Among its many goals, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's historic
July 24 speech in Berlin sought to demonstrate the senator's command of the
world stage, particularly with regard to creating a united front with Europe
against global terrorism. Given the largely positive reception it has received,
he likely achieved this goal.
But beneath the lofty rhetoric, Obama's strategy for prosecuting the "war on
terror" is based on questionable, and potentially flawed premises - one shared
with his Republican opponent Senator John McCain - which would likely impede
the ability of either administration to achieve "victory" against Muslim
In his speech, Obama declared that "America can't [win in Afghanistan] alone
... The Afghan people need our troops and
your troops; our support and your support to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda,
to develop their economy, and to help them rebuild their nation. We have too
much at stake to turn back now."
The linkage between al-Qaeda and the Taliban has been made so often since 2001
that the terms have become almost interchangeable, as if they represent the
same overall movement or phenomenon. Indeed, the Taliban regime that ruled
Afghanistan from 1996 through 2001 harbored and supported Osama bin Laden and
al-Qaeda, enabling the attacks of September 11, 2001.
But their cooperation then (and now) does not mean they can be fought along
similar lines. Obama's close association of the two groups, which mirrors
George W Bush administration policy, simplifies a far more complex reality,
against which a strategy based primarily on force and violence will likely
While sharing a similar ideology to a certain extent, personnel, al-Qaeda and
the Taliban are fundamentally distinct entities. Al-Qaeda is a
deterritorialized, stateless organization that claims universal jurisdiction to
wage violent, terroristic jihad against whomever its leaders declare to be
Islam's external and internal enemies.
However hazy al-Qaeda's ideology (at least to the uninitiated), bin Laden's
organization of al-Qaeda was based on the advanced and well-defined principles
of corporate management he studied as a student of economics and public
administration, and afterwards working in his family's transnational
construction empire. Even smarter was bin Laden's grasp of al-Qaeda's value as
a brand in the era of globalization, one which could - and ultimately did -
survive and even thrive as a decentralized coalition of various militant groups
who shared little besides the jihadi component at the core of the group's
For its part, the Taliban is essentially a territorially rooted and "largely
ethno-national phenomenon," as the International Crisis Group describes it. It
emerged as a coherent force in the early to mid-1990s, with the support of the
Pakistani security services, as a loosely aligned movement of Pashtun Afghans,
many of whom had studied at religious schools - madrassas - in or
sponsored by Pakistan, or had fought against the Soviets during the latter's
occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s.
The Taliban's rapid rise to power owed not merely to the movement's radically
conservative ideology. It also stemmed from its support among Afghanistan's
politically and economically marginalized Pashtun majority, along with its
much-publicized war against the large-scale corruption that had long plagued
Afghanistan's political system and economy. Even many Afghans who opposed its
harsh cultural and moral policies accepted that the Salifization of a
previously more open and tolerant Afghan Islam was a price worth paying - at
least temporarily - for the increased security and reduced corruption that
initially accompanied the movement's rise to power.
But once in power the Taliban state, or "Islamic Emirate" declared in 1996,
proved an abysmal failure. The movement's leaders and rank and file alike
proved uninterested and unable to govern, and spent far more time enforcing
moral prescriptions of questionable Islamic legitimacy and harboring extremists
from around the Muslim world than building the national institutions and
infrastructure Afghanistan so badly needed after a decade of brutal war.
When the US invaded and overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001, the "Taliban"
again became a rather shadowy and hard to define - and therefore fight -
entity. Judged by its continued strong presence across the Pashtun regions of
Afghanistan and into Pakistan's neighboring (and Pashtun-dominated) North-West
Frontier Province, the movement continues to appeal to the most marginalized
sectors of the two societies.
In this context, it is troubling that Obama, and most of the US foreign policy
establishment with him, chooses to describe the Taliban as if it were a clearly
defined, purely terrorist organization with little support among Afghans, which
can be targeted and fought with a fair degree of confidence by US, and Obama
hopes, increasingly European forces.
Such a view, which has also been applied to Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in
Lebanon, is equally inaccurate in all three cases. This lack of understanding
helps explain why all three movements have remained so difficult to defeat by
far superior military forces.
If the United States and its allies are to continue the war against the Taliban
well into the next decade (or at least administration), it would behoove Obama,
and his Republican counterpart, to explain exactly who are the "Taliban" they
plan to fight even more fiercely than before. Is there a hierarchical structure
with a clear leadership and chain of command that can be identified and
targeted? Is every religiously conservative Pashtun who is fighting against the
US occupation a "Taliban" and therefore a legitimate military target"? What
about the far larger number of Afghans who merely support them; are they "enemy
combatants"? Are the 78 Afghan civilians killed during the month of July
acceptable "collateral damage" in such a fight?
As important, does the US and its allies have the right according to the United
Nations Charter and international law to capture, detain and even kill Afghans
merely because they are suspected of subscribing to political or religious
beliefs that resemble those of the Taliban, or even have fought with them?
These questions might seem pedantic given the commonly perceived urgency of
fighting Islamic extremism. But if we consider that (according to the UN) as
many as 90% of American detainees have never been involved in anything
resembling terrorist activity, the importance of such questions becomes
apparent. Moreover, the same slipshod logic that has governed American
detention policies has also governed the use of torture, secret renditions and
other policies that clearly violate internationally recognized standards of
human rights and justice, and in so doing further frustrate the successful
prosecution of the "war against terror".
It is equally hard to imagine how the military and civilian strategists
planning the ongoing war can design appropriate policies for dealing with the
root causes of the continued popularity of the Taliban without being able to
answer these fundamental questions accurately.
The good news is that while we may not know exactly who is part of the Taliban,
we do have a fairly good idea of what motivates the continuous stream of new
recruits to its ranks. The British-based research group the Senlis Council
released a report last month based on extensive research in Afghanistan, Iraq
and Somalia, which argued that frustration with war and unemployment was
underpinning the insurgency against Western forces .
Similarly, The International Crisis Group's just published report on Taliban
propaganda , argues that the movement is a local product of the anti-Soviet
jihad and the civil war that followed, and linked to transnational extremist
groups for "mostly tactical rather than strategic reasons but divided over
these links internally". It both lacks a coherent agenda, and survives by
exploiting local tribal disputes.
In other words, addressing core economic development and political needs of the
majority of Afghans, and their brethren across the Pakistani border, would go a
long way towards "draining the swamp" that feeds the malaria of religious
extremism. But such a political reclamation process will not succeed as long as
America's leaders don't understand the basic, if harsh, rationality underlying
the continued salience of the Taliban message: that the movement will remain
rooted in Afghan society, and therefore impossible to defeat, unless and until
the large-scale poverty, inequality, corruption and other endemic societal
problems are addressed by the international community and the Afghan
In the meantime, among the most important shortcomings of the lack of a precise
definition of whom the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization are fighting
in Afghanistan is how much more inefficient it has made the prosecution of the
"war on terror". While thousands of people remain jailed for no reason and tens
of thousands more have been killed, most of the admitted masterminds of the
September 11 atrocities - a crime not just against the American people, but
against humanity - remain at large.
It would be nice if Obama and McCain could enlighten Americans, Europeans and
Afghans as to how they plan to rectify this problem without repeating the very
mistakes that helped create and sustain the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, in the first