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Michael Nazir-Ali: We must not give up in Afghanistan and let the Taliban return to power

Screen shot 2011-06-07 at 20.05.19Michael Nazir-Ali is Director of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy & Dialogue, and was formerly the Bishop of Rochester.

The death of Osama Bin Laden, whilst certainly a landmark in the struggle against extremism and terrorism, is also responsible for much facile optimism, even among senior politicians.  It has provided fresh oxygen for the "Little Englanders", as indeed for "Monroe Americans", who believe that the arch-terrorist's passing has put a decisive end to the extremist threat to the West. Whatever lip service they may pay to a continued presence of advice and assistance in the region, at the back of their minds they believe that we should now withdraw our troops from Afghanistan and leave that benighted area to its own devices.

Such an understanding of the post-bin Laden situation is very misleading and dangerous.  There is plenty of hinterland from which al-Qaeda can recruit in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The madrassas remain unreformed and flourish, the various lashkars (or extremist militias) continue to operate with near-impunity both within Pakistan and across the border, and the Taliban in either country are far from defeated. Not only that, but al-Qaeda, and its various affiliates, now pose a threat from the Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Gaza and even Egypt.

There have been attempts recently to distinguish between Pakistani and Afghan Taliban.  Although this may be useful in terms of identifying tactics and priorities, we should be in no doubt whatsoever of the ideological unity of the two groups and the common constituency from which they recruit.  The recent killing of Ilyas Kashmiri in south Waziristan shows the links that exist between different Islamist groups in the region.

Let there be no mistake: these groups and their constituencies are quite capable of planning for terror and of recruiting for terror across national boundaries, particularly amongst isolated and segregated communities in the West and amongst rootless and disgruntled elements in universities, prisons and even on the streets.  They can do this on the internet, of course - but also through radicalised movements among the young, on the margins of mosques, in madrassas and schools and through political activism.

It is good, of course, that the Government is acting to prevent such radicalisation in this country but this must be accompanied also by vigilance in other parts of the world and, especially, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Politicians must know from their own experience that the best way of dealing with extremism and terrorism is the creation and maintenance of free societies.  If there is any justification for our planes flying over Libya, at this time, it is this.  It is not just that Libya has oil and Afghanistan only poppies.

Never again should Afghanistan be allowed to sink into that mediaeval nightmare of the Taliban in power.  It is a gross misrepresentation that this had only to do with women in burqas. How can we forget the daily oppression of men, women and children: women were not allowed to leave the home without a male escort, they could not work in any profession, girls were forbidden from going to school, men were punished for shaving and all entertainment was banned, with savage punishment for those who offended against this barbaric code.  Do those who want to up and go really want to see the return, God forbid, of such an Afghanistan, and do they really think that it will not be a terror threat to the region, the world and to Britain and the USA?

It is true that the opportunity must be taken to address and to resolve some of the geopolitical issues that are blighting peace in the area.  The presence of the international community should encourage both Pakistan and Afghanistan to, once and for all, settle their international border along the Durand line. India and Pakistan need to be brought to the negotiating table to resolve the Kashmir dispute (once again, give or take - probably along the line of control).  Without this, Kashmir will continue to be the casus belli which recruits for terrorism, even in the heartlands of Pakistan.

The end of the Kashmir dispute would also allow the armed forces in Pakistan to begin to tackle the main danger to their nation, which is now home-grown extremism. Governments in both countries must also be enabled to address the change in the mind-set of large sections of their population, which has been brought about by the teaching of hate in textbooks, by radicalised imams preaching from loudspeakers in mosques and by extremist-orientated media.

At this moment of a victory, the West and its allies must not lose heart or settle for a momentary respite but be ready for the long haul. There are many concerns about the so-called "Arab spring", not least that extremists will get hold of the reins of power in societies undergoing major disruption. There is also, however, an opportunity to shape a freer world which will also be a safer world for travellers, trade,tourists and also for those who stay at home. A myopic vision of national interest will not deliver either for Britain and the USA's legitimate interests world-wide, nor for their standing in the community of nations.  In the end, it will not even deliver the much sought after security at home.

We need thinking in Westminster and Whitehall which is deeply informed by a close acquaintance with the languages, culture, history and religion of the region but which is also strategic and able to eschew short-term and ephemeral gains for a wider vision of freedom, peace and stability in our world, knowing that is the only way for us also to have such desirables at home.


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