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A Mission Fraught With Peril

By Scott Gillette



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The recent and overwhelming chain of events that have changed the world forever began in the hearts of terrorists, and then moved to flight schools and nondescript motels in Florida. They climaxed in the wanton destruction of a major component of the financial capital of the world. Now this odyssey with an uncertain ending moves to one of the most forbidding places on the planet.

The contrast between New York City and Afghanistan could not be starker. Downtown New York was and still is a brash, cosmopolitan celebration of humankind’s achievements and our ability to be our masters of our own destiny, an Enlightenment idea if there ever was one. Moreover, the World Trade Center Towers represented the symbol and substance of commerce and world markets, and the idea that Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction will provide a better life for future generations.

Afghanistan’s medieval condition, in contrast, is a byproduct of a society’s breakdown. The totalitarian instincts of the Taliban exist and thrive in order to replace a festering chaos: nature abhors a vacuum. When mankind fails and lives fall apart, societies turn to a God or gods that are dark and unforgiving, a reflection of souls resigned to the world’s suffering, whose only consolation is that an uncompromising militancy in this world will be rewarded in the next one. This is the nature of the Taliban.

The Taliban was founded by a village preacher named Mullah Mohammed Omar, with help from religious schools in Pakistan. It's foot soldiers were refugees from the 1979-1989 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Homeless, penniless, and distraught young men who have seen their worlds crumble were open to the structure that the Taliban provided them. Successive years of civil war made the overthrow of the government in 1996 possible, and for the Taliban to assume power. As bad as the Taliban has been, especially for women, the government provided Islamic law in place of the anarchy that previously existed. In Afghanistan and everywhere else, suffering and helplessness are the parents of extremism.

A nonexistent infrastructure and a resilient opposition limit the raw power that the Taliban wields over Afghanistan. Still, its all-encompassing ideology breeds fervor in both internal and external matters. The Taliban no doubt sees itself as a shining beacon of hope for its distinctive type of Islam in a world being devoured by infidels. This is why it accepted and welcomed the support of Osama bin Laden.

Osama bin Laden is in many respects more powerful than the Taliban. He stands as a preeminent symbol of militant resistance to the West, unencumbered by the responsibilities of government. Bin Laden’s daughter is married to Mullah Omar, the founder and leader of the Taliban movement, and he looks to bin Laden for financial and military assistance. Abdullah bin Saad al-Otaibi, a former high-ranking diplomat to Afghanistan, stated recently "bin Laden holds greater power than the Taliban and that’s why the movement cannot hand him to the United States. In fact, Osama bin Laden has more authority than any defense minister in the world." Clearly, the Taliban has been hoisted by its own petard, as its support from bin Laden leaves them with no room to maneuver.

In many ways, Osama bin Laden is the most unlikely martyr on the planet. A Saudi rich kid, he spent much of his early adulthood in Beirut getting drunk and occasionally getting into bar fights. He is a megalomaniac and unconcerned about distinguishing the innocent from the guilty, as his taped address clearly demonstrated. Moreover, he is reportedly an opium addict and has condoned the ugly activities of his troops from gratuitous torture techniques to gang rape. But his success can be attributed to three factors: bin Laden provided financial resources in a country with none; he crafted an image of heroism and sacrifice that vastly exceeds the reality of his character; most importantly, he maintained an uncompromising hostility towards the West, whose dominance over the Islamic world has been definitive for several centuries now and shows no signs of letting up.

Andrew Sullivan, who wrote the brilliant "This Is a Religious War"  in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, points out correctly that the vast majority of Muslim thought and believers do not condone or sympathize with terrorism. The Muslim faith is a benevolent one, and it is proper, and not politically correct, to point out this fact. Moreover, Christianity has a dark past that is in some ways worse than Islam. Still, Islam contains a germ of merciless violence against intruders and nonbelievers that spurred the violence of September 11th.

Whether this intolerant strain of Islam is unique to that faith’s historical pedigree, or whether all monotheistic faiths contain within them a capacity for cruelty that makes secular humanism a more attractive alternative are open questions. (This writer would answer no to both questions, although these subjects cannot be addressed adequately here.) Yet Sullivan cannot be argued with when he states, "This surely is a religious war – but not against Islam versus Christianity and Judaism. Rather, it is a war of fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity."

This fundamentalism makes any military engagement in Afghanistan fraught with peril. Many political and military leaders within the Taliban undoubtedly wish that they had reconsidered their ties to bin Laden in the past, and may be willing to jump ship now that the tide has turned against them. However, one must not underestimate the willingness of many members to the Taliban to choose to perish in a holy war over expediency or even their survival. The will of the ground troops, the present mujahadeen, is even more strident and certain.

Bombing may not be effective because there is no infrastructure to bomb. Attacks are not much of a threat to soldiers and civilians who have known nothing else. The threat of physical injury means nothing to individuals who are driven by religious zeal. Any American military superiority is undermined by the difficulty in navigating the incredibly harsh terrain of a country the size of Texas. Finding Osama bin Laden may prove to be maddening beyond belief.

The Northern Alliance, whose government impressed nobody when it was in power between 1992-1996, may be unable or unwilling to control Afghanistan. It is conceivable that the Taliban falls and the eastern half of the country turns into fiefdoms, but Osama bin Laden remains at large in the western half of the country. The terrorist movement will only grow in strength in response to the newest "Western crusade." This entire mission is fraught with peril.

Hopefully the relief aid to the Afghanis will win over much of the population, the Taliban will fall quickly. Hopefully, Osama bin Laden will be captured or killed, and the Northern Alliance and other political groups in Afghanistan will rule effectively. Hopefully, global terrorism will be minimized and snuffed out, and the clash of civilizations will be averted. Unfortunately, there is little justification for such optimism at this time.


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