Sleeping with the enemy

Charges against the “American Taliban” raise questions about our country’s past support of the regime

A significant percentage of the civilized world has condemned the Taliban for gaining unmerciful control of Afghanistan during the last decade. Even many Muslims denounced this faction as a disgrace to Islam. With Afghanistan isolated among the world community of nations, who could have ever supported the barbaric domination of this impoverished country?

Well, a 20-year-old American by the name of John Walker Lindh did, and he was last week charged with terrorism and conspiring to kill U.S. citizens for that choice. But are our memories so short that we can’t recall when the U.S. government aided and abetted this regime as well?

In the aftermath of September 11, it is inconceivable to think that we might have at one time actually slept with the enemy? And if so, should we be so quick to condemn a young, naïve American who has fervently tread on the same ground?

What were the ulterior motives that prompted this American Taliban and the U.S. to have crossed the thin red line? Strangely enough, religiosity and greed seem to be at the source of the mystical and material journeys of both Walker and the country of his citizenry.

The theological fundamentalism of the Islam religion gained increased popularity in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the Shah of Iran. Rapidly spreading throughout the Islamic nations, fundamentalists envisioned themselves as the guardians of truth.

Similar to the Christian theological movement of the West, fundamentalism defends traditional doctrine against modern thinking. Concurrently, the U.S. had a keen interest to build a $4.5 billion oil pipeline through Afghanistan and needed the aid of a stabilizing force such as the Taliban to proceed in an orderly fashion.

Walker’s teenage rebellion was juxtaposed to his parent’s ’60s-era, counterculture lifestyles. As with most generational swings of the pendulum, his early choices embraced a reactionary posture to his parent’s liberal ideals. While they sought out freedom, John chose to rebel against it. He wanted a value system of absolutes where black and white doctrines could dictate how to dress, what to eat, when to pray and, above all else, how to think.

The Islamic elixir was Walker’s drug of choice. Trading in his hip-hop CD collection for a holy war in a foreign land was not such a long journey. From the ages 16 to 19, he not only memorized every word of the Quran (all 6666 sentences), he traveled to Yemen and Pakistan to be taught at the primitive fundamentalist schools where children half his age were educated.

However, to eventually land in a cultist regime in Afghanistan seemed to go against the grain. Walker initially turned to Islam, according to his parents, because of its “peace-loving” components. Transforming himself into an armed gunman did not seem to fit the mold. Using his nom de guerre, Abdul Hamid, he learned to fire an AK-47, crossed paths with Osama bin Laden and even fought with the Pakistanis in Kashmir in the summer of 2001.

The sociological makeup of the people may provide some insight. The Talibans of the mid-’90s were not the same militia that fought in the previous battles with the Americans against Russia. This new group was literally the orphans of those wars, the rootless and the restless, the jobless and the economically deprived. They were in the true sense of the word what Karl Marx termed the “proletariat.”

Fundamentalism seeks out the youth that have one foot in the Old World and one in the new. At a time when the future is uncertain, fundamentalism connects men to a tradition that erases doubt and provides a clear path to salvation.

Today, we see a similar phenomenon occurring in our own country. President Bush, who now finds himself fighting Islamic fundamentalism, came to power on the votes of Christian fundamentalists. Securely wrapped in the collective patriotism of the American flag, we witnessed most recently our fearless leader thumping his chest to appeal to the emotional contagion of a nation.

Post September 11, his rallying cries of “You are either with us or against us” rang out throughout the land in mesmerizing TV sound bites. The Texan cowboy dogmatically made an allusion to the Wild West asking for bin Laden’s head, “dead or alive.” The mantras of the day declared that they are wrong and we are right. In fact, the new American patriotic absolutists and the Taliban terrorists have similar goals. They both eschew relativism in favor of moral absolutes, and with equal fervor.

Walker grew up in Marin County, mocked often by Gary Trudeau in his comic strip Doonesbury as a place where divorcees luxuriate in hot tubs and moral relativism. And perhaps the moral decay in a society ruled by celebrity and the elite has a need for reform, but the paths that have been taken by Walker and this country appear to be approaching the extremes.

The Quran is a vast, vague book, filled with beautiful allusions and subtleties. But similar to the Bible, it is also imbued with contradictions. You can find in both of them condemnations of war alongside incitements to riot and the need to overturn governments; expressions of tolerance juxtaposed with severe punishments for the disbelievers. They both look backwards for their social solutions to a mythical past when the precepts of the prophets were strictly observed.

This leaves no room for empathy or analyzing another’s point of view. Our country supported the rogue nation of the Taliban because it was the lesser of two evils. Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. wanted Afghanistan to be ruled under the stable control of one government to ensure our interests in a land where we could secure oil rights without traversing through either Russia or Iran. We cared very little how this would sociologically affect the population at large or the imminent rise of a despot leader such as bin Laden.

The Taliban regime was brought to power with Washington’s silent blessing. Clinton’s administration was weighed down by scandal and impeachment proceedings. His attempts to fight terrorism were thwarted by Republicans who couched his efforts as a “wag the dog” excuse to distance voters from the true issues of the day.

Terrorism was not even included in the Democratic or Republican platforms by either Vice President Al Gore or George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential campaigns.

Now flash forward to Operation Enduring Freedom’s successes in effectively ending the Taliban’s occupation of Afghanistan in January 2002, and we are now witnessing an individual American charged with aiding and abetting the enemy.

For good reason, the charges pull up shy of treason, which could have brought the death penalty. He will be tried in a civilian court versus a military tribunal or a court marshal. Why the latitude?

One of the reasons is the difficulty in proving treason. Others may go closer to the heart of our nation’s involvement in Afghanistan. Could Walker’s defense surface some of our country’s mishandling of the Taliban in the past? Will the public announcements of our misdealings undercut the recently found patriotic ardor that has swept the nation of recent date?

Does one individual American not have the same rights as a collective society or government to pick and choose his own affiliation? Or is timing the issue here? Did John Walker choose the wrong moment in history to fraternize?

Walker may be a mere gnat in the overall war on terrorism, but the administration will have to be extremely careful and creative in swatting him. As a country, we often select our allies based on altruistic reasons, but we need to take a hard look at how we accuse and determine the fate of others when they follow suit.

As politics and wars make strange bedfellows, we should not be so quick to condemn others who have lusted after the same partner.