When a YouTube video featuring Marines urinating on Taliban corpses surfaced earlier this month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta responded quickly and clearly: “I condemn it in the strongest possible terms.” The directness contrasted with the more indefinite conclusion of an eight-month Air Force investigation into the motive of an Afghan pilot who killed eight of his U.S. Air Force mentors in a suicidal shooting spree at Kabul International Airport (KIA) last April. The report found that shooter Ahmad Gul — who spent 18 months at a fundamentalist mosque in Pakistan before recently returning to Afghanistan because he “wanted to kill Americans” — prayed all night before the attack at his pro-Pakistan Kabul mosque and shouted in between shots for “good Muslims [to] please stay away.” Yet even with the writing seemingly on the wall — indeed, he wrote “Allah is one” on a wall with his blood and died of his self-inflicted wounds chanting “Allah, Allah” — the report found no conclusive motive. It did, however, partially rule out one: “none of the co-workers believed subject was a religious radical.”
The growing buzz of peace talks with the Taliban suggests that 10 years into the war in Afghanistan, many U.S. strategists view the Taliban leadership’s motives with a similar degree of inconclusive naiveté. For example, earlier this month The New York Times endorsed peace talks, provided that the Taliban “accept the Afghan Constitution and its commitments to political and human rights for all Afghans.” Yet the Taliban, who plan to open a political office in Qatar, see talks differently: a Taliban website claimed this week that it “rejects the poisonous propaganda of the enemy which depicts as if [sic] Islamic Emirate will be content with having control of a few provinces.” Indeed, a recent “top-secret” U.S. intelligence memo claiming that the Taliban are still set on reclaiming power and imposing Sharia on Afghanistan was no news to any Afghan who recalls Mullah Omar’s megalomaniacal proclamation that he was the universal “commander of the faithful.”
While the U.S. push for negotiations reflects a larger strategic re-evaluation along the lines of a December report by the influential Center for a New American Strategy, which called for a “shift away from directly conducting counterinsurgency operations and toward a new mission of ‘security force assistance,’” the Taliban’s strategy remains unchanged. Ironically, it is precisely the U.S.’s blindness to the Taliban’s ideological conclusiveness that has made U.S. strategy so inconclusive. Every month seems to bring a new busybody solution to the Afghanistan nation-building dilemma — the latest being the “New Silk Road,” which will cure Afghanistan with economic stimulus. And for every delivery of staple food items that gets burned by the Taliban, the relief technocrats see new evidence of the need to provide more robust incentives to a disenfranchised insurgency. As long as the insurgency’s phantasmal root causes escape us, so too will appropriate responses.
Of course, admitting that Deobandi fundamentalism in Pakistan is the key energizer of the insurgency in Afghanistan hardly seems to simplify matters. As U.S. Envoy Marc Grossman learned this week when Pakistani officials refused to meet with him, talking to Pakistan can be harder than talking to the Taliban. If Americans are weary of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, they certainly won’t go for it in a country where Salman Taseer’s assassin (whose grievance was Taseer’s opposition to the death penalty for blasphemers) was garlanded last year by fawning crowds; where policemen salute the revered Taliban in their Boluchi mini-state; and where the most popular leader is the ascendant playboy Imran Khan, who recently called liberals “the scum of Pakistan.”
The scum, for their part, are morbidly candid about their odds in the land of Islamist godfather Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, or Zia ul “yuckee,” as the pop band Beygairat Brigade puts it in a music video that ends with a request to “like” it “if you want a bullet through my head.” Fortunately for Veena Malik, the popular Pakistani actress who recently posed topless to show off a spoof ISI tattoo, the “dislikes” outnumber the “likes” on most of her Web clips. Yet as she admits, “If some mullah on the TV today says shoot the girl, they will shoot me.”
The instability and, frankly, Islamo-fascism in nuclear Pakistan endanger Americans from Bombay to Times Square, and necessitate our success in Afghanistan. Yet whereas the counterinsurgency advocates recognize that defeating the ideological power centers in Pakistan requires uncompromising support and security for Afghanistan’s counter-ideologies (e.g. secularism, liberal Islam), the nation-builders fail to see that the ideologies exist at all. The KIA rampage came just weeks after a mob of Afghans, including “reintegrated” Taliban, thrashed its way into a United Nations (U.N.) compound in Mazar-e Sharif and slit the throats of the international staff and Gurkha guards, letting the compound’s lone Muslim go without a scratch. Yet the main conclusion of the U.N’s Afghanistan chief, Staffan De Mistura, was: “I don’t think we should be blaming any Afghans,” the cause being Terry Jones’s “despicable” Koran burning. It was a similar attitude that months earlier had led the media to conclude that an Afghan policeman who killed six U.S. soldiers had simply reached a personal “boiling point,” though it has since emerged that he hailed from a family of Talibs and enjoyed songs mocking those who skirt their jihad duties.
Negotiating with the Taliban can make sense on issues other than the end-game, such as the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. But grander pretensions of “peace talks,” though they may produce consensus on a post-war vision of windmills, composting lessons and institutional capacity, are a grim reminder for the aspiring Veena Maliks of the region of which kind of talk is safest. Indeed, if we do cede Afghanistan to the Taliban, “none believed subject was a religious radical” will be a fitting epitaph for the international coalition.
Patrick Knapp is a U.S. Army officer who recently returned from a year working in a civilian capacity as a field officer for an aid program in Kandahar City, Afghanistan.