Afghanistan through the eyes of Michael Scheuer


Many Western observers “have ignored the very real accomplishments and popular acceptance of the Taliban government in Afghanistan,” then-CIA analyst Michael Scheuer wrote anonymously in 2002. His previously-analyzed book, Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America, contains sobering analysis, which foresaw the failure of American-led nation-building efforts in Afghanistan 20 years later.

Scheuer had focused on Afghanistan while tracking Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit in the years before and after September 11, 2001. Although since his 2004 retirement from the CIA he has exposed himself as an anti-Israel, conspiracy-mongering crank, his 2002 writings about attempts to liberalize  Afghanistan were highly thought-provoking. Already at the time he had criticized that the “Afghan war, then, is an opportunity for social work of international scope, not an opportunity to destroy al Qaeda.”

Afghanistan’s recent history of the mujahedeen defeating Soviet occupation in the decade 1979-1989 demonstrated for Scheuer the foolhardiness of any Afghan Islamic democracy project. “In fact, it is vital to recall that, next to the Soviets, the biggest losers in Afghanistan were the Muslim world’s Western-minded scholars, politicians, and intellectuals,” he wrote. He explained:

The Afghan jihad confronted the theoreticians of democratic Islam with a hard reality. The Red Army was not defeated by a democratic revolution, but by an Islamist revolution grounded, guided, and steeled by God’s words as found in the Koran and explained by the Prophet. Driven by their faith, the mujahedin used bullets, not votes, to win one for Allah.

Quoting Harvard University political scientist Tarek Masoud, Scheuer noted a “basic political fact” about democracy in Islam’s Arabic heartland. Masoud had observed that

there exists no grassroots movement for democracy in the Arab world, largely because democracy does not resonate with the average Arab. It has no basis the Arab past and is tainted by its association with the West.

Scheuer cautioned Americans who celebrated the quick American-led overthrow of Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers following 9/11. Many of these Westerners “have taken their lead from Mrs. Jay Leno and the Hollywood wives and equated the fall of Kabul with the liberation of Dachau.” But he noted how the Taliban’s sharia supremacy had found favor among many Afghans, for now the “murder, bribery, kidnapping, and extortion that the Taliban had all but eliminated have again become commonplace.” “Although reviled by the West as violent medieval madmen, the Taliban teamed its imposition of strict Islamic law with a slow process of rebuilding and modernizing Afghanistan’s war-ravaged infrastructure,” he added.

“Neither should too much be made of what many in the West have described as the Taliban’s complete military and political collapse,” Scheuer warned.  “The Taliban—and al Qaeda for that matter—has done what all of history’s successful insurgent organizations have done to survive; they have abandoned the cities,” he noted:

With that loss, however, the Taliban also has been freed of the duty to feed, protect, and provide social, health, and administrative services to the urban populace. Having originated in the mid-1990s as a rural-based insurgency, the Taliban has been returned to its proper state of nature.

Skepticism also marked Scheuer’s outlook on Afghan opposition towards the Taliban, upon which America and its NATO allies had placed so much hope for leading a new Afghanistan. “The Taliban’s major armed opposition in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance was led by Masood and is primarily made up of ethnic Tajiks,” Scheuer noted. Ahmad Shah Masood, Scheuer explained, was an “ethnic Tajik and the most famous commander of the Afghan jihad,” whom Al Qaeda killed in a suicide bomb attack two days before 9/11.

Scheuer criticized the “master media manipulator” Masood. He “consistently misled” various “journalists—and some U.S. and European politicians—to believe that he was a pro-Western Muslim who would install democracy, diversity, and feminist policies in Afghanistan,” Scheuer noted. Meanwhile domestically the Northern Alliance “has grown increasingly odious to many Afghans by accepting aid from the country’s most-hated historical enemies: Iran, Russia, and India.”

Yet the American-led coalition in Afghanistan turned precisely to the Northern Alliance as the mainstay of post-Taliban governance. This “interim government of Hamid Karzai is kept in power by foreign, Christian forces, has no Islamist credentials, and is dominated by Masood’s senior lieutenants—Tajiks all,” Scheuer observed. By contrast, it “is devoid of any credible representation from the country numerically and historically dominant Pashtun tribe.” “The interim regime therefore is transparently an artificial Western creation,” he concluded.

Furthermore, the Taliban could rely on likeminded sponsors in Afghanistan’s giant neighbor, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Islam is the “core of Pakistan’s national identity and the glue that binds its multiethnic society,” Scheuer noted. Accordingly, the “Islamization of Pakistan has been gradually accelerating since Moscow’s Afghan misadventure began in 1979 and, indeed, has been in train since Lord Mountbatten scuttled the Raj in 1947.”

Pakistani dictator, General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, drove this Islamization with “genuine personal piety” during his 11-year rule (1977-1988) after he overthrew Pakistan’s feeble democratic institutions, Scheuer wrote. In order to build a support base for Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet mujahedeen, Zia “permitted the unfettered entry of Islamist groups and nongovernmental organizations from across the Muslim world,” Scheuer noted. These groups “established a now virtually permanent presence in Pakistan that contributes to the militancy of Islam in Pakistan and rivals the government in the provision of basic social services.”

Why Islamic countries such as Pakistan or Afghanistan would welcome any open society like that in America remained a basic question for Scheuer. Among other things, any liberalization that allowed for religious freedom and corresponding Christian evangelism cast submission to Islam into doubt. “Christian proselytizing, when teamed with the provision of basic health and education services, is seen as a quiet and especially insidious form of imperialism that saps the Islamic world’s future strength by converting its youth,” he noted.

Scheuer’s warnings about the local strength of support for the Taliban and its agenda of Islamic rule in Afghanistan and beyond have proven prophetic. As in Iraq, the American-led coalition in Afghanistan oversaw the implementation of a constitution for an Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRA) that proclaimed the supremacy of sharia law. Correspondingly, Afghan converts to Christianity fled Afghanistan given its capital punishment for blasphemy and Afghanistan’s last church was razed in 2010.

Unsurprisingly, many Afghans preferred the Taliban’s Islamic zeal to any “sharia-lite” half-heartedness by the notoriously corrupt IRA. Contrastingly, Western ideals such as women’s liberation received limited Afghan support, as refugees now fleeing the Kabul regime’s swift collapse now demonstrate. After 20 frustrating years in Afghanistan following 9/11, Western analysts and policymakers must take a fresh look at the critical views of individuals such as Scheuer and formulate more realistic counter-jihad strategies.


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