Commentary Magazine

Hezbollah Isn't a Model for Afghanistan

According to the Washington Post, some White House foreign-policy hands may be willing to call it a day in Afghanistan if the U.S. military can beat the Taliban down into something that resembles Hezbollah. I suppose I can see why this appeals to those who know just enough about the Taliban to think it’s possible, and just enough about Hezbollah to think it’s desirable.


Hezbollah is moderate and almost reasonable compared with the Taliban. It participates in democratic politics and even conceded the most recent election to Lebanon’s "March 14" coalition. Not even its worst fanatics throw acid in the faces of unveiled women as the Taliban does. Its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, doesn’t require women to wear headscarves, let alone body-enveloping burkhas, in territory he controls. While the Taliban destroyed ancient Buddha statues in Bamyan with anti-aircraft guns in 2001, the Roman Empire’s Temple of Bacchus, where Western imperialists used to hold pagan orgies, remains an unmolested tourist attraction bang in the middle of Hezbollah’s Bekaa Valley stronghold. Oh, and Hezbollah hasn’t killed any Americans in Lebanon lately.


So, yes, Afghanistan would be a better place if it suffered the likes of Hezbollah instead of the Taliban. But prosecuting a war for that outcome would be bonkers. Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy militia and a Lebanese guerrilla army that starts wars with the country next door and violently assaults its own capital. It’s also a global terrorist network with cells on five continents.


Last year, authorities in Azerbaijan arrested Hezbollah operatives who planned to detonate car bombs alongside Baku’s Hyatt Tower, where the Israeli, Japanese, and Thai embassies are located. Twenty-two members of an Egyptian Hezbollah cell are on trial right now for plotting terrorist attacks against tourists. A Hezbollah suicide car bomber killed 29 people at the Israeli embassy in Argentina in 1992, and another suicide bomber killed 85 more at a Jewish community center there two years later.


The Iraqi branch of Hezbollah is hardly an improvement over the Taliban. "Hezbollah kills civilians as well as Americans with total disregard for Iraqis," an American soldier told me in Baghdad recently. "I don’t know why Hezbollah is so much more ruthless [than Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia], but they are."


A senior administration official said the Taliban is "a deeply rooted political movement in Afghanistan" and therefore must be treated differently from al-Qaeda. That’s true of Hezbollah in Lebanon, but it’s not true of the Taliban. The last thing a senior administration official should want is for it to become true of the Taliban.


Hezbollah isn’t popular enough to win an election in Lebanon, not even as part of a diverse coalition of parties from more than one sect. Hezbollah is, however, supported to one extent or another by a majority in Lebanon’s Shia community.


The Taliban’s popularity, meanwhile, is around 6 percent in Afghanistan. Most Afghans and Pakistanis who submit to its rule do so because they’ve been conquered. The Taliban doesn’t even have popular legitimacy in the ethnic Pashtun community it hails from. It is no more "deeply rooted" than al-Qaeda was in Iraq’s Al Anbar.


The fantasy that the Taliban might someday become more like Hezbollah and less like al-Qaeda is based on misunderstandings of all three. Hezbollah isn’t half as moderate as some analysts think, and the Taliban is more bound up with al-Qaeda than many of these same people want to admit.


“It’s a fundamental misreading of the nature of these organizations to think they are anything other than partners," Bruce Riedel said of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. President Obama appointed him to lead the overhaul of its policy there between February and April this year. "Al-Qaeda is embedded in the Taliban insurgency, and it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to be able to separate them.”


Of course al-Qaeda is embedded in the Taliban. That’s why NATO invaded Afghanistan in the first place. After September 11, 2001, the Taliban was given a choice to arrest and hand over the al-Qaeda leaders on its soil or suffer war, and it chose war.


Because it’s bound up with al-Qaeda, it’s still a threat to American and European national security. Matthew Levitt at Middle East Strategy at Harvard points out that the Taliban claimed responsibility for a plot to bomb Barcelona’s subway system last year and that 11 men arrested in Virginia a few years ago were connected to both the Taliban and al-Qaeda.


Iraq’s Sunni Arabs cooperated with Americans to destroy Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s branch of that franchise, not because they became pro-American all of a sudden, but because al-Qaeda violently suppressed their tribal political structure and tried to replace their traditional culture with something alien and totalitarian.


The Taliban are waging the same kind of war against ethnic Pashtuns and their traditional culture in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. "The Taliban systematically destroyed Afghan and specifically Pashtun culture by banning music, the arts and any kind of artistic expression," Dr. S. Amjad Hussain wrote earlier this year after returning to the U.S. from his hometown in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. "For me there is the escape of flying home to America. That can’t be said about millions of people who are being terrorized by these self-appointed, self-anointed, uneducated, and uncouth custodians of my faith."


And listen to Farhat Taj, a Pashtun woman from the same area: "I am writing because I am so very fed up with ‘experts’ in both Pakistan and the West constantly distorting the realities of our people and area. . . . The people living in northwestern Pakistan under Taliban rule are being held hostage. The Taliban terrorists have unleashed a reign of terror on the people, who are not willing to give up their Pashtun culture. They are overpowered by the armed militants. Their lives, livelihood and culture are attacked by the Taliban in league with al Qaeda."


So I have a better idea than trying to transform the Taliban into Hezbollah, which is no more possible than it is desirable. Let’s think of the Taliban as al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan — which it basically is — and vanquish it as we and the locals did to their brothers in arms in Iraq.


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