By Mustafa Malik
EVER SINCE THE U.S. NAVY SEALS killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the Obama administration is being urged by some progressives and conservatives to “declare victory and come home” from Afghanistan. The Taliban apparently have different ideas. They have ratcheted up their attacks on U.S. and NATO forces. The 30 deaths from their shooting down a U.S. Chinhook helicopter on Aug. 6 were the largest single-day American casualties of the decade-long war. They want to deny Americans any claim to victory.
In October 2007 a pro-Taliban schoolteacher in Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal agency told me why Americans would be “defeated like all other invaders” to Afghanistan. “They didn’t read Afghan history,” said the Pashtun in his 30s, whom I interviewed on condition of anonymity. Like many other Pakistanis and Afghans, he obviously was unaware that U.S. policy planners and commanders involved in the conflict have learned a great deal about Afghan history, military occupation and insurgencies.
I’ve had number conversations with American diplomats and strategists involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I was impressed to hear some of them allude to historians and analysts (Ian Becket, David Galula, Larry Cable, Amartya Sen, among others) who have criticized conventional occupation strategies and proposed cultural sensitivity and economic development models to combat insurgencies. U.S. rhetoric about “winning hearts and minds” and programs for economic development and institution building in Afghanistan and Pakistan show the administration’s commitment to those “soft power” strategies.
The problem is that these strategists and scholars are discounting a more basic lesson of Afghan and Muslim history. During the centuries of hegemonic contests between Islam and the West, Muslims have conquered and absorbed (through Islamization) a string of Christian societies in North Africa, the Fertile Crescent and the Asia Minor; but the West has failed to sustain its occupation of any Muslim country. Western occupying powers have failed to absorb Muslim cultures.
Islam inherited from Christianity the global mission to spread a faith and cultural pattern with all mankind. The biblical injunction “Go ye into the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” couldn’t, however, quite mesh with the Greco-Germanic values of individualism and rationalism. The Crusaders and many European colonialists inspired their flocks with the slogan of “saving the heathens.” But everybody knew theirs were mundane, imperialist projects.
The Islamic mission of Da’wa, or invitation to the Muslim faith and community, evolved in non-Western communitarian societies. Islamic jihad against foreign invasion and occupation has always been a communal affair. The anti-American insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq have been joined by Muslims from far-off lands. Globalization; the explosion of trans-local social networks, trade and migration; and the consequent erosion of national sovereignty are sending people around the world scurrying into the more enduring religious, ethnic and social structures. For many Muslims, the Islamic community, the umma, is that structure. The bond of the umma has been driving more and more Muslims toward jihad against foreign occupation.
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars account for a quarter of America’s crippling national debt and recession. In about three decades, the U.S. economy is projected to slip behind China’s and get embroiled in fiercer competition with a host of other economies. America would then have far less appetite for the occupation foreign territory.
Is Afghanistan, together with Iraq, going to mark the end of the era of U.S. attempts at the occupation of Muslim lands?
- Mustafa Malik hosts the blog site Islam and the West.