Lessons From the Long War and a Blowback World
Let me suggest just one lesson that seems to be on no one else's mind at a moment when a key "option" being offered in Washington--especially by Democrats not eager to see tens of thousands more US troops heading Afghanistan-wards--is to arm and "train" ever more thousands of Afghans into a vast army and police security force for a government that hardly exists. Based on the last three decades in the region, don't you think that we should pause and consider who exactly we may be arming and who exactly we may be supporting, and whether, given those thirty years of history, we have the slightest idea what we're doing?
With those questions in mind, here's a little potted history of our own thirty-years' war:
In the Afghan branch of it, our fervent American jihad of the 1980s involved the CIA slipping happily into a crowded bed with the Saudis, the Pakistanis and the most extreme Islamist fundamentalists among the anti-Soviet Afghan fighters. In those years, the agency didn't hesitate to organize car-bomb and even camel-bomb terror attacks on the Russian military ( techniques endorsed by CIA Director William Casey). The partnership of these groups wasn't surprising at the time, given that Casey, himself a cold war fundamentalist and supporter of Opus Dei, believed that the anti-communism of the most extreme Islamist fundamentalists made them our natural allies in the region.
With that in mind, in tandem with Saudi funders, the CIA provided money, arms, training and support (as well as thousands of American-printed Korans). The funds and arms were all funneled through Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence organization (ISI). At the time, our generosity even included offering Stinger missiles, the most advanced hand-held ground-to-air weapon of the era, to our favored Afghans. The CIA also came to favor the most extreme of the jihadists, particularly two figures: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani.
In the early 1990s, after the Soviets left in defeat, the jihadists descended into a wretched civil war, and Washington essentially jumped ship, a new movement, the Taliban, initially a creation of the ISI (with at least implicit American backing at least some of the time), almost swept the boards in Afghanistan, creating a fundamentalist Islamic state in most of the country.
Now, leap forward a couple decades. In that same country, who exactly is the US military fighting? As it happens, the answer is: the forces of the old Taliban, rejuvenated by an American occupation, as well as its two key allies, the warlords Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, who are now our sworn enemies. And we are, of course, pouring more billions of dollars, weaponry and significant blood into defeating them. In the process, with hardly a second thought, the Obama administration is attempting to massively bulk up a weak Afghan army and thoroughly corrupt police force. The staggering ultimate figure for the future combined Afghan security forces now regularly cited in Washington: 400,000.
In other words, thirty years after we launched our jihad against the Soviets by arming the Afghans, we are now fighting almost all the people we once armed and arming a whole new crew. All sides in the debate in Washington find this perfectly sensible.
Then, of course, no one should forget Al Qaeda itself, which emerged from the same anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan in the late 1980s--Osama bin Laden first arrived there to fight and fund in 1982--part of the nexus of Islamist forces on which the US bet at the time.
Our Man (and Mortal Enemy) Saddam
Above all, let's not forget Iraq. Indeed--not that anyone mentions it these days --back in the early 1980s, the Reagan administration threw its support behind the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein against the hated Iranian Shiite regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in the brutal eight-year Iran-Iraq War that began when Saddam launched an invasion in 1980. According to Patrick Tyler of the New York Times, Washington went far indeed in its support of Saddam's military on the battlefield:
A covert American program during the Reagan administration provided Iraq with critical battle planning assistance at a time when American intelligence agencies knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war, according to senior military officers with direct knowledge of the program.
In other words, when it came to Iraq, we were for weapons of mass destruction before we were against them. Of course, you know the story from there. Next thing, Saddam Hussein had transmogrified into a new Adolf Hitler, and after his next invasion (of Kuwait), Gulf War I commenced--another smashing American "victory" in the region that only led to ever more war and greater disaster. A decade of regular US air attacks on Saddam's various military facilities and defenses ensued before, in March 2003, the Bush administration launched an invasion to "liberate" his country and its oppressed Shiite and Kurdish populations.
Soon after, Washington's viceroy in occupied Baghdad would demobilize what was left of Saddam's largely Sunni-officered 400,000-man army. (According to Bush administration plans, liberated Iraq was to have only a lightly armed, 40,000-man border-patrolling military and no air force to speak of.) Soon, however, the United States found itself in yet another war, a bitter, bloody Sunni Party insurgency amid a developing sectarian civil war. Once again, we chose a side and, after some hesitation, began rebuilding the Iraqi military and its intelligence services, as well as the country's paramilitary police force. The result: a largely Shiite-officered army for the new government we set up in Baghdad, which we proceeded to arm to the teeth.
Now, Iraq has a US-created army of approximately 262,000 men, and the interior ministry, which oversees the police, employs another 480,000 people. This is, of course, a gigantic security infrastructure, and not even counted are an estimated 94,000 members of the Sunni Awakening, mostly former insurgents and erstwhile opponents of the army and police that the US paid and armed to make the "surge" of 2007 a relative success. The Iraqi government has recently purchased 140 Abrams tanks from the US through the Foreign Military Sales Program and, as soon as the price of oil rises and it feels less financially strapped, it's eager to buy F-16s for its still barely existent air force.
Let me point out the obvious: No one yet knows whom all this fire power may someday be turned upon, but given that there is now a significantly Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and little short of a shuttle of key Shiite leaders heading Tehran-wards, there's no reason to assume that the Iraqi military will be our "friend" forever. The same would obviously be true of a gigantic Afghan army, if we were capable of creating one.
In a region where the law of unintended consequences seems to go into overdrive, you choose and arm your allies at your peril. In the past, whatever the United States did had an uncanny propensity for blowing back in our direction--something the Israelis also experienced when, in the 1980s, they chose to support an embryonic fundamentalist Islamist organization we now know as Hamas as a way of containing their then-dreaded enemy Fatah. (This "law" may turn out to apply no less to the Palestinian army that US Lieutenant General Keith Dayton has been creating on the West Bank for Fatah. As Robert Dreyfuss recently reported, the general, speaking in Washington, warned that the Palestinian troops he's training "can only be strung along for just so long. 'With big expectations, come big risks.... There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you're creating a state, when you're not.' ")
We now tend to think of blowback as something in our past, something that ended with the attacks of 9/11. But in the Greater Middle East, one lesson seems clear enough: for thirty years we've been deeply involved in creating, financing, and sometimes arming a blowback world. There's no reason to believe that, with the arrival of Barack Obama, history has somehow been suspended, that now, finally, it's all going to work out.
There is a record here. It's not a pretty one. It's not a smart one. Someone should take it into account before we plunge in and arm our future enemies one more time.