9/11: What Could Have Been

Two and a half years have passed since America took the War on Terrorism to Afghanistan. It's time to ask how it's working. Let's review. The day after 9/11, many Americans thirsted for revenge, and surely that's what the terrorists who carried out the hijackings were hoping for. The terrorists were calculating that an all-out American attack on a Muslim country would drive a wedge between Islam and the West and send millions of fresh recruits into their Jihadist ranks.

At first, the United States sidestepped the trap. The campaign launched in Afghanistan on Oct. 7 relied on ground troops, but not on American ground troops. Instead, America gave air cover to the Northern Alliance forged by Ahmad Shah Massoud; Afghan warriors who had been fighting the Taliban for years.

The Pentagon's sophisticated weaponry succeeded in targeting the Taliban in and around Kabul rather than the civilians of the city. We know less about casualties in the southern battlefields at Tora Bora and Shahikot, but in Kabul and points north, the Afghans I talked to in 2002 during a summer visit generally felt that America had made war not on Afghanistan but on the Taliban. Afghans saw the United States as a liberator.

A Missed Opportunity

The day after the Taliban fled Kabul, the United States was poised to make enormous headway toward a new era of peace and progress. At that historical moment, as a victim of the 9/11 attacks, America enjoyed unprecedented goodwill around the world, even among the uncommitted masses in the Muslim world. Had the United States focused all its efforts at that moment on restoring Afghanistan to the course the Soviet invasion interrupted 23 years earlier--a course pointed toward moderation, secular modernity and development, all within an Afghan cultural context--it would have weakened the Jihadist movement dramatically by stripping away its most powerful arguments and examples.

This policy would have strengthened the hand of modernists in the Muslim world, particularly those in a position to enter into theological debates with other Muslims--debates whose importance can scarcely be overstated. Make no mistake: the Muslim world will achieve no social reforms until the grip of the "scholars," of the dictatorial religious establishment, of the mullahs and of the local rural clerics has been loosened and ordinary Muslims have attained the freedom to pursue and express personal visions of Islam.

Until that transformation has taken place, it is pointless and indeed often ruinous for outsiders to attempt to impose amendments to Muslim society. Changes such as democratic elections or mandating a percentage of cabinet seats for women instead create a colonialist dichotomy. All those who question the ossified orthodox interpretations of Islam become the lapdogs of foreign imperialists bent on wrecking the Muslim home. Modernists become utterly discredited, and the deepest bases of social values remain in the hands of the most uncompromising, least tolerant and least educated elements of the society.

A Global War on Muslims?

Culturally ignorant policies in Afghanistan were only half of the problem. The smoke of battle had not even begun to clear before George Bush gave his axis of evil speech, beating the drum for war in Iraq. No matter what American analysts might think, it was impossible then for anyone in the Muslim world to believe that Americans would stop with Iraq. To the masses in the Muslim world, after Iraq, it would be Syria. After Syria, Libya. After Libya, Iran. After Iran, anywhere Arabic, Persian or Urdu was spoken could be soon a target of American bombing.

If you're not with us, you're against us, warned the Bush White House. To most Muslims almost anywhere on Earth, that meant "You had better give up your religion and your culture, because if we can identify you as being kindred in any way to those bastards who bombed our buildings in New York, even if it's just the syllables you utter when you pray or the clothes you wear or the folktales you grew up on, we're coming after you."

Then came the news that if you got arrested and sent to Guantanamo, you wouldn't be able to send a message to your friends and family letting them know where you were.

Then came the news that America would turn over selected prisoners to Egyptian or Saudi authorities, because those folks had no compunction about torture. America's enemies would suffer while America kept its hands "clean."

If you're a Muslim teenager in Egypt or Tunisia or Algeria or elsewhere in the Muslim world, you got the message. You had better become indistinguishable from American teenagers, or you will be arrested and handed over to your local torturer.

Such was the future forced upon the imagination of Muslims everywhere--with a global population nearly a billion strong, living largely in poverty and simply looking for a way to achieve a life of dignity and hope.

What Could Have Been

Imagine the impact on the Muslim world if today, had the news from Afghanistan told of a country cleared of landmines--in which schools and clinics and hospitals had gone up in even the smallest villages, in which good highways made it possible for people to move among the cities and villages freely, in which fields and orchards had been replanted and grains and fruit were being harvested.

Imagine Afghan entrepreneurs--financed by numerous small banks with money for micro-loans--cranking out products manufactured in small workshops, sufficient to the needs of Afghanistan and some for export as well. Imagine thriving cities in which merchants were busy trading goods. Imagine that trade weaving the country into a partnership with the larger world, giving Afghans occasion to travel to India and Egypt and Germany and France and the United States on business.

Imagine the deep lakes of Bandi Amir and the beautiful cliffs of Bamian, where the world's tallest sculptures once stood, bustling with tourists and trekkers. Imagine climbers again scaling the Hindu Kush peaks and cheerful Afghan hosts sitting down with guests at the hot springs of Obeh near Herat.

Imagine if the world's most wretched country were now a testament to the power of humanity to heal.

It could have happened. Afghans were ready. Never in your life could you have imagined a world in which such a history of suffering had left so little resentment, such a cheerful willingness to start over, as I saw in Kabul in the summer of 2002.

Afghanistan Today

So what's the current Afghan reality? More than 10,000 troops still stationed in the country and no end in sight--and no one even notices through the haze of smoke rising from the battlefields of Iraq. There's one American death each week, but it's not even reported because so many more are dying in Iraq. A constitution has been promulgated that says--in 50 different ways--conservative Muslims will rule this country. Anyone who questions the doctrines of the orthodox will be punished, and that punishment may include death. It doesn't say so explicitly, but it's coded into Hanafi jurisprudence which this constitution enshrines as the default law of the land.

Karzai and others huddle in the government complex in Kabul surrounded by high walls and barbed wire and guarded by American Special Forces. There, technocrats and warlords are trying valiantly to inch toward some negotiated accommodation with the forces of chaos, but without money to spend, there is so little they can do.

Elections were scheduled for June but have been postponed to September. Why? Because the registrars were unable to enroll enough voters. What if they held an election and no one came?

Make Allies, Not Enemies

America does have enemies out there. Those enemies do have an agenda. Their agenda is to promote chaos. Anything they can do to disrupt ordinary life abets them. Anything they can do to increase violence promotes their cause. They are best able to prosper and flourish in chaos. Violent disorder is their petri dish. So when we move about the world trailing bloody, smoky destruction in our wake, it's not "us" we're helping, but "them."

America's hopes lie in eliminating violence, nourishing growth, prosperity, peace and, above all, cultural sovereignty for non-Americans. Newt Gingrich, of all people, said it best: What America needs now not more enemies but more allies. The hardcore terrorists number an infinitesimal percentage of the people out there, but they disappear against the camouflage background of general resentment and hostility. Turn all that hostility into goodwill, and then watch: against that background, the terrorists will stand out like flies on vanilla ice cream.

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