The Afghanistanization of the Middle East
Eleven years after September 11, Afghanistan is nowhere near being stable; instead it is the Middle East that is becoming Afghanistanized. Forget about having only one Afghanistan, after the Arab Spring we can pick and choose from new Afghanistans popping up all over.
Islamist militias are imprisoning unveiled women, mutilating thieves and destroying Sufi shrines in Mali. In Libya, Islamist militias started out by destroying Sufi shrines and, when the authorities made it clear that they would do nothing, escalated their campaign to an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. These Talibans-in-waiting also happen to be the true arbiters of power in a country where the bulk of the firepower rests in their hands.
The proliferation of militias and mobs is undermining already shaky governments and has the potential to turn the region back to a place ruled by warlords and raiding parties. A North African Afghanistan growing out of the Libyan War across Libya and Mali will not be the last barbarous Islamist emirate. The Salafist mobs that attacked American embassies across the Middle East are all Talibans-in-waiting and they may not have to wait much longer.
Not too long ago an Arab Islamist fighter had to travel all the way to Afghanistan for a properly Halal conflict. Today he can find plenty of them right in his own backyard. The Salafist militias are the chief beneficiaries of the fall of the old Arab regimes, and are providing order for a price while carving their own little private Afghanistans out of formerly stable countries.
When Bin Laden went to Afghanistan, effective militias and terrorists still had nationalistic links and regime backers. Unlike the Palestinians or the Kurds, the Salafists are free of nationalistic ties, and much less dependent on regime backers. All they need are a few armed volunteers and some ruthlessness to take over a piece of a war-torn country.
Western attempts to stabilize the situation by giving the Palestinian militias their own state failed, and unlike the Palestinians or the Kurds, the Salafis do not want a specific piece of land. They want the world, and trying to buy them off with Palestine or Kurdistan has no hope of succeeding.
No one expected Libya and Mali to go the way of Somalia, but the tidal wave of Talibanesque militias creating their own brutal Islamist states is not likely to end there. Next door to Libya, Tunisia and Egypt are looking rather shaky with Salafists of the non-Brotherhood variety enforcing their own freelance Islamic law with mob violence and intimidation.
All it would take is a further meltdown of the already melted political situation for the Salafists to move from terrorizing neighborhoods and villages to making a play for entire cities. The ruling Islamists of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia's Ennhada have already shown that, as in Libya, given a choice between letting the Salafists burn churches and beat tourists and authorizing their military rivals to carry out a domestic crackdown, it is safer and easier for them to let the mobs do as they please.
"Egypt Is becoming way too much like Pakistan for comfort. We are slowly becoming a dangerous, broken rogue state, just like them," Mahmoud Salem, the Egyptian blogger and activist wrote. And if that is true of Egypt, what real hope is there for Libya, Tunisia or Yemen?
As a new Afghanistan begins forming in the Sinai where the Bedouin tribesmen have proven an ideal mold for recreating the conditions of Afghanistan, the formerly stable North Africa is beginning to resemble Islamic Asia.
The Muslim Middle East is facing a choice between two paths. One leads ahead to a Westernized society and the other back to the barren deserts of the 7th Century. The Muslim Brotherhood and other political Islamists claim that it is possible to have the best of both worlds, combining high tech and desert morals in a society where every woman is covered and every man is an engineer. But that illusion is under siege as Islamist militias begin fragmenting countries into tribal encampments.
The Middle East that we have grown used to is a colonial legacy. Its corrupt regimes with the derivative structures of modern states are being torn down by the Arab Spring. The Islamists can have democratic elections where they are the majority, but what they cannot have are strong militaries, and that leaves them with few options but to rely on Islamist militias to fight Islamist militias; turning the region back to before the rise of the Ottoman Empire.
Islamists saw Afghanistan as the future of the Middle East and they were right. Saudi Arabia and the oil states that backed the Arab Spring are Afghanistans with oil. Egypt, Tunisia and Syria are on the way to becoming Afghanistans without oil.
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