Fighting Words

Isolationism Isn’t the Answer

Jihadists aren’t in Afghanistan—or Iraq—because we are there.

Taliban fighters surrender in Ghazni province

I call your attention to the front-page report in the Oct. 30 New York Times in which David Rohde, writing from the Afghan town of Gardez, tells of a new influx of especially vicious foreign fighters. Describing it as the largest such infiltration since 2001, Rohde goes on to say, “The foreign fighters are not only bolstering the ranks of the insurgency. They are more violent, uncontrollable and extreme than even their locally bred allies.” They also, it seems, favor those Taliban elements who are more explicitly allied with al-Qaida, and bring with them cash and resources with which to sabotage, for example, the opening of schools in the southern provinces around Kandahar.

Now, if this were a report from Iraq, we would be hearing that it was all our own fault and that the Bin Ladenists would not be in that country at all if it were not for the coalition presence. It’s practically an article of faith among liberals that only the folly of the intervention made Iraq into a magnet and a training or recruiting ground for our foes. One of the difficulties with this shallow and glib analysis is that it fails to explain Afghanistan and, in fact, fails to explain it twice.

We have fairly convincing evidence that a majority of Afghans do not, at the very least, oppose the presence of NATO forces on their soil. The signs of progress are slight but definite, having mainly to do with the return of millions of refugees and an improvement in the lives of women. There are some outstanding stupidities, such as the attempt to spray the opium poppies, but in general the West has behaved decently, and a huge number of Afghans resent the Taliban and its allies if only on the purely nationalist ground that it represents a renewed attempt to turn Afghanistan into a Pakistani colony, as it was before 2001.

I mention all this because there is no way to argue that the Taliban, either local or imported, is the product of some grievance or injustice or root cause. Its gangs are, instead, primitive fanatics making war on a Muslim society. And they are not there only because “we” are there. We know this because, long before “we” got there, they were in effective control of large parts of the place and had turned a terrorized and stultified land into a springboard and incubator for transnational nihilism. Bad as things may be now, they were infinitely worse when we ourselves were being isolationist.

After all, if the usual peacenik logic were to be pursued, and it was to be assumed that “we” are chiefly responsible for magnetizing “them,” then it would follow that if we were to leave, they would either give up or go elsewhere. Is there anybody who can be brought to believe anything so fatuous? Well, then, if this logic is self-evidently false in the case of Afghanistan, why should it be any more persuasive in the case of Iraq?

“No end in sight” is another favorite mantra of the anti-war mentality. And how true that melancholy reflection seems to be. The latest news is of a very nasty Islamic insurgency in southern Thailand, butchering Buddhist villages (remember the Taliban assault on the Buddha statues at Bamiyan?) and making demands for the imposition of sharia law. Perhaps someone will identify for me which Thai and Buddhist—or Western imperialist—crimes have led to this sudden development. Or perhaps it will be admitted, however grudgingly and belatedly, that there is something sui generis about Islamist fanaticism: something that is looking for a confrontation with every non-Muslim society in the world and is determined to pursue it with the utmost violence and cruelty. It is also seeking a confrontation with some Muslim states and societies.

I make the latter point with deliberation. Afghanistan has a constitution that reserves special privileges for Islam. Most Afghan women still cover at least their heads. Even those who fought long and hard against the Taliban and al-Qaida—the Northern Alliance forces, for instance, or the Shiite Hazara—are intensely Muslim by any non-Muslim standard. But that does not suffice to protect them from the attentions of suicide-murderers and throat-cutters, recruited from as far away as Chechnya or even the Muslim areas of China. So, can we hear a bit less about how the jihadists are responding only to those who “target” Muslims or who are “Islamophobic”?

The people of Pakistan are also discovering the cost of “blowback.” Their entire state is consecrated to the idea of Islam: It is one of the first countries to have its very nationality defined by religion. But there are those for whom a mere state for Muslims is not enough and who insist on something quite different, which is a purely Muslim state. Gen. Pervez Musharraf used to flirt with these forces, as did Gen. Zia and as did (though she now prefers to forget this) Benazir Bhutto. The groups that used to be Pakistan’s proxies in Afghanistan are now waging war on the streets of Pakistan’s cities and in the mountains of Pakistan’s frontier provinces. They are blowing up Shiite mosques, killing the doctors and nurses who try to administer polio vaccine in rural areas, and forcing women and girls back into the role of chattel. For them, nothing will do but the reimposition of seventh-century mores and the re-establishment of the caliphate. It is idle to think that “we” created this gruesome phenomenon and idler still to imagine that there is any possibility of our compromising with it.