A couple of weeks ago, I posted a short piece about my Afghanistan misgivings, in which I argued that Afghanistan is not, in fact, the central front of the War on Terror, that it is ultimately marginal to the story, that our terrorism problem is mainly centered in the Arab world, and in Pakistan, but not in Afghanistan (and in any case, there's no winning in Afghanistan without a "win," whatever that might mean, in Pakistan). My friend Reuel Gerecht objected to my argument, and mailed in this response. I'll respond to his response later, but I'm at Reagan National now, waiting to have my shoes X-rayed as part of my contribution to the War on Terror:
Jeffrey, I wanted to write you re your post of 25 September "Is Afghanistan Really the Central Front?" Your questioning of Afghanistan's preeminence in the battle against jihadism was thoughtful and historically searching. You are undoubtedly correct in underscoring Afghanistan's near-irrelevance in the development of modern Muslim thought, and the central importance of Arabs to al-Qa'ida. The Arab holy warriors who actually fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets were radicalized long before they arrived in Peshawar; I can't think of a single Afghan intellectual who has shaped either Sunni or Shi'ite militancy. (Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani was Iranian by birth and a bit Islamic and a lot Western by education.) The Arab world's dysfunctional efforts to come to grips with modernity, as you say, created the virus that struck us on 9/11 and has slaughtered so many Muslims--especially in Iraq. And it's a decent bet that the slow evanescence of jihadism as a vibrant religious calling among Sunni Arabs--assuming it continues--will be the death knell for jihadists globally.
I do have, however, a problem with your Arab-centric intellectual ways. For al-Qa'ida operationally, there is nothing more important now than the Taliban wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unless al-Qa'ida is able to reignite Sunni-Shi'ite strife in Iraq, and the odds of this happening seem pretty small, Sunni jihadism has lost the Iraq war, and with it, cross your fingers, the Arabs. Mesopotamia really was the "central front" in the war on terror because it was the only military theater al-Qa'ida and its allies had in the Arab world. Drive out the Americans, unleash a Sunni-Shi'ite bloodbath that just might bring Sunni Arab states and Iran into a bloody cold--ideally hot--war, and Sunni Islamic militancy might just shake the region. Decent strategists, bin Ladin and az-Zawahiri knew what they were saying when they described Iraq as the decisive battleground. Victory there would have given their cause real possibilities in the Muslim heartlands.
The neo-Taliban in Afghanistan, like the Pakistani Taliban, are the children of al-Qa'ida. Only in Afghanistan and Pakistan have we seen jihadism actually take root in large numbers. No place else in the Muslim world was laid waste like Afghanistan. The Taliban represent a remarkably redoubtable militant Islamist movement capable of grafting onto a vibrant ethnic identity (Pashtunism) and the diversity of culture and local loyalties that inevitably come with mountainous terrain. Mollah Omar and many other Pashtuns embraced bin Ladin because the Islamist soil in Afghanistan was so fertile: Savage Afghan communism in the 1970s, even more brutal Soviet occupation in the 1980s, and civil war in the 1990s left Afghanistan with no transcendent loyalties beyond faith. In a functioning tribal society, with its conventions and family hierarchies, Mollah Omar, or the suicide-bomber-loving Jallaluddin Haqqani, or the equally vicious Gulbiddin Hekmatyar, could not have arisen. They thrive in Afghanistan today because tribal society has been dying--especially for men of imagination, ambition, and militant conviction. And there is no border when it comes to radical Islamic Pashtunism: militancy on one side of the Durand line feeds militancy on the other.
Now, bin Ladin and az-Zawahiri would probably prefer to have the central front again in the Arab world. But in Afghanistan and Pakistan they have wars that their side might win. Now, or in the not too distant future, it may be impossible operationally and philosophically to tell the difference between Arab al-Qa'ida and Afghan and Pakistani radical groups, which have as a loadstar the Pashtun militants who comprise the neo-Taliban on both sides of the border. The foot-soldiers of this cause are not as worldly as their Arab forerunners; they do not have any noteworthy thinkers drawing large crowds.
But they do offer the promise of great success: within Pakistan and India are highly-educated Muslims who just might join the cause. Arab al-Qa'ida never enlisted first-rate--not even second-rate--scientific talent. Pakistan and India, with vastly better educational establishments than the Arab world, might just provide what modern holy warriors have so far lacked: the requisite skill to deploy weapons of mass destruction against the United States.
And Pakistan has become one of the great battle grounds of the Muslim civil war that you so rightly underscore. It's not an Arab-only endeavor. Pakistan and Iran, the most dynamic laboratory of Islamic political thought, and post-Saddam Iraq are the guides to a better (or worse) future for believers. They are trying to rework the way modernity and religion have, so far, unsuccessfully married. They are trying to work democracy effectively into the faith, and with it the promise of less easily traumatized mores. Egypt, too, once it frees itself from the tyranny and stasis of Mubarak and the police state behind him, will likely join them (the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in negating the legitimacy of the truly violent, takfiri fundamentalists is unexplored terrain, but it's something to look at). You are right: the Arabs are big players in the current tug of war among Muslims. But they may not be the decisive agents. That honor may go to the Iranians and the Pakistanis, with the much more religious Turks, who are increasingly the subject of religious Arab conversations, running closely behind.
Arab lands surely will provide more lethal soldiers and philosophers to the jihad. But they will likely join a movement led by Muslims who won't give automatically pride of place to those who come from the historic heartlands. Their passions and their enemies will be shared--note the three pillars of the Afghan neo-Taliban (Mollah Omar, the Haqqanis, and Hekmatyar) have become more virulently anti-American than they were a decade ago (and they were rabid then). The war aside, this is a natural evolution: the best and the brightest of the Islamist cause will think and hate globally. Islamic history has regularly seen ideas and institutions germinate with the Arabs and then spread among the more numerous and more powerful peoples of the faith. As bin Ladin has never appeared to be a man of particular Arab hubris, and his affection for Afghanistan and Pakistan appears to be real, he's probably content to see the evolution. We shouldn't be. There is more to say about the surreality of trying to save Pakistan and not go "all in" in Afghanistan, but I'll spare both of us.