Dr. Walid Phares
The Myth of the Two Talibans
In an interview with the New York Times this week (March 7),
President Barack Obama said he "hopes U.S. troops can identify moderate
elements of the Taliban and move them toward reconciliation.” The
proposition came as a conclusion to a larger picture: the battlefield
situation in Afghanistan. According to the New York Times he said
the United States "was not winning the war in that country” and thus the
door must be opened to a "reconciliation process in which the American
military would reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban much as it
did with Sunni militias in Iraq.”
Following these statements a flurry of comments exploded throughout the
international media: while most of the mainstream press and networks in
the West praised the "new daring turn” in US policy, that is, the
readiness to "engage the Taliban,” most of the pan Arabist and Jihadi
sympathizer outlets in the region warned the move won’t be successful.
In a panel discussion on BBC TV Arabic in which I participated, a noted
expert in Islamist affairs from Amman said "there is no such thing as
Taliban independent from the high ups like Mullah Umar.” Another
panelist, a seasoned Afghan journalist from Kabul added: "In Iraq, you
have a bigger US force, and a totally different geopolitical context
than in Afghanistan. Besides, he added, why would Washington want to
engage a Terror force which is not accepted by the population?” This was
a small sampling of the brouhaha reigning in the debate about the real
strategic intentions of the Obama Administration.
The Imbroglio of Good & Bad Taliban
In fact by my observations, it is even more complicated than that: the
US Administration is being advised that any change in strategy in
Afghanistan is better than the previous situation. It is being told that
the surge model as applied in Iraq may work, if modified to meet
Afghanistan’s "complexities.” The President must also be attracted to
the idea that an "engagement” with some quarters of the Taliban will fit
perfectly with the global idea of engagement, sit down and listening
that he seems to have adopted for the entire region.
But many questions still need to be answered. Does the plan require a
dialogue with the Taliban organization as a whole or with elements
"within” the organization? Apparently the US channel is to be
established with "elements” not with the leadership of the network. Then
the next question is: if they aren’t part of the top leadership, are
these elements able to sway the entire organization towards engagement?
Apparently not, according to experts on the Taliban, both in Afghanistan
and Pakistan. So, the goal is to sway these factions – called moderates
- from the Taliban, not to steer the entire group in another direction.
Here we have to pause and come to the first "complex” conclusion: while
President Hamid Karzai has extended an olive branch to Mullah Omar to
join the Government, an invitation quickly rejected, President Obama is
announcing a more modest goal that is to identify "moderate elements”
from the Taliban and "strike a deal with them.” But the modest narrative
of the goal doesn’t make it necessarily reachable. Here is why.
If the "moderate Taliban” we’re looking to identify are "inside” the
network, when they engage with the US, they will be lethally ejected by
the hard core of the group, backed by al Qaeda. Hence the next question
will be to know if those "dissidents” would actually secede and form a
"moderate Taliban” organization working with the US and the Karzai
Government. From the names available on such a list, including the
former "Taliban ambassadors” to Pakistan and the international community
and those who sought Saudi Arabia’s help in launching a dialogue, we
can’t see strong commanders willing to surge militarily against the
mother ship. As far as we can project, there are no leaders and radical
clerics who would carry that task of establishing an all-out new "good
Taliban,” even with millions of dollars as incentive. A Taliban civil
war is not going to happen, for now. But is there another more
attainable goal? According to the Obama Administration and some experts,
there may be other options.
In recent months a new concept has been pushed via the Defense and
counter terrorism circles arguing that instead of chipping off from the
actual "Taliban” militia on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border,
attention must be focusing on harvesting the local "taliban” (little ts).
According to this theory, the little "t's” are individuals and groups who
have joined the large umbrella under Mullah Umar but not the membership
of the organization, or have proclaimed themselves as "taliban
affiliates.” Hence, in comparison with the Iraqi Sahwa movement backed
by US Coalition, these sub-militias of all walks of life would become
the target of American political charm and dollars. If identified and
reached out to – so believe the architects of the forthcoming Afghan
"surge” - they will become the Afghani parallel to the Sahwas of
Mesopotamia. Note that President Obama specified that it will be the
"American military who would reach out to these moderate elements.”
Meaning they will be dealt with from a lower level rather than from a
full fledged diplomatic perspective.
In that case, unlike what the media has been speculating about, this is
not a US dialogue with the party it is at war with, headed by Mullah
Umar and his emirs. It is not even an attempt to break the mother ship
into two and recuperate the more moderate branch. There are no takers
for a massive retreat from the Taliban into the arms of Kabul’s
Government or Washington’s "infidel” generosity.
What the US move is about is much more pragmatic and realistic: nibbling
off from the wide pool of angry people and shifting them from
frustration with Karzai to enmity towards Umar. Indeed, there are tens
of thousands of armed males aggregating in villages, clans, tribes and
neighborhoods, who wear turbans and sometimes claim they are Taliban for
a thousand reasons. These sub-militias aren’t particularly ideological
or maybe do not even understand much of the doctrine they claim
following. A number of experts and some strategists believe today that
these men of the Afghan underworld can become the "new army” against the
"bad Taliban.” Can they?
In fact not only it is possible but it should have been the case eight
years ago. However, there are two fundamental mistakes not to make.
Don’t Announce Them as the "Moderates”
First, the Obama Administration and the US military strategists must not
see these new war constituents, nor announce them as who they aren’t.
These sub-militias sought to turn the tide against the real Taliban
aren’t your "moderate” guys. In reality they have no firm ideological
affiliation. With few exceptions perhaps, the tribal and urban forces to
be targeted for "integration” will simply shift alliances or allegiance
for money and power. The American, Western and international public must
not be led to believe that a piece of architecture will be successful in
transforming radicals into moderates or swaying away bands of armed men
from extremism, let alone Jihadism. The mutation to moderation happens
not via cash deals but through years of schooling, an efficient media
and perseverant NGO work. It happens from younger into older age. Hence
forget about the "identification of moderate” part of the Obama
strategy. Inducing civil societies into liberalism, or even moderation,
needs Government crafting of a kind that doesn’t exist in Washington or
Brussels for the time being.
In addition, these militias and militants to be swayed away from
Waziristan’s exiles aren’t going to produce a national reconciliation.
They do not represent the radical ideological web which is behind the
war against the new Afghan democracy. National reconciliation takes
place between two or more large, historical and strategic forces.
Instead we’re talking about recuperation of elements extracted from the
Taliban, not reconciliation with the latter. Hence US stated goals
should be even more modest in this regard.
Don’t call them "Taliban”
The second fatal mistake not to commit is to call them Taliban,
proto-Taliban or crypto-Taliban. Even if for publicity purposes it suits
the goal of soothing the US and Western public, constructing a fictive
identity to a plethora of tribal-urban sub militias will backfire on the
whole campaign. Here is why.
Since they aren’t a breakaway faction from the main organization, they
can’t form another Taliban to challenge the Mullah Umar leadership. And
since they have no ideology of their own they won’t be able to
de-radicalize others. Hence if they are baptized as the other "taliban,”
instead of using the credibility of the name to push back against the
bad guys, the name will ultimately transform them into what we don’t
want them to be: Taliban! Void will be filled by the forces with a
greater doctrinal power, forceful clerics, and historical leadership. If
we call them nice Taliban or "little ts” we would be throwing them back
into the arms of the forces we want to sway them from. Knowing what I
know from the Jihadist strategies, it won’t take long before the two
Talibans would eventually sit down and strike a deal, and overwhelm the
Learn from Iraq
If the Iraq Sahwa model is the inspiration for an Afghan engagement with
local forces, we need to learn the right lessons from it. In Iraq, the
US didn’t create good al Qaeda versus bad al Qaeda; it didn’t identify
moderate elements from al Qaeda to pit them against the mother force.
The political dimension of the surge, relied heavily on recruiting
tribes, social cadres and Sunni elements regardless of their
affiliations and empowering them via a "new” organization, called Sahwa
Councils. We gave these new local allies an identity of their own, not
the identity of the forces they fought.
But more important, the greater dimension of the surge wasn’t the mere
rise of the Sahwas but the moving forward of the democratic political
process with its political parties, NGOs, movements and media. Swaying
Sunni militias against al Qaeda was only one component of the strategy;
the larger strategy was to sustain pressures until Iraqi forces,
legislators and ministries are up and running. By comparison in
Afghanistan, we should make the case of a similar, not necessarily
identical process: mobilizing popular militias, giving them an identity
of their own, not calling them Taliban, and not expecting them to be the
missing link to the future but a force helpful in pushing the political
process forward until it can resist, contain and reverse the Taliban.
How to Measure Victory & Defeat
President Obama, and before him President Bush, were always trying to
measure the success in the war in Afghanistan. While the latter spoke of
victories, our current President speaks of failures. The real issue is
how to measure victory or defeat. Is destroying al Qaeda and Taliban
bunkers a definitive indicator of victory? Are the relentless terror
attacks by the Jihadists the other definitive measurement of failures? I
don’t think either parameter gives us an answer. Rather it is the battle
taking place over the conquest of the minds and hearts of the school
children and teens of the country that will make or break that
burgeoning Democracy. Unfortunately neither the past nor the current
Administration seems to see the war of ideas with such urgency.
Let’s Be Accurate & Transparent
My recommendation to the Obama Administration is to be relentlessly
accurate in describing the choices it intends to make in Afghanistan and
in the confrontation with the Jihadists worldwide. If its final
intention is to cut a deal with the Taliban – in this article I won’t
argue about the choice - it must faithfully inform the US public of this
choice instead of developing a phased narrative of disengagement.
But if it seriously intends to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda by
isolating them further inside Afghanistan and mobilizing the
international community, the Administration also needs to prepare the
American and Western public for that choice. For in this age of hyper
globalization, the Jihadi forces have an astonishing capacity to
outmaneuver the smartest strategies devised by their enemies and, on the
other hand, the public here at home has developed a surprising ability
to understand the intentions of both the Terror forces and of its own
Government. Transparency is everything in this age.
About Dr. Walid Phares
Dr. Walid Phares is the Director of Future Terrorism
Project at the Foundation for the
Democracies in Washington, a visiting scholar at the European Foundation
for Democracy and the author of the War of Ideas. Dr. Phares was one of the
architects of UNSCR 1559. He is also a Professor of Middle East
Studies at Florida Atlantic University and a contributing expert to FOX News.
Dr. Phares teaches Global Strategies at the National Defense
University. Professor Phares’
is the author of two critical books on the Islamofascist threat to Western
Civilization, "Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against the West”
and "The War of Ideas: Jihadism