Out of Afghanistan?

To defeat the Islamists in Afghanistan, we should learn how to divide and rule. We must pursue a number of policies that may seem contradictory. First, we should strengthen the royalists, the republicans, and the nationalists not just at the center in Kabul but in the areas where they enjoy the most support: among the ethnic groups, tribes, and clans. Setting the tribes against one another and against various Islamic radicals, reformers, and nationalists formed the basis of Britain’s colonial policy in Afghanistan. Self-paralysis of the Afghans meant safety for the Empire’s policy there. Missing from my list is the liberal democratic orientation as it is naturally absent at this stage of Afghanistan’s development. First things first. We should get rid of the Islamists and, ideally, restore a modernizing monarchy. Then other good things will follow. Inshallah.

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By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz l June 27, 2017

“America’s longest war” cries out for a suggestion of a way out. Here’s one. Let us use non-jihadi Muslims to eliminate the Islamist jihadis. This would entail enabling forces at local, regional, and national levels inimical to the ideology and practice of Islamism. We can deploy this strategy successfully if we realize that the Islamists are interested primarily in the control of the state, in particular at the moment the Taliban, mostly Pashtun, radicalized in Saudi funded Wahhabi madrasas of the Pakistani refugee camps, and their Al Queda and related allies and enablers. Their detractors either compete with them for the command of the state or are suspicious and even inimical to it. This reality is quite obscured by the current convergence of most Afghani forces in the jihadist camp, which reflects not so much the Islamist predilections of most of the contenders but the persistence of Afghanistan’s ongoing holy war, the jihad.

No Reason for Jihad

Practically the only way to put paid to jihad in Afghanistan is for non-Muslim foreigners to leave. Then the Afghans take care of themselves, i.e., the theological grounds for jihad are no more; they simply fight among themselves until a viable power configuration emerges. Sometimes it is a king; sometimes it is a religious order (e.g., Sufi or Taliban); and most of the time a collection of warlords bound by a tacit agreement of a love-hate relationship: you leave my dominion alone, and I shall do the same for you. Usually, it is a combination of above factors. This is what the history of Afghanistan suggests.

Theoretically, of course, one could disagree with the lessons of the past and conjure up an a priori, abstract solution. For example, let us suggest stopping the jihadis by democide: killing all Muslims there. Why such an extreme solution? The jihadis are like fish; they need an ocean to swim in. Even if the Muslim ocean does not share the political goals of the Islamists, it shelters them or, at least, it allows them to camouflage themselves within its depths. They draw strength from among its elements; and they are a part of its Muslim cultural aura, a segment of an all-embracing community, the umma, joined by the universalism of the sharia. Therefore, barring legitimate concerns about the radioactive fallout, a nuclear holocaust would be probably the most efficient way to get rid of the jihadis. The by-product would be unfortunately a mass murder of the inhabitants of Afghanistan. Hopefully, this Swiftian provocation has you riveted now.

Terrorists or Muslims?

Since we are neither Nazis nor Communists, we not only refuse to consider such an apocalyptic option, but we are indeed repulsed by it. Yet, both Muslims and non-Muslims continue to harbor a perception that all within the umma essentially appear as one: Muslims. That includes the Islamists. It is mostly an unspoken presumption of a majority of the non-Muslims. Publicly, we declare something different altogether, however. Political correctness dictates that we insist that the Islamists, Salafist, Jihadists, and Caliphatists are “not true Muslims.” They allegedly have nothing to do with Islam. Yet, if Islam enjoys no central authority and it is divided into myriad sects and mutations within both the Sunni and Shia orientations, then what is the orthodoxy here?
Who decides who is orthodox? Indeed, who is orthodox? Why would your imam, alim, or pir be better than mine? This, incidentally, is the grounds for the persistent civil war within Islam, a sanguinary conflict that has raged since the death of their Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century.

Other than a nuclear strike or wishful thinking, is there a way to separate the wheat from the chaff? Can we distill the non-jihadi Muslims from the jihadists? Yes, we can, but we must first leave Afghanistan so as to remove the conditions for the persistence of the jihad. Once we are invisible there, we can manipulate the situation, directly and indirectly, with the help of our special forces, intelligence operators, select diplomats and their native collaborators at the local, regional, and national level. In other words, we can get the Muslims to fight other Muslims.

Muslim Collaborators

Aside from the usual suspects eager for our money, there will be also others. Likewise, happy to accept our funds, rather than out of mercenary motives only, those collaborators will share our animosity toward the Islamists. There are at least nine kinds of potential collaborators we can enlist.

First, the dissident Islamists have quarreled with the mainstream, dominant Islamists. Usually, the split stems from some tactical differences and, even more often, the personalities of their leaders. Second, there will be minority Islamists, who resent the mainstream Islamists for tribal reasons (e.g., Uzbek vs. Pashtun or Baluch vs. foreign fighter multi-ethnic Islamists). Sometimes the first and second categories of dissident/minority Islamist overlap.

The third group of enemies of the Salafists are the royalists, who also vie with them for the control of the state. The royalists tend to be allied with the fourth group, the traditional aristocracy, previously strong in the countryside, which, however, like the monarchists, were greatly weakened under the Soviet and native-Communist rule. Fifth, secular republicans and post-Communists, both post-Stalinists and post-Maoist, would like to seize the command of the state to introduce their brand of modernization in opposition to the Islamists. In particular, nationalism in any form (including military socialism or national bolshevism) is a grave challenge to Islamism.

The Tribal and Traditional

Then, sixth, there are plenty of non-Pashtun ethnic groups who, during the Soviet occupation either developed a distinct identity or greatly strengthened it. They oppose not only the traditional political leadership, which, whether monarchist, republican, or post-Communist, tended to be Pashtun. For similar, tribal reasons, the minority ethnic groups also oppose the Islamists. The non-Pashtuns fear centralization and, hence, the state. They enjoy the self-sufficiency or, at least, neglect bred by the war and disorder.

Paradoxically, seventh, the majority Pashtun can be turned against the jihadis, if the former continue to adhere to the tribal model. In fact, re-tribalization is the key to weaning the Pashtuns away from the Taliban and other jihadis. This is because tribal law and custom, in particular Pashtunwali, are particularist devices that tend to override in everyday importance the universalism of the sharia.

Eight, the strengthening or the restoration of traditional social structures at the local level shall weaken the Islamists. There are the maliks and khans, provincial officials, village elders, and community mediators between the local population and the state bureaucracy. Each prominent man in his locality takes care of his immediate social group (qawm). According to astute French scholar Olivier Roy, qawm is a “communal group, whose sociological basis may vary. It may be a clan (in tribal zones), a village, an ethnic group, an extended family, [or] a professional group.”

The Qawm

In many instances, the roles of the local civilian leaders were appropriated by lower level Mujahedeen commanders already during the Soviet occupation. They are jealous of their new/old prerogatives and want to retain them. They will resist any regime that should attempt to reduce or eliminate their power by either restoring the old system or by introducing a new one that would exclude them.

Where the khans and maliks survived or returned to reclaim their role of running and representing the qawm, they display similar attitudes toward the state. They will cooperate only if they are sufficiently bribed by Kabul without permitting serious expansion of the state influence in their bailiwicks. They also resent any universalist intrusions into their particular environment, and that includes by any ideology, the Islamist one for example. In fact, ideologies, like anything modern, are usually associated with urban life and greatly mistrusted in the countryside.

Further, the khans and maliks tolerate and countenance basic religious services by their local, unversed mullahs, whose social standing is rather low. However, the local leaders are rather suspicious of the educated ulema, the scholars of law, who tend to originate from towns, with their universalist message of the sharia, if their interloping is perceived to threaten the particularism of the qawm and its local custom.

Fundamentalists vs Islamists?

And, ninth, perhaps shockingly and counterintuitively for some, the fundamentalists can be enemies of the Islamists. The fundamentalists are the traditional ulema, the scholars of law. The fundamentalists can also be Sufi masters (pir), who may or may not be also simultaneously ulema. Although they usually share many features in common with the Islamists, including chiefly their insistence on the primacy of the sharia, the fundamentalists are not primarily focused on the state but, instead, they are interested in the Muslim community (umma). They are rather content, if they are left in charge of the community and if the state does not interfere with their fundamentalist grip on the community. If the state eschews regulating the non-governmental dimension of the society, the ulema are happy to develop a modus vivendi and even to bless the regime periodically.

They prefer for the state to be ruled by a pious ruler, but they can live with a less than perfect sovereign, or even an indifferent leader, who does not stray actively too far away from Islam. The ulema detest atheists and apostates in power, but they also hate Muslim intellectuals, who usurp the prerogatives of the traditional, fundamentalist ulema.

And many leading Islamists are not of the ulema. They tend to be intellectuals: engineers, doctors, and others, who have taken up Islam as their vehicle to square their Muslim identity with the requirements of modernity and the challenges of the West stemming from it. The ulema usually hate modernity as predicated on innovation (Arabic: bid’ah, Urdu: bidat). And innovation is a sin (haram). Thus, essentially, for the fundamentalist ulema the Islamists can be haram. The scholars of law and other fundamentalist leaders can be prevailed upon to issue appropriate damning rulings (fatwa) against the Islamists.

Political Warfare

We have our work cut out for us. We have political warfare to do. To defeat the Islamists in Afghanistan, we should learn how to divide and rule. We must pursue a number of policies that may seem contradictory. First, we should strengthen the royalists, the republicans, and the nationalists not just at the center in Kabul but in the areas where they enjoy the most support: among the ethnic groups, tribes, and clans. We should observe which orientation turns most viable and allocate more resources its way.

Meanwhile, at the lowest level, we should re-tribalize by strengthening the tribes, the clans, and, especially, the qawm. We can also enable the ulema against the Islamists by assisting fundamentalist madrasas, ribat, and other centers based on the Afghan tradition (e.g., Hanafi vs Hanbali law schools; and Sufi vs. Wahhabi sects). That would entail countering the Saudi influence: both state and private (religious tax driven – [zakat]). In other words, we should encourage hyper-plurality.

All this should be a no-brainer. Setting the tribes against one another and against various Islamic radicals, reformers, and nationalists formed the basis of Britain’s colonial policy in Afghanistan. Self-paralysis of the Afghans meant safety for the Empire’s policy there.

Before the neo-conservatives raise a ruckus, I admit freely: Missing from my list is the liberal democratic orientation as it is naturally absent at this stage of Afghanistan’s development, a few lovely individuals notwithstanding. First things first. We should get rid of the Islamists and, ideally, restore a modernizing monarchy. Then other good things will follow. Inshallah.


Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is author of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas and teaches a seminar on the history of the Muslim world at Patrick Henry College. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the Online-Conservative-Journalism Center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.