State building over multiple nations in Afghanistan.

The aim of the Trump “mini-surge” is largely a repackage of policies already seen including the training of Afghan forces and an increased focus on counterterrorism operations. The logic defending the continued American military presence in Afghanistan is to help provide the physical security that would allow for the strengthening of Afghan governance. Those in favor of the surge argue that it is not possible to improve Afghani governance unless pursued in a physically stable environment. Along with the dismantling of Al-Qaeda and its terrorist camps, this has been the reasoning that defends keeping the American military in Afghanistan.

So, if the argument for more American resources being sent to Afghanistan is that it will help build a self-sustaining Afghanistan government, then we should evaluate progress based on that criteria. What has the United States put into Afghanistan and how does it compare with the return received for its investment?

The investment? American troop strength has varied over the past 16 years, with a peak around 100,000 in 2010. In addition to troop deployments, the United States has provided Afghanistan $117.26 billion for relief and reconstruction since 2002. Note that this doesn’t include contractors or the contributions made by American allies.

The return? In rule of law, regulatory quality, control of corruption, government effectiveness, and political stability, the World Bank ranked Afghanistan at or near the very bottom in each category for the past 18 consecutive years. Freedom House ranks Afghanistan as “not free” for every single year of the American war. Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Afghanistan 169 of 176 in its metric of corruption perception.

Why has America achieved little to any progress in erecting an effective Afghanistan government despite sending so many troops and investing so much aid? Surge defenders argue that the lack of success in Afghanistan is because of mistakes made by the intervener; that is, the failure of America in Afghanistan is a result of relying on a combination of air power, special forces, and indigenous militias instead of a full-blown occupation. These are the people who always argue that “we would have been successful if we had a bit more resources.” It is still difficult to take these surge arguments seriously when the amount of time and money spent in Afghanistan is already far larger than what the United States invested in both Japan and Germany, combined. There is also the obvious fact that little to anything changed in the quality of the Afghan government after the 100,00 troop Obama surge.

The fact is that the poor performance of the Afghanistan government is not because of American commitment. The poor performance of the Afghanistan government is because America is trying to build a central state over multiple nations.

A state is a self-sustaining set of institutions that govern over a well-defined and internationally recognized area.

A nation is a collective identify of people rooted in a combination of a common language, shared traditions, and most often, ethnicity.

The United Kingdom is a state with four nations. The Kurds are a nation without a state. Japan is a nation-state.

For most of its history, Afghanistan has been multiple nations exercising local autonomy under a weak state. Even after the billions spent and hundreds of thousands of troops deployed, this is Afghanistan today.

As of 2016, Afghanistan had about 33 million citizens, 40 percent who identify as Pashtun, 33 percent who identify as Tajik, 9 percent who identify as Uzbek, 11 percent who identify as Hazara, and 8 other groups who number between 1 to 2 percent of the population. Ethnic fueled fighting is nothing new to Afghanistan. Just before the arrival of the coalition troops in 2001, Afghanistan was recovering from a series of ethnic civil wars that claimed an estimated 100,000 Afghans. The Taliban, America’s main antagonist in the conflict, is largely drawn from the Afghan Pashtuns and the only thing that the other tribes have in common with each other is a fervent hatred of Pashtuns. Ethnic tensions of Afghanistan are so strong that their Census is not even able to record tribe membership of the results producing violence.

The tendency to identify with the tribe and not as an Afghanistan makes it difficult for the state to consolidate power. Franky, an interest for a strong Afghan government is largely limited to Washington D.C. and among those Afghans who run it. America needs to better set priorities and recognize building a central government over competing and distrustful ethnic groups is neither strategic and, most probably, possible. Instead, the United States should look to gradually turn over all security operations to the Afghan National Army, cut its losses, and not fight against centuries of Afghan history.

Don’t escalate the fight against ISIS.

President Trump has identified ISIS as his highest priority and, acting accordingly, has deployed 1,000 Marines to Syria, pledged future support to Iraq, and requested an additional 5 billion dollars to help escalate the fight.

There are good reasons for the United States to be concerned with ISIS. At its height, some estimated that ISIS controlled approximately 35,000 thousand square miles including such major cities as Mosul, Ramdi, Falluja, and Raqqa. Outside of the Middle East they have inspired similar style caliphates, such as Boko Haram, as well as terrorist attacks against the west.

Yet, it is still not clear that it is in America’s interest to get furthered involved in this fight. This is because there are other groups in the region who have a stronger incentive to defeat ISIS and, by most metrics, appear to be doing just that.

According to IHS Conflict Monitor, ISIS lost approximately a quarter of its territory in 2016. Ramdi and Falluja were recaptured and ISIS is on the verge of losing Mosul and Raqqa. Their reduction in territory was accompanied by an estimated loss of 50,000 fighters.

Their financial problems are mounting as well. It has been reported that the Caliphate’s monthly revenue and oil production are down 30 percent and salaries have been cut nearly in half.

All of this has resulted in a lowered morale, an increase in infighting, and a rise in desertions.

American air strikes certainly played a role in creating this situation, yet it is probably not in America’s interest to get furthered involved in the conflict. ISIS is already battling a long list of enemies in the region that include the Assad regime, the Russian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Iranian, and Turkish governments, the Kurds, various Sunni rebel groups, Hezbollah, and basically most of the Muslim population at this point. All of these groups have different reasons for getting involved in the conflict, and at times their regional interests conflict with one another, yet all have an interest in defeating ISIS. Despite the complicated politics of the region, they have been working together to do this. To give just a few examples, Russia and Turkey have fought together in Al Bab, Iran has deployed its military to support the Assad regime and Iraqi government, and a variety of local militias which include Arabs, Syrian Christians, Turkmen, and Kurds are working together in taking back Raqqa.

ISIS poses the biggest threat to the region, not America. Therefore, it should be the regional forces that take the lead in defeating them, not some country on the other side of the world. Despite not always being well coordinated, this is what is happening. The Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian governments as well as the various local non-state entities have all made serious advances into former ISIS territory and have seriously reduced ISIS ranks. With the momentum for an ISIS defeat growing, the United States may be tempted to rush in and tip the balance, but it would be wise not to interfere. Further American involvement would reduce the incentive of the local forces to continue their fight against the organization as well as possibly producing unintended consequences. It was after all the American invasion of Iraq and the de-Ba’athification of the Baathist regime that lead to the creation of ISIS in the first place. There is no way to know how an American escalation of the fight will complicate the current conflict and with ISIS on the ropes, the United States would be wise to leave well enough alone and continue to let the local powers take the lead in defeating ISIS.

 

Trump’s transition team and terrorism.

Trump’s transition is taking shape and it doesn’t look like any political bridges will be built, at least not through who he appoints in his administration. Matt Apuzzo and Mark Landler have an interesting article in the NYT discussing the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama as attorney general, Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas as C.I.A. director and Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser.

These three don’t mince words when discussing Islam and terrorism. Some of the quotes and positions attributed to these three are outright ridiculous.

For example,

General Flynn similarly favors the immigration ban and has expressed support for the idea of forcing Muslims in the United States to register with the government. He once erroneously wrote on Twitter that Shariah, or Islamic law, was in danger of taking over the country.

As well,

Mr. Pompeo has said Muslim leaders contribute to the threat of terrorism by refusing to repudiate it, although Islamic leaders and advocacy groups have done so repeatedly, and often. “Silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts and, more importantly still, in those that may well follow,” Mr. Pompeo said in 2013.

From reading the article, it’s clear that all three nominees share the idea that there is a special relationship between Islam and terrorism. As William McCants, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution states, “The thinking here is that…religion is the key factor that influences everything else.”

This is what is bothersome about these appointments. I’m no apologist for Islam. There is a good amount of evidence to support the argument that Islam has a unique relationship with terrorism. Most, if not all, recent large-scale terrorist attacks have been done in the name of Islam. I don’t know of any modern Christian equivalent to 9/11 and I’ve never seen a headline about a Jew beheading a journalist in the name of Judaism. And it is not just those who commit terrorism but the sympathetic outlook of many Muslims. You can find plenty of similar survey data but here are 2010 results on Muslim views of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. Indonesia, usually offered as an example of the compatibility of Islam and modern governance, had 25 percent of surveyed Muslims express confidence in Bin Laden.

views-of-bin-laden

My take on how to approach the relationship between Islam and the terrorism is to remind myself that (1) Muslim attitude can be differentiated by area and (2) the issue of Islam and terrorism is relatively new. Two antidotes generally shape my thinking.

Regarding the first point, the Muslim community in the United States is, on average, well adjusted. There have been several spectacular attacks like San Berdino and Orlando, but overall Muslims living in the United States are fairly well assimilated. In terms of terrorism, Muslims have been responsible for approximately 6 percent of all terrorist attacks carried out in the United States from 1980 to 2005.

See the data provided in Omar Alnatour’s Huffington Post article here, which states “According to the FBI, 94% of terrorist attacks carried out in the United States from 1980 to 2005 have been by non-Muslims.” This is misleading considering in 2015 there are only 3.3 million Muslims of all ages living in the United States and represents 1 percent of the overall population. This is the largest it has ever been so it seems that Muslims do cause a disproportionate amount of terrorism compared to other groups. But there is comforting data of American Muslim views towards terrorism. Less than 8 percent of American Muslims consider suicide bombings sometimes or often justified for defending the religion. That number is larger than we would like but it is not benchmarked and I don’t expect it to be significantly different from a similar style question posed to American Christians.

american-muslim-views-towards-terrorism

The other perspective I keep in mind is a long view of history. Islam hasn’t always been linked with terrorism or has been illiberal. Although not perfect, Islam has been relatively tolerant towards other faiths, most notably Judaism. Radical Islam didn’t really emerge until the work of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian cleric who made his name by discrediting Arab leadership advocated a holy war against the post colonial regimes. But we didn’t see any serious amounts of Islamic terrorism until the 1970’s, with the Al Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and this was a response to the failed state building process of postcolonial Arabia and the success of Israel.

My point is that Islam is a little over 1,600 years old but Islamic terrorism in any serious form is only 40 years old. If the problem was “Islam” why don’t we have 1,600 years of terrorism? It seems to me that the religion didn’t change but the culture in which it is interpreted and practiced has. Like all major religious texts, the Koran has a large amount of ambiguous and culturally backwards passages that lend themselves to explanation. Just as you can find a passage advocating (2:244) you can also find a passage for tolerance (2:256).

How do we persuade Muslims to focus on the latter and not the former? Probably do the opposite of what Trump and his new cabinet members want to do. What motivates Islamic terrorism is an underlying sense of alienation in a context of economic, cultural, and political stagnation. Islamic terrorism is an attempt of asserting one’s identity as a response to the failure of Islam to offer any viable alternative to the modernity (i.e. the west). I’ll write more on this in a later essay, but for now read Bernard’s Lewis’s piece here.

So the issue is not only do we have someone who claimed Islam is cancer as a future National Security advisor, he is part of an administration which ran on a platform of 1) extreme vetting (or a ban, not sure what he wants at this point), 2) bring back waterboarding, 3) retaliating against terrorist by bombing their families, 4) frame the issue of terrorism as Islamic terrorism. If you agree that the root of Islamic terrorism is estrangement from the modernity, you will also agree that these policies and appointments only exacerbate the issue. The shape that Trumps administration is taking shape suggest that his administration will further dehumanize the wider Muslim community and to reframe the debate as one between the West versus Muslim instead of civilized versus uncivilized.