The Fundamentalist Phantom Was Blown Away

William Pfaff
International Herald Tribune
Saturday, November 17, 2001

It was a famous victory, even if was not the victory wanted, Osama bin Laden being still at large. Victory over the Taliban nonetheless will do.

It has made wonderfully evident that the Islamic fundamentalism that has so obsessed Washington, and had so pernicious an influence on people and governments in the Muslim world, is a phantom.

It was blown away by the first serious attack made upon it. Its reality proved, in Afghanistan, to be a mask for the power conflict among tribal and ethnic interests, manipulated by Pakistan military intelligence in order to advance the Kashmir struggle and provide Pakistan with what was expected to be a secure frontier.

Theirs was a reckless plan, which now has recoiled on Pakistan's fundamentalists. Assuming that fugitive Taliban power in the south continues to disintegrate, as tribes rally to causes with a more promising future than bin Laden, and assuming that international efforts to establish and supervise a workable coalition to govern in Kabul are successful, the affair can finish with large and positive consequences. It could begin the end of the Islamic fundamentalist threat to international stability.

It could replace Washington's Manichaean formulation of war against evil, which by definition can never be won, with real victories: a restored Afghan state and society, and new practical defenses against residual terrorist gestures by what remains of the Qaida organization and by those who would emulate it.

This victory in Afghanistan, rightly handled, could produce international consequences like those of Britain's defeat of Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982.

Defeating that act of hubris and folly by the Argentine military junta, which had been conducting a "dirty war" against its own and neighboring countries' citizens since 1979, discredited the Argentine generals. It rapidly led to the restoration of civilian government in Argentina.

A cabal of repressive military governments, persecuting one another's dissidents, was the plague of the region at the time. It was fatally shaken by Argentina's defeat. Brazil rid itself of its military government in 1985 and Chile in 1988.
Popular repudiation of the Taliban government demonstrates that Islamic fundamentalism is fragile because it lacks intellectual and political substance. It is incapable of providing constructive answers to the demands of society, as Iran has been painfully discovering.

This lesson inevitably will cool the attractions of fundamentalism elsewhere in the Muslim world. The Taliban government was supposed to express the deepest beliefs and ambitions of the Afghan people.

The people, with rejoicing and relief, repudiated it once its military bluff was called. Mullah Omar's tribal allies melted away, and he was left with little more than Arab and Pakistani recruits to the Taliban's messianic message.

Similarly, the reputation of Osama bin Laden as evil mastermind of a global network of agents challenging and humiliating the United States has come tumbling down.

Now he can be seen as a megalomaniac fugitive, leader of a utopian sect, abandoned by the Pashtun tribes that had given him refuge and had used him as he had used them.

It must be said that his reputation was greatest in the United States, promoted by both the Clinton and the Bush administrations, as if evil geniuses were as essential to the intellectual formulation of American foreign policy as they are to the scenarios of James Bond movies.

The gross exaggerations of the American government, in attributing to him global subversive powers, explain in part why the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were such traumatic events for Americans: They were taken as demonstrations that it was all true!

Administration officials and the policy community nonetheless relentlessly went on, speculating on where Qaida would strike next, repeatedly issuing and debating warnings of unspecified and unspecifiable new terrors. Now bin Laden, the reimagined Dr. No, the reanimated Dr. Fu Manchu, the new Yellow Peril, is seen shaking his fists and promising the destruction of the United States itself - while fleeing for his own life.

What has happened greatly clears the air. Or it should. Fundamentalism is a delusion, which solves none of the real problems of the Islamic world.

Nothing but good can come from the sight of the people of Kabul welcoming Americans as liberators. The risk, for the United States, is that the victory may be thrown away. It must be understood in Washington that victory lies in the fact that the Afghans see themselves as liberated.

It was not a victory for bombing. Bombing discredited the Taliban military challenge, but the fundamental reason victory was possible was that the Taliban themselves had squandered the position they once held as nationalists, defenders of peace and integrity in Afghanistan.

They turned themselves into oppressors. They invited the Qaida Arabs and the Pakistani agents who exploited the Afghan people. By doing so they prepared the victory that has been collected by the coalition Washington formed. It remains a fragile victory.

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