The Islamic Republic of Talibanistan

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.


Act. Now.

The world must do more than watch the Libyan bloodletting.

The unfolding catastrophe in Libya has forced the world to once again grapple with the conundrum of international humanitarian intervention. However, recent efforts at intervention -- notably the humiliating episode in Somalia and the terrible failure to act in Rwanda -- have revealed both the risks of action and the costs of inaction.

Muammar al-Qaddafi's bloodcurdling speech on Feb. 22 should force even skeptics of international intervention to think twice. In his defiant remarks, the Libyan dictator vowed to "cleanse Libya house by house" in order to stay in power. Qaddafi also insisted that he has not begun to crack down in earnest -- despite sketchy reports that his effort to quell the protests has already left hundreds, possibly thousands, of unarmed people dead -- and approvingly cited other uses of state security forces to quell unrest, such as the Chinese assault on Tiananmen Square and the U.S. actions in Waco and Fallujah.

Neither the United States nor the international community should be under any illusions about the extraordinary costs of humanitarian intervention. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that these difficulties are outweighed by the risks of standing by and watching events unfold without taking any meaningful action.

Let's start with the arguments against a full-throated intervention: There is little the United States can do on its own, and the scope of any potential engagement will have to be based on a broad-based international consensus. Even basic options, such as economic sanctions and the freezing of regime assets, will require support from countries such as Russia and China to have an effect. But these economic measures take time to make their impact felt, and they will certainly not produce, and probably won't seriously accelerate, regime change. Nor will they come quickly enough to stop Qaddafi's bloodletting of his own population.

Dissident Libyan diplomats, including the former deputy ambassador to the United Nations, have called for the more ambitious proposal of establishing a no-fly zone throughout the country. This would prevent the Qaddafi regime from continuing its use of warplanes and helicopters against the protesters. It might also inhibit the regime's ability to ferry in foreign mercenaries, on whom it appears to be relying in the face of growing military defections. And, of course, it would undermine the regime's ability to control the country at large.

Senior U.S. and NATO officials have so far not expressed any serious interest in becoming embroiled in the crisis in Libya, though the White House has refused to definitively take any option off the table. There are legitimate concerns about the long-term impact and short-term efficacy of aggressive intervention. Establishing a no-fly zone might place Americans and other Westerners still in Libya at risk, and compromise important Western economic interests. It could provide "evidence" for regime accusations that the rebellion is essentially an American plot, undermining the opposition movement in some people's eyes. Moreover, the international community may also feel that it simply lacks sufficient information about the forces at work within Libya to be entirely certain about what kind of outcome even a limited no-fly zone intervention would be promoting.

Even more ominously, if the regime holds on to power in Tripoli and some other regions for an extended period of time, a no-fly zone might set the stage for the long-term fragmentation of the country by consolidating the rule of various factions, including the government, in different parts of the country. If Libya is fractured between local groups, it may be very difficult to reunite the country -- possibly encouraging the development of a Somalia-style failed state in a strategic area of North Africa. The most significant concern, however, must be that a no-fly zone will simply be ineffective in preventing the escalation of the already enormous humanitarian crisis. As Qaddafi's use of mercenaries and loyal military units has shown, air power is not necessary to commit atrocities on the ground, especially against unarmed or lightly armed demonstrators.

And then there's the issue of escalation: Once the United States or the international community commits to protecting the Libyan people from their own government, it could prove very difficult to justify persisting with a no-fly zone policy when only intervention on the ground would stop the carnage. The example of the establishment of a no-fly zone over southern Iraq following the Gulf War -- which did nothing, of course, to stop Saddam Hussein from deploying his troops to crush the incipient revolt -- still looms large as a shameful incident in U.S. policy. Fear of being sucked into the use of ground forces -- with far greater potential blowback, internal and international opposition, and unintended consequences -- is also undoubtedly driving international caution.

But U.S. policymakers must not only consider the risks of intervention -- they, and the rest of the international community, also need to contemplate the grave risks of doing nothing. The United States and its allies are now forced to deal with an emerging new order in the Middle East; it is squarely in their interest to place themselves on the side of popular demands for reform, democratization, and the removal of unaccountable leaders who have held power for decades. It's not too late for the United States to be perceived as a positive force for change rather than a guardian of the old regional order, but standing idle while Libya burns would send the wrong message to the people of the region. Forging a broad international consensus for strong actions on Libya would be the wisest political and strategic course for the United States.

Symbolic actions such as freezing assets and economic sanctions are already overdue. A no-fly zone, in spite of its obvious limitations, should be organized as quickly as possible. Its creation will imply a commitment to protect the Libyan people from serious, sustained mass atrocities, and if it comes to that, the international community should be prepared to live up to its responsibilities -- in spite of the present risks. The dangers of escalation shouldn't be overblown: The regime's unpopularity, its loss of control of much of the country and growing military, bureaucratic, and diplomatic defections suggest that Western boots on the ground could well be unnecessary.

The international community not only has solid practical reasons to intervene in Libya -- it has a legal obligation. The invocation of the principle of the "responsibility to protect," which was developed post-Rwanda and endorsed by the U.N. Security Council in 2006, may become unavoidable if the situation in Libya continues to deteriorate. The doctrine commits the international community to taking timely and decisive action to stop mass atrocities when states are either committing, or unable to stop, them. Can anyone seriously doubt that this is becoming increasingly applicable to Libya?

International action in Libya also provides the United States and its allies with an opportunity to make an important and positive contribution to the upheaval currently under way across the Middle East. The widespread alarm in the Arab world about the Qaddafi regime's brutal tactics against the Libyan people means that aggressive international action would almost certainly be welcomed by the Arab public. Unlike other Western interventions in the region, humanitarian action in Libya would place the United States and the West on the side of the aspirations of millions of ordinary Arabs -- and on the right side of history and the wave of democratization sweeping the region.

-/AFP/Getty Images