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.
The Taliban and their Pakistani jihadist backers represent a distinctly more ferocious and intractable style of Sunni-based extremism. Unlike the Wahhabis, they will not accept an opportunistic alliance with the West, and in contrast with the Brotherhood, they have no incentive to adopt electoral tactics. The Iraqi thugs are in decline, Saudi Arabia is moving away from support for Wahhabi ambitions, and the Brotherhood is limited in its geographical focus. Given these disadvantages, the main jihadist movement has chosen to strike at Pakistan, the weakest link in the chain of Muslim countries allied with the West. But because it has no conception of accommodation in seeking its goals, the Taliban are predictably more bloodthirsty and unified.
The predecessors of the Taliban, found among the Deobandi sect of Sunnism, were always fundamentalist and intolerant of differences in Islam, but, paradoxically, were not originally violent. The Deoband school of theology was founded in India after the failure of the great "mutiny" against the British in 1857. With the destruction of Muslim and Hindu insurrectionaries by colonial forces, Deobandi clerics judged that cultivation of a simple, even interior fundamentalist piety, with some Sufi aspects, was a preferable means to overcome foreign domination. Deobandis in India, although obnoxious in their narrow intellect, do not pose a threat to the country in which they live.
But in the turmoil of politics to India's west, students (talib is an Arabic word for a religious student) at Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan were, after the withdrawal of the Russians from Afghanistan, assimilated into official Pakistani- and Saudi-financed radical networks. They were then handed power in Kabul, a responsibility for which long-established local Wahhabi agents were unprepared. Deobandi talibs were also recruited in large numbers for jihadism in Kashmir. Although the Saudi Wahhabis financed the Afghan effort, coordination on the ground in both Afghanistan and Kashmir was handled by Pakistani military and intelligence officers. The long-standing collusion of the Pakistani elite and the Taliban in great part explains the failure of Pakistan's leaders to resist the Taliban advance. It is aggravated by the characteristic incapacity of recent Pakistani rulers to face the truth and deal honestly with the United States, among other allies.
As Taliban ruthlessness is displayed to the world, through wholesale cruelties in the name of Shariah law, the terrorists enjoy advantages beyond their backing within the Pakistani establishment. Pakistani jihadism has created a major support structure among Pakistani Americans--who constitute the plurality of born Muslims, as opposed to converts, in the United States. The main component in this campaign is the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), a large group with paramilitary characteristics that directs numerous Pakistani mosques, conducts recruitment in prisons, and has managed to fool many journalists--it has even lent itself to a bogus flirtation with the American Jewish leadership. ICNA is almost completely ignored by American experts in radical Islam--a serious mistake, since the triangle of Islamist extremism in the United States involves Saudi money, Pakistani functionaries, and, as a third wheel, the "third jihadist" theorizing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
As noted, the Taliban has massacred Shia Muslims in Afghanistan. But after it established its dominion over Pakistan's Swat Valley and other areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, it obtained surprising backing from a pro-Iranian Shia clerical institution in Pakistan, Idara Jamia tul-Muntazir, which congratulated the Taliban for establishing their Shariah rule in Swat. Shia leader Allama Sajid Naqvi, a tool in Lahore of Iran's top ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was always prominent in the Pakistani jihadist front, but these details were largely unknown to foreigners. Anti-Iranian Shias describe Naqvi as a direct agent of Tehran, who never makes a move without Khamenei's approval. Pakistani Sunni radicals have also come out in defense of Iran against the U.S. and Israel.
Primitive, with no history of accommodation except with other dangerous radicals, consumed with hatred of moderate and pluralistic Muslims as well as the West, and reaching for Pakistan's nuke--the Taliban may bring about the worst chapter of atrocities in recent Islamic history. And, as with the Wahhabis and Brotherhood before them, all of this was in plain sight and predictable--but overlooked or ignored by a bien-pensant West in its search for partners, when it should be committed to the definitive defeat of our, and the world's, enemies.
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.