To Beat Al Qaeda, Look to the East
By SCOTT ATRAN December 13, 2009
Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, John Jay College and the University of Michigan, is the author of the forthcoming ‘Listen to the Devil.’
Confidence is important, but we also have to recognize that the decision to commit 30,000 more troops to a counterinsurgency effort against a good segment of the Afghan population, with the focus on converting a deeply unpopular and corrupt regime into a unified, centralized state for the first time in that country’s history, is far from a slam dunk. In the worst case, the surge may push General McChrystal’s ”core goal of defeating Al Qaeda” further away.
What binds these groups together? First is friendship forged through fighting: the Indonesian volunteers who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan styled themselves the Afghan Alumni, and many kept in contact when they returned home after the war. The second is school ties and discipleship: many leading operatives in Southeast Asia come from a handful of religious schools affiliated with Jemaah Islamiyah. Out of some 30,000 religious schools in Indonesia, only about 50 have a deadly legacy of producing violent extremists. Third is family ties; as anyone who has watched the opening scene from ”The Godfather” knows, weddings can be terrific opportunities for networking and plotting.
Understanding these three aspects of terrorist networking has given law enforcement a leg up on the jihadists.
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Now we need to bring this perspective to Afghanistan and Pakistan — one that is smart about cultures, customs and connections. The present policy of focusing on troop strength and drones, and trying to win over people by improving their lives with Western-style aid programs, only continues a long history of foreign involvement and failure. Reading a thousand years of Arab and Muslim history would show little in the way of patterns that would have helped to predict 9/11, but our predicament in Afghanistan rhymes with the past like a limerick.
A key factor helping the Taliban is the moral outrage of the Pashtun tribes against those who deny them autonomy, including a right to bear arms to defend their tribal code, known as Pashtunwali. Its sacred tenets include protecting women’s purity (namus), the right to personal revenge (badal), the sanctity of the guest (melmastia) and sanctuary (nanawateh). Among all Pashtun tribes, inheritance, wealth, social prestige and political status accrue through the father’s line.
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After 9/11, the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, assembled a council of clerics to judge his claim that Mr. bin Laden was the country’s guest and could not be surrendered. The clerics countered that because a guest should not cause his host problems, Mr. bin Laden should leave. But instead of keeping pressure on the Taliban to resolve the issue in ways they could live with, the United States ridiculed their deliberation and bombed them into a closer alliance with Al Qaeda. Pakistani Pashtuns then offered to help out their Afghan brethren.
American-sponsored ”reconciliation” efforts between the Afghan government and the Taliban may be fatally flawed if they include demands that Pashtun hill tribes give up their arms and support a Constitution that values Western-inspired rights and judicial institutions over traditions that have sustained the tribes against all enemies.
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Unlike Al Qaeda, the Taliban are interested in their homeland, not ours. Things are different now than before 9/11. The Taliban know how costly Osama bin Laden’s friendship can be. There’s a good chance that enough factions in the loose Taliban coalition would opt to disinvite their troublesome guest if we forget about trying to subdue them or hold their territory. This would unwind the Taliban coalition into a lot of straggling, loosely networked groups that could be eliminated or contained using the lessons learned in Indonesia and elsewhere. This means tracking down family and tribal networks, gaining a better understanding of family ties and intervening only when we see actions by Taliban and other groups to aid Al Qaeda or act outside their region.
To defeat violent extremism in Afghanistan, less may be more — just as it has been elsewhere in Asia.
Phi Beta Iota: The author deserves a full reading of the four screen piece. Please do read the full story online. See also two books reviewed here:
There are TWO keys to creating a prosperous world at peace:
1. Embrace anthropologists and listen to them.
2. Be righteous–hold the moral high ground, do not support corrupt despicable elites against their own people.
If we were really clever, we would also understand the need to integrate all knowledge, and the need to understand and use faith-based initiatives in a responsible manner.