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The Myth of the Moderate Taliban

Why is the West trying to partner with an radical group that must be defeated?

12:00 AM, May 19, 2009 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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As the Taliban, its Afghan detachments swelling with local jihadists, penetrates deeper into an apparently-collapsing Pakistan, politicians and media around the world, amid visible paralysis, are "rediscovering" the brutality of which the South Asian radical Islamists are capable. As with other varieties of the same fanatical ideology, many foreigners appear shocked at the bloody atrocities wreaked by the zealots; yet we hear from the Obama administration confused claims that Taliban "moderates" may somehow be separated from the diehards and rallied to the side of the U.S.-allied regime in Islamabad.

But like their predecessors in the global Islamist upheaval--the Iranian revolutionaries of 1979, the Saudi Wahhabi milieu from which al Qaeda emerged, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood--the Taliban mainly elicits Western guesswork and groping at a strategic response, rather than historical reflection and hard analysis. This failure is aggravated by presentiments of the horrors that may come if Pakistan falls. Terror terrorizes, after all.

The Taliban resemble the followers of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in their aim at control of Pakistan's nuclear weapon--the ultimate terror asset. And some Iran-backed Shia Muslims in Pakistan have submitted to Taliban aggression, perhaps out of Machiavellian scheming on the part of the Tehran clerics, perhaps out of simple fear, given their situation as a vulnerable minority targeted by the invaders. Indeed, one of the most terrible acts of the Taliban in Afghanistan was the genocidal massacre of Hazaras, an obscure Shia Muslim community of Mongol origin.

Sharing with the Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood a hatred of Shias and moderate Sunnis, the Taliban have also adopted the abhorrence of the Wahhabis for the spiritual Sufis, who are especially prominent in Pakistani and Indian Islam. But there are differences among these three varieties of violent Islamism.

Wahhabi volatility, which generated al Qaeda, is based on an essential dissonance in the history of the Arabian fundamentalists. Primarily interested in wealth, and then in control over the global Sunni sect, Wahhabis were always willing to unite with the West against the traditional Muslims they despised. Thus the House of Saud and its religious minions forged alliances with Britain, the United States, and France, first to attack the Persians and undermine the Ottomans, and then to sell their oil. Although Saudi energy revenue has been used to spread Wahhabism, these contradictions and their consequences are deranging for ordinary Wahhabis. The Saudi Wahhabis vacillate between claims to unsurpassable Islamic purity and opportunistic dealings with the alleged "unbelievers," drawing some of their subjects to terrorism in the name of their inflexible inspiration, and their clear rejection of Western ways.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has lately attracted exaggerated attention as a conspiratorial agency for Islamization of the West, is mainly concerned with political power. Focused on Egypt and Hamas--whose active supporters are thin on the ground and short on resources outside the Arab countries, notwithstanding Iranian backing for Hamas--the Brotherhood has also produced strands claiming renunciation of the bullet and bomb, in favor of the ballot, at least in Egypt. Brotherhood ideologues argue that, given their popularity, they can play by democratic rules in Cairo. Criticism of the government of Hosni Mubarak for its failures in securing political freedoms has hypnotized some Westerners into believing that the pragmatic wing of the Brotherhood may be a valuable partner in opposing murderous disorder in the Muslim world. The flaw in such reasoning is obvious: While the Brotherhood may have adopted different tactics, its goal--a rigid Islamic state--remains unchanged. In this regard the Brotherhood resembles the French and other Western Communists who abandoned revolutionary confrontation for parliamentary politics, but continued to embody the totalitarian values and serve the expansionist aims of the Soviet Union.

A similar kind of pragmatism was forced on the Sunni and Shia terrorists in Iraq, when it became clear that their crimes were pushing their purported constituents to align with the U.S.-led coalition. Differentiation between hard-core Wahhabis, Brotherhood adherents, and Iraqi subversives, and the ambivalent elements among their footsoldiers, has been adopted as a policy trope by the Obama administration, which claims it can locate and turn wavering members of the Taliban toward peace. But to believe such a diversity of opinion is possible in the Taliban is a dangerous fantasy.