Senator Barack Obama said something at the presidential debate last week that almost perfectly encapsulates the difference between his foreign policy and his opponent’s: “Secretary of Defense Robert Gates himself acknowledges the war on terrorism started in Afghanistan and it needs to end there.” I don’t know if Obama paraphrased Gates correctly, but if so, they’re both wrong.
If Afghanistan were miraculously transformed into the Switzerland of Central Asia, every last one of the Middle East’s rogues gallery of terrorist groups would still exist. The ideology that spawned them would endure. Their grievances, such as they are, would not be salved. The political culture that produced them, and continues to produce more just like them, would hardly be scathed. Al Qaedism is the most radical wing of an extreme movement which was born in the Middle East and exists now in many parts of the world. Afghanistan is not the root or the source.
Naturally the war against them began in Afghanistan. Plans for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States were hatched in Afghanistan. But the temporary location of the plotters of that strike means little in the wide view of a long struggle. Osama bin Laden and his leadership just as easily could have planned the attacks from Saudi Arabia before they were exiled, or from their refuge in Sudan in the mid 1990s. Theoretically they could have even planned the attacks from an off-the-radar “safe house” in a place like France or even Nebraska had they managed to sneak themselves in. The physical location of the planning headquarters wasn’t irrelevant, but in the long run the ideology that motivates them is what must be defeated. Perhaps the point would be more obvious if the attacks were in fact planned in a place like France instead of a failed state like Afghanistan.
Hardly anyone wants to think about the monumental size of this task or how long it will take. The illusion that the United States just needs to win in Afghanistan and everything will be fine is comforting, to be sure, but it is an illusion. Winning the war in Iraq won’t be enough either, nor will permanently preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. The war may end somewhere with American troops on the ground, or, like the Cold War, it might not. No one can possibly foresee what event will actually put a stop to this war in the end. It is distant and unknowable. The world will change before we can even imagine what the final chapter might look like.
Most of the September 11 hijackers were Saudis. All were Arabs. None hailed from Afghanistan. This is not coincidental. Al Qaeda’s politics are a product of the Arab world, specifically of the radical and totalitarian Wahhabi sect of Islam founded in the 18th Century in Saudi Arabia by the fanatical Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab. He thought the medieval interpretations of Islam even on the backward Arabian peninsula were too liberal and lenient. His most extreme followers cannot even peacefully coexist with mainstream Sunni Muslims, let alone Shia Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, secularists, feminists, gays, or anyone else. Their global jihad is a war against the entire human race in all its diversity and plurality.
Wahhabism has spread outward from Saudi Arabia by proselytizers funded by petrodollars who have set up mosques, madrassas, and indoctrination centers nearly everywhere from Indonesia to the United States. In the Balkans, for instance, Wahhabis are actually replacing traditional moderate Ottoman mosques destroyed by the Yugoslav Army and Serbian paramilitary units with their own extremist knockoffs. They’re staking out new ground in the West where they deliberately gin up virulent hatred among immigrants from Muslim countries. They tried to car-bomb their way into power in parts of Iraq, and in the cities of Baqubah, Fallujah, and Ramadi they even succeeded for a while.
In some places the ideology flourishes more than in others. It was effectively transplanted to Afghanistan with the assistance of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. In thoroughly secular Muslim countries like Azerbaijan and Albania, bin Ladenism remains thinner on the ground than in Western Europe. Its adherents are unevenly distributed, but it began in the Middle East and has since metastasized.
Al Qaeda leaders did not spring up from the ground in Afghanistan, nor are they chained there. They move around. Any country where they are located becomes crucial whether American soldiers are present or not. Like the Cold War, this conflict is not exclusively military, but the theaters of armed conflict have already been widened well beyond Afghanistan. And the war isn’t America-centric. It is not all about us. Fighting between violent Islamists and their enemies broke out in Arab countries like Algeria and Lebanon, and even in countries without a Muslim majority like Russia and the Philippines. Many of these conflicts started before the attacks on September 11, before anyone could even imagine that American troops would fight a hot war in Afghanistan.
And let’s not forget the radical Shias. While Sunni Wahhabis export their fundamentalist creed from the Arabian Peninsula, the Khomeinists in the Islamic Republic of Iran are busy exporting their own revolutionary and totalitarian brand of Shia Islam to countries like Lebanon and Iraq. So far the Iranians and their proxies have been less violent and extreme than Al Qaeda, but Iran remains the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. While the leaders are Shias, that has not – contrary to mistaken conventional wisdom – stopped them from forming tactical alliances with radical Sunnis from Hamas in Gaza to Ansar Al Islam.
Before the U.S. demolished the regime of Saddam Hussein, Ansar Al Islam was based in and around the town of Biara in Northern Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al Zarqawi was one of its members. American Special Forces and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters pushed Ansar into the Northern Iranian city of Mariwan where they remain today and receive support from the government of Iran. They have since changed their name to Al Qaeda in Kurdistan.
On some level even Senator Obama himself understands that Afghanistan is unlikely be the beginning and the end of this war. He correctly argues that more needs to be done to shut down the safe havens bin Laden and company have established in Pakistan. He likely doesn’t believe some of his own rhetoric about Afghanistan even though it’s a standard staple of his campaign. His dovish liberal base seems sometimes desperate to believe that Afghanistan was the beginning and will be the end of a war they have little stomach to wage.
Wishing will not make it so. Afghanistan, indeed all of Central Asia, is on the periphery. The violent ideologies that animate the most dangerous terrorist movements in the world are Arabic and, to a lesser extent, Persian. The Middle East is central. It is not a distraction. It is where the war truly began because it is where most of the combatants, ideological leaders, and supporters were born and raised. While there’s a chance it won’t end there, most of it will be fought there.