Politics & Policy

How Not to Defeat Radical Islamists

U.S. Army soldiers over Zabul Province, Afghanistan, October 2009. (Photo: Specialist Tia P. Sokimson)
Lessons from Afghanistan in the fight against ISIS

For more than a decade, world leaders have searched for and failed to find military and diplomatic solutions to end the fighting in Afghanistan. Now these same leaders are searching for answers to quell the chaos and bloodshed in Iraq and Syria.

While the situation in Iraq and Syria is not the same as in Afghanistan, depressing and dangerous similarities exist. Yet instead of heeding the lessons learned from the international community’s experience in Afghanistan, Washington and its allies appear to be repeating them in the war to defeat ISIS.

The Taliban began as a local movement in southern Afghanistan during the height of the Afghan civil war of the 1990s. Within months of its creation, thousands of ethnic Pashtun madrassa students from neighboring Pakistan joined their ranks, bringing weapons and support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). Pakistan’s secular and moderately Islamic leaders believed the extreme religious students were Islamabad’s best hope to maintain influence and control in Afghanistan and in their own Pashtun communities.

The Taliban that welcomed al-Qaeda and continues to destabilize Afghanistan today exists only with the help of Pakistan. Taliban fighters continue to find refuge and training in Pakistan’s tribal areas. And the ISI still acts as a go-between for the group and any organization and government that wants to deal with them.

Despite countless pleas from dozens of U.S. officials, Pakistan provides both military and financial support to the Afghan Taliban. Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen even testified before Congress that the Haqqani network, the most powerful and violent Taliban faction, remains a “veritable arm of the ISI.”

As in Afghanistan, extremism in Syria and Iraq is fueled from outside actors. In Syria, American allies Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia openly send weapons and money to the so-called “good” Syrian rebels. And, not very secretly, they maintain close ties with Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Current chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin E. Dempsey testified before Congress recently that America’s Arab allies have funded and continue to fund ISIS, both directly and indirectly. Though America’s allies deny this claim, weapons and cash know no distinctions between “good” and “bad” rebels — support often bleeds across these groups as fighters shift allegiances.

As Pakistan did with the Taliban, Turkey and America’s Gulf allies accept Islamic extremism as a cost of doing business. And, as is true in Afghanistan, America’s unwillingness to confront its allies’ support of extremist groups in Syria will continue to undermine American goals in the Middle East. As long as outside actors think extremists have a role to play in Iraq and Syria’s future, groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra will continue to wreak havoc across the Middle East.

During the 1980s, young Muslim men were encouraged to join the mujahideen in Afghanistan to defeat the Soviet Union. These fighters came from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, and many other Arab countries, convinced they were fighting a “jihad” to defend their faith.

Initially viewed as an asset by the United States in the fight against Communism, the loyalties of many of the fighters shifted as the Cold War came to an end. Some of these men, including Osama bin Laden, took their Western-backed war training and experiences in Afghanistan and created a new group known as al-Qaeda.

The Syrian civil war started out as a battle between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and anti-government activists. America’s Turkish and Arab allies quickly threw their support behind any group willing to oppose Assad, and encouraged young Muslim men to once again flock to the battlefield. Distinctions between the anti-Assad rebel groups were ignored.

With the influx of foreign fighters joining their ranks, many of the so-called “good” Syrian rebels have radicalized and welcomed groups like ISIS. Moderate rebels, tacitly backed by the West and their allies, have metastasized into violent extremists — just as they did in Afghanistan.

Preventing foreign fighters from joining the Syrian opposition may hurt the fight against Assad and his regime. But unless Turkey and other Sunni Arab states halt the flow of fighters into Syria and Iraq, there is little reason to think the battle against ISIS will end any differently from the one against the Taliban.

Afghanistan’s experience with Islamic extremism is a relatively new phenomenon. In the 1970s, as the world witnessed Arab militants hijacking planes and carrying out other terrorist activities, Afghanistan was culturally conservative but welcoming to outsiders. The arrival of Wahhabist teachings changed that and spawned the Taliban.

Wahhabism arose in the 18th century in what is now Saudi Arabia. It is a rigid and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. For more than a century, it had few followers. But with the support and backing of the Gulf Arab monarchs, particularly in Saudi Arabia, it has spread.

In places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Wahhabis created and still fund madrassas, or Islamic schools, for impoverished children, offering incentives such as free room and board and even money. In these schools, extreme interpretations of the Koran are taught to vulnerable and uneducated children, indoctrinating them and fueling extremism.

And now Wahhabism has seeped into some mosques and communities in the West. For many years, Saudi Arabia has been donating free copies of the Koran, with a radical interpretation, to mosques around the world — including ones in the United States, Europe, and Australia.

The problem is that the interpretations printed by the House of Saud are injected with inflammatory words instilling hatred toward non-Muslims and Muslims who do not follow their extreme path. This ideology is the foundation for groups like the Taliban, ISIS, and al-Qaeda.

With the dissemination of these books, Muslim youth, particularly those already feeling disenfranchised by their communities, are being radicalized from afar — fueling an increase in foreign fighters joining ISIS.

The U.S. State Department has repeatedly criticized Saudi Arabia for promoting its extreme version of Islam, to no avail. These teachings have already radically transformed Afghanistan and will likely do the same in Syria and Iraq — both countries that traditionally have not practiced extreme versions of their religions.

Analysts and generals alike say that ISIS cannot be defeated by military might alone. Bullets and bombs can wound the movement, but to finish it off, more needs to be done off the battlefield. If Afghanistan has taught us anything, it is that you cannot just kill your way out of these problems; you have to deal with the underlying issues that created and fuel them. And many more lessons can be taken — including but not limited to addressing the legitimate concerns of minority groups, empowering local government forces, and supplying the proper form of aid and assistance.

But, sadly, it appears history continues to repeat itself.

— Atia Abawi is a former CNN and NBC News foreign correspondent and the author of The Secret Sky, a novel published earlier this month by Philomel Books. Conor M. Powell is a Fox News foreign correspondent based in the Middle East. Both spent many years covering Afghanistan.


The Latest