Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Face of the Taliban

The lead article in today's New York Times, about the shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban in northern Pakistan, is instructive for anyone concerned about U.S. policy in that region of the world. At the age of eleven Malala had been outspoken in her support of women's education. Yesterday she and three of her classmates were shot and wounded by Taliban militants as they rode a bus to school.

Americans are understandably weary of the ten-year conflict in Afghanistan. Many have been critical of the drone program that has destroyed homes and taken innocent lives in Pakistan. But if there has ever been any doubt that the threat to U.S. security in the Afghan-Pakistani theater is real, the shooting of Ms. Yousafzai should dispel them.

One often hears the complaint that Al Qaeda no longer maintains a viable presence in Afghanistan. The Al Qaeda fighters remaining in the region are stuck in Pakistan, confined to cave dwellings where they are under constant pressure from drones or the Pakistani military. Our opponent in Afghanistan is the Taliban, a group with interests and concerns different than Al Qaeda. The Taliban, so goes this argument, does not present the same threat to U.S. security, thus it does not warrant the extreme effort being waged against it in Afghanistan.

Ms. Yousafszai's fate should expose the flaw in this logic. The Taliban gave shelter and aid to Al Qaeda. It hosted Al Qaeda as it planned the 9/11 attacks and refused to break that alliance when presented with evidence of Al Qaeda's act of war against the U.S. Before we can risk the Taliban coming back to power over all or part of Afghanistan, we must be sure that the Taliban will never make common cause with Al Qaeda again. As the shooting of Malala Yousafzai shows, we can never be sure of such an outcome.

My concern is not simply that what the Taliban did was wrong, though it certainly was. Even more troubling, however, is that this attack shows the Taliban to exist in a completely alternate universe of value from that occupied by the U.S. and its allies (and, incidentally, from most Pakistanis and Afghans). What currency can be offered  to, what deal can be struck with an opponent that perceives the urgent necessity of shooting a 14-year-old girl in the head and neck? A group that will go out of its way to commit this act is not a group that can be counted on to "leave well enough alone" where the U.S. is concerned. They do not calculate their interests in a way that would allow us to predict that, knowing the consequences of allying with Al Qaeda a second time, they would choose a different course. Moreover, we know for a certainty that our economy will continue to produce Carly Rae Jepsen songs and Julia Roberts movies and export them throughout the world via ever-faster digital technology. Who can believe that the would-be murderers of Malala Yousafzai would ever be content to co-exist peacefully with such a country, even if it withdrew its support from Israel and forswore any interference in the affairs of the Middle East?

For any U.S. government to abdicate the struggle against the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies would be a gross dereliction of duty.  The surge ordered by President Obama has not achieved its objective of breaking the momentum of the Taliban, but that does not argue for the wisdom of complete withdrawal. The President's plan calls for Afghan forces to "take the lead" in the fight against the Taliban in 2014, but we can expect American troops to remain in Afghanistan far beyond that threshold. Like the Axis powers of World War II, Afghanistan was the origin-point of an attack on the U.S. and its citizens, and like Germany and Japan, Afghanistan can expect to play host to U.S. soldiers for many years to come. It is tragically unfortunate that that occupation will be marked by continued violence and suffering, but as long as the Taliban enjoys robust traction in Afghan and Pakistani society, the threat they pose to U.S. security will demand an armed response.