A whole new fashion is suddenly upon us. If only, in the confrontation with reactionary Islamism, we could separate the moderate extremists from the really extreme extremists. In the last few days, we have heard President Barack Obama musing about a distinction between good and bad Taliban, the British government insisting on a difference between Hezbollah the political party and Hezbollah the militia, and Fareed Zakaria saying that the best way of stopping the militants may be to allow them to run things in their own way, since an appetite for the imposition of sharia does not equate to a thirst for global jihad and may even partially slake that thirst.
It would be foolish to doubt that there is some case to be made for this: The Karzai government in Afghanistan has been making a distinction between the “Mullah Omar” madmen and the merely localized Taliban for some time. In Lebanon, anyway, Hezbollah takes part in elections and so far abides by the results (also serving as a proxy for possible future talks with Iran). In Iraq, the initial success of the counter-al-Qaida insurgency depended on the suborning and recruitment of other Sunni insurgents who were hostile to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Osama Bin Laden. One of the many reasons that I have always opposed the use of torture and other extralegal methods is that such conduct destroys the possibility of “turning” certain kinds of Islamic militants and making potential allies of them.
However, one should be careful of the seductions of this compromise. In a wishful attempt to bring peace with the Taliban in Pakistan itself, the government has recently ceded a fertile and prosperous and modernized valley province—the former princedom of Swat—to the ultraviolent votaries of the one party and the one God. This is not some desolate tribal area where government and frontier have been poorly delineated for decades, as in Waziristan. It is a short commute from the capital city of Islamabad. The Taliban have never won an election in the area; indeed, the last vote went exactly the other way. And refugees are pouring out of Swat as the fundamentalists take hold and begin their campaign of cultural and economic obliteration: no music, no schooling for females, no recognition of the writ of the central government. (See the excellent report by Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah in the March 5 New York Times.)
According to this and other reports, the surrender of authority by the already crumbling Pakistani authorities has had an emboldening effect on the extremists rather than an appeasing one. The nominal interlocutor, Maulana Sufi Muhammad, with whom the deal was signed, is related by clan and ideology to much fiercer and younger figures, including those suspected in the murder of Benazir Bhutto, in the burning of hundreds of girls’ schools, in the killing of Pakistani soldiers, and in the slaughter of local tribal leaders who have resisted Taliban rule. Numberless witnesses attest that the militants show not the smallest intention of abiding by the terms of the so-called “truce.” Instead of purchasing peace, the Pakistani government has surrendered part of its heartland without a fight to those who can and will convert it into a base for further and more exorbitant demands. This is not even a postponement of the coming nightmare, which is the utter disintegration of Pakistan as a state. It is a stage in that disintegration.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, where many very hard-line Muslims take the side of the elected governments against the nihilists, there is also a determined NATO or coalition presence that can bring firepower to bear as part of the argument. This was the necessary if not sufficient condition for the “awakening” movements on which Gen. David Petraeus relied and still relies. But even in default of that factor, the handing over of large swaths of sovereign and strategic territory to the enemy was never a part of any such plan, and it would have been calamitous if it had been.
Fareed Zakaria makes the perfectly good observation in his Newsweek essay that no Afghans have been found among the transnational terrorist groups that apparently most concern us. (He’s righter than he knows: It’s more likely now that a wanted would-be hijacker would be a British citizen than an Afghan one.) However, this can easily decay into being a distinction without a difference. What the Afghan fundamentalists did do when they were in power was offer their country as a safe haven to al-Qaida and give it a hinterland that included the ability to issue passports, make use of an airport, and so forth. Comparable facilities will now become available, much nearer to the center of things, in a formerly civilized province of our ally Pakistan. This is incredible.
There is another symbiosis between state failure of that kind and the spread of deadly violence. A state or region taken over by jihadists will not last long before declining into extreme poverty and backwardness and savagery. There are no exceptions to this rule. We do not need to demonstrate again what happens to countries where vicious fantasists try to govern illiterates with the help of only one book. And who will be blamed for the failure? There will not, let me assure you, be a self-criticism session mounted by the responsible mullahs. Instead, all ills will be blamed on the Crusader-Zionist conspiracy, and young men with deficiency diseases and learning disabilities will be taught how to export their frustrations to happier lands. Thus does the failed state become the rogue state. This is why we have a duty of solidarity with all the secular forces, women’s groups, and other constituencies who don’t want this to happen to their societies or to ours.
By all means, let field commanders make tactical agreements with discrepant groups, play them off against one another, employ the methods of divide and rule, and pit the bad against the worst. C’est la guerre. But under no circumstances should a monopoly of violence be ceded to totalitarian or theocratic forces. For this and for other reasons, we shall long have cause to regret the shameful decision to deliver the good people of the Swat Valley bound and gagged into the hands of the Taliban, and—worst of all—without even a struggle.