Skip to content

Afghanistan: Ghanners Debate 101

October 23, 2009

Firstly, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, TGIF. Seriously. Its been a long one.


In the past few weeks debate has been foaming on both sides of the Atlantic on the next direction of US (or should I say NATO) policy in Afghanistan. As Barack is pondering whether or not to send 40,000 more young Americans over – which we most probably won’t know the answer to until the outcomes of the second round of voting are clear and Hamid-what-a-disappointment-Karzia has been ceremonially anointed as a legitimate ‘partner’ – debates have focused on the elephant in the room: What is the point of ‘us’ continuing to be there in the first place?

Well, besides the other reasons put forth to explain and justify a continued NATO mission in Ghanners (state building, democracy, women’s rights and, oh I don’t know, that thing that apparently only ever happened in history, geopolitical strategy), the main rationale for the war has been the fight against Al-Qaeda, terrorism and extremism.

Lets take some examples of the debate.

Johan Hari from the UK’s Independent takes serious issue with this rationale, arguing that there are less than 100 Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, that they launched their attacks on The West from The West, and that

“Even if – and this is highly unlikely – you could plug every hole in the Afghan state’s authority and therefore make it possible to shut down every camp, there are a dozen other failed states they can scuttle off to the next day and pitch some more tents.”

But Peter Bergan at the New America Foundation argues that:

“… those who make this case could not be more mistaken. Afghanistan and the areas of Pakistan that border it have always been the epicenter of the war on jihadist terrorism–and, at least for the foreseeable future, they will continue to be. Though it may be tempting to think otherwise, we cannot defeat Al Qaeda without securing Afghanistan.”

He presents entirely different ‘facts’ from Hari, and states that all of the attacks on the West happened only because Al-Qaeda had a safe haven under the Taliban. He goes on to press home the argument that the two are, in reality, indistinguishable and one of the same: “Today, at the leadership level, the Taliban and Al Qaeda function more or less as a single entity.” Hari argues the opposite: “There are plenty of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan – but they are a different matter to al-Qa’ida.

Despite some seriously dubious bits of evidence and some even more dubious reverse reasoning (e.g. AQ taught the Taliban how to make IED’s, therefore the two are linked, and since they are linked by this undeniable fact, we can’t prevent terror attacks on American soil without destroying the Taliban), even if you are a Hari-lover skeptic, I’d still advise reading Bergan’s hawk-eyed piece.

But read this too: A report from Foreign Policy suggests that there is a split between the Taliban and AQ leadership “and the online jihadi community is in an uproar, with some calling these developments “the beginning of the end of relations” between the two movements.”

Apparently the Taliban’s  Mullar Omar started the row by stating that the movement is a “robust Islamic and nationalist movement,” which “wants to maintain good and positive relations with all neighbors based on mutual respect.” He wanted to “assure all countries that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan … will not extend its hand to jeopardize others, as it itself does not allow others to jeopardize us.” A week later, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, one of the most influential living Salafi jihadi ideologues, released an angry rebuke to these “dangerous utterances” of the Taliban amir. He argued that all the Islamic movements were one of the same, and that the Taliban (and Hizbullah and Hamas for that matter) were seriously undermining their bond by acting like nationalist movements as a posed to pan-Islamic, caliphate building global movements.

Guerrilla movements which have received outside support have always been at pains to stress that they are nationalistic, because their national constituencies don’t like the fact that outsiders are intervening in their domestic struggles. It’s just not good politics. For example Che Guevara’s travelling band of Cuban revolutionaries often went to great lengths to deny their presence whilst overseas for this very reason.

It’s important because if the Taliban is posturing itself as a national movement seeking to redress national issues it means that it may be posturing itself to be seen as more accommodating movement that the Americans (and equally important the Pakistanis) can make a deal with.

As Obama Hamlet wonders whether to surge or not to surge, these developments will have a bearing. Watch this space.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: