Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mullah Omar condemns "terrorism"?

A common cliché in terrorism studies is to begin one’s argument by noting that “terrorism” has no widely-accepted definition. In fact, identifying this cliché as a cliché  is itself clichéd. But if there’s something that scholars, legal experts, and policy-makers agree on in theory, it is that terrorism by definition targets citizens. 

You know who else agrees on this point? The Taliban’s Mullah Omar:
Taliban foot soldiers will face sharia justice if they kill or injure innocent civilians without taking precautions, the fugitive leader of the Afghan insurgency has warned. 
Mullah Omar, the Taliban's supreme cleric, released an 1,800-word statement that dwelled at length on the need to protect civilians in a sign of the insurgency's growing defensiveness on the issue… 
The decree said: "Scholars should be employed every now and then to preach protection of civilian life, wealth and honour to mujahideen and promote virtue… All civilian casualties which are caused or are believed to be caused by mujahideen should be reported to the superiors." 
It also called for investigations by the movement's "legal offices" of cases where locals say civilians have been hurt by landmines, suicide bombings or other attacks. "If it is irrefutably proven that the blood of innocent Muslims is spilled by the negligence of mujahideen then a penalty should be implemented in accordance with sharia," the statement said. The family of the victims should also be compensated, it suggested.
This could be an effort on the part of the Taliban to soften its image. With "2014" looming, Taliban leaders may be positioning themselves for a future settlement. Killing civilians will not only alienate them from the Afghan people, but acting like terrorists makes it more difficult for them to enter into peace talks, especially with Americans.

The attempt, however, may be moot for a number of reasons. First, in the decade since 9/11, the Taliban have become irrevocably linked to al Qaeda. This will make it very difficult for any U.S. administration to enter into talks with the group. If Obama were to do so, Republicans will accuse of surrendering to those who attacked us on 9/11. Democrats are also heavily invested in the al Qaeda-Taliban link. After all, Obama’s primary critique of Bush’s Iraq policy was that it distracted us from the “real enemy” in Afghanistan.

The second reason why Mullah Omar’s decree won’t matter is the inherent ambiguity of the term civilian—which is often taken to mean “innocent.” Insurgents and counter-insurgents rarely agree on who is a "civilian" and who is a "combatant." Take for example, the military and police recruits who have been targeted by both the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans. From the perspective of insurgents—whether they be in Northern Ireland or Iraq—such recruits are legitimate targets: by joining the illegitimate army, an individual renounces their non-combatant status. This is often so even if they have yet to put on the uniform. Such attacks are generally seen as acts of “terrorism” by Western militaries, governments, media, and citizenries. Average Afghans and Pakistanis may also agree, especially since the victims of such attacks are more than likely poor young men with few other opportunities for employment.

What about the American contract workers killed in last month’s suicide attack in Kabul? These individuals were not “combatants”—they were not members of the military engaged in actual fighting. But, from the perspective of insurgents, these individuals are anything but “innocent.” Merely working for the military occupation can make a civilian the target of the insurgency. In Northern Ireland, the IRA at times targeted independent contractors and workers involved in building British military bases. The rationale given then remains common to most insurgencies: by working for the occupation, you are culpable in its perpetuation. But most of us outside the insurgency would disagree: These people were simply going to work like normal civilians.

Finally, in practice “terrorism”—despite the definitional niceties of academicians—means much more than just targeting civilians. Since Iraq, for example, any attack on American combatants is treated by administrations and the media as an act of terrorism. After all, we’re at war with “the terrorists,” so those who fight us must be guilty. According to Mark Perry, one of the crucial barriers to negotiating an end to violence in Iraq's Anbar Province was the American military's penchant for labeling all insurgents as "terrorists." So long as the Taliban continues its insurgency against NATO forces they will be identified as “terrorists,” and therefore excluded from discussions. Of course, as Anbar demonstrates, military necessity can contribute significantly to definitional nuance.

Then, there's this problem: Elements of "the Taliban" may not have received Mullah Omar's memo.

To sum up, the next time someone says "Muslims have never condemned terrorism," you can point to Mullah Omar. Or you can just cite any of the countless legitimate Muslim clerics and intellectuals who have already condemned terrorism.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Morning conflicts

With escalating violence in Homs, the opposition Syrian National Council is calling for "international protection" for protesters. According to The Daily Star:
Declaring Homs a "humanitarian disaster area," the Syrian National Council urged the United Nations, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League to act "to stop the massacre committed by the regime." 
In a statement received by AFP in Nicosia, it called on the international community to send "Arab and international observers, instantly, to the city of Homs to oversee the situation on the ground, and prevent the regime from continuing to commit brutal massacres."
In other news 6 “al Qaeda militants” were killed by security forces in Yemen (Time); a former ETA “military chief” was sentenced to 104 years by a Spanish court (CNN); the killing of Osama bin Ladin may have been exaggerated (The Daily Beast); and Carlos the Jackal is going on trial (The New York Times).