George Will's column calling on the US to withdraw forces from Afghanistan and rely on smart strikes using drones, cruise missiles and special forces insertions, reopens a now old debate about the tactics we should be using in the War on Terror. Will's approach would revert the US back to before the days of the Bush Administration when smart strikes were used for a series of attacks that accomplished absolutely nothing. It might be possible to use "offshore" bombing to end the Taliban, but it would not involve smart and limited attacks, but dumb and massive ones that would kill a sizable portion of Afghanistan's non-urban tribal population. That is something not even the Soviet Union was fully prepared to commit to. It is not likely that any US administration would.
Drones and precision strikes have not fundamentally altered the nature of war. They allow the US to extend its reach, but that godlike illusion cannot actually accomplish anything useful without being able to know the location of your targets. And having eyes in the sky is nowhere near as good as having boots on the ground. Having flying sniper rifles in the sky will not end or even seriously damage the terrorist threat. The Clinton Administration, which was roughly three times as energized about fighting terrorism as the current administration is, demonstrated that.
Smart strikes are a military variation on smart power. What they have in common is the smug illusion that people sitting in D.C. office buildings can control events thousands of miles away without putting anyone or anything at risk. And neither of them substitute for the blunt ugly reality of an occupation force on the ground.
The key advantage of occupation is that it actually puts troops into a position to counter the enemy and bar him from the country's centers of power. The current US tactics may make it unlikely that we will destroy the Taliban, but in turn it makes it impossible for the Taliban and their allies to seize power or operate freely in strategic parts of Afghanistan. By invading Afghanistan and Iraq, the US successfully put its enemies on the defensive, consuming resources that they would have otherwise used for offensive operations. That is the fundamental difference between the US occupation and the Soviet one. The Soviets were motivated by expansionism, the US seeks to keep its enemies on the defensive and at bay.
But that is a modest goal and one we have paid a dear price for. Will isn't entirely wrong about the trajectory of the war. He simply has no useful solution to the problem. The US strategy has replicated too much of the Soviet strategy in Afghanistan, but has avoided alienating Afghan tribes and warlords to the extent that the USSR did, and the Taliban are not receiving the kind of counterinsurgency aid that the Mujaheddin received from the US and various other countries. But Obama's Afghan surge parallels Gorbachev's surge as a desperate attempt to quickly wrap up the problem and leave. Unlike Iraq though, we have failed to build up a credible Afghan military, and Afghanistan's democracy is simply another alliance of warlords, loosely allied with us. The Taliban can take a beating and outwait us. And it is unlikely that Americans will be prepared to patrol Afghanistan for a generation, which is the least it would take to turn the page on the Taliban for good. And yet any US withdrawal that leaves behind the Taliban will allow them to claim victory over the US.
What is the answer then? Every problem has a solution, some solutions are simply too difficult or expensive to implement. Many fall short of offering a comprehensive solution that resolves the problem, because the problem has never been stated. The US nation building project in Afghanistan is one solution, but it is a very limited solution at best. And like most limited solutions it is the product of misunderstanding the nature of the problem. And the problem is one whose name we dare not speak. Islam.
The Taliban were not the product of Afghanistan. They were the product of Pakistani Islamic Madrassas. Those Madrassas, schools of Islamic study, were themselves the product of the Partition of India into Hindu and Muslim states, and the rule of General Zia ul Haq who used the Madrassas to generate an army of guerrillas and terrorists to fight in Afghanistan... with the backing of the Carter and Reagan administrations. The Soviet invasion destabilized Afghanistan, and US backed guerrillas helped push out the Soviets, creating an opening for an Islamic militia like the Taliban to seize power.
But virtually every Muslim country or country with a sizable Muslim population has a group like the Taliban waiting in the wings, to bring "true Islamic reforms" to the corrupt political culture. It is why Al Queda has a global foothold. More importantly, it is why Europe, America, Israel and so many other lands suffer from terrorism in the first place. Islam is a militant religion. Its devotees will always rediscover the idea that all problems would be solved if only every Muslim and non-Muslim country were ruled under Islamic law, and will repeatedly take up arms to make it so.
That is exactly the situation we face with Islam. Understanding that means understanding the War on Terror. Misunderstanding that means treating Islamic terrorism as a regional cultural and political problem that needs to be resolved in one single place. And that is why ultimately Afghanistan is itself nothing more than a large scale version of "Whack a Mole". We have interdicted many of the Islamic terrorist factions responsible for attacking us in the first place, but those same factions are taking root domestically because of our own growing Muslim populations. With enough Madrassas in America and Europe, Pakistan and Afghanistan will simply become relay points in a war fought on our own home soil. And if you doubt that it can happen, take a closer look at France or Israel. Because it can and given time, it will.
The enemy is not simply the Taliban, it is the ideology of Islam itself. Our attempts to fight against it have been band aid approaches that rely on propping up more secular regimes and trying to stabilize destabilized regions such as Afghanistan to avoid Islamic takeovers, all the while promoting some pipe dream of a moderate Islam in our own home countries. This is the same kind of Smart Power that got us into this mess in the first place.
But how do you fight an ideology? When the USSR made a deal with Nazi Germany, they claimed that "Isms" could not be fought. And indeed Isms are not easy to fight. Nazi Germany could be defeated, but Nazism has survived. The Soviet Union fell, but Communism has not gone away. But unlike Islam, they have not become a major terrorist threat. There are a number of reasons for this.
First, the fall of Nazi Germany and the USSR destroyed the ideal embodiments of Nazism and Communism. Neither ideology has ever really recovered from that, and the number of their adherents dropped sharply and have mostly channeled their energies into empty grandstanding or into working from inside the political system to seize power. Islam has not suffered a similar defeat for nearly a century. For the Shiites, the fall of Iran might serve a similar function. For the Sunnis, no standing country embodies those virtues. The Taliban came closest, and for as long as the Taliban continue to fight, the idea of an ongoing struggle persists. Like Communism and Nazism, Islamism's adherents have also moved into working from within the system, but only as a twin to an armed strategy.
Thirdly, while Communism and Nazism were urban industrial ideologies developed by Western intellectuals with the intention of creating industrialized superstates, Islam is pre-industrial and tribal. While the final Islamic goal may be a global Caliphate, the military tactics favor updated versions of nomadic raids, the key form of warfare by the Taliban, and internal infiltration in urban areas. When Nazism and Communism's superstates collapsed, the implementation of their ideology collapsed as well. Islam however is tribal and Islamism can be implemented in a handful of villages, as the Taliban demonstrated.
Fourthly, Islam is religious, and political religion exists at a much deeper cultural level than any secular political ideology can. Where political ideologies need a political structure to control or plot control of, Islam can remain dormant with only Mosques and Korans to perpetuate itself, like insects hibernating in winter, before emerging in spring bent on conquest again. Religion is taught universally and functions as the fabric of a community, beyond question, and participation in which is the price of communal membership.
Now let's look at what all these mean. The first, third and fourth conditions mean that Islam is far more decentralized, which in turn makes it much harder to suppress or destroy. The fourth condition means that as a religion it is deeply embedded, it is part of the structure of cultures and communities. The second condition means that Islam in non-Muslim countries must inevitably turn to violence as both a military and political tactic. What does all that tell us about winning the War on Terror?
It means that Islam has to be fought not just on a military level, but on a political and cultural level. Deislamization has to be the guiding approach abroad, and especially at home. Islam's cultural roots mean that it has to be resisted and uprooted at a cultural level. Bombing terrorist bases while leaving intact the Madrassas which educate and create a new generation of terrorists is a senseless waste of time that will accomplish nothing. Promoting Deislamization abroad, while throwing the Mosque gates open at home, only ushers in a new wave of terror at home.
Fighting a War on Islam means making a careful study of the structures and ways in which Islam is sustained and promoted, particularly on higher education for Muslim religious scholars and on the ways in which the dilettante sons of wealthy Muslim families become entangled in such projects. The Muslim religious school trains the terrorists of tomorrow and imbues them with dreams of creating a new Islamic reality. The boys and men who study in them and then go on to higher learning as Imams and Mullahs, form the core of Islamic terrorist ideology. The Mosque serves as the base for any Muslim community, particularly abroad where the Muslim preacher can incite violence. The Koran serves as the manual for terrorism in the name of an ideal Islamic world order. In order of importance, these are the real commanders and bases of the enemy. To the extent that they are pushed back, weakened, uprooted or destroyed-- we will have peace. To the extent that they prosper and spread, we will have nothing but war.
The Future of the War on Terror is a War on Islam, because Islam has declared war on us. The debates over tactics in Afghanistan ignore the large reality that the Taliban are not an isolated phenomenon, they are what expanding Islam will always produce. While we chop away at the branches, the seeds of terror grow in our own soil waiting to sprout.
The War against Islam will have to be fought more on a cultural and political level, than on a military level, because that is where the roots dig deep into the rotten soil. That will require a whole other kind of global alliance, an alliance of cultures and religions threatened by Islam, around the world. It will require cooperation between Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and many others as well. It will involve distributing the truth about Islam, countering Islam's political gains with strong anti-Muslim activist coalitions and shutting Islamic organizations out of the political process and away from their attempts at mainstreaming Islam. Much of this is already underway today. But far beyond that it will require deporting Imams who preach anything but good citizenship, shuttering mosques and madrassas and halting and even reversing Islamic immigration.
We know who the enemy is. It is not simply the terrorists lurking at their base camps, it is the cleric in Al Azhar University who signs off on a Fatwa that legitimizes murdering our people. That cleric is a much better target than the terrorists, because the cleric provides the ideology that creates Islamic terrorism in the first place. If we are to use "Smart Strikes", than let us be really smart about it by making sure that we do not waste time striking at a tentacle of the octopus, when we can strike at the head instead.
The War on Terror will not end by entering a bunker and finding the "Leader of Terrorism" dead. Islamic terrorism has no leader, it has motivation. Breaking Islam of its enthusiasm for power and expansionism is the only way we will win. Victory is possible. The only question is do we want it badly enough.