In an interview with the New York Times, US President Barack Obama revealed elements of his new strategy in Afghanistan; opening the doors to reconciliation with moderate Taliban members in the same way that there was reconciliation with the Sunni armed groups in Iraq. Elements of Al Qaeda were distinguished from ordinary Iraqi fighters that were driven by their demands, anger over being denied their rights, and other non-ideological motives. By making this distinction and not tarring all fighters with the same brush, it was possible to isolate Al Qaeda and set up the Sahwa forces project that can take most of the credit for marginalizing Al Qaeda cells in western Iraq.
Obama did not want to be too optimistic about repeating the experience of the Sahwa forces in Pashtun tribal areas whether on the Pakistan-Afghan borders or in the Pashtun areas in southern Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Obama pointed out that US administration intends to make such a “distinction” in the same way in the hope of creating an Afghan Sahwa project.
This idea seems to be gaining popularity within some circles in the United States. In the most recent issue of Newsweek, political journalist Fareed Zakaria wrote about the necessity of learning to live with radical Islam as a fact of life.
For the sake of accuracy, we must state that what Fareed Zakaria expressed in his article did not echo what the US President was saying. Zakaria spoke about there being fighters in the Taliban movement who could be dealt with in a particular manner as they have less hostile and threatening demands than others who are excessively fanatic and who belong to the Taliban due to nationalism, as the Taliban has become the banner under which Pashtuns, disgruntled at the new situation in Afghanistan, can come together. They have been marginalized because of the acts committed by the Taliban and it was a similar situation for the Sunni Arabs in Iraq regarding Al Qaeda until quite recently.
Zakaria cites David Kilcullen, an adviser to General David Petraeus, who said, “I’ve had tribal leaders and Afghan government officials at the province and district level tell me that 90 percent of the people we call the Taliban are actually tribal fighters or Pashtun nationalists or people pursuing their own agendas. Less than 10 percent are ideologically aligned with the Quetta Shura [Mullah Omar’s leadership group] or Al Qaeda… [they are] almost certainly reconcilable under some circumstances.” He added, “That’s very much what we did in Iraq.”
The problem with Fareed Zakaria’s idea lies in the continuous experimentation of the Islamic world. After launching a comprehensive attack over the past period on all Islamist currents, even those that are less extreme and more politicized, we are now being presented with suggestions of cowardly “coexistence” with the Taliban and those like it whether in Nigeria, Algeria, Iraq or any other country.
Zakaria argues that it is not possible to change the fanaticism of these groups or their austere views on life, women’s issues, education, tolerance, law and international relations, simply because those groups enjoy wide popular support. Therefore, as long as these groups do not try to export their ideas to the civilized world, do not fight the US and the West and do not carry out terrorist attacks on Western soil, then there is no problem with leaving them alone with their austere ideology confined by the borders of their country. This is what their supporters in their own society want.
This is the essence of Fareed Zakaria’s proposal. Of course, it is a more developed version of the idea of separating ordinary fighters from dangerous and terrorist militants as part of the proposal of engaging in dialogue with the Taliban, similar to the dialogue that is held with combatant Sunni groups in Iraq.
One might understand the idea of engaging in practical dialogue with a group of fighters as a way to dissuade them from harming an occupying force, just like what happened in Iraq and what will happen, or is happening, in Afghanistan. The motive would be to establish more security, weaken the enemy and decrease its support. But what is difficult to understand is this mistaken idea suggested by intellectuals in the US such as Fareed Zakaria, which gives the impression that the Islamic world is nothing but a laboratory where tests can be carried out.
Firstly, it is not true that fanatics who limit fanaticism to their own societies are not harmful to the outside world. Who provided support to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan? Who oppressed women, outlawed arts and turned Afghanistan into a society that apart from being plagued by poverty and war suffers from the hell of fanaticism? Should they be left to kill the spirit of life and is this not a concern for the US? If we apply this to a country like Yemen for example and let those fanatics loose based on the pretext that they only want to enforce their fanaticism within the borders of their own countries, the result would be that we have provided the ideal atmosphere for elements of Al Qaeda, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Egyptian Al Gamaa al Islamiya and groups in Algeria, Libya and Morocco to operate and conceal themselves in an ocean of religious extremism in a society that has been left to its own devices simply because its extremism only concerns that society.
This is a cowardly and an opportunist theory, which is also impractical. It could be understood within the context of exhaustion as a result of confrontation with fanatics. However, it is definitely not an acceptable or good idea. Fanatics were left to their own devices in a number of Arab and Gulf countries for too long and the result was catastrophic. We have begun to see the fruits of their fanaticism in all aspects of life by their silencing of others, outlawing arts, science and communication with the outside world as well as battling ferociously against civilization, and state and social development.
This idea could be a short-term solution that would last for no more than a decade at best. It would only be a matter of time before this fanaticism spills over to neighboring countries and plucks up the courage to export its model to the rest of the Islamic world. Al Qaeda figures in Saudi Arabia that have been inspired by Taliban rule and hailed the Taliban’s statehood as the aspired Islamic state, and have even worked on applying its structure to Saudi society, is a stark reminder of what those fanatics are capable of doing.
So is the uprooting of these groups, in the literal and physical sense of the word, what is required here?
Here it would be useful to distinguish between the ideological, military and political cores of these groups which ought to be fought on one hand, and the support, which is not as solid as the core itself and ought to be dealt with differently and have its demands considered on the other hand, bearing in mind that those demands are not necessarily as extreme and radical as those of fanatic leaders.
In the end, we cannot blame non-Arabs, whether Americans or Europeans, if they carry out experiments on us or attempt to solve the problem of fanaticism in our region by recommending such analytical innovations. Rather, we ought to blame ourselves, because it is our duty to remove these thorns from our sides, instead of having an outsider come to do so.
The truth is that the majority of our societies do not support fanaticism and fanatics, but they are frustrated, perhaps due to the hindrance that development has faced and the absence of a good example so these societies punish themselves by choosing the ugliest among them to express their anger. But these are convulsive and rash choices that would disappear as soon as we all take part in dismantling the traps of fanatic religious, cultural, social and political discourse and prepare the ground by establishing justice and the rule of law. At that point, the suggestion put forward by Fareed Zakaria or any other “experimentalist” would be a whole load of worthless nonsense.