Blogs > HNN > Obama and the Taliban

Jul 25, 2008 1:53 pm

Obama and the Taliban

[Mr. LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock Religion and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House/Three Rivers Press, July 8, 2008).]

Among its many goals, Barack Obama's historic July 24 speech in Berlin sought to demonstrate the Senator's command of the world stage, particularly with regard to creating a united front with Europe against global terrorism. Given the largely positive reception it has received, the presumptive Democratic nominee likely achieved this goal.

But beneath the lofty rhetoric, Senator Obama's strategy for prosecuting the War on Terror is based on questionable, and potentially flawed premises—one shared with his Republican opponent John McCain—which would likely impede the ability of either administration to achieve “victory” against Muslim extremism.

In his speech Senator Obama declared that “America can’t [win in Afghanistan] alone... The Afghan people need our troops and your troops; our support and your support to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda, to develop their economy, and to help them rebuild their nation. We have too much at stake to turn back now.”

The linkage between al-Qa'eda and the Taliban has been made so often since 2001 that the terms have become almost interchangeable, as if they represent the same overall movement or phenomenon. Indeed, the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 through 2001 harbored and supported Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'eda, enabling the attacks of September 11.

But their cooperation then (and now) does not mean they can be fought along similar lines. Obama's close association of the two groups, which mirrors Bush Administration policy, simplifies a far more complex reality, against which a strategy based primarily on force and violence will likely fail.

While sharing a similar ideology to a certain extent, personnel, al-Qa'eda and the Taliban are fundamentally distinct entities. Al-Qa'eda is a deterritorialized, stateless organization that claims universal jurisdiction to wage violent, terroristic jihad against whomever its leaders declare to be Islam's external and internal enemies.

However hazy al-Qa'eda's ideology (at least to the uninitiated), bin Laden's organization of al-Qa'eda was based on the advanced and well-defined principles of corporate management he studied as a student of economics and public administration, and afterwards working in his family's transnational construction empire. Even smarter was bin Laden's grasp of al-Qa'eda value as a brand in the era of globalization, one which could—and ultimately did—survive and even thrive as a decentralized coalition of various militant groups who shared little besides the jihadi component at the core of the group's “brand identity.”

For its part, the Taliban is essentially a territorially rooted and “largely ethno-national phenomenon,” as the International Crisis Group describes it. It emerged as a coherent force in the early to mid-1990s, with the support of the Pakistani security services, as a loosely aligned movement of Pashtun Afghans, many of whom had studied at religious schools—“madrasas”—in or sponsored by Pakistan, or had fought against the Soviets during the latter's occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s.

The Taliban's rapid rise to power owed not merely to the movement's radically conservative ideology. It also stemmed from its support among Afghanistan's politically and economically marginalized Pashtun majority, along with its much-publicized war against the large scale corruption that had long plagued Afghanistan's political system and economy. Even many Afghans who opposed its harsh cultural and moral policies accepted that the Salifization of a previously more open and tolerant Afghan Islam was a price worth paying—at least temporarily—for the increased security and reduced corruption that initially accompanied the movement's rise to power.

But once in power the Taliban state, or “Islamic Emirate” declared in 1996, proved an abysmal failure. The movement's leaders and rank and file alike proved uninterested and unable to govern, and spent far more time enforcing moral prescriptions of questionable Islamic legitimacy and harboring extremists from around the Muslim world than building the national institutions and infrastructure Afghanistan so badly needed after a decade of brutal war.

When the US invaded and overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001 the “Taliban” again became a rather shadowy and hard to define—and therefore fight—entity. Judged its continued strong presence across the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan and into Pakistan's neighboring (and Pashtun dominated) Northwest Frontier Province, the movement continues to appeal to the most marginalized sectors of the two societies.

In this context, it is troubling that Senator Obama, and most of the US foreign policy establishment with him, chooses to describe the Taliban as if it were a clearly defined, purely terrorist organization with little support among Afghans, which can be targeted and fought with a fair degree of confidence by US, and Obama hopes, increasingly European forces. Such a view, which has also been applied to Hamas and Hezbollah, is equally inaccurate in all three cases. This lack of understanding helps explain why all three movements have remained so difficult to defeat by far superior military forces.

If the United States and its allies are to continue the war against the Taliban well into the next decade (or at least administration), It would behoove Senator Obama, and his Republican counterpart, to explain exactly who are the “Taliban” they plan to fight even more fiercely than before. Is there a hierarchical structure with a clear leadership and chain of command that can be identified and targeted? Is every religiously conservative Pashtun who is fighting against the US occupation a “taliban” and therefore a legitimate military target”? What about the far larger number of Afghans who merely support them; are they “enemy combatants”? Are the 78 Afghan civilians killed just during the month of July acceptable “collateral damage” in such a fight?

As important, does the United States and its allies have the right according to the UN Charter and international law to capture, detain and even kill Afghans merely because they are suspected of subscribing to political or religious beliefs that resemble those of the Taliban, or even have fought with them?

These questions might seem pedantic given the commonly perceived urgency of fighting Islamic extremism. But if we consider that (according to the United Nations) as many as 90 percent of American detainees have never involved in anything resembling terrorist activity, the importance of such questions becomes apparent. Moreover, the same slipshod logic that has governed American detention policies has also governed the use of torture, secret renditions and other policies that clearly violate internationally recognized standards of human rights and justice, and in so doing further frustrate the successful prosecution of the war against terror.

It is equally hard to imagine how the military and civilian strategists planning the ongoing war can design appropriate policies for dealing with the roots causes of the continued popularity of the Taliban without being able to answer these fundamental questions accurately.

The good news is that while we may not know exactly who is part of the Taliban, we do have a fairly good idea of what motivates the continuous stream of new recruits to its ranks. The British-based research group the Senlis Council released a report last month based on extensive research in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, which argued that frustration with war and unemployment was underpinning the insurgency against western forces ( Similarly, The International Crisis group's just published report, on Taliban Propaganda (;l=1), argues that the movement is a local product of the anti-Soviet jihad and the civil war that followed, and linked to transnational extremist groups for “mostly tactical rather than strategic reasons but divided over these links internally.” It both lacks a coherent agenda, and survives by exploiting local tribal disputes.

In other words, addressing core economic, development and political needs of the majority of Afghans, and their brethren across the Pakistani border, would go a long way towards “draining the swamp” that feeds the malaria of religious extremism. But such a political reclamation process will not succeed as long as America's leaders don't understand the basic, if harsh, rationality underlying the continued salience of the Taliban message: that the movement will remain rooted in Afghan society, and therefore impossible to defeat, unless and until the large scale poverty, inequality, corruption and other endemic societal problems are addressed by the international community and the Afghan leadership.

In the meantime, among the most important shortcomings of the lack of a precise definition of whom the United States and NATO are fighting in Afghanistan is how much more inefficient it has made the prosecution of the war on terror. While thousands of people remain jailed for no reason and tens of thousands more have been killed, most of the admitted masterminds of the September 11 atrocities—a crime not just against the American people, but against humanity—remain at large.

It would be nice if Senators Obama and McCain could enlighten Americans, Europeans, and Afghans, as to how they plan to rectify this problem without repeating the very mistakes that helped create and sustain the Taliban, and al-Qa'eda, in the first place.

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R.R. Hamilton - 8/7/2008

Outstanding comment, Ms. Coppock. I'd vote for you for President.

R.R. Hamilton - 8/7/2008

Outstanding comment, Ms. Coppock. I'd vote for you for President.

R.R. Hamilton - 8/7/2008

Good comment, Mr. Green, but is this a serious question:

"How did the supposed brains of Academia ever fall for the empty rhetoric of unspecified Change and Hope??? "

It reminds us of William F. Buckley's wish to be governed by the first 200 names in the Boston phone book rather than by the faculty of Harvard.

Elliott Aron Green - 8/4/2008

NF, just a small correction. Assad Senior bombarded Hama with artillery for a few days before bulldozing the remains. That is what I know of the event. By the way, a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer back in 1982 when this event took place, one Richard Cramer, wrote from Hama at the time that Syrian soldiers were trying to be kind to refugees from the city --which may have been true. But Cramer's "reporting" was trying to put the best face that he could on mass alsughter. Which supports your point, NF.

Elliott Aron Green - 8/4/2008

R Besch and M LeVine are coming to the realization that Obama is a faker. But this should have been obvious back in January. Why did it take so long for the academic "left" and "progressives" to figure out that Obama was in favor of war too. The fact that Zbig Brzezinski was his advisor was known in January and should have been enough to tell you what Obama really stood for. How did the supposed brains of Academia ever fall for the empty rhetoric of unspecified Change and Hope??? How about the religious-like fervor which he and his campaign deliberately stirred up [satirized in McCain's short TV fill called "The One". Obama once claimed: We are the Ones that we have been waiting for. Does that mean that We are all part of a pseudo-messianic movement?].

N. Friedman - 8/3/2008

Mr. Butler,

You write: "Obama,on Meet the Press on Sunday, said that he agreed with Jordanian King Abdullah that the Israeli Palestinan issue is the number one priority to resolve in the Middle East."

This does not address anything I wrote. It is irrelevant.

My comment related to bin Laden. And, what I wrote is that his grievances are not quite what you assign to them. They are more excuses than grievances, just as Germany's grievances before WWII were excuses more than grievances.

More to the point, these grievances can, in theory, be addressed but addressing such grievances will not impact on the views of people like bin Laden. In fact, they will not impact on much of anything because they are not central to the issues that are driving violence in the name of Islam.

You write later that there is something wrong with Israel building a barrier made of concrete. That, to me, is an asinine comment. Note that since this barrier has been built, the number of people being killed has substantially abated. Whatever other motive the Israelis may have had, the fact is that the barrier did the thing that, to those who think life is valuable (i.e. real liberals, not the fake variety you espouse), is most important, namely, it saves lives.

As for your comment that suggested racism, that, to me is a crock. US policy toward the Arab regions may be driven by economic and political considerations but if there is racism, it is not central to the issue. Rather, the only racism I see is among those who find ways to excuse the Medievalist attitudes among Arabs. As Bernard Lewis wrote, when Assad bulldozed the town of Hama, killing 20,000 people or more, those who apologize for such attitudes said nothing at all. Why? Because they think that Arabs are lower humans, not capable or worthy of the same type of moral judgments that apply to Westerners including Israelis.

So, No, James. The only racism I see here is coming from those who make the sort of apologies you make for barbaric Medievalist attitudes among many Muslims.

E. Simon - 8/1/2008

Well, perhaps if you knew Obama as well as you indicate you do, then you'd be in a good position to proclaim such a wish.

james joseph butler - 7/31/2008

I just wish Obama truly believed in his own words.

E. Simon - 7/31/2008

"Obama's Middle Eastern foreign policy including Afganistan seems to be a product of D.C. think tanks which is not good. So US/Israel policy will be continue to be tragic, self defeating, ahistorical, racist, and if one tried to calculate its costs, beyond the immediate 3 or 4 billion
dollars in aid to Israel, to include Israel as a catalyst for much of the unrest throughout the region, hugely expensive."

I can see that relying on the worth of pieces of paper signed by Hamas is not the only article of faith for you, Mr. Butler.

"Obama said nothing about Israel's concrete wall separating Jews and Muslims in Palestine. A day later in Berlin, he asked his listeners, the world in his mind, to tear down the walls separating Christians, Jews and Muslims. The world yawned."

What a pity that Barack Obama can't manage to be sufficiently left-wing for you.

james joseph butler - 7/31/2008

One salient reality regarding Hamas, Mr. Simon, might be Mossad's active support of the organization for at least its first five years starting in 1987. Needless to say their aid was meant to harm Fatah. If you know your recent Middle Eastern history you know this is a pattern; the sponsorship of Islamic groups as a means of siphoning support from indigenous secular independence movements, it occurred in Egypt with the Brits, in Iran in 1953 with the CIA, Afganistan, Israel and in other places I don't feel like Googling. Blowback is a multifarious phenonomenon.

Obama's Middle Eastern foreign policy including Afganistan seems to be a product of D.C. think tanks which is not good. So US/Israel policy will be continue to be tragic, self defeating, ahistorical, racist, and if one tried to calculate its costs, beyond the immediate 3 or 4 billion
dollars in aid to Israel, to include Israel as a catalyst for much of the unrest throughout the region, hugely expensive.

Obama said nothing about Israel's concrete wall separating Jews and Muslims in Palestine. A day later in Berlin, he asked his listeners, the world in his mind, to tear down the walls separating Christians, Jews and Muslims. The world yawned.

E. Simon - 7/30/2008

I think the more salient "reality", Mr. Butler, is the one which Obama himself acknowledges. A peace treaty will be signed between Israel and whichever rejectionist or non-rejectionist government presides over the West Bank and Gaza the moment those two parties are ready and interested in carrying out the actions necessary for making a treaty meaningful. The US cannot broker a willingness on their part to do so that not only doesn't exist, but to which at least one of those parties is quite hostile.

Putting your faith in pieces of paper w/the signatures of Hamas people on it doesn't seem to me to be any less faith-based a proposition than believing that the events of our lives will unfold according to what is written in more traditional forms of holy scripture.

james joseph butler - 7/30/2008

Mr. Friedman,
Obama,on Meet the Press on Sunday, said that he agreed with Jordanian King Abdullah that the Israeli Palestinan issue is the number one priority to resolve in the Middle East.
Of course you're right there would be jihadists who would continue to wage war after Palestinians and Israelis signed a treaty. However if the USA could see fit to be a fair broker in Israel,acknowledge and aplogize for America's role in the 1953 overthrow of Mossadeq in which the ayatollahs were on the side of the Shah and the CIA and stop attempting to undermine the current Iranian government, stop sending billions to Mubarak, which wouldn't be necessary since Israel would be secure. Lebanon and Syria would also be in a more salubrious state of mind if the Apocalypse in the Holy Land was consigned to holy books.

Wishful thinking? Sure. But neither the Clinton or Bush 43 models as practiced by Obama or McCain will succeed and McCain will wreak havoc if the old warrior puts American "honor" before reality.

N. Friedman - 7/30/2008

Mr. Butler,

The problem with your view is that Osama has, at different points, stated different grievances to justify his actions. Moreover, he has stated goals that are inconsistent with the grievance theory, most particularly, his goal to establish a transnational caliphate.

I might suggest that you read The al Qaeda Reader, edited and translated by Raymond Ibrahim, in which Islamists of the most radical stripe explain their intentions in their own words, in their own language - words intended for a non-Western audience. The sense one gets from such material is that the main grievance is that we in the West complicate the effort of the radicals to conquer the planet in the name of their religion.

james joseph butler - 7/29/2008

LeVine is correct about Obama's lack of insight regarding the Taliban. With Dennis Ross as his Middle Eastern foreign policy "expert" how could we expect something approaching the truth?

Obama has taken the Clinton foreign policy, yes, Bill not Hillary, model, if not team, as his own. And that's better than the W or McCain model by far. Sadly it leaves America almost as vulnerable as it was on 9/10/11.

Osama's jihad,jeremiad against the USA as stated in 1996 stated three grievances against the USA; our troops/infidels in his holy land, our policy regarding Israel/Palestine and the embargo against Iraq. The US press assidously avoids mentioning the criterion upon which Al Queda/OBL declared war upon us. The idea that the Arab world had a legitimate case against the good guys, the USA, was beyond imagination. Five minutes on the net might begin to endanger the truth.

Madeline Albright in 1996, "we think the PRICE was worth it." in response to Lesley Stahl's question regarding the Iraqi sanctions; "half a million children have died, was it worth it?" Palestine/Israel: Amnesty International, "there is no country in the world in which the use of official and sustained torture is as well documented as in the case of Israel." America sends minimum 3billion$ a year to Obama's paradigm of democracy. The infidel dough boys; imagine thousands of Iranian, Saudi, Nigerian troops bivouacked anywhere in America,maybe the Mall in D.C., John Q American how do you like that?

Until America/Obama/McCain/99% of the US public looks at the other end of the telescope we're fated to more of the same short sighted foreign policy. Obama's foreign policy will be little different from Clinton's and that's not good. McCain's is antedediluvian which could be very appealing should the sky fall before election day.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 7/29/2008

i don't want to say that obama is a 'poison.' i think in many ways he'd be an incredible improvement over bush or over what mccain would likely do, especially re the supreme court, which is arguably reason enough to vote or him. i just want to point out that we shouldn't be fooled by his talk of 'hope' and 'change' the way we--that is, progressives, liberals, etc--were fooled by the same exact language used by clinton in '92. unless obama is pressured continuously from the left to fulfill his progressive promises, the huge weight of the status quo politics will push him inexorably to the 'center', especially re foreign policy

Nancy Coppock - 7/29/2008

To create an environment where the production of goods and services that produce jobs requires liberty first. In a tyranny, the jobs produced are those created to control others. Only personal liberty can solve the problems created by the swamp of economic backwardness fostered by tyranny.

Randll Reese Besch - 7/28/2008

The article shows us why Obama just isn't the 'man of change' he touts himself to be. False choice dilemmas are just this kind of problem. With two versions of a bad choice allowed, and any other choices aren't given the same stature and chance you are left with two types of poison. A quick one (McCain) and a slower poison (Obama) and the 3rd parties aren't even at the table. We need a change away from the status quo. Attacking Pakistan and more soldiers in Afghanistan isn't it.