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Coalition Unwilling

Muslim countries are reconciling with Islamists, not fighting them

For all the bluster about the United States' democratization policy, military action remains America's principal weapon for confronting Islamist extremism. In many parts of the world, U.S. forces have teamed with the security and intelligence services of Muslim states to "take the fight to the enemy" and root out common foes. Muslim regimes from North Africa to Asia had been feeling the heat well before September 11 from Islamist groups that had labeled them apostate. Afterwards, joining America's "coalition of the willing" provided these governments with an excuse to escalate their struggles--together with a powerful ally--against the extremists in their midst.

To many, the recent capture of a senior Taliban leader in Pakistan during Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to the country confirms the virtue of this strategy. But the reality is the opposite. America's response to terrorism since September 11 has measurably destabilized Muslim nations and ensured that terrorist threats will continue to grow. As a result, numerous Muslim states have become wary of America's emphasis on combating terrorism militarily and are instead finding ways to reconcile with Islamist movements--proving that they can be compatriots, not terrorists.

Consider two states most on the frontline of the war on terrorism: Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2005, Hamid Karzai's government released numerous former Taliban political prisoners as a gesture of amnesty, with continuous negotiations undertaken with so-called moderate Taliban elements. But wanton American security sweeps and unlawful arrests, coupled with woefully inadequate reconstruction activity, eviscerated that moment of goodwill. Taliban forces today have retaken numerous towns and challenge the legitimacy of the American-allied government more than ever. Similarly, U.S. pressure on Pervez Musharraf's regime to hit unconfirmed targets in the Northwest Frontier Province has led to reckless bombings and bitter resentment against both the government and the United States. Musharraf and Karzai are less popular than ever as the perception grows that they serve the United States more than their own people. In both countries, suicide bombings have become more frequent. One no longer has to ask what message is being sent.

Away from the cross-hairs, however, other Muslim states have negotiated directly with Islamist groups with more success. Having tried and failed to expunge political Islam by force, these regimes and societies must now confront its demands. Morocco and Jordan, therefore, have both brought Islamists into their parliaments and, in doing so, isolated and discredited radicals among their populations. Libya has released 85 members of its main Islamist militant group and begun public reconciliation with them and has also readmitted dozens of formerly politically active Islamist professors and students to their university posts. Saudi Arabia has also released and pardoned Al Qaeda members from its prisons and peacefully repatriated Saudi prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay, while King Abdullah has consulted Islamic Shura councils more frequently and opened elections to Islamist parties. Of course, as the cases of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine demonstrate, Islamist participation--even in parliaments--does not guarantee an end to political violence, but these examples point more to the need for governments to have sovereign strength to rein in extremists than for Islamist exclusion.

In a certain sense, this may be seen as capitulation to the "enemy." But such reconciliation with Islamists actually begins to address the root causes of radicalism such as the absence of inclusive, multi-party governance and centralized corruption. The truth is that terrorism has gone down markedly in all these states, with fewer terrorist attacks creating a new climate of inclusive discourse and, perhaps, a lasting peace. The United States draws the line at any meaningful role for Islamists in political life--yet it prescribes nothing for achieving a peaceful consensus within fragile Muslim states. Instead, the State Department's Annual Report on Human Rights has ironically condemned Muslim governments for their heavy-handedness without acknowledging America's own complicity. Yet the persistence of Islamists as a potentially violent fringe capable of toppling regimes serves neither Arab stability nor U.S. interests.

Of course, high-visibility military strikes and crackdowns on Islamist cells make for great publicity and reinforce domestic support for the war on terrorism. But in Somalia, the recent routing of Islamist bandits has proved short-lived, with attacks stepping up again against the American-backed regime. Undoubtedly, most Muslim countries have terrorist entities that resist all efforts to be co-opted. But attempting to marginalize or destroy genuinely popular Islamist factions without providing alternatives is self-defeating for both America and its allies. America will continue to be perceived as crusading against Islam, and Muslim regimes will continue to be denounced as puppets. Both will remain targets of extremist elements. While U.S. interests and those of Muslim states are still compatible, the narrowly focused "coalition of the willing" has faltered. The United States must now let Muslim states experiment with their own solutions for managing political Islam and "winning hearts and minds."