The Taliban Must Be Destroyed Utterly, With No “Moderate Elements” Allowed to Remain As a Future Governing Nucleus

Written by Christopher Caldwell on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Anyone still
mulling whether we should continue to prosecute our war against the Taliban
during the holy month of Ramadan should read the reports that circulated last
Sunday during the taking of the northern city of Taloqan. Apparently the "devout"
Taliban held their fire against Northern Alliance enemies until they saw the
soldiers kneel down to pray, at which point they opened fire.

About the
only person–within the Islamic world or without–who is still urging
the Ramadan pause is Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, and he’s doing
so for reasons that have nothing to do with religion. Those reasons can basically
be summed up as follows: He hopes we will lose.

is a deft politician who deserves credit for selling American involvement to
the Pakistanis. But it’s not as if he had much choice–an aggressive
American alliance with India, with billions of dollars’ worth of military
aid, was otherwise in the cards. And that doesn’t mean we should let him
run our war. For the first three or four weeks of the Afghan campaign, the U.S.
followed Musharraf’s advice and got nowhere. Now that we have decided to
ignore it, we have Mazar-e-Sharif, Taloqan and Herat. Now that we have Mazar-e-Sharif,
Taloqan and Herat, Musharraf is urging us not to take Kabul, so that a "multi-ethnic"
government can be set up first. And since we appear to be passing that advice
along to our Northern Alliance proxies, the Northern Alliance seems wisely to
be ignoring us.

They know
what we pretend not to. The Taliban must be destroyed utterly, with no "moderate
elements" allowed to remain as a future governing nucleus. To speak of
moderate elements within the Taliban is like speaking of moderate elements among
the Nazis. The problem is that the Taliban are the Afghan arm of the Pakistani
state. They have heretofore been about as independent of Islamabad as, say,
the Bulgarian army was of Moscow 20 years ago. According to the Pakistani journalist
Ahmed Rashid, what Pakistan did for the Taliban was, first, to scuttle any peace
process that would have resulted in a multi-ethnic settlement of the Afghan
conflict; and, second, to enter the fray on their behalf, at a time when they
were a slightly overmatched faction, by providing them with military hardware
and tipping the whole country under their control.

Our strategy
reflects the complicated way we’re assimilating the lessons of Vietnam.
The Bush White House realizes that Lyndon Johnson’s selection of bombing
targets in Vietnam was both embarrassing and feckless. It still needs to learn
that letting a foreign president pick your targets–and your fighting schedule–is
no better. Militarily we’re doing one thing surprisingly right, which reflects
an important Vietnam lesson: We’re being extremely parsimonious in sharing
equipment with the Northern Alliance. In the early 1960s, the U.S. decided to
police the Vietnamese countryside by manning watch posts that the French had
built throughout the country–basically sentry towers with two or three
or a half-dozen soldiers in them. These worked fine when not a single Vietnamese
peasant had a gun. They were a catastrophe once Russia and China started arming
the VC. When those towers started surrendering to the guerrillas, the Pentagon
did something stupid. It decided to "fortify" them by delivering rifles,
machine guns, artillery and lots of ammo to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
These turned into virtual CARE packages to the enemy, so much so that the Communists
were able to fight late into the 1960s with mostly American guns seized earlier
in the war.

The Northern
Alliance, like the ARVN, means well. But also like the ARVN, they don’t
always know what they’re doing, which means that promiscuous "logistical
support" can mean simply the delivery of state-of-the-art American weaponry
into the hands of the Taliban. That’s why, in Afghanistan, if there are
targets to be taken out with sophisticated ordnance, we’ll do it ourselves,
from the air.


But there
is something very different about this war that the Bush White House seems to
have realized only imperfectly. It’s that there’s not a shred of important
opposition to it in any corner of American society. There’s not even a
shred of potential opposition to it. There are two big reasons for this.

First is
a shift in the role of intellectuals and elites. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan,
the country’s working and middle classes were solidly behind the war. During
Vietnam, though, the more one knew about international affairs, the more inclined
one was to be skeptical about our chances of success–and our reasons for
being in Vietnam in the first place. It was a nationalist as well as a communist
insurgency, the Vietnamese peasantry were not reliably pro-American, no foreign
power had been able to defeat a dug-in Vietnamese rebellion, the Army was corrupt,
South Vietnamese commerce was an annoying, bribery-based system that didn’t
have the confidence of the public, etc. etc.

is different. There, Robert Conquest’s Law–that "everyone is
conservative about what he knows best"–is vindicated in spades. The
only people opposing the war are those who haven’t read the papers enough
to know the kind of ethnicity-based terror through which the Taliban reign,
or who are shallow enough to absorb the Chomskyite propaganda that "our
allies are just as bad as the Taliban"–which is simply untrue. (This
is not to deny that the Northern Alliance–particularly those led by the
man always described in press accounts as "the hard-drinking atheist Rashid
Dostum"–has occasionally been very bad indeed.)

But the
second and larger reason there’s no opposition to this war is that no non-military
option presents itself as a way of dealing with bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the
Taliban. It’s simply impossible to reason or negotiate with these people.
They–and their sympathizers–never work from neutral principles. Their
whole morality is applied asymmetrically. They expect honesty and are outraged
when they don’t receive it, but feel no obligation to offer it themselves.
They have no sense of reciprocal obligation, of Hegelian "recognition."

tedious are those discussions about ancient history that bin Laden-style rationalizers
bring up, along the lines of "You say we mistreat our women–but Muhammad
allowed women to inherit property!" "You say we’re religiously
intolerant…but how about your Spanish Inquisition!" Look, quoting
scripture is a perfectly legitimate form of argument, but, again, only if we’re
arguing from neutral principles. Only, for instance, if a Western lunkhead is
entitled to take bin Laden at his word that he would restore a seventh-century
Islamic society, which presumably means a seventh-century means of waging war.

In considering
what that means, it’s worth relying on Marshall G.S. Hodgson’s reading
of the Nakhlah raids of 624 AD in his magisterial study The Venture of Islam.
With his movement struggling for survival in its early days in Medina, Muhammad
decided to break treaties with Mecca and rob camel caravans. The first step
in the direction of financial independence for Islam was the booty he hauled
in from a caravan raid at Nakhlah during a sacred truce month. The principle
by which Muhammad justified the raid, according to Hodgson, was "a revelation
in the Qur’an that, while violation of the truce was bad, persecution of
the faith was worse and justified the violation. Muhammad then allowed the booty
to be accepted."

I don’t
want to fall into the Islamicist trap of behaving as if we were still living
in the seventh century. But once fundamentalists start arguing for Islamic primacy
rather than religious tolerance, then there is nothing wrong with bin Laden’s
opponents quoting the Qur’an, too, to dismiss Al Qaeda as adherents of
the Stalinist policy of "What’s mine is mine and what’s yours
we share." And at the very least, it ought to put the Qur’anic view
of fighting during Ramadan in some perspective.

Laughing Matter

A lot of
things are scheduled to last two months. It has struck me during the past few
days that the very last people for whom the world was as it was on Sept.11–i.e.,
those who’d left around Labor Day for 60-day drug-treatment programs, or
60-day Outward Bound adventures, or 60-day monastic retreats–must have
been returning to society and getting the news.

in the wake of the WTC attacks, newspapers and other media seem to have settled
on 60 days as their unofficial period of mourning, during which lightness and
levity were forbidden. Sunday’s New York Times "Week in Review"
section, in particular, was filled with all the lame gag-articles that had been
pent up in the paper’s servers for the last nine weeks. Lamest was Bruce
McCall’s questionnaire on Homeland Defense, which was designed to show
that we don’t know much about Homeland Defense. ("4. Yes or no: Homeland
Defense officers in hot pursuit of a suspicious cow, tractor or turnip truck
are authorized to enter cities." Cracks you up, doesn’t it?) There
was Tom Kuntz’s send-up of the vogue for books about firefighting ("‘What’s
the Number for 911?’ by Leland H. Gregory III"). And Maureen Dowd
was Maureen Dowd. What was sad about all of these pieces is that they reflected
a felt need to joke–"otherwise the terrorists will have won,"
and blah-blah-blah–but also a felt fear of actually being funny. All the
articles were at the level of those school-sanctioned junior-high humor magazines
called Jest fer Laffs, or something like that. The evidence is in that
any tally of "What We Have Lost" since Sept. 11 should include our
sense of humor.