In the Wake of bin Laden's Death, Draw Lessons from Afghanistan's Past
It took barely 24 hours for the troops-out-of-Afghanistan chorus to break into an outpouring of editorials demanding the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan now that Osama bin Laden is dead. Now you have your prize, they smugly hummed, so let's call it a day. Though there is sometimes an underlying resentment that bin Laden was taken from this world--like when Chris Hedges says his "stomach sank" upon hearing the news--the stoppist opportunists are seizing what they can from the moment anyways.
The "bin Laden's done, now let's desist" argument suffers from numerous fallacies, the first of which is an appalling historical amnesia. It's not in the very distant past that the US already once washed its hands of Afghanistan prematurely after some fairly significant covert meddling in Afghan affairs, in the interest of their own foreign policy objectives.
As Afghanistan turned to face a post-Soviet world at the dawn of the 1990s, it found America's back turned, and much of the rest of the international commmunity followed suit. Into the post-Najibullah void poured the competing muj factions who unleashed violence and chaos over a population in desperate need of a functioning state, rather than a drawn out civil war. Civilians were subjected to a series of unstable muj governments throughout the early 1990s more concerned with imposing random elements of sharia law at their whim than with providing basic services and rebuilding a ravaged nation. And while the muj factions preached puritanical Islam in their rhetoric, their men were raping women and girls at will, pillaging communities, and decimating the country's infrastructure--one of the decent things that the Soviets left behind them. Far more civilians were killed during this period than during the years of Soviet occupation. But there were few outsiders left to witness the aftermath of arming so many uneducated Islamists to the teeth who had never demonstrated much interest or skill in governance. The US had tipped its hat to the Afghans for their usefulness in the now irrelevant Cold War, and wished them the best in their future.
It was into this environment of bloodshed and lawlessness that the Taliban found a sturdy foothold, their excessive form of law and order initially welcomed where it would have been normally speedily rejected. And then into Taliban Afghanistan came Osama bin Laden and a large contingent of Arab "guests" who took over the finest properties left standing in Kabul's upscale Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood. Islamo-fascist terrorism had found an ideal home.
How many more repeats will it take to learn that making Afghanistan a stable, peaceful place with a decent government is not only in the highest interests of the Afghans, but in the West's best interests too?
When the international community turned its back on Afghanistan, there were some notable exceptions. One state which never failed to lose its persistent interest in Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War was Pakistan. Pakistan's interference in Afghanistan continues to be perhaps the primary reason NATO has not yet defeated the Taliban. The circumstances of bin Laden's death should make this all the more evident. As Mosharraf Zaidi points out in Foreign Policy on Monday,
The notion that one fine day bin Laden adorned a burqa and made a trip over perhaps the most treacherous 180 miles of terrain in the world, from Tora Bora to Abbottabad, without catching the attention of Pakistan's vast, richly endowed, and unaccountable military establishment is as ridiculous as any conspiracy theory now being peddled by Pakistan's incorrigible right-wing hacks.
And Salman Rushdie, who is calling for Pakistan to be declared a terrorist state, adds the following point:
We had heard—I certainly had, from more than one Pakistani journalist—that Mullah Omar was (is) being protected in a safe house run by the powerful and feared Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) somewhere in the vicinity of the city of Quetta in Baluchistan, and it seemed likely that bin Laden, too, would acquire a home of his own.
It's unclear whether Pakistan's executive and military actively colludes with the ISI, or if they merely condone the ISI operating as a rogue government agency. What is clear is that Pakistan has questions to answer, and their longstanding charade of cooperation with the US was dealt a heavy blow with the discovery of the bin Ladens playing house a stone's throw from the Pakistani capital. It's not about American imperialist ambitions in the region, as anti-war activists in the West would have you believe; it is, rather, about halting the imperialist ambitions of Pakistan in Afghanistan, so that Pakistan's unchecked paranoia doesn't destroy more than itself.
Further, the killing of bin Laden by no means dismantles al Qaeda, as others in these pages have adeptly pointed out, like Farzana Hassan: "once the jihadist genie is let loose by radical forces in and outside the Muslim world, it is difficult, if not impossible to control." It remains to be seen the degree to which bin Laden was planning terrorist attacks from his digs in Abbottabad to know the tactical impact of his death for counter-terrorism. It is more certainly a victory in the propaganda war, but even then, brainwashed jihadists will be quick to draw inspiration from bin Laden's martyrdom, as Hadar Sela points out recently:
Bin Laden's style of nihilistic ideology does not require him to be breathing in order for it to continue; in fact it may even be nurtured by his long overdue demise, as sympathisers and members of Al Qaida franchises worldwide will likely use his 'martyrdom' as yet another excuse for their medieval practices.
As for the Taliban's particular camp of brainwashed jihadism, the reactions have been ambiguous. On the one hand, the Pakistani Taliban reportedly threatened revenge for bin Laden's death before any al Qaeda spokesperson got around to it. Some news reports have quotes from Taliban fighters in Afghanistan saying that while they consider bin Laden a martyr, al Qaeda is a separate organization and the development means little to them.
Indeed, the Taliban's true base lies inside Pakistan, so the claim that fighting the Taliban's ability to host external terrorist networks like al Qaeda inside Afghanistan has long been a moot point. The only objective of the US military and its allies in Afghanistan can and must be to support a well-governed, stable, peaceful democratic state that will serve the needs of its people, protect their basic rights, and not revert back to a failed state ripe for deathcult extremists, whether or not those extremists opt to take in any bin Laden-like guests again.
The threat is not whom the Taliban might host some day down the road; the threat is the Taliban itself. The Taliban is just another version of al Qaeda: different name, same ideology, and it's this ideology that represents the clear and present danger. al Qaeda carried out acts of terror on US soil and the Taliban commit terrorism against Afghans. But as a cancer left unchecked spreads, the Taliban expanded into Pakistan, and they have closely allied movements in Uzbekistan and Chechnya. Similarly, al Qaeda's origins also lie as a small group focused on Afghanistan, with a base in Peshawar, from which they grew into a vast multinational network.
The world has lost too much to learn so little from the past. Let's stick it out to the end this time, whatever it takes.
Lauryn Oates is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.