Opinion

Why defeating the Taliban is key to stopping Al Qaeda

Only in Afghanistan and Pakistan have we seen jihadism actually take root in large numbers.

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Sophisticated critics of sending more US troops to fight the Taliban argue that the group is not as central a threat to American national security as Al Qaeda.

Yet, for Al Qaeda operationally, there is nothing more important now than the Taliban wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

To start with, the critics are undoubtedly correct in underscoring Afghanistan's near-irrelevance, and thus lack of influence, in the development of modern Muslim thought as well as the central importance of Arabs to Al Qaeda. I can't think of a single Afghan intellectual who has shaped either Sunni or Shiite militancy.

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To be sure, the Arab world's dysfunctional efforts to come to grips with modernity created the pestilence that struck us on 9/11 and has slaughtered so many Muslims – especially in Iraq. And it's a decent bet that the slow evanescence of jihadism as a vibrant religious calling among Sunni Arabs – assuming it continues – will be the death knell for jihadists globally.

Unless Al Qaeda is able to reignite Sunni-Shiite strife in Iraq – and the odds of this happening seem pretty small – Sunni jihadism has lost the Iraq war, and with it, cross your fingers, the Arabs.

Mesopotamia really was the central front in the war on terror because it was the only military theater Al Qaeda and its allies had in the Arab world. Drive out the Americans, unleash a Sunni-Shiite bloodbath that just might bring Sunni Arab states and Iran into a bloody cold – ideally hot – war, and Sunni Islamic militancy might just shake the region.

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, both decent strategists, knew what they were saying when they described Iraq as the decisive battleground. Victory there would have given their cause real possibilities in the Muslim heartlands.

The neo-Taliban in Afghanistan, like the Pakistani Taliban, are the children of Al Qaeda. Only in Afghanistan and Pakistan have we seen jihadism actually take root in large numbers. No place else in the Muslim world was laid waste like Afghanistan. The Taliban represent a remarkably redoubtable militant Islamist movement capable of grafting onto a vibrant ethnic identity (Pashtunism) and the diversity of culture and local loyalties that inevitably come with mountainous terrain.

Mullah Omar and many other Pashtuns embraced Mr. bin Laden because the Islamist soil in Afghanistan was so fertile: Savage Afghan communism in the 1970s, even more brutal Soviet occupation in the '80s, and civil war in the '90s left Afghanistan with no transcendent loyalties beyond faith.

In a functioning tribal society, with its conventions and family hierarchies, Mullah Omar, or the suicide-bomber-loving Jalaluddin Haqqani, or the equally vicious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, could not have arisen. They thrive in Afghanistan today because tribal society has been dying – especially for men of imagination, ambition, and militant conviction. And there is no border when it comes to radical Islamic Pashtunism: Militancy on one side of the Durand Line feeds militancy on the other.

No doubt bin Laden and Mr. Zawahiri would probably prefer to have the central front again in the Arab world. But in Afghanistan and Pakistan they have wars that their side might win. Now, or in the not-too-distant future, it may be impossible operationally and philosophically to tell the difference between Arab Al Qaeda and Afghan and Pakistani radical groups, which have as a lodestar the Pashtun militants who make up the neo-Taliban on both sides of the border. The foot soldiers of this cause are not as worldly as their Arab forerunners; they do not have any noteworthy thinkers drawing large crowds.

But they do offer the promise of great success, and within Pakistan and India are highly educated Muslims who just might join the cause. Arab Al Qaeda never enlisted first-rate – or even second-rate – scientific talent. Pakistan and India, with vastly better educational establishments than the Arab world, might just provide what modern holy warriors have so far lacked: the requisite skill to deploy weapons of mass destruction against the United States.

Pakistan, indeed, has become one of the great battlegrounds of the Muslim civil war. It's not an Arab-only endeavor. Pakistan and Iran, the most dynamic laboratory of Islamic political thought, and post-Saddam Hussein Iraq are the guides to a better (or worse) future for believers. They are trying to rework the way modernity and religion have, so far, unsuccessfully married. They are trying to work democracy effectively into the faith, and with it the promise of less easily traumatized mores.

Egypt, too, once it frees itself from the tyranny and stasis of Hosni Mubarak and the police state behind him, will likely join them (the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in negating the legitimacy of the truly violent takfiri fundamentalists is unexplored terrain, but it's something to look at).

The Arabs are big players in the current tug of war among Muslims. But they may not be the decisive agents. That honor may go to the Iranians and the Pakistanis, with the much more religious Turks running closely behind.

Arab lands surely will provide more lethal soldiers and philosophers to the jihad. But they will likely join a movement led by Muslims who won't give automatically pride of place to those who come from the historic heartlands. Their passions and their enemies will be shared – note that the three pillars of the Afghan neo-Taliban (Omar, the Haqqanis, and Hekmatyar) have become more virulently anti-American than they were a decade ago, and they were extreme then.

The war aside, this is a natural evolution: The best and the brightest of the Islamist cause will think and hate globally.

Islamic history has regularly seen ideas and institutions germinate with the Arabs and then spread among the more numerous and more powerful peoples of the faith. As bin Laden has never appeared to be a man of particular Arab hubris, and his affection for Afghanistan and Pakistan appears to be real, he's probably content to see the evolution. We shouldn't be.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a former CIA specialist on the Middle East. He is the author of "Know Thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey Into Revolutionary Iran."

© 2009 Global Viewpoint Network. Distributed by Tribune Media Services and hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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