Obama speech on Afghanistan war: the missing moral victory

No matter what President Obama does after his speech on a partial troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, it is Afghans themselves who must rise up against the brutal tactics of the Taliban.

A bit of hand-wringing must have preceded President Obama’s decision on how many troops to pull out of Afghanistan. How does anyone really know when America’s longest war will reach a turning point?

One clue may come from Iraq and a key turning point in that war – long before the surge of US troops helped quell it.

In 2005, anti-American Sunni insurgents in Iraq began to feel a revulsion toward the barbaric tactics of their foreign comrades, the local branch of Al Qaeda. While the bombing of US soldiers was accepted, the Sunni fighters nonetheless drew a moral line at the beheadings of Iraqi civilians.

The constant decapitations by the local Al Qaeda offended the religious sensibilities of many Iraqi Muslims. “Islam is peaceful, not beheading and killing,” an Iraqi woman told NPR in 2006. “Is this the Islam they want to bring us?” Even Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is now the head of Al Qaeda after the killing of Osama bin Laden, told the branch in Iraq to stop the practice.

But it was too late. The United States was able to win over tens of thousands of Sunni militants in what became known as the Sunni Awakening.

Might a similar moral awakening now be under way in Afghanistan, one that compels civilians as well as low-level Taliban to turn against the brutal tactics of the Islamic militant group?

Afghans know how ruthless the fanatical Taliban leaders can be, especially in suppressing women. They lived under Taliban rule in the late 1990s until the US invasion of 2001. Polls confirm the group’s unpopularity.

But Afghan society is more fragmented than Iraq’s, which makes finding moral common ground more difficult. President Hamid Karzai has tried to appeal to the Taliban as Afghans – and not as part of a terrorist network. But defections have so far been few.

The US surge since 2009 has pushed the Taliban out of many of their strongholds. As a result, they’ve become desperate, resulting in an increase in suicide bombings as well as beheadings, mainly of civilians accused of working with the government. The fear of dying in such a way, or being mutilated, makes it difficult for US forces to win over civilians.

Yet even Taliban leaders have shown concern about their own tactics. In 2008 Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar ordered an end to beheadings of “spies” working for Afghan or foreign forces. In 2009, he issued a 69-page “code of conduct” aimed mainly at preventing killing of civilians. But both orders have been largely ignored, and perhaps even reversed.

With the Taliban fear tactics on the rise, many international human-rights groups now talk of indicting its leaders on war crimes – because their atrocities account for more than three-quarters of civilians killed.

The apparent acquiescence of many Afghans toward Taliban intimidation must have its limits – just as the Sunni tolerance toward Al Qaeda beheadings did. Finding that moral limit could be the key to ending the war in Afghanistan.

Many countries have a history of rising up against a barbaric practice. In the US, for example, the moral leadership of a black woman named Ida Wells-Barnett helped end mob lynchings of black men by racist whites.

Muslims in Afghanistan need to unite against the violent Islamists who rely on tactics like beheading. Recognizing a common revulsion against the practice is the first step. Then Afghans must create a culture of shame so that even the Taliban know when it is time to quit.

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