A Monstrous Laziness

by Joshua Foust on 5/9/2011 · 12 comments

Max Boot thinks all militants are the same.

Of greater immediate concern are al Qaeda’s allies: the Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani network and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG), which among them deploy thousands of hardened terrorists. These groups, in turn, are part of a larger conglomeration of extremists based in Pakistan including the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban), Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed…

The major difference among them, at least so far, has been one of geographic focus. The Taliban, the Haqqani network and HiG want to seize power in Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban aspires to rule in Islamabad. Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed are primarily focused on wresting Kashmir away from India, although there have been reports of the former’s network expanding into Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Only al Qaeda has a global focus—so far.

Apart from rightly noting that al Qaeda is the only one of these groups that poses even a remote threat to the U.S. homeland, this is basically all wrong—so wrong I’m curious if it is the result of maliciousness or just laziness. Boot engages in some worrying conflations and conceptual fuzziness. Assuming the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban groups work together, are equally associated with al Qaeda, or pose an equal and in some way interchangeable threat is, put simply, dramatically at odds with our understanding of those groups, their goals, and their methods. There is no ” a larger conglomeration of extremists,” as he asserts, as that term implies an interoperability that just doesn’t exist in the real world.

Mullah Omar, contrary to what Boot writes, was not closer to Osama bin Laden than Hafiz Muhammed Saeed — and that sort of formulation misses the point anyway. Similarly, and again in contrast to Boot’s portrayal, there ARE a number of signs that the Afghan Taliban (NOT the Pakistani Taliban or Kashmir-focused terror groups, all of which Boot confuses) is seeking a way to break with al Qaeda — and we have reports of these signs going back at least to 2008.

But what I found most worrying about this is Boot’s overall logical construct. He writes, “All of these organizations share an eagerness to slaughter civilians and a desire to create a totalitarian regime modeled on Taliban-era Afghanistan. All are rabidly hostile to Westerners, Jews, Hindus, Shiites and anyone else who does not share their hard-core Salafist beliefs.” And all of that is absolutely true. No one – even those advocating a political process to the end the war in Afghanistan – are pretending the Taliban are noble pacifists. The problem is when he writes: “It is immaterial whether or not the Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the others are currently targeting the American homeland.”

I couldn’t disagree with that more. Not only is it an attempt to have his cake and eat it too by making the groups both provincial enough to handle easily but also dangerous enough to require a global effort to defeat. It is also illogical. If these groups do not pose a threat to the United States, then it is not our problem to “fix” them. Period.

Without explaining why, Boot writes off all attempts at reconciliation and de-escalation as Afghans “cutting a deal with the Taliban to save their own necks,” leaving the only option escalation without end and without purpose (since he doesn’t actually say why or how a permanent, large U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will actually address the phantom constellation of all militant groups forever in Pakistan). Since Boot’s neck is not on the line, I find the charge difficult to take serious. Maybe if he had more at stake, say the lives of his family and friends and entire country, he’d be a bit more sympathetic to the extraordinarily difficult choices the Afghans have to make when they contemplate the future of their country.

I had hoped that the death of Osama bin Laden would at least temporarily tamp down on the irresponsible fear-mongering over a few crazies with guns in mountains whose names we cannot pronounce and who cannot and do not pose an existential threat to our existence. I guess my hope was mistaken.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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anan May 9, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Siraj, LeT, Ilyas Kashmiri [and his Bde 313, Bde 095, LeT], TTP, TNSM, IJU, IMU, don’t pose a threat to the US homeland? This is the crux of our disagreement. I think they pose a greater threat to international security then anything else.

The above are different from Mullah Omar, who actually might be open to negotiations. Problem is that the above have more military capacity than Mullah Omar [whose faction has been partly discredited by their defeat in Helmand . . . although his faction is doing better in Kandahar.]

To my mind [and actually to the mind of some of the most prominent Pakistani advocates of negotiations with the Taliban], negotiations really means deals with the Mullah Omar faction of QST, HiG, and maybe some parts of the Peshawar Shura [which generally trend towards international extremism more than the Southern Taliban]

Joshua, maybe Ilyas Kashmiri/LEJ, LeT, TTP, TNSM, really mean what they publicly say. Maybe Siraj’s comments about global Jihad are his real views [and yes, there are people to whom Siraj has said the opposite.] Some of the smartest Pakistanis I know think so.

When we reach a “deal” with the Taliban/extremist syndicate that in return for saving our own damn selves throw the Shiites and the Sufis under the bus, we will pay a long term price.

“leaving the only option escalation without end and without purpose (since he doesn’t actually say why or how a permanent, large U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will actually address the phantom constellation of all militant groups forever in Pakistan).”

You underestimate what the ANSF can do on their side of the Durand as well as their influence on Pashtuns east of the Durand. The ANSF were intentionally kept weak until December, 2009. The ANSF haven’t yet had an opportunity to prove what they can do with real international money and combat enablers.

Without a strong ANSF, who will protect Mullah Omar’s supporters from Mullah Omar’s “pretend followers”? Why would Mullah Omar make a deal?

Faisal May 9, 2011 at 1:45 pm

The enemy has always been one large amorphous blob. Be it the communists, the nazis etc. Same applies to the Taliban. They are all one and the same regardless of the reality on the ground. It sells easier to the masses who aren’t interested in the complexities on the ground nor the reality. They need a target and its easier to speak of one group instead of 15 different groups with local support in areas that are “cleared”.

anan May 9, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Faisal, think Boot knows more nuance than he implies in his articles aimed at the “general public.” There is a tendency to assume that excessive complexity turns off the public.

Josh, what specifically do you disagree with in the quotation above? The quotations isn’t that different from the views of Abdullah, Amrullah Saleh, a majority of the Afghan establishment, and most of the commanding generals of the ANSF. Except that they would emphasize the role of the Pakistani Army much more than Boot.

No peace is possible unless the commanders of the ANSF, and anti Taliban Afghan political leaders are on board. Their trust and confidence in ISAF and the UN is probably at the lowest level since 2001. There are reports that Amrullah Saleh believed that OBL was in Abbotabad 4 years ago and that ISAF and the US didn’t take sufficient action. Whether it is true or not is less important than whether Afghans believe it. The old conspiracy theory that ISAF and the UN back the Taliban against Afghans is in ascendency. Not sure how it can be reversed.

Your arguments should be directed at Afghans more than Americans. Otherwise there can be no peace agreement.

TT May 9, 2011 at 2:12 pm

“Apart from rightly noting that al Qaeda is the only one of these groups that poses even a remote threat to the U.S. homeland”

Wasn’t the Faisal Shahzad attempted attack facilitated by the TTP? I’m not sure what you can call an attempted car bomb in the middle of Times Square, if not a threat against homeland security.

Obviously their aims are more regional in nature, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t act to assist and aid those who want to launch attacks against Americans, in America

Eli Wurth May 10, 2011 at 9:31 pm

Boot is simply adopting the same ideologically based faulty analysis of his Cold War-era predecessors who believed in Monolithic Communism. Just as they ignored the animus between the Soviets and the Red Chinese, he discounts the different goals of the various incarnations of AQ. And that has always been what I believe to be the only legitimate comparison between Vietnam and Afghanistan. Both are wars of national liberation, not of global domination. And the Max Boots of the World are making the very same false assumptions that the McNamara’s and Bundy’s made.
Boot needs to remove his ideological blinders and view the world objectively.

anan May 10, 2011 at 11:37 pm

“Both are wars of national liberation, not of global domination” Very true. Many Afghans, especially those serving in the ANA, NDS and ANCOP speak and act in very strident nationalist tones that can be very divisive and incendiary. The anti Pakistani Army and ISI = Taliban slurs are reaching a fever pitch, and not just with non Pashtuns [Saleh, Abdullah, Dostum and the like.] Karzai’s own office is drumming it up now, making incendiary statements asserting that the Pakistani Army is backing Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and Sirajuddin.

The Taliban tries to use a similar nationalist rhetoric against internationals.

In some ways both PR campaigns are mirror images of the other.

Eli, can you share your perspectives on Sirajuddin and his connections with Ilyas Kashmiri/LeJ, LeT, JeM, TTP, TNSM, IJU, IMU? Do you think Mullah Omar and Hekmatyur can be turned against Siraj?

Eli Wurth May 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm

anan, thank you for your very excellent analysis. In all honesty, I’m not as sufficiently knowledgeable about Sirajuddin. I am in the process of learning about him and the different factions involved, and that’s why I follow Foust and now your very revealing comments.

Eli Wurth May 11, 2011 at 1:17 pm

One thing I forgot is that my view of Afghanistan is influenced by my knowledge of the Vietnam war, and it’s through that prism that I apply the lessons of that horrific experience. It’s always problematic to compare different wars, but there are a few very striking similarities, like the one I mentioned previously.

The demonizing of the liberation movements is what is uncannily similar. Recall that the NLF and Northern Communists were labeled in terms even harsher than the Taliban. Ambassador Lodge even called the NLF “terrorists” as far back as 1962. Of course much of the ideology of both the Taliban and the Communists was anathema to democratic ideals, but that is an entirely separate issue than whether or not they have a legitmate right to liberate their nations from US/Western invasion and occupation.

I believe that in both cases their specific ideology or theology was simply the most effective vessel or tool they had to organize their liberation struggles. We in the West tend to forget that other regions and civilizations are at different stages of evolution, if you will…

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Inkan1969 May 13, 2011 at 3:15 pm

The Quetta Shura Taliban is the faction of Mullah Mohammed Omar, and the leadership that actually ruled the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from 1996-2001.

Perhaps the US and NATO should focus on a targeted campaign against the QST leadership. Track down Mullah Omar and the rest, and then set up an operation to enter Quetta and wipe up Omar and the leadership, in the same way OBL was elimated. That way, the US, NATO, and the Afghan government could open negotiations with the remaining factions, noting that no one in a position of power from 1996-2001 is left.

anan May 13, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Inkan1969, are you a Karzai spokesperson? :LOL:

Karzai has been pushing for this since 2001. Not that ISAF has been listening to him.

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