Up until now, one might have thought our goal in going to war in Afghanistan was to vanquish al-Qaeda, its jihadist affiliates, and the Taliban — the de facto Afghan government we toppled because it facilitated al-Qaeda’s terrorist strikes against the United States from 1998 through 9/11. That certainly is the mission contemplated by the use-of-force resolution Congress passed in September 2001. President Obama seemed to grasp this back in March when he assured Americans that defeating al-Qaeda was his purpose in Afghanistan (and in Pakistan as well).
But that is not General McChrystal’s purpose. In fact, he does not even think this is America’s war. “This is their war,” the general says of the Afghans. “This conflict and country are [theirs] to win — not mine.” And because we are in Afghanistan primarily to make life better for the Afghans, he argues, “our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population.” This, he writes, is a “war of ideas” in which “the key to changing [the Afghans’] perceptions lies in changing the underlying truths.” Good luck with that.
The main underlying truth in this conflict is Islam, a matter McChrystal barely mentions in his 60 pages of politically correct prose. The inconvenient truths are: that the population of Afghanistan is 99.5 percent Muslim; that the Afghans have longstanding alliances with our jihadist enemies, who helped them drive the Soviets out of their country in 1989 after a decade of brutal occupation; that even though a majority of Afghans does not want the Taliban back in power, the group still enjoys considerable support among a population that was largely content to live under its rule; that the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda enjoy enthusiastic support from Pakistan, where the United States is despised and where Sunni Islamism is seen as a useful weapon against India and Iran, which is why Pakistan created the Taliban in the first place. And even if McChrystal is correct that most Afghans do not oppose our presence in their country, many of them do, and many more non-Afghan Muslims view us as an occupying infidel force.
When McChrystal does get around to Islam, on page 38 of his opus, he botches it:
A more forceful and offensive StratCom approach must be devised whereby [the insurgents] are exposed continually for their cultural and religious violations, anti-Islamic and indiscriminate use of violence and terror, and by concentrating on their vulnerabilities. These include their causing of the majority of civilian casualties, attacks on education, development projects, and government institutions, and flagrant contravention of the principles of the Koran. These vulnerabilities must be expressed in a manner that exploits the cultural and ideological separation of the [insurgents] from the vast majority of the Afghan population.
This remarkable passage comes after McChrystal repeatedly cautions readers that “We must never confuse the situation as it stands with the one we desire.” He should take his own advice.
There is considerable debate in Islamic circles about whether the Islamists’ rigid construction of sharia contravenes “the principles of the Koran.” Many Muslims claim these principles have been tempered by centuries of practice and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). To claim, however, that the Taliban are “flagrantly” in violation of Islamic principles, and that they will judged to be so by other Muslims, is wishful thinking. So is the suggestion that Afghan Muslims, culturally and ideologically, have more in common with us than with than with the Afghan Muslims we are fighting. General McChrystal should know that global polls show that 75 percent of Muslims want “to keep Western values out of Islamic countries” and endorse “a strict application of sharia,” which includes such time-honored penalties as death for apostasy and stoning for adultery.
Moreover, it is neither “indiscriminate” nor “anti-Islamic” to “use . . . violence and terror” against infidels who take up arms against Muslims and who attempt to sow the seeds of Western governance in Islamic countries. In the days following 9/11, even after condemning al-Qaeda’s mass-murder of innocent civilians, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa forbidding Muslims to cooperate with the United States in Afghanistan. The sheikh subsequently declared that Muslims enlisted in the American military should refuse to participate in U.S. operations in Islamic countries. In 2004, he added that Muslims should attack occupying American troops in Iraq. If we combine the huge international audience of his weekly al-Jezeera television program and his Islam Online cyber-venture, Qaradawi is the most influential Sunni cleric in the world. He is also the chief theoretician of the world’s most influential Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood (the same Muslim Brotherhood President Obama insisted on inviting to his ballyhooed speech in Cairo this past spring). Given a choice between Qaradawi and McChrystal, many Muslims, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, are going with Qaradawi.
When McChrystal is not getting Islam hopelessly wrong, he makes the fatal error of ignoring it — a mistake that has characterized U.S. strategic thinking for at least two decades. Thus he asserts, for example, that “the insurgents have two primary objectives: controlling the Afghan people and breaking the coalition’s will” — as if there were no rationale (besides the unremarkable tyrannical impulse) for “the insurgents” to behave this way. But the Taliban and its allies want to control the Afghan people in order to reinstitute what they see as the purified Islam of Mohammed’s Companions. They are not just “insurgents,” they are jihadists who see themselves as pursuing a divine commandment to impose Allah’s law. In a great many cases, they are doing so in their own country, and with the support and respect of many of their countrymen.
So while McChrystal is correct that a majority of Afghans (especially those who practice more moderate strains of Sufi Islam) rejects the Taliban, a sizable minority sympathizes. Even if that were not so, rejecting the Taliban’s barbarous methods and austere agenda hardly means that Afghans reject Islamism more generally. And even less does it mean that most Afghans will come to see themselves as more aligned with Americans than with our enemies, their fellow Afghan Muslims. In Islam, there is endless intramural rivalry and discord; still, that is put aside in conflicts with non-believers — the unity of the umma, the global Muslim nation, takes precedence.
BRINGING HOPE AND CHANGE TO AFGHANISTAN
What would bring Afghanistan’s tribal, Islamic population over to our side? Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that McChrystal is right and Afghans uniformly see the Taliban as their tormentors. Are we going to kill or capture all the Taliban? No: not our job; according to General McChrystal, we’re there to convince the Afghans that doing so is their job.