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The West Should Not Disengage

Husain Haqqani

The targeted attack on Malala Yusufzai should open the eyes of all those who have been looking for ways to avoid fighting these barbarians.

This young girl is the latest casualty in a clash of contrasting visions. Others, notably former Prime Ministe Benazir Bhutto, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, have been killed for advocating enlightenment against the obscurantism represented by the Taliban and its Islamist allies.

The Taliban’s claim that Malala was targeted because she “was promoting Western culture in Pashtun areas” is a red herring, aimed at framing the issue in terms of Islam versus the West. Unfortunately, several Westerners fall for the ruse, given their desire to avoid military conflict in a far-off region. Many of Pakistan’s leaders have acted as apologists for the Taliban as part of their political strategies, causing even more confusion about the Taliban’s motives.

The Taliban represents an ideology based on bigotry, misogyny and hate. It uses arguments about the United States-led war in Afghanistan to cover up its pre-2001 atrocities. Like all ideological groups, it will be weakened only by the empowerment of Afghans and Pakistanis who think and believe differently. Expecting the Taliban to reform is no different than the futile desires of some in the early 20th century who waited for the behavior of Hitler or Stalin to change.

An ideological battle against the Taliban’s beliefs is already being undertaken by many Afghans and Pakistanis. The international community can strengthen the hands of these local groups with training, equipment and economic support. External support does not delegitimize the local effort as Taliban apologists would have us believe. The Taliban will not change if the West disengages. After all, its members have dug out centuries old graves of Sufi saints because they oppose their beliefs in religious tolerance.

Right now, the Taliban is able to manipulate the news media discourse in Northwest Pakistan. Members are armed and trained in guerrilla warfare. Those opposing the Taliban’s vision should have access to their own mass media outlets. The Afghan and Pakistani military units and law enforcement agencies must be bolstered, not only with professional training but also ideological motivation in fighting the terrorists. And the government should work with local leaders — while simultaneously keeping them safe — to weaken support for the Taliban.

But before these steps are taken, it’s important that the West — as well as Afghan and Pakistani leaders — really grasp the nature and totalitarian ideology of the Taliban. In 1996, soon after the Taliban stormed Kabul, one State department official described them as “Pashtun nationalists,” an error that helped consolidate Taliban power in Afghanistan until 9/11 changed American minds and plans. It would be a similar mistake to shy away from confronting the menace now. 

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