A good first step in waging war is to figure out why your enemy is fighting. For over eight years, we’ve refused to do that in Afghanistan. In the recent Marine offensive against the Taliban in Marjah, this resulted in a clear geographical objective, but a vague pacification mission targeting a stick-figure enemy. Tactical success is built on strategic quicksand.
We’re mired in Afghanistan because successive administrations in Washington have conflated the hayseed Taliban with al Qaeda’s cosmopolitans. These organizations have different ethnic compositions and profoundly different goals: The first is a regional actor with local aspirations, and the latter an international force with global ambitions. Instead of exploiting the differences between them, our policies encourage them to cooperate.
To regain our strategic footing, we need to see Taliban cadres as they are, without ideology or emotion clouding our vision.
Our reluctance to understand the Taliban on its own terms is strikingly evident in our insistence that Islam isn’t a factor. A confederation of franchises, the Taliban has multiple interests, from a regional power-struggle to local issues that vary between valleys. But the common identity of Taliban fighters is that they’re 100% Muslim and overwhelmingly Pashtun, members of a stateless ethnic group of 40 million straddling the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Some Taliban leaders are venal or power-mad. This leads Western analysts to insist that the Taliban merely exploits religion as a tool. And there we stop, failing to ask why the tool is so effective. If Islam galvanizes support for the Taliban, how can it be irrelevant? As for Taliban hypocrisy, if hypocrisy disarmed religious fervor, no faith would long survive.
Subtract Islam from the equation, and the Taliban (or al Qaeda) wouldn’t exist as we know it (the name itself comes from “Talib,” a student of Islam). Subtract Pashtun ethnicity, and you wouldn’t have the Taliban we face. Fighting an insurgency fueled by faith and blood, we explain it away in politically correct terms of economic underdevelopment.
This sets us up for failure, since the Taliban isn’t fighting for development, but against progress. They’re reactionaries, not revolutionaries.
Our current hearts-and-minds approach that seeks to avoid “unnecessary” combat gets it exactly wrong: Religious warriors can’t be bought with new roads, wells and vaccinations. On the contrary, over two millennia of religious revolts tells us that fanatic uprisings can only be subdued by killing the true believers.
We go on to imagine potential virtues for the government we sponsor in Kabul, insisting that its security forces are about to perform well. As in South Vietnam, we corrupt our local allies with our largesse and expect people to fight for a despised regime. The Taliban lacks the nationwide support and heavy weaponry of the Viet Minh and its successors, but our pattern of self-delusion is uncanny. No one in our chain of command asks the obvious questions:
* Why, after almost a decade of our best efforts, is it ever easier for the Taliban to recruit Afghans willing to fight us to the death, while the government of President Hamid Karzai is now mooting a draft to fill its ranks? We’re told it’s because the Taliban pays its fighters. But no one becomes a suicide bomber for the Afghan minimum wage. And we pay, too. Yet, apart from a few elite units, “our” Afghans shun combat or desert.
* Why is it that the Taliban, after discrediting itself during its years in power, has regained such popularity among Pashtuns? We’re told that polls show that the majority of Afghans still oppose the Taliban — but that polling includes the hereditary enemies of the Pashtuns. For its constituency, the Taliban defends cherished (if brutal) local traditions, provides rough justice where there has been none, and champions folk Islam. To us, they’re terrorists. To many Pashtun, they’re patriots (and relatives).
* Why is it that the Taliban’s strength has grown in proportion to the number of troops the US, NATO and other allies have sent to Afghanistan? In 2002, with few Western troops on the ground, the Taliban had virtually disappeared. Our presence grew, and the Taliban returned (should we assume that the Taliban’s resurgence was a coincidence?).
On one level, rural Pashtuns are hillbillies who just don’t want the revenuers coming up their hollow, but the problem’s greater than that. Our “heavy footprint” played into the hands of propagandists for jihad, who depicted us as infidel invaders (as we told ourselves that Islam was irrelevant). Faced with zealous believers who regard death as a promotion, we pretend we’re fighting Canadians in pajamas.
We needn’t insult religion to recognize its power. In neighboring Pakistan, Islamist radicalism has crippled the state. To the West, the Iranian regime justifies its existence through Islam. The Taliban, al Qaeda and other Muslim terror organizations announce repeatedly that they’re waging jihad. Our response? We insist that our enemies don’t know what they’re talking about. This is the stuff of Monty Python routines, not serious wartime analysis.
When we elevate political correctness over intellectual integrity in wartime, we throw away the lives of those in uniform. When we refuse to ask ourselves why our enemies are willing to give their all, while our local allies give as little as possible, we repeat the grievous errors of Vietnam. When we tie ourselves to a corrupt regime because it’s “ours,” we repeat the follies of the last six decades. Once again, we’re trying to buy success against an enemy who deals in a different currency.
Before we open fire, it’s helpful to open our eyes. In Afghanistan, we’re imagining the enemy we want, rather than seeking to understand the enemy we face.
Ralph Peters is the author of the new book “Endless War: Middle-Eastern Islam vs. Western Civilization.”