‘You can not win a war if you don’t know who the enemy is,” teaches master strategist Sun Tzu — a commonsense maxim that needs repeating as the Obama administration seeks a way out of the newly designated AfPak (Afghanistan/Pakistan) imbroglio. As the Pakistani army battles Taliban insurgents in Swat and elsewhere, the answer to the question of who exactly the Taliban is, and what is the nature of its relationship with al-Qaeda, is of key importance in judging the chances of success for the emerging Obama strategy. For even as Washington pushes Islamabad to keep the Taliban from expanding its territorial sway in the North-West Frontier Province, the administration seems to think the real solution to the Taliban problem, on both sides of the border, lies in striking an “acceptable compromise” deal with the militants. This premise is based on the assumption that most Taliban are little more than disgruntled Pashtun tribesmen who have neither a strong ideological motivation nor a vested interest in the al-Qaeda enterprise, and therefore will be easily “reconcilable” with the proper mixture of incentives. All in all, it’s a 21st-century version of the old British colonial aphorism that “you cannot buy an Afghan, but you can certainly rent one.”
To gauge how realistic this approach is likely to prove, consider a long-forgotten event. In late April of 2001, a friend in Peshawar sent me the transcribed speeches from a conference that had taken place near the city earlier that month. He urged me to read them carefully, because, as he put it, “this is the future of Pakistan.” The conference, with some half a million in attendance, was perhaps the greatest public celebration of jihad in Pakistan to that point. Exhorting the participants, in person or by phone, to join the jihad against America and assorted other infidels were Osama bin Laden, the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, Pakistan’s most prominent religious leaders, Muammar Qaddafi, and various and sundry jihadist and terrorist leaders from all corners of the world. Displayed prominently as the guest of honor was Gen. Hamid Gul — the former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, and a military mastermind behind the jihadist networks in Pakistan. Interestingly, the conference’s official subject was not jihad at all, but rather a celebration of the contributions to jihad made by the Darul Uloom school of Deobandi Islam. What the conference materials made crystal-clear, months before 9/11, was the existence of an international jihadist movement with a well-defined radical ideology dedicated to violence against perceived enemies of Islam, boasting numerous constituent groups operating synergistically, all of whom were welcomed into Pakistan to celebrate and promote jihad with the full knowledge of the Pakistani military, including the strongman, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
It is worth revisiting some of the salient features of the Pakistani Islamist movement eight years later in order to evaluate our chances of striking a lasting compromise.
To start with ideology, there is little doubt that Deobandism has become the dominant Islamic idiom in much of Pakistan, with some 20,000 madrassas preaching hate in every corner of the country. The creed’s naked extremism is rivaled only by the Saudis’ Wahhabism. Like the Wahhabis, the Deobandis are obscurantist and misogynist to the core and believe in violence against infidels as well as Muslims that they consider apostates, like the Shia. Indeed, one of the most frightening but seldom-reported current developments is the veritable war of extermination that Deobandi jihadists are carrying out against Pakistani Shias. This is a remarkable turn of events, because only three decades ago the Deobandis were not much more than 10 percent of the population, compared with 70 percent syncretic Barelvis and 20 percent Shia. The reason they came to dominate Pakistani Islam has nothing to do with the appeal of their creed and everything to do with the decisive support they received from the Pakistani military, beginning with dictator Zia ul-Haq in 1977. This troglodyte ideology is now rapidly spreading outside the subcontinent and radicalizing Muslims in Great Britain and elsewhere.
The ideological preeminence of the jihadist mindset among the Taliban in Pakistan explains why it is highly unrealistic to expect that we can lure these fanatics away from their alliance with al-Qaeda. The governing premise of this hypothesis is that members of the Taliban retain their essential Pashtun tribal identity and have allied with al-Qaeda for purely opportunistic reasons. This fiction has been maintained by frequent rumors and pronouncements that they have broken or are about to break with al-Qaeda, such as a much-touted reconciliation meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban sponsored by the Saudi king last September.
The belief in Taliban moderates might have some substance if the fighters were still true to their Pashtun Sufi traditions and the Pashtunwali code of honor, which historically took precedence even over Islam. Alas, that is yet another myth born of wishful thinking. The fact is that the Taliban was created by the Pakistani military from detribalized Pashtun youth indoctrinated in Deobandi madrassas, which in many ways are the antithesis of tribal culture. To this day, the Taliban regularly murders maliks and other traditional tribal leaders in areas it seeks to dominate. Leaders of the traditional tribal society in areas like Swat have occasionally raised armies and tried to resist the Taliban onslaught, despite Islamabad’s complete indifference to their plight.
Finally, the Obama administration must realize what the Bush administration stubbornly refused to accept during its two terms — namely, that the Taliban is part and parcel of the much larger international jihadist movement that continues to receive support from powerful state sponsors such as Saudi Arabia. In Pakistan, this movement involves a close symbiotic alliance between the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the numerous and powerful terrorist groups such as Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba (renamed Jamaat ud Dawa), Hizbul Mujahidin, Sipah-e-Sahaba, and others that are wreaking havoc throughout the country on a daily basis. It is an alliance of terror that would not exist without the support it has received over the years from the Pakistani military and the huge amount of money our Saudi friends provide to the Deobandi madrassas — the number-one recruitment source for this murderous network. For the Obama administration to try to deal with the Taliban while remaining oblivious of the big picture is failure preordained.
– Alex Alexiev is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.