Dissimulation Exposed

Friday, May 18, 2007

Facing al Qaeda

Bernard Lewis shared some interesting ideas regarding al Qaeada's strategy in a recent article on Opinion Journal. I'd like agree in principle, yet highlight some slight errors or generalizations contained therein.

The Soviets and The Taliban

He wrote:

An organization known as the Taliban (literally, "the students") began to organize resistance and even guerilla warfare against the Soviet occupiers and their puppets. For this, they were able to attract [...] money, and [...] volunteers to fight [...]. Notable among these was a group led by a Saudi of Yemeni origin called Osama bin Laden.


There are some chronological issues with this claim. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan started in December of 1979 and ended in February of 1989[1]. But the Taliban was not militarily effective until 1994[2], far after the withdrawal of Russian troops, and following even the defeat of the hold-over Communist proxy government of Najibullah in 1992.

After Najibullah was force to step down, a coalition of mujahideen took control of the government. Unfortunately, the Afghan hero Ahmed shah Massoud, the feared and fearless "Lion of the Panjshir" -- who was killed on September 9th, 2001 -- could not convince the other mujahideen groups to continue sharing power. A brutal civil war among the them commenced, lasting for six years. The Taliban appeared like a bolt of lightning in 1994 and quickly took control of somewhere between 75% and 90% of the country. Throughout this, Massoud and his Northern Alliance remained the only barrier to the Taliban's reign over all of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's civil war led to a chaos and a very real sense of lawlessness. Warlords placed militia on every road, stifling trade, while others raped children with impunity. It is in this lawless milieu that the Taliban first rose. Their Pashtun brethren in the South, and even the urbanized Afghans in the cities,were willing to sacrifice nearly anything for the hope that law and order would be restored to their weary nation. Meanwhile, the Taliban's supporters in Pakistan's ISI were more than happy to develop a proxy force with which to influence Afghanistan. The criminals in the smuggling mafia and the powerful Pakistani shipping unions supported the Taliban in the hope of reestablishing the smuggling routes and highways that were long too dangerous to be profitable.

So when the Taliban finally came to prominence, they were not battling the Russians, or even Communist Afghans. Instead, their foremost enemy was Massoud, a politically liberal Muslim who fought to establish a just society over all of Afghanistan, as he had already done in the North. He continued to fight the Taliban, and their al Qaeda allies, until he was murdered on September 9, 2001. An team of al Qaeda assassins posing as journalists exploded a camera during an interview with him. some believe that Osama bin Laden ordered the hit as a gift to the Taliban preceding the 9/11 attacks two days later, to insure their continued support [3].

These details are important because there is often popular confusion regarding where American military support went during the Afghan-Soviet war. Many believe that we founded and funded the Taliban, others even that we helped to establish al Qaeda. But al Qaeda was mostly self-funded and armed through bin Laden's inheritance and business investments, Muslim donations (in the early years to Abdullah Azzam's Services Bureau), as well as -- as some
analysts claim --through the drug trade and other illicit activities.

Since the Taliban weren't around during the period of American beneficence, it's not possible that they were aided by the Americans in the manner you suggest. Still, it's important to realize that almost all of the materiel and financial support given to the mujahideen in Afghanistan by the US was distributed through Pakistan's ISI. In return for (unconvincing) plausible deniability vis-a-vis the Soviets, the US gave the Pakistanis control over distributing the materiel to the Afghans. While they claimed to meritoriously fund the most effective fighters, they often helped those who shared their radical agenda (like the Hizb-i Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the mujahideen commander who betrayed Massoud in the heady days after the fall of the Soviet's puppet Najibullah).

Incidentally, in the 90s the Clinton administration offered the Taliban tacit support, with the hope that they might stabilize wartorn Afghanistan. This continued until the Taliban engaged in widely acknowledged war crimes against
civilians (particularly the Hazara ethnic group). The Bush administration later granted the Taliban 48 million dollars in return for, and to aid in, a 98.6% reduction in poppy cultivation. These last two examples are included for sake of completeness and are mostly unrelated to your original point.

The Soviets and the 'Muslim' nations

While discussing the general fear with which Muslim's regard the Soviet's, he wrote:

Most remarkable of all was the response of the Arab and other Muslim countries to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. [... When given the chance to condemn the Soviet aggression,] South Yemen voted no; Algeria and Syria abstained; Libya was absent; the nonvoting PLO observer to the Assembly even made a speech defending the Soviets. [...] After a month of negotiation [...] Arab states, South Yemen and Syria, boycotted the meeting. The representative of the PLO, a full member of this organization, was present, but abstained from voting on a resolution critical of the Soviet action; the Libyan delegate went further, and used this occasion to denounce the U.S.

It is important to note that all of the countries you mention were ruled by leaders who are only nominally Muslim and are certainly not militant Islamists. In fact, in 1979, most of those countries were ruled by left-leaning dictators who had warm relations with the Soviets. So I think it would be wrong to conclude -- at least from these examples -- that Islamists were afraid to stand up to Russia. In fact, insurgencies in Afghanistan, Chechnya and several other former Soviet states stood tenaciously against the titan of Soviet brutality.

But...

I do, however, agree with the crux of your argument. Radical Islamists have long been split in their approach to confronting the West. Many argue that the West is too powerful to be defeated militarily and that instead they should use the their so-called "demographic weapon" and the West's own liberal political system to defeat it. In the opposing camp, bin Laden and his fellow violent Islamists argue (somewhat convincingly) that the West -- and the US in particular -- is a 'paper tiger', too politically correct and cowardly to stand against the mujahideen.

Abandoning Iraq or Afghanistan would essentially hand both military and ideological victory to bin Laden, proving that those in the 'peaceful' Islamist camp should join him. It is thus more important than ever to demonstrate to these warring camps that the West's resolve is steeled; that we will never cow to the forces of evil and violence that are so determined to crush our spirits.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_invasion_of_Afghanistan
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taliban
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmed_Shah_Massoud#Death

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