American foreign policy is not making enough of an effort to contain Islamist extremism, and the consequences are likely to roil not only Afghanistan and Pakistan but, eventually, the wider region and beyond.
In 1998, Osama bin Laden described U.S. soldiers as “paper tigers“ and predicted that U.S. aversion to war would lead to the success of his ideology. “We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weakness of the American soldier,” bin Laden said in an interview. “He is ready to wage cold wars but unprepared to fight hot wars…. This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled after two explosions…. This was then repeated in Somalia.”
Unfortunately, bin Laden’s followers and other extremists can add Afghanistan to that list. Al-Qaeda’s allies, the Taliban, have been neither decisively defeated nor forced to the negotiating table. The emergence of democratic governments in the greater Middle East has offered the United States opportunities to help its ideological allies confront the Islamist narrative of victimhood and revenge. Instead, the dictates of U.S. politics have reaffirmed that narrative.
In last week’s foreign policy debate, President Obama said that success against al-Qaeda can be achieved simply by tracking down and killing those identified as terrorists. This view is no doubt rooted in the U.S. electorate’s disapproval of distant wars. But this thinking fails to take into account how drones and other remote tactics are used to encourage extremism among the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Ideologically motivated radicals can recruit, train and regroup even after their leaders have been killed in drone strikes. And the American aversion to long wars fits into bin Laden’s prediction that the United States would withdraw from the greater Middle East rather than stay and fight.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks in general of the need for a multidimensional strategy to marginalize extremists in the Islamic world. But he is seeking to get elected by war-weary voters in an environment of economic difficulty. There are no votes for either candidate in questioning the wisdom of fighting under a deadline.
Although important, the killing of bin Laden did not end the war that began with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates continue to recruit from North Africa to Southeast Asia. The ideology of Islamist revivalism, rooted in a culture of grievance and victimhood, remains powerful. Newly elected Islamist governments in some Arab countries, such as Egypt, will most likely fuel hatred of the West as a substitute for economic and social success, just as Iran has done since its 1979 revolution. This, in turn, will continue to produce a steady flow of terrorists ready to kill Americans.
Using drones to find and kill al-Qaeda leaders already known to U.S. intelligence will not end the war, either. Eventually, the United States will have to find Muslim allies who help limit the influence of ideas or organizations that turn some young Muslims into terrorists. Washington has made few efforts toward that end, depending on friendly autocrats or whoever manages to get elected instead of working to strengthen modernizing democrats who share Western values. Governments in the Muslim world would also have to deny terrorist groups the havens they enjoy now and shut down the organized recruitment and training of future terrorists.
Taliban leader Mohammad Omar is frequently reported to have said, “Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” By announcing the deadline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the Obama administration has effectively told al-Qaeda and the Taliban how long they have to wait for the Americans to depart. For the sake of not sounding like a neoconservative interventionist, Romney has committed himself to the 2014 cut-off date. But that deadline may have to be reviewed.
Time is needed to raise an effective Afghan national army able to secure the country. The Taliban’s ability to infiltrate the fledgling Afghan force evidenced by the “green-on-blue” killings this year shows the shortsightedness of assuming that a quickly assembled army can, on its own, defeat an ideologically motivated enemy. If the United States and allied forces leave Afghanistan in 2014 with al-Qaeda and Taliban havens intact, U.S. forces are sure to have to return to the region after another 9/11-type event.
Consider also that the impending U.S. withdrawal provides little incentive for Pakistan’s military to revisit its ambitions in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban increasingly threaten Pakistan, the Pakistani military and intelligence services continue to make distinctions among groups of Taliban and jihadis and considers some of them strategic allies. Pakistan is still clinging to hopes of greater influence over Afghanistan with the help of various Taliban factions after the withdrawal.
Instead of signaling eagerness to exit Afghanistan, Washington should be demonstrating that the United States is willing to stay for as long as necessary. Ironically, a firm display of that iron will all along, coupled with a global strategy to combat extremist Islamist ideology, might have made an early withdrawal easier.