End the "War on Terror" and Talk to the Taliban
Olivier Roy is a research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research and a lecturer for the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. Roy is author of Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah and The Failure of Political Islam, a standard text for students of political Islam. His most recent work is Secularism Confronts Islam.
Paris—From Gaza to Kandahar, the new Obama administration is confronted with two kinds of Islamist movements: the ones with a global agenda (al-Qaida and its local subsidiaries) and the others with a territorial and national agenda (Taliban, Hamas, most of its Iraqi opponents). There is nothing to negotiate with the global jihadists, but the Islamo-nationalist movements simply cannot be ignored or suppressed.
Hamas is nothing else than the traditional Palestinian nationalism with an Islamic garb. The Taliban express more a Pashtu identity than a global movement. The Iraqi factions are competing not over Iran or Saudi Arabia, but over sharing (or monopolizing) the power in Iraq.
The "war on terror" during the George W. Bush years has blurred this essential distinction by merging all the armed opponents to United States-supported governments under the label of terrorism. The concept of a "war on terror" has thwarted any political approach to the conflicts in favor of an elusive military victory.
Where a political approach has been tried, it has worked. The relative success of the surge in Iraq is based on the implicit rejection of the official doctrine of the "war on terror": Local armed insurgents were recognized as political actors with more or less a legitimate agenda, thus separating them from the foreign-based global militants who did not give a damn about Iraqi national interests.
Could the same approach be applied to the Taliban and Hamas? The appointment of Gen. David Petraeus as CENTCOM chief suggests that this is the idea for Afghanistan. As far as Hamas is concerned, the issue rests with the leaders of Israel, not those in Washington. (Forget about US pressure on Israel. Such pressure could force a temporary agreement but not a long-term solution.)
Nevertheless, for both Afghanistan and Palestine, the issue is the same: If the nationalist dimension supersedes the global jihad—which I think it does—how can a solution be found based on recognizing the legitimacy of nationalist aspirations?
For Palestine, the Oslo agreement defined the framework that still guides the common policy of the West: the two-state solution. A positive side effect of such a solution, which makes it even more desirable for Washington, is that it could open the space for a new strategic alignment against Iran. For all the Arab states, except Syria, the greatest threat today comes from Iran, not Israel.
The problem is the political reality on the ground. No Arab state can impose such an open strategic shift on its public as long as there is no agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. In short, the two-state solution is dead on the ground even if it remains on the diplomatic agenda.
Beyond this reality, the expanded settlements and the security requirements of Israel imply that a Palestinian state will never be viable. By making security a prerequisite for any political move, Israel plays against its potential ally, Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah (who are deprived of the wherewithal to deliver), and in favor of the radicals, who consider negotiations useless.
Adding even further to the conundrum, Israel and the West have tried to impose on the Palestinians both elections and the outcome of the elections. In the view of the West, the Palestinian people should not have chosen Hamas by democratic means, but rather the Palestinian Authority—even though the PA has been systematically deprived of concrete means of governing. The option of negotiating with Hamas has never been really taken into consideration.
It is time to consider that option.
Whatever the justification of the Gaza military operations (to punish the inhabitants for supporting Hamas or to free them from the control of Hamas), it will not work. Dismantling Hamas' military capacity can only buy time, not solve the issue.
Under the logic of the current military scenario, either the PA must be reinstated in Gaza—only to face political and military guerrilla warfare with Hamas—or the Israeli Defense Forces must maintain control, perhaps with the involvement of foreign troops. In either case, the military "solution" will prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state.
Palestine is thus doomed, in the best case, to be either under a permanent Israeli occupation or under some sort of an international mandate. The suggestion that Gaza could be handed over to Egypt and what remains of the West Bank to Jordan will just contribute to extending the conflict. Such an eventuality would nullify the only positive result of the Oslo negotiations, which is to have transformed an Israeli-Arab conflict into an Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The issue is also complex for the Taliban. The Taliban do not embody "Afghan" nationalism but Pashtu identity. There are almost no Taliban in the center and the north of Afghanistan. During the last 40 years, Pashtu identity has been expressed through non-nationalist ideological movements (the Khalq faction of the Afghan communist party, the numerous mujahideen movements and now the Taliban).
Thus, if the Obama administration truly seeks to change the equation in the Middle East and Afghanistan, it must recognize the real motives and aspirations, not imagined ones, that actually drive groups such as Hamas and the Taliban. Such a recognition would lead the US to talk to the Taliban in Afghanistan and look for a political instead of military solution that responds to legitimate Pashtu aspirations. It would lead the US to refrain from endorsing the Israeli delusion that it can eliminate Hamas by force while frustrating Palestinian statehood.
Closing Guantanamo is a powerful symbolic act that signals the US has changed course. But a new departure that leaves behind the wrongheaded mindset that casts Hamas and the Taliban with the wholly different phenomenon of al-Qaida in the "war on terror" would do far more to enhance security for the US and for peace and stability in the region stretching from Gaza to Kandahar.