Since the rise of this generation of Islamists in the 1970s, native and Western governments alike have adopted two major strategies: politically contain movements like the Muslim Brotherhood by allowing them to have limited representation in toothless parliaments, and, actively oppose or fight more powerful movements like Hamas, Hizbullah, Taliban and others that use military force for various reasons. The results have been inconclusive, but largely unsatisfying. The Islamist movements continue to grow in most cases, assert their power and legitimacy and share power in some countries, or break away and rule on their own when that is the only option left to them. Only in Turkey have they assumed power nationally through a credible democratic process.
Two intriguing reports from the United States and Afghanistan in the past few days now suggest that more realism may be creeping into the toolkit used to address this issue. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai is reported to have approved a plan designed to reintegrate low-level Taliban foot soldiers and commanders into the government forces, while simultaneously making peace with more senior leaders and their backers in Pakistan. This effort hopes to succeed where previous ones failed, by offering community leaders jobs, education and development programs that might bring an end to local fighting. It sensibly assumes that foreign military power cannot prevail against armed nationals who believe they are fighting to liberate their country from foreign occupation.
The two key elements in the new approach are the acknowledgment that the Taliban are a credible force that must be engaged in negotiations for power-sharing, and that local developmental needs must be seriously addressed. And this means that the government and its NATO backers acknowledge both the political legitimacy and the core grievances of the Taliban and their supporters.
In the United States, according to Mark Perry in Foreign Policy magazine, a team of senior intelligence officers at US Central Command (CENTCOM) has just issued a report, entitled “Managing Hizbullah and Hamas,” that questions the current US policy of isolating and marginalizing these movements, and instead suggests a variety of approaches that would integrate them into their Lebanese and Palestinian mainstreams. He sees the most controversial finding as, “The US role of assistance to an integrated Lebanese defense force that includes Hizbullah; and the continued training of Palestinian security forces in a Palestinian entity that includes Hamas in its government, would be more effective than providing assistance to entities — the government of Lebanon and Fatah — that represent only a part of the Lebanese and Palestinian populace respectively.”
The report says that while Hizbullah and Hamas “embrace staunch anti-Israel rejectionist policies,” the two groups are “pragmatic and opportunistic.” Perry adds that, “there’s little question the report reflects the thinking among a significant number of senior officers at CENTCOM headquarters — and among senior CENTCOM intelligence officers and analysts serving in the Middle East.”
That such ideas are being pondered by analysts and officers who actually know the realities of the Middle East — as opposed to staunchly anti-Islamist Washington politicians and pro-Israel proxies masquerading as American think tank analysts — is an important early signal of possible policy changes. Most Islamist movements indeed are pragmatic and opportunistic, as recent decades of their evolutions have shown; they are also heavily political and nationalist in nature, rather than mainly religious.
Most importantly, Islamist groups of all kinds — from the docile reciters of holy scripture and purveyors of charity to children, to the militant resistance fighters of Hamas and Hizbullah, to the occasional Al-Qaeda-type terrorists — are deeply driven by practical, identifiable grievances. These grievances are anchored in three main spheres: national socio-economic conditions, the autocratic policies of national governments and out-of-control security agencies in the Arab-Asian region, and the policies of foreign governments and armed forces (mainly American and Israeli) in the same region.
Addressing and ultimately relieving those underlying grievances is the key to dealing with these Islamist groups, most of which will transform or wither into other, non-militant organizations in the wake of a redress of grievances. It is heartening that some people in positions of authority and power in Afghanistan, NATO and the United States armed forces are now considering this rational approach to conflict-resolution, which seeks to promote peace and stability by politically addressing basic needs of justice and dignity.
What took them so long to embrace the obvious?
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.