Scott Corey writes a guest op-ed for IC:
The Afghanistan debate is mired in the very shortcomings that have kept us from doing well there up to now. We need a qualitative shift of policy, but we dither about metrics and troop levels. We ask ourselves if we should “get out” as if there is somewhere to go that is out of range. Meanwhile, our enemies control the political meaning of everything we do. We need to take that control away from them, and that requires us to know our world, our enemy, and this struggle.
Today, power is so diffuse that empire and isolation are equally dead. Control of information, money, natural resources, and ideological persuasiveness all move parts of the political world. Still, all of it hangs on a framework of formal authority residing in a collection of states that wield force, legitimacy, representation, and diplomacy.
Terrorism prospers in the complexity of this political world. Political identity is no longer simple and fixed, so friend and enemy are hard to know. If I hit you, we fight, because the enmity is clear. If I coerce you with weapons, you might be intimidated or you might defy me, but the choice is clear. However, if I kill someone else in a spectacular manner, you need to know why before you can react. My cause might be just. My enemy might be your enemy. Or I might be coming for you and yours if you take the wrong path.
So “terrorist” is not just a dirty word for your enemy. Terrorism exists and has character that can be understood and fought. Using violence to raise uncertainty in an audience is terrorism. It earns the terrorist the authority to relieve that uncertainty about who will be killed and why. Making “war” on terrorism is usually just an attempt to build authoritarian power on the back of someone else’s atrocities. If the terrorist is demonic, the pretended savior can claim to justify methods drawn from “the dark side.”
Terrorism is strong because it is indirect. It appears to attack one group in order to persuade a different group. On the other hand, terrorism is weak because it is so often hypocritical. In the French Revolution, the vast majority of guillotine victims were commoners executed as “aristocrats.” In the Algerian Revolution, the bombings mostly killed Arab Muslims in the name of evicting French colonialism. The audience really is the victim, but does not see that truth.
Thus, terrorism (from above or from below) is different from ordinary coercion because it depends less upon credible threats than viable lies. It gets away with these lies because the terrorist establishes control over what people think the violence means. This control can be so strong that it dominates the thinking of friend and foe alike. It took 200 years of research to reveal that the French Revolution was not a class war.
This is where we are in Afghanistan and the struggle with Muslim radicalism generally. Muslim terrorists are seeking a level of authority over Islam that no one has exercised since the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims die from Muslim radical violence in vastly greater numbers than do Americans. All the ramblings about destroying the West or creating a global caliphate are just background noise. The biggest debate al Qaeda ever had was whether to attack the US at all.
That attack on America transformed a band of fewer than 400 militants into global rebels because the US embraced the imperial role al Qaeda cut out for us. Yet there is no serious, ongoing attempt to overthrow the West. The true goal of the radicals is shown in the brutal rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Swat region of Pakistan. It showed itself in parts of Iraq controlled by the al Qaeda affiliate there.
No movement of US troops (or drones) into or out of Central Asia will help in this struggle as long as the radicals control what our coming and going means to the Islamic world. If we stay we are imperialist, if we leave we are defeated. To succeed, we must take control of the meaning of the struggle.
The only viable posture is a self-limited commitment. This is a struggle within Islam. We are useful victims, and we have a right to hit back. But we are neither the political audience, nor the group that will most suffer under the rule of Muslim radicalism if it wins. Our military power can only be effective if it is explicitly expeditionary, not imperial. We must say that, and prove it, at every opportunity.
Promise Afghanistan two years of major combat support. Proud local rebels who only want us out need only wait – no point in being killed over the inevitable. If the radicals want to come after us without a recruiting pool in the Afghan villages, they are welcome to take the unreplaced casualties. The Afghan government has two years to be viable, or it will be thrown to the wolves, and Afghanistan will revert to the status of international shooting gallery. In the meantime, the better it does, the better we do.
Such a posture is credible. We were deeply involved in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and we left then, and we are leaving Iraq now. It is sustainable, because it matches how the American public sees our legitimate use of force in the world. It makes our point about who we are and what the terrorists really want, no matter how well Kabul fares down the road. It puts our allies on notice – we can give many forms of ongoing help, but when it comes to military force our help comes tailored to a sink or swim world of independent states, and we are not afraid to invade a place twice if we need to do so.
There will be fighting, but this is not a war. It is a violent argument and it is a race. The argument is about whether the US is an imperial foe, or a tough friend, of the Islamic world. The race is to get Kabul to rebuild its power on its own people, not our might. If we lose the race, Afghans suffer. If we try to make this an open-ended war, we lose the argument. Should that happen, the next generation of Muslims may justly curse us for abetting the oppressive radical movement that prospered when we were strong, but not wise.
Scott Corey has a PhD in Political Science from UC Berkeley, and did his dissertation on political violence. He now works at a small non-profit crisis center in the Sierra Nevada.
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