WASHINGTON — It was a sign of the gathering power of radical Islam. Strictly interpreted Islamic law, as practiced (with public executions and amputations) in places like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, was near to becoming the law of the land in, of all places, Kuwait. Kuwait — liberated by the United States, moving toward democracy, yet caught in the rising tide of radical Islam.
No longer. Kuwait has just abandoned the move to install sharia. Indeed, Kuwait has suddenly swung the other way, banning scores of Islamic charities that support religious extremists.
What happened? The spontaneous eruption of Western-style liberalism? The sudden emergence of an Islamic Reformation?
No. The answer is simple: Afghanistan.
"America's success in Afghanistan (has had) a ripple effect," wrote The Wall Street Journal correspondent in Kuwait City, ". . . rolling back the tide of political Islam in the religion's heartland."
"The secular people . . . are triumphant now," said the leader of an ultrafundamentalist sect in Kuwait. "We grieve about the defeat of the Taliban. Our people are depressed."
It is hard to recruit for the Taliban — or for the Taliban model in Kuwait — when that regime has been blasted to pieces, its leaders scattered and scurrying after so much bravado and boasting and basking in the great blow to the infidel on Sept. 11.
Religious fanaticism thrives on its sense of inevitability, on its aura of triumph and divine appointment. Nothing, therefore, deflates it like military defeat.
For years, Islamic extremism went from victory to victory, from the Iranian revolution of 1979 to the radicalization of Sudan and Afghanistan to the world-shaking success of Sept. 11. Then, it finally met real resistance in Afghanistan, home of the most radical Islamic state, and was utterly broken in nine weeks by American power. Gone is the mandate of heaven.
How far America has come. Remember the initial post-Sept. 11 why-do-they-hate-us angst? How could we possibly defeat this powerful, fanatical, ingrained, battle-hardened, religiously grounded enemy? We discovered the answer: satellite-guided thousand-pounders with the odd daisy cutter thrown in.
Bin Laden knows. "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse," he explained on that famous home video. How to win a holy war? Bomb the holy warriors — and overawe the fence-sitting spectators.
It is touching to watch American officials trying to win friends with PR and protestations of good will toward Islam. Muhammad Ali has been recruited for a 30-second spot. Former U.S. Ambassador Christopher Ross spent 15 minutes on al-Jazeera TV making our case in Arabic. It was, reports Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, a bust. Said one Arab commentator, "His performance was terrible. . . . He was like a robot who speaks Arabic." No surprise, and not Ross' fault. The task is hopeless. It is like trying to change American public opinion about al-Qaida with a bin Laden appeal delivered in English.
What talks in the region? Power. Look around. Yemen, home to terrorists who blew up the Cole and run by a government that had stymied American investigators, has begun a military campaign against its own al-Qaida elements. Some of the factions in Somalia have united to go after al-Qaida as well. Under heavy post-Afghanistan American pressure, both Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority have begun to put some curbs on the terrorists they harbor.
Why? A new understanding of the value of human life? A new appreciation of the grievances of their enemies?
Of course not. Fear. Respect for American power. The Somalis and the Yemenis know that if they do not go after al-Qaida, the laser-guided, precisely addressed bombs might fall on them.
In 1996, bin Laden declared war on America, glorying in its "impotence and weaknesses" for running out under fire from Beirut (Marine barracks bombing, 1983), Aden (hotel bombings, 1992) and Mogadishu ("Black Hawk Down," 1993).
He got it wrong. And the world now knows it. Afghanistan demonstrated that America has both the power and the will to fight, and that when it does, it prevails.
Yes, bin Laden is still on the loose, and that is important because he could still direct further terrorist attacks. But the demonstration effect of the Afghan war has already deeply changed the Near East. The area's leaders understand that their future lies with us, not him. Accordingly, they are listening to us.
How far will they go in fighting radical Islam with us? As far as we will push them. We must not relent. We must summon the will and determination to demand that they go all the way — to eradicate al-Qaida and the other terrorists within their midst — or else start scanning the skies for B-52s.
Washington Post Writers Group