Criticism in the Arab Press of U.S. Administration’s Initiative to Reach Out to ‘Moderates in the Taliban’

Shortly after taking office, U.S. President Barack Obama announced his government’s new policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan and Pakistan. In a March 6, 2009 interview with The New York Times, President Obama stated that the U.S. was open to reaching out to “moderate elements within the Taliban.” Several weeks later, he announced that his government’s policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan and Pakistan would be focused on increasing the defense capabilities of the Afghan police and military forces; this would be done in conjunction with increasing humanitarian and material aid to Pakistan and establishing a “liaison team” in cooperation with the U.N. which would include Iran and Gulf states. Obama warned that should Afghanistan once more fall into the hands of the Taliban, it would again become a base for terrorists and for attacks against the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. In late March 2009, during the International Afghan summit in The Hague on Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated the U.S.’s new policy towards the Taliban.

Following these statements, articles were published in the Arab press criticizing the Obama administration’s willingness to pursue dialogue with “moderate elements within the Taliban.” The articles included claims that the West in general, and the Obama administration in particular, had misunderstood the ideology and strategies of the extremist Islamic movements; that the Obama administration lacked a clear strategy except for an eagerness to conduct dialogue; and that such an approach would only encourage extremism even among moderate elements – which might conclude that it is only extremism that attracts the U.S. administration. They claimed further that such a step would be counterproductive, as it would ultimately strengthen the Taliban. They also asserted that ultimately Obama would understand that there is no alternative but to treat extremists with a strong hand.

The following are articles published by the Saudi London dailies Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and Al-Hayat:

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Editor: “Excessive Leniency Is a Mistake No Less Dangerous than Extremism”

Tareq Al-Homayed, editor-in-chief of the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote that the West did not realize that excessive leniency constitutes a grave danger – one no less serious than that posed by extremism itself: “In light of the talk in the U.S. regarding the need to open up to the ‘moderates’ within the Taliban, and claims that there is no choice but to coexist with Islamic radicals, and in light of British declarations [that Britain must] show openness to the ‘political’ [branch] of Hizbullah, we can now expect openness towards Al-Qaeda [as well].

“This is not sarcasm… After igniting fighting in our region in response to Al-Qaeda’s extremist terrorism of 9/11, the West has now decided to treat extremism and extremists hastily. Just as Bush erred in tackling every problem using conflict and weapons, the West now wants to deal with every problem involving extremism and extremists with leniency and a call for openness. They forget that excessive leniency is a grave mistake, no less dangerous than extremism…

“Dialogue is necessary… However openness for the sake of openness makes the situation more complicated and sends the wrong message.”(1)

Al-Hayat Columnist: The Message of a Policy of Dialogue “Is That Extremism is the Most Effective Way to Attract the U.S.’s Attention”

Khalil Al-‘Anani wrote in the London daily Al-Hayat that the Obama administration’s pragmatism knew no bounds: “The message that others can infer from the ‘diplomacy of dialogue’ pursued by the Obama administration is that extremism is the most effective way to attract the U.S.’s attention, and to compel them to conduct dialogue. [But] this message spells an unhappy outcome for the U.S.

“On the one hand, [America’s] foe will incur no loss by consenting to dialogue with the U.S. government on their own conditions – because the dialogue will begin with American weakness and an urgent need to cooperate with its foes. [In such circumstances,] it would be only natural for them to raise the price of the dialogue – which the U.S. United States will be forced to pay – as is indeed happening with Iran, Syria, and the Taliban…

“The Taliban sees Obama’s call for dialogue with moderates as proof of the U.S. failure in Afghanistan, and emphasizes [their resolve] not to retreat until ‘the U.S. is defeated’ – as did the Afghani Mujahideen to the former Soviet Union…

“Obama’s desire to appease his foes, especially the radical Islamists, will be construed by the moderates as an incentive to radicalize, since this is the most effective way of getting Obama’s attention…

“[Right now, it might seem] extremely farfetched that the Obama administration would seek a dialogue with Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, even through a third party – today the most usual way of dealing with Hamas and Hizbullah. But Obama’s pragmatism knows no bounds: Be it with the devil himself, there will be dialogue – in line with the principle of ‘the more extreme you are, the more [willing we are] to talk to you.'”(2)

Al-Hayat Columnist: Extremist Groups View Openness Towards Them As The West’s Defeat

In an article titled “Are There Any Moderates in Taliban?” in the London daily Al-Hayat, columnist Elias Harfoush contended that the West’s view of the Islamist groups is mistaken, since the West does not realize that these groups see Obama’s attempts at openness towards them as defeat:

“President Barack Obama says that he wants to open dialogue channels with the ‘moderates’ inside the Taliban movement, as did General David Petraeus, who set up the tribal awakening councils in Iraq. These councils have eventually proved their ability to confront Al-Qaeda there and to weaken their hegemony in the Al-Anbar Sunni areas…

“There is no more obvious proof of the failure of any attempt to lure moderates from the Taliban into a political settlement than what the Zardari government in Pakistan did recently. The Pakistani regime released the members of the Pakistani branch of the Taliban, as it believed that they can be dealt with, in an attempt to regain control of the Swat province.

“But what was the result? More murders and torture of those opposed to the movement and more suffering for the people who returned after the truce assuming that stability was restored. More decapitated bodies of singers and artists and people whom the Taliban accuse of ‘indecent’ activities; more attacks on female school teachers, including throwing acid in their faces on their way to work or threatening them with murder if they persist in their professions. As a result, many schools had to close down, while the whole Pakistani province [of Swat] relived the worst days of Taliban rule in Afghanistan before 9/11 and the American invasion…

“The way in which these organizations perceive the West’s new approach towards them also highlights the lack of understanding that the West has of these Islamic movements, as it classifies them into ‘moderate,’ and ‘radical,’ and into ‘political wings’ and ‘military wings.’ In the eyes of these movements, their actions and ideas are completely correct. Hence, they view the West’s openness as a ‘defeat’ of the Western forces that are now seeking dialogue…

“Taliban leaders… responded to Obama’s attempt to lure the ‘moderates’ by urging him to declare his defeat in Afghanistan and to withdraw.

“If political decisions are built more on wishes than on facts on the ground, they will often backfire… It is true that the Obama administration wants to solve the Afghan problem… but this solution [i.e. dialogue with the Taliban ‘moderates’] might be counterproductive, in that it could strengthen the Taliban …”(3)

Al-Hayat Columnist: The Obama Administration Lacks Consensus and Strategy – Except for One Issue: Dialogue

Al-Hayat reporter and columnist Raghida Dergham, who resides in New York, also criticized the Obama administration’s eagerness to conduct dialogue at any cost, claiming that it has no clear strategy:

“The Obama administration is preoccupied with ‘divorcing’ the Bush administration – and in its eagerness to do so, it is blind to the dangers inherent in its foreign policy…

“The ideas held by the U.S. administration and by the circle of well-wishers who surround it are truly odd… Everyone interprets things as he pleases. This is very dangerous, [since as a result] the Obama administration lacks consensus, determination, and strategy – except for dialogue.

“They speak about a dialogue with the moderates within the Taliban, with a view of segregating the radicals, as if the Taliban were some kind of philosophy or research institute rather than a group of lunatics – ideologically, politically, and as rulers…”

“These ideas may be a natural part of the transition in Obama administration’s policies, reflecting temporary tactics until comprehensive strategies are consolidated. Thus, it may be too early for the moderate forces in the Arab and Muslim world to put up their hands and surrender in the face of this American partnership with radicalism.”(4)

Al-Arabiya TV Director: “I Expect Obama to Return to the Policy of Bush” vis-à-vis Al-Qaeda, Iran, North Korea

Al-Arabiya TV director-general ‘Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, who is also the former editor of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote that he believed Obama would wise up and realize that there is no other way than treating extremists with a heavy hand:

“In addressing his people in his last speech, the U.S. president said that some had believed that electing ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ – that is what he said – would in itself solve the country’s problems. Obama himself must have thought that things would be simpler if he would only distance himself from his predecessor George W. Bush. However, he [now] sees with his own eyes that the situation is more critical…

“The problem is [indeed] serious… Obama has done a lot of good things, but to no avail. He began his term by releasing Muslim prisoners from Guantanamo, and preventing military tribunals; he spoke to Muslims as if they were the top nation in the world; he appealed to the Iranians with a conciliatory message; he committed to withdrawing from Iraq sooner than [was stipulated by] George W. Bush’s plan; and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced that there was no such thing as the ‘war on terror’ in U.S. foreign policy. Despite all this, violence has increased…

“I expect Obama to return to the policy of Bush [despite the latter’s] notoriety – because in the war against Al-Qaeda, in the struggle against Iran, and in restricting North Korea he will find no other option.

“I reiterate that there is no other option, since none of these [extreme] elements have changed their positions – despite everything Obama has done since assuming the presidency. Every step that [Obama] takes towards [his foes] will only prompt them to challenge him to continue taking steps, without any reciprocation.”(5)

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