Soldiers for Ignorance
Why the Taliban can’t win in its fight against the future -- and other bad omens for 2015.
Jihadis are waging the most futile war possible. Perhaps that explains the senseless desperation behind their brutality. They are not battling America or the West or regimes that seek to end their violence. Rather, their enemy is the future.
Which is why on Tuesday we witnessed once again their depravity, as it was unleashed against schoolchildren in both Pakistan and Yemen. At the Army Public School and Degree College in Peshawar, over 130 boys and girls died and the overall death toll at the time of this writing was 145. South of Sanaa in Yemen, two car bombs destroyed a school bus, killing 15 girls.
Malala Yousafzai, the 17-year-old Nobel Prize-winning education activist who, in 2012, was shot in the face by militants apparently petrified by the prospect of girls and women being educated, said in statement: “Innocent children in their school have no place in horror such as this. I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters — but we will never be defeated.” And, of course, she is right. The progress of time is the one adversary no man or army has ever defeated, no matter how coldblooded its methods. The militants are right to be afraid. Malala and the girls and boys for whom she speaks achieve victories daily in their classrooms or alone at night with their books and homework that extremist bouts of violence can never reverse.
But that doesn’t stop the militants from trying. Indeed, apparently it only makes them more desperate. And at the moment it is not reducing their numbers. Today there are more groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network, the Islamic State and al Qaeda, cowering and lashing out at the prospect of the inevitable unleashing of the power of all these little girls and boys, than at any time in the recent past. For some, the mission is revealed in their names. The Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram derives its name from Arabic and Hausa, meaning “Western education is forbidden.
But names and banners and zealotry cannot mask the reality that when knowledge is your enemy, you are a soldier for ignorance. When you fear the young, the helpless, and the innocent, it is clear that you know you can be undone by ideas, curiosity, and budding awareness of the truth. There is no victory for those who would fight such a battle — only a postponement of their inevitable defeat.
One would hope that brutality of the type unleashed Tuesday — violence that is repeated with horrific regularity in the lands of these ghost brigades from the grudging past — would provoke a powerful response from those leaders entrusted with the protection of these violated societies. In Pakistan, with over 1,000 school attacks by the Taliban estimated as having occurred since 2009, the ringing condemnation of Tuesday’s attacks by government leaders might offer a flicker of hope that the collaboration of many in the government with militants might end. But as Americans have seen, even the most moving heartfelt speeches of leaders condemning school violence often produce no change at all. That is likely to be the case in a Pakistan in which local experts with whom I have spoken believe that the country is becoming more, not less, divided between the forces of the past and those of the future. One today worried aloud to me that a crisis is brewing for which the world is ill-prepared. He hoped that the profound outrage at the Peshawar attacks would have a positive effect. But he thought that in time it was more likely it would be seen as a sign of the impotence and lack of resolve of government leaders to truly rein in the Taliban, Haqqani network, and others who would rather send the country into chaos.
It is worth remembering that when U.S. President Barack Obama came into office, the consensus in the foreign-policy community was that Pakistan was the most dangerous place on earth thanks to its deep divisions, ineffective governance, corruption, and the fact that it is home to a substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Other crises have pushed such worries off the front burner in D.C. discussions. But as one former senior Pakistani official said to me, “We all ignore the growing potential for deeper crisis in Pakistan at our peril.”
In this sense, while the attacks in Pakistan and Yemen may have been attempts to forestall the future, they are also foreshadowings of some of the likely big stories that may dominate the global scene in 2015. Indeed, these foreshadowings are everywhere in the news this week. They include:
- The Pakistan attacks by the Taliban echo the gains the Taliban has also made in recent months across Afghanistan. The Obama administration came in vowing to pay special attention to AfPak. After a period in which it seemed to hope it could soon turn away, it now seems more likely than ever that growing unrest in both countries will make it impossible for the president of the United States to put a bow on this particularly long war and walk away from it. Even keeping troops on the ground there through the end of the administration is unlikely to reverse this.
- The hostage-taking in Sydney, Australia, played as a kind of awful and instructive counterpoint to the truly grotesque tragedies of the next day. While the loss of life was shattering for all who were close to the events in Australia’s biggest city, the media played right into the hands of a deranged, likely lone wolf who sought to use the fear of terrorism to take command of a world stage. He demonstrated that with an assault rifle, an iPad, and a black flag, he could tap into fears so deep that they seemingly pushed all other developments out of the headlines while the crisis was unfolding, facts of the matter on the ground aside. This will happen again … and again … and again … in the year ahead. The media, afraid of missing real attacks, just can’t help itself. And each time it does, news outlets will prove themselves to be the great force multiplier in the primary mission of terrorists which is, after all, not conducting attacks but spreading terror.
- One of the stories pushed off the front pages this week was the stunning fall of the Russian ruble. Plummeting off a cliff, its values are now well below half of what they were in 2013. Russia is heading toward a deep economic crisis with a leader who has both demonstrated a lack of ability to manage such challenges and a tendency toward dangerous behavior when cornered. That is what Russia’s neighbors fear. Certainly, at the very least, Russia’s economic calamity is taking a very unpredictable player and making him even less predictable.
- What might have been the most promising story of the week on what is perhaps the biggest true global challenge the planet faces — the Lima agreement to reduce emissions — was overshadowed for two reasons. The shock value of other news was the first. The second was that the agreement is a kind of less-than-meets-the-eye milestone that suggests accord when all it really is is a promise by a bunch of countries to do what they were planning to do anyway … and to do far too little to actually rise to meet the climate challenges we face. Expect more of this in a year at the Paris climate summit. Leaders will hail their courage in cutting a deal. Scientists will lament their lack of real progress.
- The attacks in Yemen underscore that we live in an age of something worse than failed states. There are now, thanks to the spread of violent extremism, what might be called “metastasizing” states. They are not just failed. They are become something malignant, and should be viewed as potentially enduring sources of unrest for the world. Parts of Yemen fall into this category. So too do the IS-controlled regions of Iraq and Syria. So too may Libya. So too do parts of the Horn of Africa. So too does Northwest Pakistan. The world will have to prepare for a decade of containing and reversing the social and ideological cancers that are destroying life for the citizens of these unfortunate regions.
- Political crises in Latin America’s two biggest countries — Brazil and Mexico — that made headlines this week will dominate developments in the region during 2015. Mexico is nearing the same number of disappeared in its drug wars that afflicted Argentina during its dirty war; some death tolls suggest roughly half as many people have died in that country’s often-ignored violence as have died in Syria’s civil war. The Peña Nieto regime has seen the loss of 43 students there touch a nerve that may make it very hard for it to realize fully its reform regime in the year ahead. In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff may see the scandal now engulfing Latin America’s biggest company, Petrobras, which she herself once chaired, consume the careers of many around her … and it may also compromise her own effectiveness. It’s the region’s biggest scandal and it will only grow bigger in 2015 as more facts are uncovered.
It’s not a very positive picture. But the near future is likely to bring with it some good news. The same plummeting oil prices that are crushing confidence in the Russian economy may in 2015 give the world a boost and forestall the inevitable end of the current global growth cycle. This “Saudi Stimulus” could, according to the IMF, prod global growth by between 1 and 1.3 percent, perhaps more, depending on how far the price falls. For the recovering U.S. economy, this will offset the effects of any potential Fed tightening and for consumers like China it may help reverse sluggishness, and, with greater growth likely in the world’s two largest economies, the reinvigorated growth may distract people from some of the developments cited above.
But these more promising developing stories will no more make them go away than the militant extremist Armies of Ignorance will be able to reverse the hands of time. And since the children those armies are trying to destroy or consign to lives of service to a twisted ideology are a vital part of that shared future, we owe it to ourselves to use whatever means we have to protect them and fight on their behalf — both for their lives and for their right to live them elevated and empowered by precisely the kind of knowledge that is such a threat to the murderers of Peshawar and their ilk.