is not obliged to prove; he is judged by what he promises, not by what he does.

The second reason is that the prize sought by the militant is not of this world. The timescale of Islamist victory is also of a totally different order. In this timescale they are constantly winning: military reversals may reduce their effectiveness, but in the long view they do not count as defeats. Indeed, each death is a victory for the individual martyr, and for a community that judges victory by the attainment of the bliss of paradise after death, it constitutes irrefutable evidence of progress. It thus negates any evidence that would appear to contradict them, and lends the radicals' programme unusual resilience.

This does not, of course, spell automatic success for the Taliban, far from it, but it does give the ideology they champion a "life beyond the grave." Which certainly has implications for the Long War.

You mentioned their perversion of jihad - purifying one's soul and defending Islam - to justify intolerance, mass murder, and suicide bombings. This is undoubtedly true qualitatively. Unfortunately the problem is compounded by the weight of the Islamic legacy, if we view this quantitatively. For the conception of jihad as purifying one's soul and defending Islam is only a 19th century quantitative prioritization, and that only among the progressives of the Nahda. Given that the future of Islam lies with these progressives, then this pacific interpretation is a correct prioritization. However the Taliban do not see their heritage as squaring with the progressives - they see it with the Salafist interpretation of Islam, which is advancing in leaps and bounds and cancelling out the influence of the progressives.

As you mentioned, where the Taliban draw their strength, is that they claim to be the true defenders of Islam. But they do not make this claim from themselves, but rather point to the doctrinal heritage, and in so doing - quantitatively - have no difficulty in defending their starting points. To take a few examples on such matters as the "killing of non-Muslims and Muslims alike." For this a whole category of literature exists (which they understandably highlight) defending the practice, and peppering every paragraph with a citation from the Qur'an or the Hadith and the major orthodox scholars of Islamic law. E.g.:

Is'ad al-Akhyar fi Ihya' Sunnat Nahr al-Kuffar ("On Reviving the Doctrine on Slaughtering the Infidel") - Abu al-Bara' al-Najdi

AlTibyan fi Istihdaf al-Nisa' wal-Sibyan ("Clarification Regarding Intentionally Targeting Women and Children")

Al-Qawl al-Mubin fi Mafhum al-Tatarrus wa-Ahkamihi fi al-Din ("Clear Words on the Concept of Human Shield and Legal Verdicts Thereon in the Faith") - Dr. Umar Ghani- Sa'ud al-'Ani

Irshad al-Hayara- fi Ibaha Dima' al-Nasara ("Guide for the Perplexed on Licensing the Shedding of Christian Blood")

Of course, it is targeted and tendentious research that has produced these, but they are certainly not making things up out of the top of their heads. Each work in this genre is a meticulously constructed, legally credible (if arguable) work of scholarly investigation. For instance, a common Hadith adduced in this type of material is the following:

Sa'ab bin Jathamah (may Allah be pleased with him) reported from that the Prophet was asked about the people in the homes of Mushrikun (Polytheists) when they are attacked at night and their women and children are affected, he said: "they are part of them".

Therefore, according to the radical Shaykh Hamud ibn 'Abdallah ash-Shu'aybi, (famous for praising the Taliban for creating "the only country in the world in which there are no man-made laws"):

this Hadith shows that women, children and all those killing of whom is forbidden, when they are separate, it is permissible to kill them when they are mixed up with the fighters and it is not possible to separate. This is because they had asked the Prophet about the case which is "attacking at night", in which case it is not possible to differentiate, and he permitted them because "things may be allowed when they occur along the way but be forbidden when separate."

Under the stipulations of the Islamic legal heritage, there is no concept of civilian (or "non-combatant"). Instead the distinction is made between those who have hurma - protection under Shariah - and those who do not. This is a legal and textual, not a moral or humanitarian, judgement. Those who are protected are Muslims, and those of the infidel who have a treaty, or covenant, with the Muslims. Those who have the benefit of protection can only be killed if they transgress a limit, or limits, defined by the Shariah. Radicals such as the Taliban will go with the letter of the law, every time. As usual, it is Ibn Taymiyya who is most often cited. According to his al-Siyasa al-Shar'iyya fi Islah al-Ra'i wal-Ra'iya ("Legitimate Governance in Reforming the Ruler and His Subjects"), he mentions those among the infidel who, according to the majority opinion, should not be targeted when Jihad is undertaken:

These are women, children, the elderly, the blind, and those who are incapable of physically fighting, provided such persons as these do not assist or aid, through words, or deeds, or by giving assistance or encouragement to, those who are physically fighting the Muslims.

Note there is no mention of "innocent people" or of "civilians", and note the important words here: "provided such persons as these do not assist or aid, or give encouragement to..." which, of course can be defined according to the lights of whoever wishes to do the defining. But even so, the methodology is Islamically legitimate. The Taliban, and all the other radicals, are not inventing this. To attempt to write them off as takfiri is simply to engage in so many Hadith wars, where the outcome is not guaranteed to come out in our favour.

The Taliban vision of simplicity and purity also appeals to much more than dysfunctional, uneducated youth. Nor can it be delegitimized in the broader Muslim public by calling it "medieval". The term "mediaeval" is a pejorative term only in a post-Enlightenment (largely Western) intellectual context. If the Taliban are claiming authenticity, then the more mediaeval it is, the better.

All of which underlines the dilemma that progressive Muslims are facing. They are having to go against a tide which at the moment is overwhelming them, so much so that many of its leading lights have to operate from outside the Muslim heartlands. As it stands, this tide is so strong that debates against the permissibility of music, singing and dancing are actually taking place among Muslims not just in Afghanistan but in the United Kingdom too. It is a pan-Salafist debate.

The issue, therefore, as you presciently say at the beginning, is the process of modernization, of legitimizing intellectual development, over against submission to tradition. This has to happen internally, as you outlined. The modernization must take place at the Islamic doctrinal level. The sources for alternative positions (which favour modernity) are definitely there, but are statistically insignificant compared to the leaping progress of Salafism. The problem, therefore, is much wider than Afghanistan's.

And this modernization has to be patently supported by ourselves, without fear of the "kiss of death" issue, whereby any whiff of western support undermines the progressives. This, I think you will agree, is a false pre-occupation, for the simple reason that according to the radicals progressive Muslims have been a priori "got at" by the western epistemological system. Therefore they have no credibility to start with. Given that the progressives are starting from zero, the only way they can go is up. And they will get there by quantity, as much as quality. The loudspeaker has to be amplified in the teeth of Salafist accusations of "selling out." It is, after all, a War of Ideas.

Many thanks, once again, for your thought-provoking article, and I look forward to reading more of your work, which provides valuable insights at a time of media opacity on the scale of the problems we are facing.

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