Amidst the sorrow and solidarity of the mass rally in Paris in January following the Charlie Hebdo massacres, French terrorism expert Samuel Laurent sought to bring clarity to the debate on Islamic extremism. Asked by a CNN reporter about the “connection” between various such attacks in recent years, Laurent emphasized the essential unity of jihadism. “Even if two people or two groups are not acting in connection in terms of belonging to the same group,” he explained, “whether it be ISIS, whether it be Al Qaeda, still the ideology that underlies their action is basically the same—and this is radical Islam.”
The reminder that there are root causes to this unending crisis is salutary, given the welter of explanation and blame that surrounds it. Some commentators assert that the Islamic State was the inevitable result of the total withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq; others counter that it was precisely President George W. Bush’s invasion that allowed Islamist militants to thrive in the first place, in a country where they had been long suppressed by a secular tyranny. In Afghanistan, the brutal escalation of the insurgency has been held up as proof of the United States’ failure to build an Afghan army equal to the task of prevailing against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Others insisted that the situation there pales in significance compared with the dramatic events in Iraq and Syria—until the claim that the Paris attacks were an Al Qaeda operation ordered by its Pakistan-based leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, put that region on the table again. Opening her latest presidential bid with a barbed interview in the Atlantic last August, Hillary Rodham Clinton attributed the ongoing reversals in the Middle East to President Barack Obama’s refusal to arm moderate Syrians—he worried about sophisticated weapons falling into the wrong hands, he said—early in their revolt against Bashar al-Assad. “[A] failure to do that left a big vacuum,” Clinton said in the interview, “which the jihadists have now filled.” Looming over all these polemics is the specter that, after fourteen years of multiple wars, the threat of Islamic extremism may be stronger and more widespread than it was before the September 11 attacks, leaving America and the West less safe than ever. That is certainly a fear Republican presidential hopefuls are exploiting.
What remains undeniable is the gravity of the current geopolitical situation from the Seine to the Indus. Can this situation be merely the product of contemporary “mistakes,” as even former British prime minister Tony Blair, a strong supporter of the Iraq invasion, has conceded? Or is there perhaps a deeper and persistent problem in our mindset, a flaw that may be undermining America’s ability to confront violent political Islam, and may even have created the problem to begin with? Writing in the New York Times last August, columnist Roger Cohen noted that “America tends toward a preference for unambiguous right and wrong,” seeing events “within a Manichean framework.” The critique is not new. As Erich Auerbach observed almost seventy years ago in his masterwork, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, the Manichean view “does not see forces, it sees vices and virtues, successes and mistakes. Its formulation of problems is not concerned with historical developments, either intellectual or material, but with ethical judgments.” Auerbach argued that such analyses, especially when heightened by intensely emotional rhetoric, can be self-serving and self-defeating; the more fruitful approach is not merely to judge a state of affairs undesirable, but to “[take] up the question of how such a state of affairs came about.”
Indeed, there has been little attempt to place September 11 and the ensuing violence in the kind of broad perspective—both historical and moral—that would offer a more comprehensive representation of the reality that confronts us. So how did Islamic extremism come about? Only by examining the historical rise of jihadism can we break the bonds of our Manichean straightjacket and recognize that the great drama we are caught up in has deeply problematic aspects and, at its heart, a tragedy. And any such liberation must begin with an unsparingly frank reassessment of the long-term consequences of two key pillars of post–World War II American foreign policy: Washington’s decades-long support of the military-security services complex that rules Pakistan, and its protection of that country’s ideological sponsor, the Saudi Arabian monarchy.
ALTHOUGH MODERN political Islam had its ideological origins in early twentieth-century Egypt, it was in the Arabian peninsula and the Indian subcontinent that it won its first state-level victories. In 1924, an alliance of the Saudi royal family and Wahhabi fundamentalist preachers seized Mecca, founding the kingdom that bears the former’s name while creating a military-ideological nexus useful for the expansion of Islamic extremism. Winston Churchill warned of the danger posed by a sect characterized by “exceeding austerity” and psychologically bound “by duty, as well as faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions.” T. E. Lawrence, who during World War I had liberated Arabia from the Ottoman Turks with help from the Saudis’ rivals, the moderate Hashemites, denounced the Saudis as “marginal medievalists...intensified and swollen with success.” From 1945 on, however, America’s enormous need for oil locked in a stark bargain: as long as the Saudis kept the oil flowing, they could rely on Washington’s protection, their fanaticism notwithstanding. Speaking on CNN during the Paris rally, American terrorism expert Jeremiah O’Keefe explained the effects of this immunity: “[T]he house of Saud,” he said, “has allowed the Wahhabists to export their radical Islam for fifty years throughout the world.”
Yet it was not until the British acceded to demands for the establishment of a separate state of “Pakistan” (“land of the pure”) in Muslim-majority areas of India, upon the independence of that country in 1947, that this military-ideological paradigm assumed a truly destructive potency. Embracing the “Two-Nations theory” that Hinduism and Islam are intrinsically antagonistic and incompatible, the advocates of Pakistan took the apocalyptic motto “Islam in danger” as their battle cry. This alarmism masked the movement’s deeper aim of blocking the socio-economic reforms—such as the abolition of agrarian feudalism—proposed by India’s secularist founders. When partition was effected at the cost of mass killings and an unresolved territorial dispute over Kashmir, the new country’s elite seized on the traumas to propagate the “Ideology of Pakistan,” which depicts that nation as the citadel of an embattled Islam whose frontiers are defined by the struggle to defend the faith. Any responsible engagement with the modern problems of political and economic development was permanently forestalled as religion was exploited to stir up fear and hatred—and to repress those who continued to advocate for reform.
That such an entity was able to secure massive and ongoing military assistance and diplomatic backing from the United States, the leader of the world’s progressive democracies, was a function of the exigencies of the Cold War and the narrow thinking that too often prevailed during the long effort to contain Communism. The Islamic right in general was viewed as a useful ally against a spectrum of perceived enemies on the left; more concretely, American-armed Pakistan was considered a secure square on the global chessboard, just as Saudi Arabia was a sure source of oil.
From the outset, dissident voices warned of the perils of this policy. The U.S. ambassador to India, Chester Bowles, was a strident critic, predicting that the weapons would destroy any chance for rapprochement between Pakistan and India and “draw the Soviets certainly into Afghanistan;” and when the Eisenhower administration insisted that the aid was explicitly provided solely for self-defense and would not be misused, Sen. Albert Gore Sr. answered bluntly that “it is they who are going to use it, not you.” That such warnings were ignored in 1950s Cold-War Washington is no surprise. Yet successive American administrations have stuck tenaciously to this deeply troubled security relationship long after these and subsequent critics were vindicated by repeated waves of regional destabilization, radical ideological indoctrination, and mass violence perpetrated by the Pakistani military.
Equipped almost overnight with enough modern armaments to make it a major regional power, Pakistan’s army moved swiftly to advance an aggressive agenda of political Islam on both domestic and international fronts. After forging strong ties with the nation’s Islamist parties, the generals seized formal state control in a coup in 1958, and built a new capital, Islamabad (“city of Islam”) next to their headquarters in the old British garrison town of Rawalpindi. Secular reformist politicians based in the ethnic regions of Punjab, the Pashtun lands, and East Bengal were jailed. The military extended a warm welcome to foreign Islamists and developed a special relationship with Saudi Arabia, which viewed Rawalpindi’s ideology and military capacity as great assets in its own efforts to block modernizing and populist trends in the Arab world. Anger at the suppression of civil liberties, the perpetuation of economic feudalism, and the promotion of an intolerant conception of Islam was especially severe among Bengalis, the subcontinent’s most liberal Muslims, separated moreover by a thousand miles from the rest of Pakistan.
Having crushed democracy at home, the military turned to challenge its neighbors, India and Afghanistan. Not only did Pakistan have territorial disputes with both states; the fact that they were allied with each other—and that tens of millions of Muslims lived peacefully in India—seemed to contradict the “Two-Nations theory” of intrinsic religious enmity. And Rawalpindi’s authoritarian religious militarism was incompatible with the secular democratic modernizing ethos of the governments in New Delhi and Kabul. Armed confrontation was not long in coming. In 1965 Pakistan shredded the written guarantees made to India by three American presidents and five ambassadors—promises that our military aid would never be used in a first strike against it—by launching a full-scale war to seize Kashmir, an attack that was decisively repulsed.
Weakened by this defeat, the generals in 1970 were forced to hold elections. When the social democratic Awami party, based in East Bengal, prevailed, the military quashed the results and unleashed an assault on the Bengalis, an assault that soon attained genocidal proportions. Intellectuals were systematically assassinated, villages razed, women raped and murdered, and Hindus marked for summary execution. This terror campaign was heightened by the deployment of razakars (“volunteers”) drawn from the youth wings of the Islamist parties, organized and directed by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), the army’s spy agency. As the death toll soared into the hundreds of thousands, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who had toured the Indian refugee camps that sheltered those fleeing the carnage, declared to the Senate that “America’s heavy support of Islamabad is nothing short of complicity in the human and political tragedy.” Yet the Nixon administration continued material and diplomatic support for its South Asian client until India invaded the province in late 1971, compelled the surrender of all Pakistani forces, and enabled its independence under the name “Bangladesh.”
IN THE WAKE of such catastrophes, which did not serve American interests and defied American values, a serious reconsideration of the military assistance program for Pakistan was called for. Yet Washington held to its original strategic calculus, insisting that Pakistan was a useful ally against Communism. It is one of the many tragic ironies of this drama that when Chester Bowles’s dire prediction came true with the Soviet Union’s takeover of Afghanistan in 1978, it only served to deepen the United States’ commitment to Rawalpindi, and drive it into even darker terrain.
Having learned—at great cost—that head-on clashes with its neighbors were unwise, the Pakistani military focused on the model of militant razakars as the best means of advancing its agenda at home and abroad. In Afghanistan, a land whose tradition of moderate Islam made it infertile ground for such subversion, the effort faltered amid weak support for the native Islamist parties—until a coup by Moscow-trained Communist officers overthrew the Kabul government. At long last, American and Pakistani interests now seemed to coincide perfectly (though a vision of the future was far clearer in Rawalpindi than in Washington). In return for agreeing to serve as the base of the Afghan resistance in the 1980s, the Pakistanis demanded that, while the CIA provided the money, the entire operation be controlled and managed by the ISI. Afghans could fight only if they were enrolled in one of their religious parties, and the most extreme received the lion’s share of the aid. Refugees were indoctrinated in the “Ideology of Pakistan” with texts that preached hatred of non-Muslims in general, and the struggle was depicted not as one for the liberation of their country, but a jihad in defense of an “Islam in danger.” The Reagan administration did not contest this arrangement.
With heavy financing from the Saudis, the Pakistani Islamist parties greatly expanded their radical religious schools, which doubled as supply depots and training camps. Foreign fundamentalists flocked to “the land of the pure” as never before, among them the Saudi Osama bin Laden, who was to found the most infamous razakar of them all, Al Qaeda. Far more than a proxy insurgency, the Soviet war became a vast military-ideological effort to “Islamize” Pakistan along fundamentalist lines and give it “strategic depth” in a radicalized Afghanistan from which it could pursue its enduring rivalry with secular, democratic India.
When the Russians were compelled to withdraw in 1989, Pakistan had finally won a war, and for a while it seemed that America had won as well. Yet the price of opposing Soviet totalitarianism on Rawalpindi’s terms had been the creation of an integrated and well-armed jihadist complex in South-Central Asia comprising the Pakistani military, the ISI, and the many Islamist parties, schools, militants, and terrorists associated with them. Amid the vast geopolitical shifts that attended the fall of Communism, the United States believed it was through with the region.
But in fact, the jihad had just begun. In 1990, amid strong evidence that Pakistan had obtained nuclear weapons capability through espionage, Sen. Larry Pressler succeeded in terminating the military assistance program to the country, via legislation in Congress. The Pressler Amendment could not undo the formidable infrastructure that Rawalpindi had created with American help, however, or prevent it from being sustained by Saudi money. Furthermore, successive administrations’ lack of interest in the problem gave Pakistan a free hand to deploy its well-armed jihadi assets in the civil war it fomented in Afghanistan and the insurgency it inflamed in Kashmir throughout the 1990s. French scholar Olivier Roy has given the best summation of the dynamics of this integrated operation:
Pakistan’s Afghan policy was absolutely in line with its policy on Kashmir: first and foremost the use of international militias composed of Islamic volunteers; direct support for the mujahedin; the same religious network to train volunteers; the same implacable denial that they are interfering. These are often the very organizations that are found in Kashmir helping the Taliban, such as Harkat ul-Ansar. So it was indeed a policy of aggression on all sides that Pakistan pursued.
Although the Indian army was ultimately able to defeat the Kashmiri militants, Pakistan’s Afghan proxies fared better, though only after a further decade of heavy loss of life. When its first insurgent proxy leader, Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, proved unable to take Kabul despite destroying half the city with ISI-directed rocket fire, Rawalpindi switched its support to the even more severe Taliban. With the Taliban victory in 1996, Pakistan’s long-sought goal of “strategic depth” via military-ideological control of Afghanistan seemed to have been achieved at last—until the attacks on September 11, 2001, fomented by one of the many terrorist groups to whom the Taliban extended hospitality with their sponsor’s blessing, unleashed the current era of conflict in which we live.
HOWEVER one chooses to characterize the story of American military assistance to Pakistan and our backing of Saudi Arabia, and the consequences of these policies across the globe, it is surely not an unambiguous tale of right and wrong. While America’s alliances with right-wing dictatorships were a given part of the geostrategic structure of the Cold War—by necessity or not—in no other instance did these ties involve countenancing such extremely high levels of recidivist violence and radical anti-Western ideology. Washington’s unwavering willingness to back its South Asian client no matter what crimes it perpetrated, so long as its perceived utility against Communism remained unaffected, made the United States complicit in grave moral failures. Events have long since proved that the policy was spectacularly injurious to our national security as well. And when such a clearly misguided course is followed for so long, it is no mere “mistake.” The fatal loss of a sense of proportion, both ethical and pragmatic, lies at the heart of this tragedy.
In tragedies that have a beneficial resolution, the protagonist comes to a recognition of the faults that brought catastrophe on, enabling the cathartic action that makes resolution possible. Unfortunately, nothing of the kind has taken place in the United States. Since September 11, the same Manichean framework that guided Cold War policy has been applied to the confrontation with violent political Islam, with self-defeating results. A similarly tragic mindset of absolute self-righteousness, expediency based solely on perceived utility, and a lack of empathy for those directly affected by our policies—compounded by a refusal to come to terms with the legacy of American support for the Pakistani military and the Saudi monarchy and the role of that support in the rise of global jihadism—has led to our current reversals in the struggle against Islamic militancy. The attendant taboo against seeing September 11 as a consequence of severely myopic American foreign policies, which had already had a catastrophic impact in the Islamic world and needed to be fundamentally altered, has produced a skewed representation of reality—and wide-ranging political, military, and moral failure for the United States.
First and foremost, this state of denial has led to erroneous depictions of violent political Islam as a purely nihilistic eruption of insanity and evil, or a lower-class revolt against corrupt elites, rather than what it really is: a twisted exploitation of one of the world’s great religions by those very elites, to block modernizing social and economic transformations that would come at their expense. By the same logic, it is viewed as a non-state phenomenon—unless the state happens to be Iran—rather than a force that has been fostered and exported by purported American allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for decades. The fact that some militants have turned on their former sponsors, a common enough occurrence in the history of extremism, does not alter the fact of the continuing role of these states as epicenters of radical Islam.
Concentrating all our attention on Al Qaeda ignored the milieu in which it thrived, and vowing to crush the Taliban because they had acted as Al Qaeda’s hosts evaded the larger issue of who had put them in power in Afghanistan, and why. And so there was never a more absurd turn in American foreign policy than that taken when President Bush, with a dire ultimatum delivered at a moment of high historical crisis, demanded that Pakistan become an ally against the very Islamic militancy upon which its power is based at home and projected abroad. In extremis (and with the threat softened by the offer of resumed military assistance), Rawalpindi predictably agreed, and then engaged in one of the great dissembling feats of modern times—accepting massive aid from the United States while using it to wage a proxy war against us, using the same jihadi assets that had served its unchanging purposes so well in the past.
The fact that President Obama has stuck to this desperate illogic, even after Pakistani support for the Taliban enabled them to repulse his surge of troops in Afghanistan—and after Osama bin Laden was killed in his hideout, in the back yard of the country’s military academy—shows how dismally far we are from honestly facing up to error in Washington. This weakness is undermining the fight against the Islamic State as well, as was recently demonstrated when the first unit of American-trained moderate fighters was routed by Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Saudi-backed Nusra Front, before they came anywhere near their target. And so the United States falters in yet another effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” an extremist force, having all but ignored the vast jihadist complex in South-Central Asia that is the main point of diffusion for such forces. Yet rather than putting partisan polemics over strategy and tactics, a profound self-examination is in order. The Manichean viewpoint may be a comfortable one, but it is keeping us from engaging with reality. The perspective we need instead would be informed by Greek tragedy, with its purifying scrutiny of the depths of the protagonist’s involvement in the dilemma before him; Hebrew prophecy, with its fervent appeals for the recognition of self-degrading wrongs and a plea for their elimination; and Christianity, with its profound consciousness of the ubiquity of sin in all human beings, and its deep faith in confession and atonement as a means of vital transformation. When one is in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, as we clearly are at this hour, there is nothing as powerful as a mea culpa to set oneself right with the world.
And that will not be achieved through the welter of morally confused and strategically contradictory military actions and diplomatic initiatives that the Obama administration is currently engaged in from Libya to Iraq to Pakistan. With no political programs to address the socio-economic needs of the peoples in question, these improvised interventions repeat the worst impulses of the Cold War, and do so without any similar overarching historical vision to justify them—not even the narrower goal of American national security. Providing logistical support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal military incursion in Yemen will certainly do nothing to foster a tolerant conception of Islam there. Tolerating the monarchy’s support for the Nusra Front, and other allied jihadist groups, in accordance with the Saudi view that they are a useful counter to the Islamic State, only reveals how extreme distortions of reality can become when a nation’s moral compass is skewed by its need for oil. And President Obama’s announcement that he will leave thousands of troops in Afghanistan until the end of his term, even as he seeks to expand the military assistance program for Pakistan, proves that he is in profound denial about the reasons why that region is one of the poorest, most violent, and dangerous in the world.
Instead, what is required is a sea-change in the American conscience, with the United States taking full responsibility for its past enabling of destructive forces—and taking a stand for principles that truly represent its values and interests as a democratic nation. The enormous humanitarian and security challenges posed by the latest wave of refugees fleeing Islamist carnage, a tide that has now reached far beyond its original South Asian epicenter, can only be met with policies that address the root causes of a phenomenon that continues to exile almost as many Afghans as Syrians. Such a course of action must begin with an acknowledgement that we have helped create vacuums now filled by jihadists, and have placed weapons in the wrong hands, for many years, with grievous consequences for others and ourselves. It would require a break with the Pakistani military and any other ally who sponsors terror and promotes religious hatred in order to keep their people in feudal servitude while expanding their power abroad. It would require a declaration to India and Afghanistan that their security concerns are ours, and that we will work with them to contain Pakistani aggression and reverse the terrible effects it has had on their countries.
More important, to provide a viable alternative to jihadism it would entail cultivating strong, direct relationships—ranging from military assistance and diplomatic support to economic and humanitarian aid—with the reformers and modernizers in the Near East who have long been crushed by our preference for tyrants. And, above all, it would call for showing the Muslim world that we are not just against terrorism and extremism, but with all progressive and moderate forces, both secular and religious, who wish to transform their lands into places where all people can live on terms of equity under the rule of law, and worship God in peace.