Commentary Magazine


Topic: Dave Kilcullen

Atran’s Silly Thesis

Anthropologist Scott Atran shows that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Having studied the battle against Islamist extremists in Indonesia, he argues in the New York Times that we should be using similar methods in Afghanistan — namely leaving the battle to local authorities who have a better understanding of local tribal dynamics than we do. I too have visited countries where the locals are doing very well in fighting against guerrillas and terrorists with much less assistance than we have poured into Afghanistan and Iraq; see my reports from the Philippines here and from Colombia here.

But while admiring the efforts of the Filipinos and Colombians — just as I respect the efforts of the Indonesians and others — I am acutely conscious that their example cannot be replicated in Afghanistan, a country whose government disintegrated when our forces entered in 2001. It takes a long time to build up a functioning state, and in the meantime, we have to send our own forces to provide security. A failure to do enough in that regard results in dangerous gains for the enemy, as we saw in Iraq from 2003 to 2007 and in Afghanistan from 2005 to today.

Atran doesn’t seem to realize this. Instead he comforts himself with foolish fairytales about how supposedly benign the Taliban would be if only we left them alone. He adopts the “accidental guerrilla” thesis propounded by Dave Kilcullen, which holds that it is American military action that is driving the Pashtuns into the Taliban’s hands. This flagrantly ignores the historical record which shows that the Taliban were far more powerful back in the 1990s when there was not a single American soldier on the ground in Afghanistan. In those days, too, the Taliban cemented a close alliance with al-Qaeda, which they have never renounced even though it would have been to their advantage to do so. This suggests rather strongly that if we followed Atran’s advice and left Afghanistan to its own devices, it would soon be taken over by jihadists bent on attacking not only Pakistan but also Europe and the United States.

To argue otherwise, Atran engages in ridiculous speculation. He writes:

After 9/11, the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, assembled a council of clerics to judge his claim that Mr. bin Laden was the country’s guest and could not be surrendered. The clerics countered that because a guest should not cause his host problems, Mr. bin Laden should leave. But instead of keeping pressure on the Taliban to resolve the issue in ways they could live with, the United States ridiculed their deliberation and bombed them into a closer alliance with Al Qaeda. Pakistani Pashtuns then offered to help out their Afghan brethren.

In other words, he believes that our initial decision to intervene militarily in Afghanistan after 9/11 was a major mistake. He thinks we should have relied on the Taliban’s good graces to kick out al-Qaeda, ignoring the fact that we offered them an opportunity to do just that and they passed on it. Atran’s argument is not a serious analysis; it is wishful thinking. To President Obama’s credit, he considered such views during the course of his Afghan policy review—and rejected them.

Anthropologist Scott Atran shows that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Having studied the battle against Islamist extremists in Indonesia, he argues in the New York Times that we should be using similar methods in Afghanistan — namely leaving the battle to local authorities who have a better understanding of local tribal dynamics than we do. I too have visited countries where the locals are doing very well in fighting against guerrillas and terrorists with much less assistance than we have poured into Afghanistan and Iraq; see my reports from the Philippines here and from Colombia here.

But while admiring the efforts of the Filipinos and Colombians — just as I respect the efforts of the Indonesians and others — I am acutely conscious that their example cannot be replicated in Afghanistan, a country whose government disintegrated when our forces entered in 2001. It takes a long time to build up a functioning state, and in the meantime, we have to send our own forces to provide security. A failure to do enough in that regard results in dangerous gains for the enemy, as we saw in Iraq from 2003 to 2007 and in Afghanistan from 2005 to today.

Atran doesn’t seem to realize this. Instead he comforts himself with foolish fairytales about how supposedly benign the Taliban would be if only we left them alone. He adopts the “accidental guerrilla” thesis propounded by Dave Kilcullen, which holds that it is American military action that is driving the Pashtuns into the Taliban’s hands. This flagrantly ignores the historical record which shows that the Taliban were far more powerful back in the 1990s when there was not a single American soldier on the ground in Afghanistan. In those days, too, the Taliban cemented a close alliance with al-Qaeda, which they have never renounced even though it would have been to their advantage to do so. This suggests rather strongly that if we followed Atran’s advice and left Afghanistan to its own devices, it would soon be taken over by jihadists bent on attacking not only Pakistan but also Europe and the United States.

To argue otherwise, Atran engages in ridiculous speculation. He writes:

After 9/11, the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, assembled a council of clerics to judge his claim that Mr. bin Laden was the country’s guest and could not be surrendered. The clerics countered that because a guest should not cause his host problems, Mr. bin Laden should leave. But instead of keeping pressure on the Taliban to resolve the issue in ways they could live with, the United States ridiculed their deliberation and bombed them into a closer alliance with Al Qaeda. Pakistani Pashtuns then offered to help out their Afghan brethren.

In other words, he believes that our initial decision to intervene militarily in Afghanistan after 9/11 was a major mistake. He thinks we should have relied on the Taliban’s good graces to kick out al-Qaeda, ignoring the fact that we offered them an opportunity to do just that and they passed on it. Atran’s argument is not a serious analysis; it is wishful thinking. To President Obama’s credit, he considered such views during the course of his Afghan policy review—and rejected them.

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