We Must Not Leave Afghanistan Yet

The West cannot defeat radical Islam if it abandons Afghans and Pakistanis prematurely

Afghanistan Features NATO War on Terror
Pakistani soldiers and an army helicopter in Sararogha, a former Islamist stronghold in South Waziristan

Not since the demise of Marxism has the world been faced with a comprehensive political, social and economic ideology determined, by force if necessary, to achieve hegemony over large parts of the world. I mean, of course, the rise of radical Islam, in its various manifestations, with its claim to be the only authentic interpretation of the religion. I am aware that there are many Muslims who reject such an interpretation of their faith and, indeed, there are secular forces in the Muslim world prepared to resist such programmatic extremism. We should not, however, underestimate Islamism’s capacity for disruption and destruction and its desire to remake the world in its own image.

In the face of such an ideology, the international community must not lose its nerve. Any withdrawal from a political, military and even intellectual engagement will be seen by the Islamists as capitulation. Instead of leading to containment, it will only encourage even greater attempts at the expansion of power and influence of movements connected with this ideology. This has already caused and will continue to cause immense suffering to those who do not fit in with an Islamist worldview, including minorities of various kinds, emancipated women and Muslims with views different from those of the extremists. The independence of nations, the autonomy of communities, traditional devotional practices (such as those associated with Sufism) and “deviations” from the prescribed orthodoxy will all be threatened, even with regard to their very existence.

It is true that this ideology, and the movements associated with it, thrive on the grievances, sometimes genuine, which Muslims have, whether in Israel/Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya or the Balkans. Let there be no mistake, however, that the ideology exists not because of such grievances, but because of particular interpretations of Islam and what follows from them. There is a desire to purify the Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam) of all infidel influence and corruption. This means that the role of women must be greatly restricted, that non-Muslims must accept the inferior status of dhimmi (rather than that of fellow-citizens), if they are to survive at all and that even Muslim males must behave according to the dictates of the guardians of the ideology. The non-Muslim world (Dar al-Harb, the House of War) must be brought within the ideologues’ sphere of influence, whether through persuasion, accommodation by others of the extremists’ agenda or the fear of armed conflict.

The jihad, for these ideologies, cannot have the meaning of self-defence which so many moderates claim for it. It must extend not only to the recovery of the “Muslim lands” of Palestine, India, the Iberian peninsula, parts of the Far East and Central Asia and, indeed, many areas in Sub-Saharan Africa, but further than that, so that either through the dawa (the invitation to accept this version of Islam) or political and military means, more and more of the Dar al-Harb will become the Dar al-Islam. The fact that many Muslims do not share these aspirations, and may reject them, should not blind us to the reality that these Islamist ideologies do have them and are prepared to act on them.

The West’s (particularly Britain’s and America’s) involvement in Afghanistan (and to some extent also in Iraq) must be seen in the light of what has been said above. There should be no facile optimism that al-Qaeda has been disabled and no longer poses a credible threat to Western or other countries. It is perfectly possible, given the right conditions, for al-Qaeda to resume being a potent force. It is also the case that the ideology associated with this movement is producing mutant groups such as al-Shabab in Somalia.

Any abandonment of Afghanistan, at this stage, will create exactly the kind of chaos in which these movements flourish. It will bring about the conditions where the Taliban and its even worse allies will, once again, not only return the country to the darkest night, but also remove any incentive for Pakistan to engage with its own extremist groups, at least in the border areas. Al-Qaeda and its allies will recover their safe haven where they can regroup and plan whatever further atrocities they have in mind. Even in other parts of Pakistan, those extremist groups which were created by elements in the Pakistani military’s intelligence services to infiltrate Indian-held Kashmir will see this as an opportunity to consolidate themselves and to engage in activities not only against India but more widely, and, indeed, against the still-fragile democratic Pakistani government. Not only will al-Qaeda seek to attack Western and other targets but fresh oxygen will be given to those groups training people for terrorist activity in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is well known that their training and activity is not limited to South and Central Asia but that they are very capable of exporting extremism and terrorism by radicalising vulnerable young Western Muslims and using them in their own countries. It has been shown beyond doubt that Britain is particularly exposed in this matter.


Women in Kandahar province on International Women’s Day 

It is vital that Western people begin to appreciate that in a globalised and highly mobile world, their interests are not confined to their territorial borders and that “minding their doorsteps” is not enough. In today’s world, it would be foolish to be “a little Englander” or a “Monroe American”. Western interests have to be defended globally. Usually, this happens diplomatically and through negotiation, whether political or commercial. From time to time, however, the protection of Western interests acquires a “defence” or “military” dimension. It is true that through alliances, agreements and treaties enemies can sometimes be deterred and interests protected. Only occasionally will the defence of such interests require armed intervention. When it is required, however, there should be no flinching from the focused effort, expenditure and, indeed, sacrifice which may be needed.

In the past, the Christian just war tradition provided the moral criteria as to whether a conventional inter-state conflict was justified or not. Now that most such conflicts are likely to be non-conventional and will be undertaken to prevent genocide, to frustrate the attempts of terrorists to perpetrate atrocities or to provide regional security, can this tradition still provide the necessary criteria? I believe it can. It can certainly ask whether the intention is right and whether armed action is being considered as a last resort. For example, is the intention to remove palpable evil or merely to promote the extension of one’s advantage over others? Is there proper authority? This could be international authority, such as that of the UN, or a widely-based regional alliance or, indeed, it could be the authority of a nation-state, acting in self-defence, to repel or to pre-empt an attack on it. What about proper proportionality? This is much more difficult to judge: will the evil caused by the intervention exceed the evil it is seeking to remove? Here judgments need to be made not only about the immediate evil being caused but also the scale of possible harm, if the evil is left unchecked.

Similarly, in the conduct of hostilities questions about the protection of non-combatants, about proportionality and the treatment of prisoners have to be asked, even if it is acknowledged that terrorists sometimes deliberately use civilians as a shield for their atrocities and do not recognise mutual obligation. “Winning the peace” is now widely recognised as a necessary accompaniment to a conflict that may be justified. The rebuilding of a country, the restoration of power and water supplies, the maintenance of law and order are all responsibilities that can be expected in the event of success in such non-conventional types of conflict, as they previously were in the aftermaths of more conventional wars. Failure to deliver will certainly result in obscuring the moral case for the action. It may also have adverse political and social consequences. It would be terrible, for example, if Afghanistan were to be left in the ruins in which the West found it. The efforts, therefore, in physical and social reconstruction, in the provision of education, opportunity and employment are as vital as efforts to provide effective security. Such efforts are praiseworthy if carried out by the armed forces and delivered a bilateral basis. In an environment, however, where the armed services are under tremendous pressure to deliver basic security and where there is rampant corruption in the apparatus of state, surely it is vital to involve NGOs, including faith-based ones, in ways that respect their autonomy and do not compromise their integrity and credibility. There must certainly be joined-up thinking about objectives, but this does not mean that agencies should not have a certain amount of independence of action within a common framework.

Religious leaders are neither politicians nor military officers. Their task is not to decide when to undertake a particular mission of this kind and how it should be conducted. Their role is the much more modest one of praying and working for peace, of always asking whether any armed action being contemplated is a last resort and, in the end, reminding ministers and generals of the moral criteria to be used in their decision-making and in their operations. Naturally, there will be conflicts where the actions of one side or another or both will be characterised by injustice, cruelty or oppression. Such actions will need to be denounced by all who affirm basic human values and religious leaders will be among them but they should not seek to usurp what properly belongs to others. Rather, they should seek to pray, to guide, to warn and to encourage.

It is earnestly to be hoped that our decision-makers have taken these moral considerations into account in the conflict in South and Central Asia. If so, what should be the objectives of Western involvement there? These must include preventing Afghanistan and, now more and more, Pakistan from becoming a viable base for extremists bent on waging jihad against the West, its global interests and its allies. We should not forget that their aim is also to destabilise and if possible, overthrow moderate governments in the Islamic world itself. Never again should this area be allowed to become a base for the planning and execution of terrorist attacks in the West and elsewhere. It should be made impossible for the so-called madrassas to train young people from the West in terrorist activity against their own country and people. These must be the basic aims of involvement. The achievement of these aims depends very much on closely coordinated policy and action between the forces in Afghanistan and the Pakistani army. It must be understood clearly that the problems in Afghanistan will not be resolved if similar issues are not addressed on the other side of the border. I am glad this is beginning to happen, but there is a long way to go. It is perfectly reasonable to ask what Pakistan is doing, not only with regard to the Pakistani Taliban and other home-grown jihadi groups but against al-Qaeda itself.

It must be a legitimate aim of the involvement to protect the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan from the extremists’ barbarity. What the Taliban did in Afghanistan, when they were in power, is too well-known to need repetition. During their short-lived occupation, however, of the beautiful valley and people of Swat in north-west Pakistan, one of their “signatures” was the blowing up of a girls’ school which had been run by Christian nuns largely for the benefit of Muslim pupils and parents. It will not say much for a Western commitment to fundamental freedoms and basic human rights if women, girls and non-Muslims are consigned to virtual captivity just because electorates in the West are perceived not to have the stomach for a drawn-out conflict. The result of this intervention must be the empowerment of such groups and they cannot again be left at the mercy of extremists.

One of the reasons why so many in the population cannot cope with the casualties in the conflict is that there is no longer a common narrative within which people can place such tragedies and which can help them in making sense of the loss. A “me” culture of personal fulfilment and gratification leaves no room for service, selflessness and sacrifice. Although the US is enduring many of the same pressures being faced by Britain, it is instructive to see how, in many cases, the Judaeo-Christian tradition is still, if not intact, at least surviving there and how it provides a framework for making sense of loss.


Taliban fighters and their Russian-made weapons 

The other reason which is given most often for withdrawing from the conflict is that it is alienating Muslim opinion. We have seen already that the extremist agenda is not caused by various “grievances” in the Muslim world but it does feed on them. Generally speaking, Muslims have welcomed UN or Nato-led military interventions, as in Bosnia or Kosovo, when they have been undertaken to protect Muslim communities at risk. I cannot see, however, why such interventions are acceptable when Muslims are the oppressed party but unacceptable when it may be Muslims who are the oppressors (often of fellow-Muslims). We cannot have double standards here and, if armed intervention is to be allowed at all, there must be commonly-agreed criteria for it, regardless of whom it may protect or against whom it may be directed. One element in interfaith dialogue today must be about how different religious traditions see the justification (or not) of armed conflict. We have noted what the Christian Just War theory has to say about it. Is it possible for the notion of jihad, for example, to be removed from extremist rhetoric so that Muslims can use it to reach agreement with Christians and others about the conditions under which armed intervention may be justified? Such agreement, or even convergence, would be of great assistance to the international community when it comes to making difficult decisions about particular cases.

Finally, the conflict in Afghanistan must be seen as one directed against radicalisation of the region as a whole. We have seen its implications for Pakistan already. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has had its own brand of Shia radicalism, which shows no signs of abating in spite of international pressure and internal dissent. China must take serious account of its own western flank and the increasing dangers of extremism in Xinjiang province. India, obviously, has an interest in making sure that it is not destabilised because of the situation in its neighbourhood. In this connection, it may be worth saying that a final settlement of the Kashmir dispute seems to be in everyone’s interests: India would gain security from militant groups seeking to infiltrate not only its part of Kashmir but more widely than that. The Pakistani army would be released from its eastern front and able to redeploy against extremists in the west and north. This would also assist Afghanistan and the international forces in making sure that militants under pressure on one side of the border do not flee to the other. With the dangers of militancy removed, there is also a greater chance for a semblance at least of democracy to emerge in the new Central Asian republics. These are important gains and we must not lose sight of them.

We have argued, therefore, for a comprehensive strategy against militancy and for pacification on both sides of the Durand Line. The involvement of the international community in Afghanistan must lead to a strong civil society and the rule of law. Women should be emancipated, young girls given the opportunity for education and for freedom of belief and expression to be promoted. There should be a credible government at both the centre and in the provinces that does not tolerate corruption. In particular, there should be an effective policy against drugs that does not penalise the farmers but makes it impossible for extremists to finance themselves by means of an illicit trade in drugs.

All of this is achievable. What is required, most of all, is the will to deliver and a commitment for the medium-term which will not be vulnerable to shifting sands of popular opinion, especially at election time.

At last, Barack Obama has decided to send in more American troops to secure crucial areas of Afghanistan, including leading cities such as Kandahar, from attack and occupation.  British and some other Nato forces will also be augmented. However belated, this decision is to be welcomed and will reassure many in Afghanistan and Pakistan who have been waiting anxiously for it.

Obama is, of course, engaged in a careful balancing act. On the one hand, he has vital US interests, at home and abroad, to consider; on the other, his vociferous and influential anti-war lobby. It seems that the announcement of an exit strategy at the same time as the increase in troop numbers is part of this attempt to keep everyone happy.  As has been pointed out, however, this is very dangerous.  It gives the Taliban a date when the pressure on them will begin to decrease and they will, therefore, be able to plan for increased activity. It will further demoralise anti-Taliban Afghan groups and also those in Pakistan who have been arguing for an anti-extremist policy in that country. The temptation for Pakistan and other regional powers to make a deal with the Taliban will increase.

It should be said clearly that any increase in Taliban influence and control, whether in Pakistan or Afghanistan, will not only mean that the security situation in the region deteriorates further, but it will also directly or indirectly affect Western interests. It will, once again, be possible to harbour those who plan to terrorise the West and also to train those from Western countries wishing to pursue their extremist agenda in the West. Last but not least, it will mean returning significant sections of the population in the region to captivity, cruelty and barbarism.

It would have been enough to have said that the US and its allies would leave only “when the job is done” but that they would increase efforts to hand over security matters to properly trained Afghan troops as soon as possible, without mentioning any dates, even if these are only about the beginnings of a withdrawal and even if they are conditional on the security situation as it is then. in the west and north. This would also assist Afghanistan and the international forces in making sure that militants under pressure on one side of the border do not flee to the other. With the dangers of militancy removed, there is also a greater chance for a semblance at least of democracy to emerge in the new Central Asian republics. These are important gains and we must not lose sight of them.

Hazara tribesmen walk past the empty seat of the Buddha statue, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001