Last week, Foreign Policy published a piece by Naval Postgradute School Professor Thomas H. Johnson and retired Foreign Service Officer M. Chris Miller entitled “The Fog of Peace”—hence, my snarky title for this post. Instead of saying something nice at the outset about this militarist argument against negotiating with the Taliban, I’m going to jump straight into attack mode.
The authors begin with some history:
In Vietnam, the United States was ideologically hell-bent on fighting a war against communism, and shaped its strategy accordingly. For nearly a decade in Afghanistan, the United States has insisted on fighting a secular war, a counterinsurgency, against a religious movement. However, our enemy in North Vietnam was not fighting a war for communism, and in Afghanistan our enemies are not fighting an insurgency. They are fighting a jihad, and no South Asian jihad in history has ever ended in a negotiated settlement. And this one will not either
First, we’ve got to deal with some definitional issues: What exactly is the difference between an “insurgency” and a “jihad.” To my understanding, “insurgency” is a vague catch-all word that came into vogue over the last decade because the term “civil war”—which was quite central to political science and foreign policy debates of the nineties—became controversial when applied to the Iraq War. (The Rusmfeld Pentagon, with their disdain for reality, preferred “insurgency” as “civil war” too scary—and far too apt—for the American public’s consumption.) I know of no serious scholar who would insist on an ideological requirement for insurgency—though many sociologists have been guilty of making ideology a requirement for “revolution.”
Johnson and Miller insist that the Taliban is a “charismatic religious movement.” O.K. How so? There are undoubtedly overt religious aspects of the Taliban. But, there were quasi-religious undertones in many supposedly secular rebellions as well. One need only look at the Catholic iconography and phraseology in the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Ireland for such an example. As far as the charismatic aspect is concerned, we can find powerful charismatic leaders in other non-religious insurgencies—for example, Abimael Guzmán of Peru’s Shining Path. (And if there was ever a non-religious movement that had all the practical trappings of a religious cult, the Shining Path is it.) Max Weber, who pretty much coined the term, did not limit "charisma" to religious figures.
I am not, of course, arguing that Islam and charismatic themes do not play a role in the Taliban insurgency. Mullah Omar was inspired by a dream to take on the local warlords of Kandahar in 1994, while dreams inspire many jihadis to give their lives for jihad, as Ken Ballen demonstrates in Terrorists in Love. But this is Afghanistan: religion is part of the fabric of daily life. The insurgents who battled the Soviet invasion were called mujahidin—“holy warriors.” Were they, therefore, not insurgents?
The author’s understanding of “jihad” is also problematic. It appears that they consider “jihad” along the lines of Osama bin Laden’s and al Qaeda’s interpretation of the term: a holy war against infidels, i.e. the West. But “jihad” has many meanings. In Arabic, the word means “struggle.” In Afghanistan—as in Palestine and Lebanon—the term has become analogous to what we in the West used to call “national liberation struggles.” This is the way “jihad” was used during the Soviet invasion and this is the way the term appears to be used among the Taliban, including both Mullah Omar and rank-and-file Taliban fighters. Again, there are religious overtones, but this may have much to do with the fact that non-Muslims have twice invaded Afghanistan over the last few decades. The authors, however, treat the term rather unreflexively—as if jihad has one meaning for all times.
Next we get to a problem of historical precedent. There have indeed been few cases of “jihadist” insurgencies negotiating settlements. But, reaching negotiated settlements is almost always difficult in any violent conflict. Globally, there have been instances of jihadis giving up their struggle. The Islamic Salvation Army in Algeria ended their conflict with the Algerian government in 1997. In Iraq, the United States reached effective—though largely informal—peace deals with the Mahdi Army, as well as with Sunni insurgents in Anbar, who were magically transformed from “jihadis/terrorists” into “Sons of Iraq.” In Egypt, imprisoned jihadists entered into talks with the government and ultimately rejected violent struggle, as Lawrence Wright showed in the New Yorker. The authors limit their “no settlement” argument to South Asia. But, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has entered into and adhered to ceasefires in the past and viable peace efforts between the Philippine government and the MILF continue. It is not clear whether the failure to reach settlements in the region has anything to do with violent Islamism or with nationalism. As evidenced by the conflicts in the Basque Country, Sri Lanka, and Kurdistan—and Moro—many states have territorial commitments rooted in nationalism that prevent reaching effective settlements. In Israel’s conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah, the nationalist commitments of Tel Aviv as well as those of the insurgents have largely prevented settlements—not just the latter’s commitment to “jihad.”
To a large degree, we haven’t seen many settlements with Islamist groups because these “jihadist” insurgencies are relatively young. It often takes decades for insurgents to decide to give up arms. The Provisional IRA, building on over a century of “physical-force republicanism” in Ireland, took four decades to transition from war to politics, while ETA—which appears to have finally be making the switch—has taken even longer. The rise of violent Islamism occurred largely in the last decades of the last century—beginning in Egypt in the 1970s, in Lebanon and Palestine in the 1980s, and more broadly in the 1990s. And, since 9/11 and the commencement of the War on Terrorism, there has been little pressure on states to reach settlements with any insurgent group. The maxim against “talking to terrorists” has only been hardened, while “conflict resolution” has become passé, hippy bullshit. If Turkey and Spain can use the War on Terrorism as justification for their intransigence, it has been even doubly effective for those dealing with Islamist insurgencies.
By the way, it should be noted that Mullah Omar offered to surrender way back in 2001, but the Bush Administration would have none of it.
Finally, the authors can be challenged on account of their “groupism.” That is, the authors oversimplify the nature of the Afghan insurgents, as well as essentializing all jihadis more broadly, as I indicated above. But, the authors do this in a rather intellectually lazy and dishonest manner.
First, the authors make a semi-correct point, though they frame it in a rather problematic historical analogy:
…the best way to understand the "Taliban" is not as a political entity that can carry out negotiations, but as an event in time analogous to the First Crusade. It is a loose network of military-religious orders which share a common goal, quite similar to the Crusader orders, which included the Knights Templar, Knights of Malta, and the Knights Hospitaller. The "Taliban" is comprised of similar military-religious orders, including, to name a few, the Haqqani network, the Quetta Shura, the Tora Bora Front, the Tehrik-i-Taliban, the Lashkar-i-Taiba, Hisb-i-Islami Khalis, and Hisb-i-Islami Gulbuddin. Like the crusaders, who shared a common purpose and owed allegiance to the Pope in Rome, the "Taliban" groups share a common purpose and acknowledge the religious supremacy of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Amir-ul-Mumaneen, or "Leader of the Faithful," in Quetta. And like the crusader groups, the "Taliban" groups have no real "political wing," because in the jihadist mindset now ascendant in the Pashtun region, Islam and governance are not separate entities. The church and the state cannot be disaggregated in this way.
I won’t even touch the Crusader analogy. Nor will I get too into the “political wing” argument, beyond mentioning that it took the Provisional IRA well over a decade to develop a political wing—Sinn Fein—that wasn’t simply a logistical arm (as the party had been since it was co-opted by the IRA in 1949). Perhaps the Taliban has begun a process analogous to that begun by Gerry Adams in the late seventies, i.e. developing a political wing? And maybe the opening of the group’s Qatar office is a way for the Obama Administration to nudge them along in the process?
I fully agree with Johnson and Miller that we should not treat the Taliban as a single entity, as has been the case since the war began way back in 2001. Though, it should be noted that the authors lump in Pakistani groups—Tehrik-i-Taliban and the Lashkar-i-Taiba—who are at best loosely affiliated with the Afghan insurgents.
But then the authors forget what they just said and treat the insurgents as a single entity. In the paragraph above, we are informed that all the groups “share a common purpose.” Then, the groupism continues in the next paragraph:
...the motives of any such representatives simply do not now and will never coincide with our own. The Quetta Shura has no genuine interest whatsoever in any "peace talks" or negotiations except to gain concessions such as the release of their comrades in Guantanamo Bay. They have fought for almost 20 years for control of Afghanistan and are now within two years of the withdrawal of foreign troops. As the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) makes unequivocally clear, they have not in anyway changed their intent to retake control of Afghanistan and reestablish their Islamist state. If they had any interest in genuine talks, they would hardly have assassinated Berhanuddin Rabanni, head of the Afghan High Peace Council and the Karzai regime's lead negotiator, last year.
Wait a minute. First, we’re told there is no single entity that the U.S. is to talk to. Then we are told that “they” have strong commitments and shared goals, that “they” have had these for decades, and that “they” have no interest in talks—so is there a “their” there? The authors are talking about the Quetta Shura—whom they introduce in the previous paragraph—but they fail to inform us that the Shura is the coordinating committee of the Afghan Taliban, i.e. the Haqqani network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hisb-i-Islami, and Mullah Omar’s Taliban. And it continues, but now through the use of a more essentializing—and far more militaristic—term: “the enemy.”
It all comes together at the end, evidence of all my criticisms "wrapped up in a neat little package,” as Homer Simpson would call it:
In summary, wishful thinking aside, there is no central, political entity called the "Taliban" with whom to negotiate. The enemy is not interested in "peace talks" when they are convinced they have already won a complete victory against a hated and infidel puppet regime and an American puppeteer they now see as weak. And even if all that were not true, today's disaggregated jihadist groups would not and could not keep any bargain which a few members of one crusader order might make in any case.
It’s all there, right? It’s not just me, right? All that critical thinking and analytical precision the political sociologists at UCLA made me work on isn’t affecting how I read, right?
Sometimes, being a militarist just seems so much easier. No need for nuance, clarity, consistency, intellectual precision. Just argue for endless war and the mainstream press will publish your claptrap…while I waste away on Blogger.