The Anthropology of Lord Jim

University of Michigan anthropologist Scott Atran worries in Wednesday's New York Times that "the main 'success' of the recent surge . . . may create a whirlwind" of violence "that no one will be able to control." That's because, according to Atran, U.S. and NATO offensives have killed off a significant portion of the Taliban's leadership, which has now been turned over to young men who are "increasingly independent, ruthless and unwilling to compromise." What the Taliban, as well as the Haqqani network, really care about is "their homeland, not global jihad." Atran thinks herein lies the key: Washington should be trying to drive a wedge between the Taliban, Haqqani and al-Qaeda (he also mentions that prior to and just after 9/11, Taliban leader Mullah Omar was about to kick out Osama bin Laden before America invaded and screwed everything up). But the insurgents think "reconciliation" is "comical"; the best Washington and Kabul can do is to convince them to "cut ties with Al Qaeda" and not kill President Hamid Karzai after the Americans leave.

Yet perhaps Atran's concern over the new generation of Taliban commanders and the success of recent allied operations is overstated. The Washington Post is reporting in a big, bold headline that the Taliban remain "unscathed by U.S. strikes." Or maybe using the word "unscathed" was a little strong. Correspondent Greg Miller notes later in the story that U.S. troops are killing plenty of militant leaders; the problem is that (consistent with Atran's telling) "Taliban commanders who are captured or killed are often replaced in a matter of days." And, a point Atran also makes in his op-ed, the insurgents are confident that they can wait the Americans out. But U.S. officials also say a big problem is where the Haqqani and Taliban fighters are waiting—across the border in Pakistan. The militants have reportedly been able to bounce back quickly there, too, despite a "four- or fivefold" increase in U.S. operations against their havens in Pakistan. Kevin Drum thinks Miller's article exposes a rift between "the intelligence guys and the military guys," saying somewhat cryptically, "They have met the enemy, and it is them."

SAIS professor Fouad Ajami, in his customary Wall Street Journal op-ed, quite customarily sees the problem as one of "doubt and hesitation" on Washington's part. "The idealism," Ajami writes, "has drained out of this project," the latest evidence being Karzai's open admission of taking "bags of money" from Tehran. Comparing the U.S. endeavor to Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, Ajami takes a very dark view of the likely result of America's effort.