Sunday, October 18, 2009

Freed Reporter Smashes U.S. Policy Myths About Afghanistan, Pakistan, Taliban

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By Barry Rubin

When reality breaks into the mainstream media it can be of earthquake intensity. Such is the New York Times article by David Rohde, a journalist held prisoner by the Taliban for over seven months and finally released.

Rohde's conclusions aren't of much comfort for the Obama Administration, or for those who are naive about radical Islamists, or indeed for his fellow journalists. But his honest thinking out loud should affect their writings and policies.

During his captivity, Rohde writes:

"I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the
organization as a form of `Al Qaeda lite,' a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan."

But he came to understand from close observation as a prisoner:

"I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious....They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al-Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.

With some important differences--and minus the al-Qaida (my preferred spelling) link, the same points apply to Hamas, Hizballah, the Iraqi insurgents, and Iran's regime. These are not moderate forces and won't be persuaded to change. And with another step downward in intensity--they use tactics other than violence, for example--he is also describing the anti-Iran Muslim Brotherhood groups, the Turkish regime (Islamism in one country), and a lot of the Islamists operating in Europe and America under "moderate" cover.

Then there's Rohde's second point:

"I had written about the ties between Pakistan’s intelligence services and the Taliban while covering the region for The New York Times. I knew Pakistan turned a blind eye to many of their activities. But I was astonished by what I encountered firsthand: a Taliban mini-state
that flourished openly and with impunity."

Or, in other words (and as Indian analysts keep trying to explain to the West), large elements of the Pakistani regime, military, and intelligence are the Taliban's best allies, as well as the sponsors of a variety of Islamist terrorist groups targeting India.

Yet it is that very country, Pakistan, that U.S. policy wants to depend on to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida. Washington ignores Pakistan's sponsorship of terrorism, deep involvement in the dreadful Mumbai attack and other operations into India, and laziness in battling the Taliban and al-Qaida. I'm not saying that Pakistan never fights the Taliban but that it does so only when its own interests are at stake, which means preventing the group from taking too much territory within Pakistan itself.

This doesn't mean that the Obama Administration should escalate or keep fighting directly in Afghanistan--I think that's a bad idea--but has to wake up and deal with the realities of that area.

After all, when Rohde speaks of his illusions about the Taliban, he is describing the policy line being pursued by high-ranking U.S. officials who have spoken of a moderate Taliban (like Hizballah's or Hamas's fabled and mythical "political wings") or even how the Taliban as a whole can be courted in order to fight better against al-Qaida.

Rohde is no longer a prisoner of the Taliban, but Washington is still the prisoner of terrible ideas about foreign policy.

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