Monday, November 22, 2004


Recommended book: Steve Coll's Ghost Wars
I'm about halfway through this magnificent documentation of America's involvement in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1991. To make a very long story very, very short, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Jimmy Carter authorized a covert plan to funnel money and arms to Islamic militants waging guerrilla warfare against the Russian army. While the fact that Carter initially approved this program is often overlooked, the campaign was expanded by Reagan's CIA chief, William Casey. During this period, Congress secretly authorized billions of dollars in aid for the rebels, which was funneled through Pakistan's intelligence service, ISI, and was matched dollar-for-dollar by the Saudis.

The left often claims that the U.S. "created" Bin Laden through this program, but the reality is much more complex. It is true that Bin Laden was one of many Islamist militants operating in Afghanistan at the time, but there is no documentary evidence that he had anything to do with the CIA, at least according to Coll. In any case, American dollars provided training, equipment, and support for the rebels, many of whom trained in austere camps on the Pakistani-Afghan border. The Pakistanis, led at the time by an Islamist-leaning autocratic general by the name of Muhammed Zia ul-Haq, had their own interest in containing Soviet influence in the region, and in bolstering Islamic radicals. The Saudis for their part used their money both for weapons and for a series of radical Islamic madrassas, or schools, along the border, which peddled their peculiar fundamentalist version of Islam, known as Wahhabism.

Coll makes it very clear that Casey led a group of people at the CIA who were willing to do anything and risk anything to undermine the Soviets in Afghanistan, even to the point of authorizing rebel raids into Soviet territory, incidents which, if discovered, could have triggered a major international diplomatic crisis. It also becomes clear in the book that the CIA preferred dealing with the most radical and authoritarian groups operating in Afghanistan, because they also happened to be the most deadly. The irony of it all is that it was one of the most successful operations ever undertaken by the CIA. The arms (including some Stinger anti-aircraft missiles which are still at large today) and cash succeeded in bolstering the Islamic insurgency against the Soviets, and turned Afghanistan into the Russian Vietnam. At least 15,000 Russian soldiers (and probably many more) died in Afghanistan, and at least 37,000 were wounded. The Soviets finally withdrew ignominiously from Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War.

The trouble with this relatively unknown history is with the unintended consequences of U.S. policy. The Afghan war bred an entire generation of violent, fundamentalist Islamic radicals, taught them how to fight, how to organize, how to hide, and how to cripple an advanced military superpower. When the Cold War came to a close, the U.S. dropped Afghanistan like a hard-thrown pass on a December day, abandoning the country to a civil war that gave rise to the Taliban. It is not just al-Qaeda and Bin Laden that were an indirect consequence of America's covert aid to the rebels, but rather the strengthening of the whole radical Islamic network which spans from North Africa to South Asia. The post-war chaos in Afghanistan led directly to a harbor for al-Qaeda, but Afghanistan also convinced a generation of militants that religious war is not just possible, but effective and just. The thinking historian must then ask this question: was the damage done to the Soviets in Afghanistan worth the cost of the subsequent problem with violent, apocalyptic Islamic militants?

To deal in counterfactuals is a very tricky business indeed. Without U.S. involvement, there would still have been a substantial resistance to the Soviet invasion and the communist puppet regime. It is highly likely that Saudi and Pakistani intelligence would have collaborated to funnel aid and arms to the rebels. But the immense amount of cash transferred from the U.S., along with advanced weapons systems like the Stinger missile, which were unavailable elsewhere, almost certainly helped transform the rebellion from a nuisance to a catastrophe for the Soviets. On the other hand, no one has ever been able to show conclusively that the war in Afghanistan contributed directly to the downfall of the Soviet Union. The Russian economy was in miserable shape in any case, and it would be hard to argue that Gorbachev would not have initiated his reforms in the absence of war on the Soviet Union's southern perimeter. Not only that, but the Soviet Union in the 1980s was a hollow empire, and hardly the expanding threat envisioned by America's right wing.

The macro-lesson of this story is that the United States consistently neglects to think through the long-term consequences of short-term actions. Whether it's coddling the hated Shah of Iran in the 1970s, funneling arms and intelligence to Iraq in the 1980s, or toppling a weak and isolated Saddam in 2003, the orchestrators of U.S. foreign policy seem incapable of forseeing the negative ramifications of their actions in the Middle East, what Chalmers Johnson calls "blowback." This is particularly true when the policy in question is smashingly successful in its short-term goals. U.S. aid to Saddam in the mid-1980s prevented the Iranians from making a decisive breakthrough into Iraqi territory, and eventually turned the tide of the Iran-Iraq War. The American-led war to topple Saddam's regime 18 months ago was a tremendous success in its stated goal of regime change.

It's the aftermath which is the sticking point. It is entirely possible that an anarchic, failed Iraqi state without Saddam will be a much greater threat to world peace and prosperity than an Iraq led by a contained and weakened Saddam. Sadly, I suspect that historians will be writing about the "blowback" of America's ill-considered war in Iraq for some time to come.

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