Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Recently, two announcements regarding Afghanistan and the Arab-Israeli conflict suggested that the Trump administration is following the old failed strategies for dealing with the challenge of modern jihadism. If so, he is setting us up for the same old failures caused by the same old failure of imagination.
First, Trump announced a bold plan for dealing with Afghanistan, that 16-year-old conflict now in its third presidential administration. He set out an ambitious aim: “From now on, victory will have a clear definition — attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaida, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.” He clarified that he would not make the mistakes of past administrations: no nation-building, no announcements of troop levels or withdrawal dates, no restrictive rules of engagements.
So far so good. But he also hinted that a diplomatic solution would be sought: “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban and Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.” And he added that given such uncertainty, “America will continue its support for the Afghan government and the Afghan military as they confront the Taliban in the field,” suggesting that the war will continue indefinitely.
Yet all this depends on adding an unspecified number of troops, perhaps 4,000, whose mission will be mainly to support and train the Afghan army––pretty much what’s been going on for years. How this mini-surge will work when Obama’s surge of 33,000 soldiers in 2009––which raised the total number of troops to 100,000 by 2010––didn’t, isn’t quite clear. Prissy ROE and micromanagement from D.C. alone can’t account for that failure.
Worse, soon after Trump’s announcement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson undercut Trump’s “We will always win,” by saying “We are there to facilitate and ensure that there is a pathway for reconciliation and peace talks. As the pressure begins to take hold, we believe we already know there are certain moderate elements of the Taliban [sic!] who we think will be ready and develop a way forward.” Even more astonishing, after he said the Taliban “will not win a battlefield victory,” he went on, “We may not win one, but neither will you.” Contra Trump, Tillerson implies that we are not fighting to destroy the enemy, but to “begin a process, a lengthy process, of reconciliation and a peace accord in Afghanistan.”
Once again, the delusions of diplomatic settlements take precedence over destroying the enemy and those who harbor him. I guess people have forgotten that LBJ’s similar strategy of fighting the North Vietnamese just enough to bring them to the negotiating table was a complete failure.
Meanwhile, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has asked Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Arabs “to hold back on their threat to take unilateral diplomatic initiatives against Israel for a period of some four months, in exchange for an American commitment to submit a comprehensive diplomatic plan within that time frame to advance the diplomatic process,” as World Israel News reported. Trump plans to meet Abbas at the UN is September, where he will present his “road map for peace.” According to a White House statement, “Both sides agreed to continue with the US-led conversations as the best way to reach a comprehensive peace deal.” But they deny the quid pro quo of Palestinian constraint for a comprehensive plan.
Once again, the shibboleths and clichés generated by decades of diplomatic failure are passed around, despite the overwhelming evidence that the Palestinian Arabs are not interested in “two peoples living side-by-side in peace,” and use negotiation and complaints of “settlements” as a tactic in their “stages” strategy for destroying Israel. Meanwhile the terror continues, the incitement starting in preschool trains the next generation of “martyrs,” and the PA uses danegeld from the West to subsidize the families of jailed or killed terrorists.
In both cases, our foreign policy establishment is hostage to received wisdom, institutional inertia, and a stubborn insistence in believing the Taliban or the Palestinian Liberation Organization mostly comprises people just like us, sharing all the same values and goods that we rich Westerners prize. That delusion, disproven over and over for the last century, explains why we keep doing the same thing over and over, while expecting a different result. Thus we violate Sun Tzu’s famous dictum, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” We don’t understand the reality of Islam, and we can’t see our own delusions.
In the case of Israel, we have a whole catalogue of “conferences” and “conversations,” an endless discussion of “settlements” and tattered “road maps” and “land for peace” bromides. And every time, Israeli concession and billions in international bribes are answered with terrorist attacks and U.N. denunciations. Land restored to the Arabs, as in Gaza, become platforms for indiscriminate rocket attacks and networks of tunnels for terrorist infiltration.
At some point we need to start believing the Palestinian Arabs mean what they say: they will never accept the existence of Israel, and will never stop attacking Israelis. We must stop crediting their pretexts of “national self-determination” and “checkpoints,” and acknowledge their real motive: to win back by any means necessary––terrorist violence or tactical negotiations or duplicitous “agreements” ––a land once conquered by the faithful and destined by Allah’s will to be restored to the umma. “Conciliation and peace” are irrelevant. Obedience to Allah is everything, and Western notions of peace and freedom and tolerance are infidel snares for the faithful. True peace will come when “the whole world says there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger,” and the perfect social-political order, sharia, governs the whole world.
In Afghanistan, the same motives are at work. It is easy to say, as Trump did, “Terrorists who slaughter innocent people will find no glory in this life or the next. They are nothing but thugs and criminals and predators, and, that’s right, losers.” We are comforted by such simplistic rhetoric, but it blocks us from using our imaginations to find out what drives a people to kill others and themselves. In their minds, the Taliban are pious Muslim traditionalists, like the other Salafists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. They see Islam’s decline as a consequence of the seduction of the faithful by Western “innovations” ––democracy, human rights, sex equality, secular government––which all cause the faithful to stray from the pure doctrine of sharia and the model of the rightly guided caliphs, the geopolitical “winners” who brought down two empires and occupied a third of Christian Europe. Like the Palestinian Arabs, the Taliban will wage jihad without expecting in their lifetimes to win. Setbacks, apparent failure, the vicissitudes of the conflict don’t matter as much as continuing the struggle that Allah has commanded the faithful to undertake.
With such an enemy, battles ending in “reconciliation and peace” aren’t in the cards, only temporary treaties that buy time. Magnanimity and bribes are seen only as signs of weakness and disbelief, the cargo of the West’s decadence and hedonism that wants only to live one more day and enjoy pleasure and comfort. They see our eagerness to accept their pretexts as fear and cowardice, and our “development” money and foreign aid as a form of jizya, the divinely sanctioned tribute the infidel owes the faithful.
Our ancestors understood these motives because they had suffered from Muslim attacks and occupation for a 1,000 years. They knew that only unrelenting fierce resistance could keep the armies of Allah in check. Our foreign policy “experts” should all read Winston Churchill’s The Story of the Malakand Field Force to see how to handle jihadist depredations. Can anyone familiar with today’s chaos in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan dispute Churchill’s description of the same region, and Islam’s role in its chaos?
That religion, which above all others was founded and propagated by the sword—the tenets and principles of which are instinct with incentives to slaughter and which in three continents has produced fighting breeds of men—stimulates a wild and merciless fanaticism.
And who does not recognize in Churchill’s commentary the power of Islam and its glorious past to motivate the faithful to battle?
Then the Mullah will raise his voice and remind them of other days when the sons of the prophet drove the infidel from the plains of India, and ruled at Delhi, as wide an Empire as the Kafir [infidel] holds today: when the true religion strode proudly through the earth and scorned to lie hidden and neglected among the hills: when mighty princes ruled in Bagdad, and all men knew that there was one God, and Mahomet was His prophet.
But of course, we moderns are so much smarter and righteous than the racist imperialist slandering the people on whom the empire he served preys.
So instead, all we hear from both parties is the “nothing to do with Islam canard” and the magical thinking about “moderate Muslims” we must cater to so they will support our attempts to destroy the alleged “heretics” that have “hijacked” their religion of peace and tolerance. We’re closing in on our second decade of such delusions, and what have we to show for it?
Despite all our appeasement, outreach, and flattery, the center of Shia Islam, Iran, is still the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, funding jihadist gangs like Hezbollah, and quickly becoming a nuclear power. The center of Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia, has funded mosques and groups that preach the strict Wahhabism that like Churchill’s Pashtun mullahs, calls for a return to the purity of Islam’s glory days. The enemies of Israel are still just as fierce in their divinely sanctioned efforts to rid the land of the despised Jew “from the river to the sea.” And the Taliban, indistinguishable from Churchill’s Pashtuns, fight on and on, confident that Allah has ordained their eventual success. As the jihadists often tell us, “You have the watches, but we have the time.”
It’s troubling that Trump seemingly harbors the same old Western delusions. Meeting with Mahmoud Abbas and talking about holding meetings to talk about a “comprehensive peace deal,” and failing in his speech on Afghanistan to even mention Islam or “Islamist terrorism,” both suggest he is endorsing the foreign policy establishment’s failed narrative. This isn’t “fighting to win,” as the president promised. This is fighting to keep losing slowly.