Our Taliban

Posted January 6, 2010

Categories: Articles

The Dutch government is the latest casualty of the Afghanistan War. Over the weekend, the Labor Party in the Netherlands walked out of the ruling coalition government to protest the extension of the Dutch deployment in Afghanistan.

The Taliban is rejoicing.

Oh, perhaps you thought I meant the Taliban in Afghanistan. No, I meant the Taliban in the Netherlands. You didn’t know there was a Dutch Taliban? It goes by a different name, you see. It’s the Freedom Party, and it’s poised to become a top vote-getter in the elections that will follow in the wake of the ruling coalition’s collapse.

The Freedom Party’s leader, Geert Wilders, would violently object to his party being labeled the Dutch Taliban. He’s anti-Islam, after all, and has famously called the Koran a “fascist book.” But the far right wing in The Netherlands — and its counterparts elsewhere in Europe — is just as intolerant and narrow-minded and xenophobic as the radical Islamists it dislikes so much in Afghanistan. Both of these Talibans believe their own societies have become too tolerant. They want their religious traditions to be dominant. They share a distaste for modern governments, but they have no problem taking over those state apparatuses to impose their own values.

But here’s an interesting twist. Wilders and the Freedom Party want the Dutch out of Afghanistan. It’s perhaps no surprise that a populist party should adopt a popular position — 58 percent of Dutch want out of Afghanistan, compared to only 35 percent who want to stay. It’s part of a larger trend. Public opinion throughout Europe has decisively turned against the war. But it isn’t the European left, by and large, that has taken advantage of this antiwar sentiment. After all, European social democrats — the British Labor Party, the German Social Democratic Party, the French Socialist Party — have been compromised by their early support of the war in Afghanistan. With the mainstream left at a disadvantage, right-wing populists like Wilders can pull a Ron Paul and capture the vaguely libertarian sentiments of a significant portion of the electorate.

The Democratic Party here in the United States is in a similar quandary. Obama’s surge in Afghanistan has rebranded the Dems, for the umpteenth time, as the war party. So where some fear to tread, others rush in boldly. Ron Paul’s antiwar message at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, for instance, helped boost him to the top of the event’s presidential straw poll. As CPAC attendee John Basil Utley writes, there was “solid antiwar participation” at the ConCon that went beyond just Ron Paul.

This antiwar message will become even more popular as we approach the 2010 mid-term elections. It doesn’t look like the Obama administration will remove all combat troops from Iraq by August after all. As for Afghanistan, the antiwar position in the United States narrowly edges out the pro-war position (52 percent vs. 47 percent, according to a late January CNN poll). But that gap will likely widen. The Europeans — and the Canadians and Australians — will begin to pull out their troops. The war in Afghanistan will generate more and more U.S. casualties (we just went over 1,000). A rising number of Afghan casualties — such as the 27 civilians who died in the recent airstrike on a convoy of busses — will undercut the supposed hearts-and-minds element of the current surge. And the Democratic Party’s attempt at both guns and butter will founder as surely as Lyndon Johnson’s did in the 1960s.

And what about our own intolerant, racist, xenophobic, narrow-minded, religiously conservative political movement? There is some overlap between Christian fundamentalists and anti-government extremists, but they haven’t joined hands to form a true U.S. Taliban. Unlike Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, the U.S. Tea Party movement has not taken a prominent position on the war. So far it has focused on its domestic message: free markets, limited government, no taxes. But there is a fight going on inside this movement. Sarah Palin, whose views on war are so naively hawkish as to earn a rebuke from none other than Dick Cheney, aspires to lead the Tea Party movement. And Ron Paul, whose presidential campaign in 2008 served as an inspiration for the movement, now argues that the Republican Party is exerting a “neocon kind of influence” over the populist groundswell.

Unless the antiwar faction of the Democratic Party grabs the steering wheel, the peace movement stands a good chance of getting outflanked. A nativist antiwar movement, which wants “our boys” back home to patrol the borders against the very people who keep our economy going, could steal the populist vote from the Democrats and from the left in general. We have to counter with a campaign that translates the dollars spent on war into dollars that could be spent on jobs.

So let the Dutch political crisis serve as a warning. There are always people like Geert Wilders waiting in the wings. Last time the Democrats screwed up so royally on a war-vs.-economy issue, we got Richard Nixon for nearly six years. This time around we might get something a whole lot worse.

Warlords to the Rescue?

Is the Afghan army ready to take over from NATO troops? The evidence from the current surge in Marja is not reassuring. In an otherwise upbeat analysis of the fighting, Dexter Filkins called Afghan participation “the most troubling part of the Afghan project.”

Foreign troops won’t resolve the civil war in Afghanistan today, argues Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor David Castonguay, and neither will the Afghan army. Rather, “the solution lies within the Afghanis themselves and in particular the tribal system of the Pashtuns,” he writes in our latest strategic dialogue essay In Praise of Warlords. “The U.S. military must change its approach and emphasize tapping into these existing regional power structures. U.S. military officials must identify the leaders that are ready to work with the central government, reject insurgency, and do the fighting themselves instead of having foreign troops do it for them.”

The United States is already going local, replies FPIF contributor Robert Naiman in his contribution to the dialogue. “An equally important piece is the need for direct political negotiations with senior Taliban leaders — as Karzai and the outgoing head of the UN mission have called for — employing the mediation of the Pakistani and Saudi governments as much as is useful. For such talks to be successful, the United States must be ready to move its position on key Taliban demands, including an end to night raids, the release of prisoners, the removal of senior Taliban officials from the UN blacklist, and ultimately, a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign military forces.”

Going local isn’t a bad approach in Somalia either, writes FPIF contributor Francis Njubi Nesbitt. “The international community should shore up legitimate traditional leaders who are losing ground to new upstarts backed by criminal enterprises such as piracy and smuggling,” he writes in Piracy Redux. “Leaders of the al-Shabaab militias are also pushing aside the traditional leaders and force-feeding Somalis a stricter foreign version of Islam that is very different from the traditional Sufi belief system. Without support, these potential allies in the traditional leadership will seek alternative sources of economic and physical security for their clansmen.”

Diplomats to the Rescue?

During the Rumsfeld years, the U.S. government treated Europe like a colonial possession that needed to be divided and conquered (remember “old” and “new” Europe?). The European response was to accelerate the process of establishing its own unified foreign and military policy. In November 2009 came the appointment of the first EU foreign minister (Lady Ashton) and the first EU president (Herman van Rompuy).

The new appointments haven’t inspired a great deal of confidence in Europe’s new role on the international state. After all, about the best that anyone could say about Ashton and Rompuy was that the former was “nice” and the latter “discreet.” Still, they are fundamentally diplomats, not prima donnas, and diplomacy is Europe’s best suit.

Indeed, argues FPIF contributor Daryl Copeland, diplomacy is Europe’s comparative advantage in the global arena. “The translation of Europe’s considerable appeal into tangible, progressive influence vis-à-vis the other poles of global power will largely depend on the quality, agility, and acuity of its diplomacy,” he writes in Memo to Europe. “If that idea catches on at the level of decision-makers and opinion-leaders within the European Union, it just might help to re-energize a public imagination that lately appears to have been flagging as regards the integration project. In so doing, this focus on public diplomacy could assist in taking the process of European integration to a higher level.”

CIA Definitely Not to the Rescue

In April 2001, the CIA collaborated with the Peruvian air force to shoot down a small plane with a U.S. missionary family on board. The Peruvians who downed the plane were under the mistaken assumption that they’d taken out a group of drug smugglers.

The CIA subsequently attempted to bury this shameful episode in its counternarcotics campaign. “Lax accountability for CIA operations is not surprising but remains highly disturbing,” writes FPIF contributor John Prados in CIA Accountability Hits New Lows. “In the Peruvian case, after nine years only a few mild slaps on the wrist were administered. Today’s CIA Predator attack program, like the Peruvian project, involves remote target identification, instant attack, and high secrecy. The criteria for selecting prospective victims are supposed to be very tightly drawn — but that was supposed to be true in Peru also.”

In Indonesia, people have been protesting Barack Obama. Well, not the president himself, actually, but a statue of the president that was recently erected in a small park in Jakarta. “The growing opposition to the statue is not particularly ideological,” writes FPIF contributor Andre Vltchek in his Postcard from…Jakarta. “Rather, it is based more on a nationalist belief that home-grown figures should be cast in bronze for display in one of the few green places of a capital city with little in the way of public space aside from shopping malls.” Click on the link to find out whether the protests were successful.

Finally, will business save the world? FPIF contributor Robert Miller reviews a new book by Michael Edwards that answers this question with a resounding no. “There are fundamental problems in the world that money cannot solve,” Miller writes. “Gender and religious oppression, political corruption, regional conflict, and state-sponsored terrorism are some of the deep social issues of our time that can only be solved through collective and persistent civic engagement.”

FPIF, February 23, 2010

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