Sunday, August 03, 2003

The Perils of Historical Amnesia

It never ceases to amaze me that so many Americans should have failed to draw the appropriate lessons from the World Trade Center attack about the need to remain engaged with the wider world, rather than restricting one's attentions to the biggest trading partners and the most obvious threats. Now that calls are going out for America to do something about the ongoing strife in Liberia, even if not the Congo, the same old nonsense about "strategic interests" is being wheeled out yet again, as if the neglect of "non-strategic" Afghanistan taught the world nothing about allowing far-away countries, of which one knows nothing, to simply go to rot out of eye-view.

It is for the sake of rebutting such myopic parochialism that I reprint the following article by Peter Beinart from the New Republic (which, unwisely in my opinion, has switched to a subscription-based model that has seen its' archives withdrawn from public access):

Back to Front
by Peter Beinart

Post date 09.26.01 | Issue date 10.08.01

When America goes to war, Americans ask a historical question: How did we
get ourselves into this? Doves usually answer: imperialism. If we didn't do
such nasty things around the world, we wouldn't be attacked. But as I tried
to show last week, the connection between our misdeeds and their attacks can
be rather tenuous. And so more sophisticated doves offer a more
sophisticated answer: "blowback." Our foreign policy doesn't just create
enemies in a general sense, it creates them in a very specific sense: We
fund and train the people who later attack us. During the Panama invasion,
doves gleefully noted Manuel Noriega's ties to the CIA. During the Gulf war,
they gleefully noted America's semi-support for Saddam as a counterweight to
Iran. And today antiwar commentators instruct us that the CIA, through its
support for the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, created Osama bin

At first glance, blowback might not seem like a good historical argument for
doves to make. After all, by condemning the U.S. for getting into bed with
Noriega and Saddam and bin Laden in the past, doves acknowledge that they
are worthy of condemnation--which might suggest that America should atone
for its past wrongs by opposing them now. But doves aren't making a point
about America's enemies; they are making a point about America. The
assumption behind blowback is that the U.S. can't atone--that as long as it
intervenes around the world, it will foster evil. To go to war against bin
Laden today will only create more bin Ladens tomorrow.

Which makes it of more than mere historical interest that, as applied to the
United States and Afghanistan, the blowback theory is dead wrong. American
intervention in the Afghan war didn't create Osama bin Laden. In fact, if
the United States bears any blame for bin Laden's terrorist network today,
it's because in the 1980s and '90s, we didn't intervene in Afghanistan
aggressively enough.

As bizarre as it may sound to the antiwar left, the CIA was deeply wary of
U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The Agency didn't think the mujahedin
rebels could beat Moscow, and it feared that if it ran the war, it would
take the blame if things went awry. As Vincent Cannistraro, who led the
Reagan administration's Afghan Working Group from 1985 to 1987, puts it,
"The CIA was very reluctant to be involved at all. They thought it would end
up with them being blamed, like in Guatemala." So the Agency tried to avoid
direct involvement in the war, and to maintain plausible deniability. For
the first six years following the 1979 Soviet invasion, the U.S. provided
the mujahedin only Eastern-bloc weaponry, so the rebels could claim they had
captured it from Soviet troops rather than received it from Washington. And
while America funded the mujahedin, it played barely any role in their
training. To insulate itself, the U.S. gave virtual carte blanche to its
allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to direct the rebel effort as they saw

This is where bin Laden comes in. After Moscow invaded, he and other Arab
militants went to defend Afghanistan in the name of Islam. The Pakistani
government allowed them in, and the Saudis gave them money, hoping to foster
a Sunni Islamist network to counter the Shia network of rival Iran. Riyadh
thought the network would espouse the monarchy's brand of conservative,
rather than revolutionary, fundamentalism. And that idea seemed less naÔve i
n the 1980s when bin Laden was still a loyal Saudi subject, and before
Islamist rebellions had broken out in Algeria and dramatically intensified
in Egypt.

Had the U.S. been present on the ground in Afghanistan, it would have known
about this. And it probably would have tried to stop it--if only because the
Arab volunteers were aiding a virulently anti-Western Afghan rebel leader
named Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who opposed not only the Soviets, but the
Western-backed mujahedin as well. But the U.S. wasn't present on the ground,
and it had only the vaguest knowledge of the Arabs' presence and aims. In
retrospect, that might seem hard to believe. But remember, contrary to bin
Laden's later boasts, the Arabs were few in number (most came after the war,
once bin Laden's network was established) and played virtually no military
role in the victory over the Soviets. And the skittish CIA, Cannistraro
estimates, had less than ten operatives acting as America's eyes and ears in
the region. Milton Bearden, the Agency's chief field operative in the war
effort, has insisted that "[T]he CIA had nothing to do with" bin Laden.
Cannistraro says that when he coordinated Afghan policy from Washington, he
never once heard bin Laden's name.

And if U.S. disengagement contributed to the formation of bin Laden's
network during the war, it contributed to it after the war was over as well.
In 1992 the Communist regime in Kabul finally fell. Afghanistan needed
foreign aid to reconstruct its shattered infrastructure, and an intense
diplomatic effort to force its fractious mujahedin leaders to lay down their
arms. The logical source of that financial assistance and political
intervention was the U.S., which enjoyed the goodwill of many mujahedin
leaders. But by all accounts, once Afghanistan's troubles lost their cold
war significance, the Bush père and Clinton administrations paid them
virtually no high-level attention. Neither administration tried seriously to
negotiate a truce between the parties, and U.S. aid, which had totaled
roughly $3 billion in the 1980s, dropped, by the end of 1994, nearly to

For two more hideous years, mujahedin factions fought each other and preyed
on an already brutalized population. Had ordinary Afghans not been desperate
for the civil war to end, and for a leadership with at least some moral
code, they would not have backed the Taliban, the religious students coming
from the Pakistani border. And had Afghanistan not faced a political vacuum,
Pakistan would not have armed those students in the hope that through them,
it could dominate its neighbor to the northwest.

America's abandonment of Afghanistan was of a piece with its abandonment of
countries like Liberia, Somalia, and Congo, which also disintegrated after
cold war dictators fell. In Liberia the resulting anarchy produced the
murderous Charles Taylor. In Somalia it produced the murderous Mohamed Farah
Aideed. In Congo it produced the genocidal Hutu refugee camps. And in
Afghanistan it produced the Taliban. Except that the Taliban didn't just
harbor tribal killers, they harbored Al Qaeda, which brought its savagery
all the way to America's shores.

So the doves are wrong: There was no blowback. America's involvement in
Afghanistan in the 1980s didn't help create Osama bin Laden; Saudi Arabia's
involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s helped create Osama bin Laden, in
large part because the United States was too timid to direct the war itself.
Similarly, it wasn't America's intervention in Afghanistan in the 1990s that
created the Taliban; it was Pakistan's intervention and America's
non-intervention. Doves might consider this as they counsel the U.S. to
respond to September 11 by leaving the rest of the world to its own devices.
After all, it was leaving the rest of the world to its own devices that got
us into this in the first place.

PETER BEINART is editor of TNR.