Fighting the Taliban

Iraq is receiving, and has been receiving, much more attention than Afghanistan, but I think that that may be about to change. There is currently talk of a massive build-up of Taliban forces, with as many as 2000 suicide bombers among them. This is enough to wreak probably almost as much havoc in Afghanistan as has been wreaked against us in Iraq, at least in the short term. And it comes at a predictable moment: the international force is winding down, the American people have turned against any further military build-up; basically, the sleeping dragon awakened on Sept. 11, 2001 is yawning and getting ready to go back to sleep.

Well, I want to go back to two more fundamental questions that have received particularly short shrift regarding Afghanistan: (1) what was our purpose in invading their country, and (2) who is our enemy there.

The invasion, even though rather weak in terms of the number of American soldiers on the ground, was well supported around the world, primarily because it was seen as a form of "hot pursuit". That is, a band of murderous thugs had made a particularly brutal and effective attack against us, and we were chasing them down. That it meant that we needed to cross the boundary of another nation was widely accepted at the time as OK.

However, even then I was concerned with how little respect we showed for the sovereignty of the Afghan government.

Mullah Omar, the leader of the country, had made a deal with Osama bin-Laden and al-Qaeda that they could operate freely in the mountainous outlands of the country if, in exchange, they accepted Afghans loyal to the ruling party as trainees. This deal was a win-win for them, because in fact, Mullah Omar and Osama bin-Laden shared a view of the world that required them, as a matter of their religious faith, to be militant against those whom they perceived to be enemies of their religion. Omar apparently had no interest in anything beyond the borders of his own country, while bin-Laden apparently did not involve himself in the domestic affairs of his host; their arrangement was made for practical reasons and because of their agreement on many theological and ideological matters.

During the very rapid build-up to our invasion of Afghanistan, we demanded that Mullah Omar either hand over bin-Laden and the leaders of al-Qaeda to us, or to get out of the way and to allow us to get them. He actually agreed to do it, but only if we gave him hard evidence that it was bin-Laden and al-Qaeda who had attacked us. At that time, we had no such evidence, and in fact, it was quite some time before we got it. We had a compelling circumstantial case, but in the Sharia law which Mullah Omar attempted to follow in ruling Afghanistan, circumstantial evidence carries little weight. We could have waited to gather hard evidence, and used it to convince Omar to comply, but we didn't. I believe that the reason that we rejected a diplomatic/law enforcement approach was primarily political. People all around the world were clamoring for action. If the Bush administration had put every possible resource into developing a bullet-proof case against al-Qaeda as the perpetuators of the WTC/Pentagon attack, and used the pressure of the entire world to persuade Omar either to let us in or to declare bin-Laden and the al-Qaeda leaders personae non gratae and forcing them out, while also declaring our intention not otherwise to interfere with the internal affairs of Afghanistan, I believe that we could have done a much more effective job against al-Qaeda then we did.

However, we decided to lump al-Qaeda together with the Taliban as our enemies, and to invade the country, to overthrow its government, and to set up a puppet government which we are still propping up today. Instead of pursuing those who attacked us, we had to fight all of the government forces of the entire country, making them our deadly enemies for life. Our attackers, for the most part, survived, and, conveniently for them, are still attacking us, but without the necessity of a long commute around the world to do so. In fact, we are commuting around the world, at great expense, to become their targets.

I don't believe that we should ever have considered the Taliban our enemy. Yes, as a democratic republic, we do not agree with the theocratic or Islamic approach to government, nor they with our approach. We disagree, even strongly. They believe that our licentiousness endangers the souls of our citizens and prevents them from finding and submitting to Allah. We believe that their restrictive, superstition-filled way of life represses their citizens and prevents them from pursuing happiness or justice. But those are not differences that rise to the level of a casus belli.

So now that we have made the Taliban our enemies, what should our approach be to dealing with them? It appears very clear that they will always be a formidable force in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I don't think it would be in our interests to wipe them out to the last person, and I don't think that's even possible. But, if we just push them back, killing some of them (i.e., some brothers, fathers, sons, wives, children, sisters), then they will become even more adamantly our enemies.

The bottom line is that our only choice, unless we are committed to empire, is to withdraw from Afghanistan just as we must withdraw from Iraq. Withdraw while making the sincerest possible apology, and accepting a commitment to assist those states that we have ravaged with our war machine, with economic aid, training, and, if necessary, material aid.

If our withdrawal means the return of the Taliban, which it might, then I maintain that that would be better than the status quo. The Taliban will never stay in power indefinitely. The entire weight of history is against them. But it is never right or even helpful for an alien nation to go in and force a regime change on a people who has not attacked them, that just slows down the process by creating enmity and violence.

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