Stephen M. Walt

Birds of a feather: flocking together or flying apart?

I suspect most of the AfPak attention will be focused on the revelations that President Hamid Karzai’s brother has been on the CIA payroll, the Taliban attack that killed six people at a U.N. staff house in Kabul, and the bombing that killed more than 80 people in Peshawar. Plus, there are new reports that ...


I suspect most of the AfPak attention will be focused on the revelations that President Hamid Karzai’s brother has been on the CIA payroll, the Taliban attack that killed six people at a U.N. staff house in Kabul, and the bombing that killed more than 80 people in Peshawar. Plus, there are new reports that the United States is going to adopt a strategy that eschews counterinsurgency throughout all of Afghanistan and concentrates on protecting major cities. These are all important stories, because they underscore just how difficult it has been, is, and will be to do social engineering on the lives of 200 million Muslims in Central Asia.

But I want to focus on somewhat broader question today. Yet another justification for continuing the war in Afghanistan is the belief that the Afghan Taliban, al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and groups such as the Haqqani network form a tight ideologically-inspired alliance that is relentlessly anti-American and dedicated to attacking us no matter where we are or what we are doing. In this view, these various groups are “birds of a feather flocking together.” This belief fuels the fear that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would produce a dramatic increase in al Qaeda’s capabilities, once their Islamic soulmates provided them with territory, recruits, and other forms of support for attacks on the West in general and the United States in particular.

Such an outcome cannot be wholly ruled out, I suppose, and well-informed experts like Ahmed Rashid apparently think it’s likely. But there are several good reasons to doubt it. The first is that we know that there have been intense frictions between some of these groups in the past, as well as intense divisions between Osama bin Laden and some of his own associates. In his prize-winning book The Looming Tower, for example, Lawrence Wright describes the repeated tensions between Mullah Omar and Bin Laden, which nearly led the former to turn Bin Laden over to the Saudis. The rift was reportedly healed after bin Laden swore an oath of loyalty to Omar, but their interests and objectives are not identical and one can easily imagine new quarrels in the future.

A second reason to be skeptical that these groups are tightly unified by a set of common beliefs or doctrines is the fact that the foreign presence in the region gives them an obvious incentive to help each other. In other words, what looks like ideological solidarity may be partly a manifestation of balance-of-power politics, and these groups’ tendency to back each other might easily dissipate once the foreign presence were reduced. Afghan political history is one where diverse coalitions form, dissolve, and realign in myriad ways, and similar dynamics are likely to resurface once the the United States and its foreign allies are gone.

A third reason has to do with the nature of certain types of political ideology. Unlike liberalism, which emphasizes the need to tolerate a wide range of political views, political ideologies that rest on a single authoritative interpretation of “truth” are inherently divisive rather than unifying. In particular, ideologies that call for adherents to obey the leadership because it wields the “correct” interpretation of the faith (whether in Marxism, Christianity, Islam, etc.) tend to foster intense rivalries among different factions and between different leaders, each of whom must claim to be the “true” interpreter of the legitimating ideology. In such movements, ideological schisms are likely to be frequent and intense, because disagreements look like apostasy and a betrayal of the faith.  Instead of flocking together, these “birds of a feather” are likely to fly apart.

During the Cold War, for instance, hawks repeatedly worried about a “communist monolith” and were convinced that Marxists everywhere were reliable tools of the Kremlin. In reality, however, world communism was rife with internal tensions and ideological schisms, as illustrated by the furious Bolshevik-Menshevik split, the deadly battle between Trotsky and Stalin, and the subsequent rift between Stalin and Tito. China and the Soviet Union became bitter rivals by the early 1960s — on both geopolitical and ideological grounds — and the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam ended another yet another period of illusory communist unity and quickly led to wars between communist Vietnam, communist Kampuchea, and communist China.

Such historical analogies should be used with caution, of course, but in this case the logic is similar and compelling. Islamic fundamentalists rely in part on specific interpretations of Islamic thought to recruit and motivate their followers, and disagreements over doctrine and policy can easily lead to bitter internal quarrels, especially once the immediate need to cooperate against a common enemy is gone. We’ve already seen amples sign of division within al Qaeda and its clones, and more are to be expected.

This is not to say that global terrorists won’t continue to learn from each other, to inspire imitators (much as Marxism-Leninism once inspired a wide array of fringe groups who had nothing to do with Moscow) and they may even provide each other with various forms of tactical support on occasion.  But there are good reasons to question the facile assumption that they are eternally loyal comrades-in-arms, united forever by a shared set of a deeply held politico-religious beliefs. And if there is considerable potential for division among both the leaders and even more among their followers, then a strategy of divide-and-conquer makes more sense than a long and costly counterinsurgency campaign that gives them every reason to stay united.


Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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