Monday, March 02, 2009

Giving the Inertia of Peace a Chance

Fareed Zakaria uses the recent accommodation between the Pakistani government and militants in the Swat Valley in Pakistan as a launching point to discuss the proper posture for the United States to adopt vis-a-vis Islamist movements of various stripes. The short version: it is vital that we differentiate between al-Qaeda type groups and other Islamist groups that do not subscribe to theories of global jihad (and that we learn to live with the latter).

Such realignment doesn't mean that we have to turn a blind eye to crimes against women and other brutal and oppressive policies that certain of the Islamist groups might espouse. But those issues are better addressed through non-violent means. After all, even targeted airstrikes end up killing the women and children that they are, ostensibly, meant to safeguard under such humanitarian justifications.

(Side note: These issues were discussed during this past Sunday's installment of Zakaria's CNN show - GPS - which I have enjoyed immensely. Watching Hitchens get put in his place in the most recent episode is, alone, worth the price of admission):

Pakistan's Swat Valley...became a war zone over the past two years as Taliban fighters waged fierce battles against the Pakistani army. The fighting ceased because the Pakistani government has agreed to some of the militants' key demands, chiefly that Islamic courts be established in the region. Fears abound that this means girls schools will be destroyed, movies will be banned and public beheadings will become a regular occurrence.

The militants are bad people, and this is bad news. But the more difficult question is, what should we -- the outside world -- do? How exactly should we oppose these forces? In Pakistan and Afghanistan, we have done so in large measure by attacking them -- directly with Western troops and Predator strikes, and indirectly in alliance with Pakistani and Afghan forces. Is the answer to pour in more of our troops, train more Afghan soldiers, ask the Pakistani military to deploy more battalions, and expand the Predator program to hit more of the bad guys? Perhaps -- in some cases, emphatically yes -- but I think it's also worth stepping back and trying to understand the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism. [...]

The militants who were battling the [Pakistani] army...have had to go along with the deal. The Pakistani government is hoping that this agreement will isolate the jihadists and win the public back to its side. This may not work, but at least it represents an effort to divide the camps of the Islamists between those who are violent and those who are merely extreme.

Over the past eight years, such distinctions have tended to be regarded as naive. The Bush administration spent its first term engaged in a largely abstract, theoretical conversation about radical Islam as a monolithic global ideology -- and conservative intellectuals still spout this kind of unyielding rhetoric. By the second term, though, Bush officials ended up pursuing a most sophisticated policy toward political Islam in the one country where reality was unavoidable -- Iraq.

Having invaded Iraq, the Americans searched for local allies, in particular political groups that could become the Iraqi face of the occupation. The administration came to recognize that 30 years of the secular tyrant Saddam Hussein had left only hard-core Islamists as the opposition. It partnered with these groups, most of which were Shiite parties founded on the model of Iran's ultra-religious organizations, and acquiesced as they took over most of southern Iraq, the Shiite heartland. The strict version of Islam that they implemented in this area was quite similar to -- in some cases more extreme than -- what one would find in Iran today. Liquor was banned; women had to cover themselves from head to toe; Christians were persecuted; religious affiliations became the only way to get a government job, including college professorships. While some of this puritanism is mellowing, southern Iraq remains a dark place. But it is not a hotbed of jihadist activity. The veil is not the same as the suicide belt.

The Bush administration partnered with fundamentalists once more in the Iraq war. When the fighting was at its worst, administration officials began talking to some in the Sunni community who were involved in the insurgency. Many of them were classic Islamic militants, though others were simply former Baathists or tribal chiefs. Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy ramped up this process. "We won the war in Iraq chiefly because we separated the local militants from the global jihadists," says Fawaz Gerges, a scholar at Sarah Lawrence College, who has interviewed hundreds of Muslim militants. "Yet around the world we are still unwilling to make the distinction between these two groups."

Anything that emphasizes the variety of groups, movements and motives within that world strengthens the case that this is not a battle between Islam and the West. In the end, time is on our side. Wherever radical Islam is tried, people weary of its charms quickly. All Islamists, violent or not, lack answers to today's problems. Unlike them, we have a worldview that can satisfy the aspirations of modern men and women. That's the most powerful weapon of all.

This is classic "disaggregation" strategy (a counterinsurgency tool promoted by such well-respected practitioners as David Kilcullen) whereby each group within a given movement is treated as a distinct entity so as to determine how to best respond to each (discussed here and, more recently, here). This analytical device can shed light on which groups can be coaxed to buy-in to a given government structure, and which groups can only be dealt with through the application of force.

Disaggregation offered the only viable means available to us for stabilizing the situation in Iraq (not the surge of troops, as is commonly misinterpreted). We weren't going to be able to keep fighting all militant groups, nor would the Iraqi government be able to persist for long without a broader support in the population at large. By working with various Iraqi Islamist and/or insurgent groups, the US has helped create an imperfect and tenuous momentum in the direction of stability.

Similarly, disaggregation offers a glimmer of hope going forward in Afghanistan. As my friend Steve Hynd points out, the "Taliban" is a multifaceted movement with its constituent parts often working at cross purposes on important issues such as hostility to the Pakistani government and support for global jihadism. We need to do our best to peel away those factions that are not committed to furthering al-Qaeda's cause and provide them with enough incentives to participate in the new Afghan government. Even groups that we might rightly label as "Taliban."

Those incentives can be provided in two ways, broadly speaking: positive inducement and negative inducement. That is where I see the Obama administration heading with its announced troops build-up in Afghanistan (and where the Surge helped in Iraq to some extent): it is part of an effort to change the calculus of certain groups that have gravitated toward the hardcore Taliban largely out of an appreciation for which way the wind is blowing. We want to woo them back and offer greater protection to rural populations, and in order to do so, we may need to flex some military muscle. Any such military efforts would need to be combined with offers of material support and other accommodation in terms of religious sensibilities as a means to cement allegiance.

This process will, necessarily, include courting Islamist groups that have some repugnant beliefs and practices from a human rights perspective. But we cannot defeat the entirety of the Afghan insurgencymilitarily at acceptable costs, nor prop up an Afghan government in the face of such widespread resistance.

Even still, it is unclear if such a strategy will work. With respect to Iraq, the fear is that erstwhile combatants are only maintaining a cease-fire with the US forces in order to capitalize on our largess, and to avoid the considerable losses incurred when confronting the vastly superior US military in combat. There is a concern that these groups are merely refurbishing, refitting and biding their time for the day when they can challenge the current government after US troops withdraw. Further, there are questions as to the extent of the current government's willingness to offer incentives to former insurgent groups post-US withdrawal.

Similarly, any relative stability in Afghanistan, if achieved (which would necessitate cooperation from Afghanistan's neighbors), would be fragile to say the least - and given the Karzai government bad reputation for corruption and fecklessness, perhaps it is a lost cause.

But we simply can't afford to stay in either place much longer, let alone for the decades that the counterinsurgency gurus advise. And our prolonged presence has its own radicalizing and counterproductive effects. Our last best hope in each theater is to accommodate as many groups as possible. In so doing, we can attempt to tamp down the violence and hope that the exhaustion with fighting and the allure of normalcy can create an irresistible inertia of its own - leading to more willingness for compromise and concession on all sides, the steady abandonment of violence and a growing lack of tolerance for those that utilize such means.

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