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In the past two weeks at least nine Americans have been killed by their Afghan allies in what is known to as “insider killings.” Members of the Afghan army, having been trained and armed by NATO forces, are turning their weapons in increasing numbers against their foreign allies, killing at least 40 NATO troops this year so far.
These killings are demoralizing, not only for the troops, but also for the folks back home. They make people war-weary. Mrs. Marina Buckley, the mother of Lance Corporal Gregory Buckley who was killed by one of his Afghan allies just before he was due to return home, spoke for many when she said: “Our forces shouldn’t be there. It should be over. It’s done. No more.”
These killings have been blamed on foreign spies and Taliban infiltrators, but such theories have been discounted by military investigators, who could only link one in ten killings to Taliban infiltration.
The generals seem to be mystified, for Colonel Lapan, spokesman for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff commented, “we don’t know what’s causing them, and we’re looking at everything.”
They could also look at Islam, and at history.
Let us wind the clock back 120 years to Aceh, today part of Indonesia. In 1892 the sultanate of Aceh, a staunchly Islamic region, had been under Dutch military occupation for twice as many years as the Americans have been in Afghanistan. When the Dutch first stormed the Acehnese capital Kutaraja (now Banda Aceh) in 1871 they naively assumed that control of the rest of the countryside would quickly follow. Instead they became entangled in a conflict which lasted for decades.
A poignant legacy of the Aceh-Dutch war is a military cemetery in Banda Aceh, reputed to be the largest graveyard of Dutch troops outside Holland.
As the decades passed, the Acehnese waged a tenacious insurgency from jungle hideouts, and Dutch leaders cycled through various theories to explain their military failures. One theory was that the passing of time would see a steady reduction in hostilities. Time did pass, and this theory ended up in the trash. Another theory was that a “concentration line” of forts could effect a safe haven around the capital to guarantee security, but the attacks continued.
A particularly demoralizing aspect of the conflict was a pattern of Acehnese allies turning against and killing Dutch soldiers. Teuku Umar was an early leader of the Acehnese resistance who became an ally of the Dutch, as a result of which he was rewarded with weapons, money and command of hundreds of troops. Then he turned these weapons and troops against his supposed “allies,” inflicting heavy casualties. The Dutch regarded this as an odious betrayal, yet today the name of Teuku Umar is recognized as one of Indonesia’s greatest heroes and boulevards all over the country are named after him.
The problem of deceit and betrayal was also a rank-and-file problem. There was no shortage of would-be Acehnese martyrs who, for the sake of gaining a victim, were willing to feign friendship with the Dutch, before drawing their knives against them. The phenomenon of unpredictable killings by the Acehnese came to be known as Atjèh-moord ”Acehnese murder.”
The failure of Dutch military policy in Aceh – and the resulting drain of Dutch blood and treasure – caused a host of political difficulties for governments back in Holland. The war became intensely unpopular.
The turning point in the Aceh-Dutch war came in 1891-92 when Christian Snouck Hurgronje, an expert in Arabic and Islam, was sent to do field research into “the pernicious Aceh Question” (het verderfelijke Atjeh-questie).
Snouck Hurgronje was the preeminent Western expert on Islam of his generation. After completing a PhD on Islamic theology in Holland, he spent a year in Mecca in 1884-85, living as a Muslim, studying at the feet of the Sheikhs, and making a special study of Indonesian Muslims.
After his field trip to Aceh, Snouck Hurgronje published a two-volume report on the Acehnese society in 1893, which included a military analysis, and offered a blueprint for winning the insurgency.
At the heart of Snouck Hurgronje’s explanation of the “Aceh Question” was a theological analysis. The Acehnese war, he explained, was jihad, a theologically motivated struggle against the Dutch as infidel-occupiers of Islamic territory.
Because it was a theological struggle, grounded in the deeply held Islamic convictions of the Acehnese people, the Aceh war could not be won by capturing a few key cities or neutralizing a handful of key leaders. Indeed, as time passed, and the early chieftain leaders were superseded, the insurgency came to be dominated by clerics, whose influence greatly increased as a result of the jihad. (This same pattern can be observed in Afghanistan over the past decade.)
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