Hal Pepinsky, firstname.lastname@example.org , pepinsky.blogspot.com
October 15, 2009
Secretary of State Clinton is becoming a well-nuanced public diplomat. Yesterday in a BBC interview she distinguished between Taliban who threaten Britain and the US, and Taliban whose issues are between them and the Afghan government. As sociologist W. I. Thomas put it just after WWI, “things that are defined as real are real in their consequences.” West Point’s chief researcher on terrorists was interviewed this morning to distinguish al Qaeda, good Taliban and bad Taliban.
This gambit opens two strategic possibilities: of dividing the enemy against itself (a time-honored practice of US prison management), and of dumping the chaos our invasion created by granting Afghanis the dignity of getting out of their way, and ourselves the excuse for withdrawal of having achieved our national security goals. The trial balloons are out as to the political acceptance of this version of how we withdraw from Afghanistan without losing “the” war.
I’ll accept this as progress toward peace. As Gandhi pointed out, when holders of firepower give way to non-violent refusals to obey, it is time to embrace their acts of grace, not to claim victory. I want NATO forces out of Afghanistan, the sooner with less bloodshed in the process the better.
“Terrorism” was first named as a significant threat to national security since Harry Truman’s speech accepting the Democratic nomination in 1948. I believe that the threat of terrorism has reverberated in virtually every US president’s campaign rhetoric since, notably in Jimmy Carter’s in 1976. I first recall al Qaeda being proclaimed through US intelligence as public terrorist group no. 1 just after Bill Clinton got re-elected, with Osama bin Laden named as its leader. They got re-named when the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen, and again when US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were bombed.
So by the time 9/11 rolled around, “we” already knew who the terrorists and their leader were. Within a month missiles and cluster bombs rained down on Afghanistan to get—guess who?—Bin Laden and exterminate al Qaeda. As Secretary of State Colin Powell put it at the time, treating Bin Laden as a military enemy was a lot simpler than treating him as a criminal who might have legal rights, as of due process.
We have treated al Qaeda as the US enemy no. 1 since. This construction of our enemy never made sense to me. As Bin Laden himself described the folks he was training and subsidizing, al Qaeda, literally “the base,” were modeled on Algerian national liberation resistance to the French: independent cells of three who in turn could train and give birth to other independent cells. Because al Qaeda had no head by design, it could never be defeated from above—the ultimate guerrilla force, now propagating its force worldwide. I’ll leave aside further comment on the notion that Bin Laden is the boss of it all. Al Qaeda has a life of its own, and trying to kill it has the same effect as pouring water on a grease fire.
As to indigenous Afghani groups who may embrace being “Taliban” (literally “students” of Islam), now we recognize that they are no unified military/political force either. Afghanistan has never been nationally centralized. Given the terrain alone, the same holds true for other mountainous regions like the Balkans, or Switzerland or Norway where local governments enjoy far more economic power than national counterparts. I agree with Secretary Clinton that what Afghanis work out among themselves will happen more easily when foreign occupiers are gone. Love and peace--hal