Why the West should stop fighting with the Taliban for hearts and minds, and start letting the Islamists try their hand at governing.
For all their strategy sessions, policymakers in Washington are still clearly vexed by the Taliban's staying power in Afghanistan. But the reasons behind the Taliban's support may not be complicated at all -- though combating them may require a fundamental change in the West's military and political strategy.
The fact is that the Taliban and other Islamist elements are popular in the region out of which they operate, the Pashtun tribal belt between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This has always been an utterly conservative locale where the local population has generally favored Islamic fundamentalism. Even going back to the 1930s, Waziristan's rallying flag against the British was a simple white calligraphic "Allah-Akbar" (God is Great) on red fabric.
Although the West and its allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been terrified by the specter of a second Islamic republic, there is a way to mitigate the threat: the creation of a semiautonomous region where Islamists can exercise their draconian system of law -- if that is what the people agree to impose upon themselves. Just as the creation of Pakistan involved a migration, or hijrah, the radical elements in both countries who yearn for an Islamic emirate can be allowed to migrate to this hinterland and help build their new political order.
Of course, the terms of such a divorce would have to be very carefully negotiated because radical Islamists like the Taliban have traditionally had expansionary tendencies. They would need to reject international terrorism and give assurances to neighboring states that they would not intervene in those countries' territories. Under those conditions, the new area could maintain its economic relations with the rest of the region, depriving the territory's Islamist rulers of the excuse that they are suffering unfairly from having been made an economic pariah.
Just as Washington has acknowledged that it cannot simply disregard popular support in Egypt for the Muslim Brotherhood, the West must also come to terms with the Taliban's base of support. If a proper referendum were held in Afghanistan -- something that the Taliban says it would support -- it's possible that in some parts of Waziristan and in eastern Afghanistan a majority of the public would favor Taliban rule.
Because of Islamist evangelism and population growth, an increasing number of Pakistanis and Afghans are disposed to favoring an austere version of sharia law as well. In Pakistan's frontier province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Islamists were freely elected into power in one recent election. A poll conducted in Waziristan by the New America Foundation in September 2010 revealed not only that more than 87 percent of the local population opposes the West's military presence, but that parties with Islamist inclinations (Pakistan Tehreek-Insaaf, Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-e Islam) would gain almost half of the votes in a free and open election.
The United States and NATO shouldn't dismiss out of hand the idea of giving the Taliban and their Islamist sympathizers some measure of political self-rule. There's no denying that the Islamists' brutish and austere vision of justice is foreign to the sensibilities of modern minds in the region and the Western world. Unlike Egypt's Muslim Brothers, the Taliban are not willing to endorse the establishment of a democracy in Afghanistan. Their stated desire is to establish a theocracy where personal piety and religious knowledge would be the most important criteria for attaining public office. Nonetheless, giving the Islamists an autonomous region would force them to prove their political bona fides.
Within Pakistan's conservative establishment, there is a persistent folklore of Taliban justice: They claim that the Islamists reduced crime and brought a pristine sense of order to the frontier. The same is true for conservative Afghans who recall the incorruptibility of the Taliban mullahs, despite their draconian punishments. Giving the Islamists an autonomous region would put those memories to the test. If the West allowed the Taliban to shoulder responsibility for a self-claimed "sinless state," the Islamists could no longer blame their destructive indiscretions on the vicissitudes of war. They could no longer earn money through the drug trade -- currently, the Taliban encourage opium cultivation as an instrument of war, earning an estimated $400 million per year -- because one of the claims to piety during their heyday was a ban on opium. And when they are responsible for their own economy, they will realize the need for a broader education system than their meager madrasas -- those religious institutions in their current form cannot produce doctors or any other professionals needed for a functioning contemporary society.
Indeed, once the Taliban are responsible for maintaining order and developing a functional society that they can take pride in, they will most likely compromise on many international policy issues. (One need only look back to 1997, when Afghanistan's Taliban-led government sent delegations to the United States to charm their ostensible enemy into negotiating a pipeline deal.) Indeed, it's easy to imagine that, once in charge of a government, the Taliban would undergo an organic process of moderation, learning to safeguard basic human rights in an explicitly Islamic framework. Indeed, they could be assisted by international entities such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which has adopted a series of conventions to develop means of addressing terrorism in states that embrace sharia law.
The silent majority of Pakistanis and Afghans who are intimidated by the Islamists would also be relieved of all residents who are clamoring to live under Islamist rule. Devotees of the Taliban myth could simply be directed to the autonomous region, leaving the rest of the country free to develop its own modernist interpretation of Islam. Similarly, those in the frontier who would prefer a secular or modernist Islamic state should be allowed to migrate to the other side.
It may sound far-fetched, but there's actually precedent for such a radical solution. The world just witnessed a referendum in Sudan to end a terrible war through partition; a decade earlier, East Timor had to be divided up by the international community. In both cases, religion proved to be among the irreconcilable differences for the local populations, just as it is in Afghanistan and Pakistan today. (For all practical purposes, the radical Islam of the Taliban and their allies is an entirely different religion from the moderate Islam that prevails elsewhere in the region.) When you're dealing with absolutist ideologies, sometimes a divorce is the only solution possible. Islamists are also quite amenable to the process of a referendum as a policy tool, given their repeated call for referenda in areas such as Kashmir.
It is quite likely that some of the more hard-core Taliban in Waziristan may reject such a proposal because of their grander visions of a caliphate. But if such a generous proposal is rejected, the United States and its allies can earn far more legitimacy for a renewed military strategy. The Taliban propaganda against drone strikes -- that they are an "assault on Islam" -- would then be rendered moot as well. This is similar to how the military operation against the Swat Taliban got support from a majority of Pakistanis after a peace deal was violated by the Taliban.
And one shouldn't forget that in the event a referendum is held, there is an outside chance that a majority of the population in this region, whatever its current sympathies, could be convinced to reject the prospect of Taliban rule outright.
As the United States considers serious talks with the Taliban, it should be prepared to place such a proposition on the table. It would wall off Afghanistan and Pakistan from the internal strife that is ruining those states. Wounded egos in the region and the West may interpret the plan as a retreat, but they will soon realize the virtues of its pragmatism.