international affairs, middle east, muslims, obama, politics, war on terror

The Dogs Are Eating Them Now, By Graeme Smith: A Review

Published by Muftah.org on August 1st, 2014

It can be tough to wrap one’s head around the fact that the war in Afghanistan is the longest the United States has ever fought. Indeed, the conflict has lasted longer than World Wars I and II, longer than the Vietnam War, and longer even than the Iraq war. That thought itself begs the obvious question of “why,” or, to put it another way: “what were the invaders doing and what took them so long?”

Graeme Smith’s The Dogs are Eating Them Now is a Canadian war memoir that examines this question from multiple angles. Smith was the Globe and Mail’s correspondent in southern Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009. He is a person who has lived in the country, been shot at, and had “the charred flesh of suicide bombers” stuck to his shoes. His memoir is a series of dispatches that details his findings and view of the mission there.

Although he admits to lacking the same in-depth experience throughout the whole of Afghanistan, Smith notes that the south “serves as a useful case study.” Indeed, it was in the South “where the war became most intense” and where the international coalition’s “policy most obviously went wrong.”

Smith’s book is not—and does not aim to be—a geopolitical analysis of what happened or may happen in Afghanistan (Smith notes that one cannot expect to form an accurate picture of Afghanistan by thinking “on the level of theory”). It is his hope the reader will come away with a more informed view of the conflict by the time he reaches the last page.

At the end of the book, Smith concludes that the international community should not exit Afghanistan hastily and without a sense of responsibility. With parts of the country unattended, “anarchy” or “civil war” may end up filling the vacuum. Whether or not one agrees with these final assessments, Smith’s brave reporting on a number of important issues stands on its own merits. His willingness to acknowledge his initial naiveté, contributes to an honest picture of Afghanistan’s current state, from his point of view.

An Evolving Understanding of Western Failures

Smith’s voice is weary, but sharp and collected. He started his correspondence for theGlobe as a 26-year-old with high hopes the West was going to bring “the whole basket of civilization” to Afghanistan, a country that desperately needed it. But Smith also starts his book by acknowledging the international coalition’s objectives were not reached, and that assumptions policy makers made about Afghan society seriously hindered efforts to remake the country.

By the time the “world’s great armies” had gathered in Southern Afghanistan, in the beginning of 2002, the Al-Qaeda camps had long disappeared and the Taliban were no longer in power. The mission evolved from chasing global jihadists to a much grander plan: to remake the country in the West’s image and to establish a peaceful, democratic state. It is quite obvious by now that the international community failed at this. Smith notes that no international force has ever managed to control all of Afghanistan without controlling the South’s biggest city: Kandahar. Coalition troops routed the Taliban in that region again and again (with Canadians often leading the way), but the fighting never seemed to reach a rational end-point.

As time went on, Smith began to recognize the deep flaws in the methodology adopted by Western forces. Major military operations against the southern insurgency failed to win hearts and minds. Coalition forces wanted to use the presence and threat of the Taliban to justify their own invasion. They wanted to recast themselves as fighters against the “real invaders:” the Taliban. After witnessing the Battle of Panjwai in 2006, an offensive that saw the Taliban routed once again by coalition troops, Smith realized the residents of Southern Afghanistan were a tough crowd when it came to the “Taliban vs. good foreigners” narrative.

Afghans were not always cooperative with the International Security and Assistance Force’s (ISAF) efforts to root out the Taliban. In fact, Afghans with loose ties to the Taliban became the enemies of many Western troops on the ground. These Afghans joined the insurgency to repel what they thought was a foreign invasion led by international powers to control their country’s future.

An Out-of-Touch Approach

Smith notes how the Western mission in Afghanistan failed to predict how strong this anti-invasion sentiment would be. This “out-of-touch” attitude is itself one of the more revealing, if not startling, aspects of Smith’s observations, which call for a reassessment of NATO’s interventionist strategies. As Smith notes in the introduction, such self-reflection “is not likely to happen” because “NATO claims victory.”

The book includes a section detailing findings from discussions Smith and his Afghan researcher had with dozens of Afghan insurgents —an  endeavor which was made into an Emmy Award-winning video series called “Talking to the Taliban.” Because his Afghan researcher was able to conduct interviews in areas off-limits to foreigners, Smith is able to offer rare, first-hand insight into the worldview of Taliban insurgents. The 42 interviews also provide a good sense of the complexities beneath the official, often jingoistic, assertions coming out of NATO and its member states.

To begin with, it is quite obvious that, at least in Southern Afghanistan, ISAF has been dragged into a conflict that contains complex tribal dynamics, which it has yet to fully grasp and engage with effectively. Hamid Karzai and his weak administration are made up of a few tribes, which are exclusively responsible for governing the country. This has antagonized other tribes throughout Afghanistan. This kind of tribal rivalry has fueled the insurgency. The Zirak Durrani tribal federation, which includes Karzai’s Popalzai tribe, dominates the Afghan government. The insurgents surveyed were all ethnic Pashtuns who were part of tribes that inhabited the South. When it comes to building Afghanistan’s future, these tribes feel excluded by Karzai’s inner circle.

NATO’s use of airstrikes has further compounded the problem by causing “collateral damage” among the civilian population.  According to Human Rights Watch, in 2007, civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes “almost tripled” compared to 2006.

Smith also outlines another Western strategy that backfired:  the destruction of poppy fields in order to cut off funding to the Taliban. Again, Western forces found themselves caught up in a complex dynamic they did not appreciate quickly enough. The logic seemed simple: poppies fuel the opium trade, which is used to fund the insurgents. Fewer poppies must mean less insurgents. Unfortunately, the destruction of poppies also meant the eradication of many Afghanis’ livelihoods. In a country with a crippled economy and limited industry, growing poppies was a means of survival for many Afghan farmers. Angry farmers who had their soil destroyed by airstrikes, or who had their fields burned by foreign occupiers naturally saw the invaders in the worst possible light. This helped fuel the insurgency.

Smith provides superb (and brave) reporting on how corrupt and powerful Afghan officials have themselves been involved in drug trafficking. Near the end of the book, Smith recalls a memorable episode involving a drug trafficker caught by Afghanistan’s Counter-narcotics Police, who carried a letter of protection signed by Mohammed Daud Daud, the deputy minister of interior responsible for counter-narcotics. Daud was Afghanistan’s most powerful anti-drug czar before being killed in 2011.

The Torture of Detainees

Among ISAF’s many errors, the detainee torture scandal has received perhaps the most attention. The hand over of prisoners by Canadian Forces (CF) to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Directorate of Security(NDS) resulted in detainees being systematically tortured.

Investigations into the matter, as well as information from whistle-blowing diplomats, seem to suggest CF knew torture was happening and refused to act. A subsequent investigation into the matter by the Military Police Complaints Commission concluded CF brass actively kept its investigators in the dark about the detainees’ situations. The watchdog noted that Canada’s Harper administration actively stonewalled its investigation, threatening the commission’s independence while insisting it ought to have final say over information disclosed to the public.

Leaving Afghanistan

Sadly, this gap between government policy and reality has remained consistent throughout the Afghan war. Smith hopes the international community will change course and find new ways to serve Afghans. Yet the mystery here is how, after fighting a prolonged war with such a stubbornly flawed mindset, the United States and the rest of NATO can find it within them to radically change course.

The United States and its allies want to exit Afghanistan without losing face. That means focusing on repeating successes while glossing over errors and failures. Though the West has been able to improve certain aspects of Afghan life, such as decreasing the rate of infant mortality, the country, known as the “Graveyard of Empires,” is a more violent place now than before the invasion.

Smith leaves his audience with more questions than solutions. But the points he raises are necessary to consider for policy makers and those who care about Afghanistan. Only by acknowledging failure can Afghanistan’s future be accurately assessed. Perhaps that is why the international community’s relationship with Afghanistan has been, and is likely to remain, a rather depressing one.

[http://muftah.org/book-review-dogs-eating-now-graeme-smith/]

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international affairs, politics

The Dangers of Naïve Diplomacy

Published on April 17th, 2014 by The American Conservative

When Russian soldiers descended into the Ukrainian province of Crimea last month, many observers rightly rebuked the move as a precursor to eventual annexation. They condemned the deployment as illegal, dangerous, and capable of sparking a much larger conflict. Still, some of these spectators took things a step further and saw an opportunity to condemn what they observed as an intrinsic duplicity to the global peace movement.

The loudest participants argue that the antiwar left shows its hypocrisy by not getting on the streets to protest Vladimir Putin’s aggression. They ask: if hundreds of thousands of people showed up on the streets of Western cities to protest the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, then why can’t Ukrainians get the same show of international support?

Take Nick Cohen, writing for the conservative British magazine The Spectator, who says that Ukrainians “should be glad that they do not have the support of the relativist left” because of its “pliable” politics. Or take The National Post’s Andrew Coyne, who goes on to condemn the apparently spineless left for being “pacifists” who have become the “PR reps” of tyrants.

There’s no doubt that Russia’s actions amount to an illegal encroachment on Ukraine’s sovereignty. Historian Timothy Snyder explains that Putin’s broader strategic objective is to have Ukraine join something called the “Eurasian Union,” which is essentially a group of authoritarians and dictators banding together to preserve their regional hegemony.

That sounds very unappetizing, but unlike what Cohen and Coyne seem to suggest, just because millions of leftists aren’t filling the streets doesn’t then mean they all endorse Russian expansionism. In fact, there has been quite enough knee-jerk moralism and grand, sweeping rhetoric already escalating Ukraine’s crisis. The peace movement’s resources are limited, and it’s simply not possible to have colossal protests whenever a conflict arises. Not to mention that it’s probably not in Ukraine’s interests to amplify anti-Russia messaging right now. It’s also hard to imagine any commentator, Cohen and Coyne included, showing the same level of outrage if the left failed to protest for, say, the island nation of Palau, if any of its larger neighbors decided to invade it. This kind of selectivity says much more about the ideological framework through which commentators like Cohen look at the world than it does about the left.

Ukraine, of course, is not Palau. The aggressor here is Russia, a chief geopolitical actor in the world whose global agenda doesn’t always align with that of the U.S. and its closer allies. Palau and its neighbors are not symbols of a larger global rivalry in the way that Ukraine and Russia are. Russia still symbolizes opposition to the “Western world” for many in the American political establishment who prefer to remain stubbornly connected to the outdated narratives of the Cold War. As the Soviet Union was perceived to impede the progress of liberal capitalism and democracy throughout the world, Putin’s Russia now disrupts the “unipolar moment,” when the U.S. should be free to project its overwhelming power for global goodness. Or so the (neoconservative) story goes.

In truth, Ukraine is caught between this broader, global rivalry. The admirable impulse of its people to attain a more just country is dwarfed by the ideological myopia of both Russia and the U.S. In the melodramatic narratives that have come to dominate the way the mainstream discusses this crisis, Ukraine’s democratic will should be backed by the ultimate purveyor of freedom in the world, the United States. With its help, plucky little Ukraine will escape Putin’s clutches and go on to enjoy the perks of the European Union, and maybe even NATO.

But reality is different. In the real world, Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine has long been a strategic partner of Russia. It was a country still within Putin’s limited sphere of regional influence. If it goes, then Russia loses. Russian interests are at stake, and so it must act to protect them. This, above all, remains the primary impediment to Ukraine’s democratic goals. Did the U.S. State Department not recognize it? If it did, then why did it not apply a reality-based diplomacy that reminded the Euromaidan movement to avoid making Russia feel like a loser in all this?

As John Mearsheimer notes in his New York Times op-ed, Russia “drew a line in the sand” when NATO announced in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia will become members. The Russians already watched Poland and the Baltic states accede. Ukraine was simply a step too far. Putin, as it turns out, would rather not tolerate NATO expansion right up to his doorstep. An excuse to act was all he needed. Euromaidan’s success in throwing out Yanukovych provided that excuse.

Now, Ukraine’s sovereignty remains violated. Instead of advising caution, the U.S. took a more activist approach, symbolized by Victoria Nuland’s handing out of cookies to protestors in Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicenter of the Euromaidan movement. As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Nuland decided not to warn the protestors that they may be making a strategic error by forcing Yanukovych out instead of voting him out. The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, also failed to take a more strategic approach, instead calling the ouster of Yanukovych “a day for the history books.” The failure to see the Russia’s reaction to all this as incredibly relevant to Ukraine’s chances of maintaining a sovereign, democratic state has a lot to do with where the crisis is today.

An establishment still nostalgic for the thinking and rhetoric of the Cold War may present Ukraine’s well-being as the West’s primary concern. But the inability to see all this from Russia’s perspective has ruined Ukraine’s chances for a smooth transition out of Russia’s immediate sphere of influence. This is the same kind of naïve and sentimental idealism that characterizes many of America’s ill-conceived forays into the world, including those in the Middle East. It is of course directly related to the neoconservative view of global influence: project American power, whatever it takes. Vladimir Putin is playing the same game, responding in kind to the aggressive expansionism of Russia’s rivals.

The truth, of course, is that plenty of people have expressed distaste for all aggressive interventions, be it by Russia or the United States, or anyone else for that matter. In addition to a Crimea firmly in Putin’s clutches, the Ukrainian interim government and major political parties (who will contend in a general election next month) are chock-full of candidates with their own records of corruption. The far-right Svoboda party now has five ministerial posts in this interim regime, including deputy prime minister and prosecutor general. The leader of the neo-nazi Right Sector party, Dmytro Yarosh, is now Ukraine’s deputy national security chief.

Now hawkish Cold Warriors within the United States are calling for NATO forces to be deployed into Western Ukraine, or at least on it’s border with Poland. U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, has been given a mandate to draw up plans to counter Russia’s move and “reassure NATO members nearest Russia that other alliance countries have their back.” Breedlove says that he wouldn’t “write off the involvement of any nation, to include the United States.”

If that happens, Russia will almost certainly declare and execute an official invasion into eastern Ukraine. What follows such a disaster is anyone’s guess.

[http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-dangers-of-naive-diplomacy/]

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obama, politics

The future of Libya

Published on: The Canadian Charger, April 14th, 2011
[http://www.thecanadiancharger.com/page.php?id=5&a=868]

The airstrikes on Libya, as authorized by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, has a veneer of “internationalism” about that that needs to be addressed.

Compounded by the calls for a no-fly-zone from the Arab League, the African Union, and the provisional council set up by the Libyan rebels themselves, the air strikes—especially in the usual media corners—seem to be much, much more than an effort anchored by the United States.

This is a myth. The coalition forces of France, the United Kingdom, etc. was led by a U.S. commander—General Carter Ham.

The helm has since then been passed on to a Canadian official, who is supposedly heading up a joint NATO venture.  The U.S. has contributed substantially to a barrage of 110 Tomahawk missiles on Libya’s air defenses on March 19th, 2011. Named by the U.S. as “Operation Odyssey Dawn,” the multi-phased no-fly-zone/airstrikes operation was just beginning—and right off the bat, the Associated Press reported that the United States deployed a slew of B2s, F-15s, F-16s, Navy EA-18G electronic warfare planes and Marine attack jets. In other words—despite the carefully crafted image of “limited military action” from the Obama administration—it is clear that the United States is calling the shots and doing the heavy lifting.

The rebels have since then called for a ceasefire after losing one of their key oil ports, Ras Lanuf, while also being stopped at Brega.

Whether international intervention helped or not is a tough question to answer, given mixed results. Qaddafi’s forces have not been able to fight where they wanted to, but rebel leaders have also come out to criticize the foreign airstrikes. “NATO is not doing their job, the airstrikes are late and never on time. NATO is not helping us. Gadhafi still gets ammunition and supplies to his forces–that’s why he is pushing us back,” says Mohammed Abdullah, a rebel who defected from loyalist ranks. The UK Daily Telegraph has also reported that “strafing runs” have been carried out by NATO helicopters trying to rescue fallen allied pilots. This practise has put civilian lives at risk.

The purpose for Resolution 1973 was, basically, to obtain a ceasefire. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has made it clear that Operation Odyssey Dawn seeks to implement genuine regime change. This lack of overlap in terms of end goals gives some indication of what each party has at stake in Libya. Despite its rhetoric of massacre prevention and international cooperation, the Obama administration’s geopolitical vision extends beyond the conditions of war, and into the conditions of peace. Suffice it to say that if Libya was a land known for carrots, Qaddafi’s troops would not be facing constant airstrikes.

By now, the most likely scenario is a partitioned Libya, and thus a divided Libya. The rebels in Benghazi—aside from asking for a ceasefire—have also rejected an overture from the African Union to broker talks, and for good reason, given that 15% of the AU’s expenses were paid by the Qaddafi regime. Furthermore, the Transitional National Council in Benghazi has agreed to a temporary “trust fund” to help channel assets from “international donations,” according to Al Jazeera English. All this indicates that the situation in Libya is perhaps entering a stage of stalemate. Subsequent planning is not clear, and long-term peace may indeed—like many feared—be subject to the interests of the NATO powers who have so much at stake in Libya.

If the endgame involves the removal of Qaddafi and the dissolution of his regime (it is hard to imagine the coalition forces allowing Qaddafi to stay in power), then an imposition of a no-fly-zone will most likely be protracted into a “long war”. Indeed, according to a report by Reuters, Obama has already signed off on a presidential “finding” (although no admission has been made), that authorizes “covert U.S. government support for rebel forces seeking to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, government…”

The best case scenario of course is for Qaddafi to be eliminated permanently, or to have him remove himself from power. This may be a possibility if the no-fly-zone is kept in place and works fluidly in order to protect places like Benghazi and Tobrouk from reprisals. If this happens, it may be possible to negotiate a political settlement. The talks can be brokered by international coalition forces and will most likely include the removal of Qaddafi—or at least an agreement from him to submit to parliamentary elections (or a trip to the International Criminal Court?). This, however, may be wishful thinking. For now, Libya’s war of liberation is looking more and more like a civil war. Support for Qaddafi is tough to quantify, and estimates have ranged from 10% all the way up to 30%.  Obama may do well to let the pro-Qaddafi towns alone, and focus strictly on protecting civilians. This will prove to be more and more difficult as airstrikes take on new configurations.

One can only hope that Resolution 1973 (1) does more good than harm when it comes to civilian protection, (2) works to facilitate more civilian involvement instead of restricting it, and (3) does not lead to foreign troops on Libyan soil.

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muslims, politics, war on terror

Canada’s Disturbing “Solution” to Alleged Islamic Extremism

Published on:
http://dissidentvoice.org/2010/07/canada%E2%80%99s-disturbing-%E2%80%9Csolution%E2%80%9D-to-alleged-islamic-extremism/#more-20150

Not a terrible lot has been written about the global consequences of 9/11 on Western Muslim communities. For example, almost immediately after the deadly events of September 11th 2001, Canada adopted its own version of the Patriot Act: Bill C-36, the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act. This piece of anti-terror legislation is so broad in its scope and language that legal experts had difficulty picturing exactly how such legislation can and will be applied.

That all changed after 2006, when several suspects in a high-profile case dubbed the “Toronto-18 Case” were convicted under the act. Of the eighteen men and youth arrested, several had their charges dropped/stayed while other pled guilty and are awaiting sentence. Of those convicted, one has been sentenced to life in prison. Indeed, there was a bomb plot planned, but the more sensationalist slogans like “beheading the Prime Minister”, so often proliferated by Canada’s corporate media, were nothing more than “big talk”. These events made Muslim communities in Canada doubly paranoid. On the one hand, they feared the dangerous stereotyping of their religious identity and practices by the “outsiders” that were sure to be a result of this case. On the other hand, they have been “forced” to keep an eye out for the “extremists” in there midst, as if scouting out lepers.

In an effort to tend to the latter (and overrated) paranoia, numerous community leaders and security agencies in Canada have come up with a solution to “de-radicalize” young “Muslim extremists”. The idea has now come into fruition thanks to the work of Sheikh Ahmed Amiruddin of the Al-Sunnah Institute in Toronto, Canada (his mosque is the Masjid El-Noor). Commonly known as the “Islamic Ideological Detox” program, Amiruddin has supposedly devised an effective twelve- step “de-radicalization” program aimed at turning angry Muslim youth away from the path of “extremism”. The initiative much resembles a kind of self-help guide for alcoholics in its structural make-up. By now, the Canadian intelligence agency, or CSIS (Canadian Security and Intelligence Services), has shown interest, as well as another Sheikh Robert Heft of “Paradise4Ever”, a Muslim organization that helps Muslim converts settle into their new faith-based lives.

As rosy and good-hearted as this all sounds, the very idea of a theology-based “de-radicalization” program is problematic. The worldview that underscored this “ideological detox” program is congruent with the tiresome post-9/11 tendency to put extremism at the centre of any potentially substantial discussion. The alleged and much touted subject of “Islamic extremism” becomes de-contextualized politically, and all suggested solutions point to the perceived problem as being completely borne out of religion. In fact, there is nothing “Islamic” about them at all. As stated by numerous studies around the world, the phenomenon of committing violence in the name of religion is usually borne out of political indignation. Robert Pape of The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism has done more work than most on the subject of suicide bombing, and has concluded that imperial ambitions by world powers precipitate backlash, some of which take the form of terror in the name of religion.[see his new book here] Despite much (undeserved) publicity, Canada has exhibited only one case that remotely exemplifies such a case: members of the “18” were outraged by Canada’s participation in the Afghanistan war, among other things. The root of their anger was deeply political, and pertained specifically to policies carried out by their government. This is true for all NATO allies, especially the United States.

As individuals who were unfamiliar with the avenues of political activism (something their mosques and role models should have provided for and invested in), the “18” took matter into their own hands, and began to search for interpretations of the Quran and Sunnah (way of the Prophet Muhammad) which were akin to Osama bin Laden’s worldview. In other words, the political woes and the “jihadi rhetoric” that dually inspired the “18” should not be viewed as detached influences. The former reinforces and lends false credibility to the latter. The post-9/11 “West” is so obsessed with the apparently Islamic iconography used by “extremists” that they often forget to look at the bigger picture. Any solution that seeks to invest in so-called “terror-prevention” must realize this vital point. Unfortunately, Sheikh Amiruddin’s twelve-step “ideological detox” program falls terribly short of such a realization.

Another sinister characteristic of the “de-radicalization” program pertains to how exactly such a program would play out on the ground. The details have yet to be hashed out, but the way in which a program like this functions as a pre-emption to terror is worth discussing. Let’s pretend for the moment that so-called “Islamic extremism” is actually a problem in Canada. Presumably, members of a certain community will be asked to be “vigilant” about their fellow community members. If they notice any suspicious activity or behaviour by an individual/group, they will be asked to report, or “red-flag” the person(s) involved. Those reported will then be recognized and marked off by CSIS for later “treatment”. This logic in itself is questionable, with the obvious question being exactly what “behaviour” constitutes a need for suspicion. Moreover, how would such a program deal with dishonesty? If a person is reported by another individual simply out of spite and not for any substantial reason(s), what would the safeguard be? These unaddressed queries constitute concerns regarding civil liberties that will inevitably arise.

By now, the alleged problem of “Islamic extremism” has been positioned as a central concern in the 21st century. Of course, prevention of violence in the name of Islam is in everyone’s interest. However, Western democracies must realize that these problems will not be solved through Guantanamo-styled strong-arming, or through the on-going stereotyping of Muslims in society. It will be vital in the future to realize that if “extremism” is to be avoided, one must first de-fang those involved by giving them nonviolent and activist avenues to vent their anger. If such a program can be devised with the help of security agencies, participating governments must guarantee the rights and liberties of all those who are involved.

While the Anti-terror legislation came into being under the previous Liberal government, the civil liberties-bashing Conservative Harper regime has continued to hunt for “terrorists,” such as the Toronto-18 case. The regime, like much of Canada’s media, has tried very hard to inculcate a climate of fear. The government-media nexus has engaged in a campaign of demonization aiming to insert into the Canadian psyche that “deradicalization” is needed, and that an “Islamic Detox Program” will solve the problem. This ill-informed and racist position will produced unworkable and problematic policies. “Islamic extremism” is not the problem, despite what the current discourse suggests. Insofar as society wants to prevent “Islamic extremism”, the root of the problem must be hacked at: foreign and imperial ventures undertaken by Western regimes must stop at once.

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