The starting point is self-evident. The Taliban of Sheik Omar and its guest, al-Qaeda, were and are prime examples of both Islamism and its armed component, jihadism.
It is equally self-evident that the US and its associates have no desire to see their efforts at ending the threat of al-Qaeda and nation-building in Afghanistan crowned by a post-hostilities reemergence of an Islamist regime, particularly one which would tolerate or assist jihadist groups. The unfortunate reality is that such an outcome is of high probability.
To make sure there are no problems in communication, three definitions are in order. Islam refers to the religion in and of itself without considering any governmental or political implications.
Islamism refers to what is often called, "political Islam." The Islamist seeks the establishment of a political system as well as a judiciary based on the principles and practices of Islamic law, Shariah. The Islamist may use strictly constitutional and non-violent means to reach this goal. The Islamist goal may or may not be inclusive of the establishment of a global caliphate.
Jihadism rejects the non-violent approach. It seeks the Islamist goal or goals by means of military or quasi-military force including the use of political and social terrorism or the threat of such. The jihadist goals may be limited to a specific country or people. Or, the goals of the jihadist may be far more expansive including the realization of a global caliphate.
The original Taliban fostered by the Pakistani Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and other elements of the Pakistani government was an excellent example of the limited form of Islamist jihadist group. The goals of Taliban were limited to the country dubbed "Afghanistan" and were more narrowly focused on the Pushtan segment of that region's population.
The assorted groups which fall under the general rubric of Taliban in Pakistan are also an example of the limited goal Islamist jihadist group despite some occasional lapses into a more expansive rhetoric. Unless either the Taliban of Afghanistan or its counterpart in Pakistan sponsor or invite the presence of Islamist jihadist entities of broader agenda, or gain control of nuclear materials, neither represents a clear and present danger to the rest of the world.
In reality, the probability of such a benign outcome coming to pass is slim to none. The reasons for a gloomy assessment are to be found in the record of history--both ancient and quite recent as well as in a brutal contemporary fact.
Islam in and of itself is a warriors religion without equal in the history of humanity. Its sacred writings both extol warfare on behalf of the faith and equate the non-Islamic peoples with the "House of War." Beyond these doctrinal features, the religion promises the greatest of postmortem rewards to those who die in combat with either the infidels or the apostates.
In the great days of early Islam, the warriors faith gave impetus to a series of conquests which were (and are) awesome in their breadth. The same may be seen in the response of the Islamic societies to the ill-advised, religiously justified wars of conquest launched by Europe under the rubric of "Crusades." Islam combined with ethno-linguistic motivations to provide an unbeatable combination. Not until the initial waves of faith diminished did Islam retreat from the Gates of Vienna and languish in the doldrums of the Ottoman Caliphate.
More recently, the movement from less to more extreme Islamism and jihadism is clear in Somalia. Looking back at the first of the Islamist groups in that bloody stretch of desert, the Islamic Union, one sees an Islamist group which had the limited goal of establishing an Islamic republic under Islamic law in place of the warlord dominated government.
The Islamic Union met with limited success. It was not militarily competent. And, its brand of Saudi sponsored Wahhibist austerity did not sit well with the majority of Somalis who were used to a more laid back form of Sufi oriented Islam.
The Islamic Union was a failure. After a time it was succeeded by the Islamic Courts Union, which was a far more dedicated group of Islamist True Believers. The ICU was not only more competent in the arts of military and quasi-military operations, it was far more ruthless in its application of both terror and Shariah. As a result, it conquered most of Somalia even if it did not win the affection or loyalty of most Somalis.
At the high point of its success, the ICU modified its application of Shariah so as to gain more popular support. It had nearly established unquestioned operational dominance of Somalia when the Ethiopian government with the support of the US launched its invasion of the country.
The Ethiopian military blew the ICU away. But, as an invader it could not gain any genuine acceptance let alone support from the Somali population. Resistance to the invader never ended.
Al-Shaabab emerged as the most extreme, most willing to kill--and die--faction in the badly divided resistance movement. It was also the group with the most severe view of Shariah and the most expansive view of its goals.
Al-Shaabab was and is an expansive jihadist group. It seeks not simply the establishment of an Islamic republic in Somalia but a conquest of those portions of surrounding countries which have a significant Somali population. This includes Kenya, Djibouti, and the Ogaden.
Al-Shaabab has openly aligned itself with not only al-Qaeda but the global Islamist jihadist movement generally. Al-Shaabab has a brisk two way trade with other jihadist groups around the world. It also serves as a convenient operational training ground.
The progression from less to more extreme in the theory and practice of Islamism as well as the identical progression from less to more expansive in goals is the result of the pressure of war. It is an illustration of the long exhibited truism that pressure consolidates far more than it fractures a political movement. Not only does pressure consolidate political will, it tends to make the political will demand an ever greater reward for the years of sacrifice.
The increased appeal of Taliban's ideology and sense of group commitment to the youth of Afghanistan is an indicator that the Somali trajectory is not unique to that venue or that particular people. The prolongation of the war in Afghanistan without a clear and convincing defeat to Taliban both by the foreign forces and the Afghan National Forces will assure the movement from less to more extreme, less to more expansive, will not only continue but accelerate in Afghanistan.
The same dynamic applies to Pakistan. The only difference is that the foreign presence is marginally less evident and thus marginally less inflammatory.
A second and even more dramatic justification for the gloomy assessment for the future of Afghanistan comes from History News Network. In a thoughtful post the writer presents a convenient synopsis of the current state of official play in the Wonderful World of Terrorism. Working from the US State Department listings, it is shown that of the 126 "official" terrorist groups, 64 are of Islamist jihadist nature. This number far and away eclipses the next highest sector, "secular nationalist," which can claim only 36 members.
The take-away from this is simple: Islamist jihadism has a wide appeal. While sometimes linked to nationalistic objectives in the short run, the majority of the listed groups have expanded their horizons in the same manner as seen by the progression in Somalia. It almost leads to an equation: The broader the view, the greater the appeal--and the zeal.
The implication for Afghanistan and the Obama administration's strategic review is clear. The US must finally rely upon the capacity of the regime in Kabul to cut a deal with those elements of Taliban most willing to abandon expansive goals. While doing that, the prime task for the foreign forces is to identify and kill those of Taliban and al-Qaeda least likely to play the old and honorable Afghan game of "let's make a deal."
For all his drawbacks, Karzai remains today what he was when we chose him to be "our man in Kabul"--an accomplished Afghan deal maker, or, if you prefer, an accomplished politician in the unique context of Afghan society. For all his many positive attributes, Abdullah Abdullah is not so skilled. But, the participation of Abdullah is critical since he is the main man for the Tajik minority, or the old Northern Alliance which was Tajik dominated.
The president has already shown a willingness to accept Taliban as a permanent fact of Afghan political life. That was a good move. It shows a readiness to acknowledge reality, no matter how unpleasant, that eluded the Bush/Cheney administration.
The crux of the challenge is to keep the correct up close and personal pressure on the most intractable elements of Taliban while holding the door to government participation open for those who may embrace Islamism but reject jjhadism. It is a circle which is most difficult to square, but not impossibly so.
Many if not most adherents of Taliban will pack it in if there is a reasonable probability of seeing their desires and needs addressed without the necessity of living under the constant threat of death from American or other guns (to say nothing of sleeping in the cold and eating bad food). Pressure only consolidates when there is no safe and honorable way out of the vise.
The role of the regime in Kabul, regardless of the way in which the 7 November election goes, is to provide the safe and honorable way out. The role of the American and other foreign forces is to provide the inducement of unceasing pressure--and to kill those jihadists who need killing.