16 February 2010

What else is new

Every now and then, I like to have story time here at WOI. Today's story is about someone who gave someone else a lot of training, only to have the beneficiary of said training later become his greatest enemy. Knowing how this blog operates, you're probably guessing that it's going to be the story of Star Wars or it will be the story of American foreign policy in the 20th Century.

Today, Major Jeremy Kotkin penned an article in Small Wars Journal about the recently-deceased Senator Representative Charlie Wilson, a particularly colorful senator who famously suggested that the US provide mujahadeen rebels in Afghanistan with weapons in order to rout the Soviets. While many cite this as a proximate cause of the fall of the Soviet Union, we also can't help but notice that--in hindsight--it created more problems than we had originally intended, a phenomenon known as "blowback".

Major Kotkin lambastes Senator Wilson et al for such a reckless decision, although, as many respondents have pointed out, such a criticism is made only with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Not only is this critique somewhat unfair, it fails to acknowledge that, unfortunately, the US has often been forced--by necessity--to act under the "enemy of my enemy equals my friend" approach to foreign policy. This approach has led to some admittedly baffling foreign policy decisions when viewed in hindsight.

The US was allied with the Soviet Union during the the war against Nazi Germany, only to find a nuclear-armed Soviet Union as its greatest threat in the post-war era. A few decades later, the US attempted to counter and contain Soviet expansion by entering into the Central Treaty Organization with Iran, even going so far as to give Iran the latest F-14 Tomcats in order to curb Soviet overflights with MiG-25s.

However, as we all know, Ayatollah Khomeni seized control of Iran and declared the United States "The Great Satan". In response, the US began to support a guy by the name of Saddam Hussein, who was the leader of a country called Iraq, then at war with Iran. Iraq, of course, ran afoul of the US in 1990 after its invasion of Kuwait, causing the US to come to the aid of Saudi Arabia, which was, at the time, the home of a guy by the name of Osama bin Laden.

Osama bin Laden, concerned Iraqi troops presumably poised to strike the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, begged the Saudi royal family not to let non-Muslim troops into the Holy lands of Saudi Arabia, proposing that his mujahadeen defend Saudi Arabia instead. The Saudi royal family denied this request, and hosted hundreds of thousands of foreign troops, which served as a catalyst for Osama bin Laden's rampage against the West, leading to...well, you all know where this one is going.

Of course, this all seems so simple in hindsight, but many of these decisions made perfect sense in context. Certainly, the US had to fight Hitler in the Second World War, and it could hardly have done so without the Soviet Union inflicting massive losses against the German Army. The US lived under a very credible threat of nuclear destruction during the Cold War, and certainly, arming some unscrupulous characters in Afghanistan seemed to be a legitimate tradeoff at the time--and I think we'll all admit, was one worth making. If we're going to criticize the decision to back the mujahadeen against the Soviets, we need to look at a few other bizarre foreign policy choices as well...


Ray said...

Two nitpicks. First, Charlie Wilson was a Congressman, not a senator.

Second, I think you overstate the degree of influence America had over the Afghan mujahedeen, and the importance of American aid.

President Zia ul Haq had already begun the radical Islamization of Pakistan long before CIA aid was present in more than token amounts, and Saudi Arabian funds flowed freely in an attempt to be holier-than-thou compared with the expansionistic ayatollahs of Iran. As one prof I had in college commented, for respectable Saudi kids in the 1980s, the upper tier went to Western universities, and for the middle tier there was a "downmarket option in jihad."

Sure, these nations enjoyed the tacit protection of America against the Soviet Union, but that's all they really needed, and they undertook these struggles for their own purposes. In fact, an argument could be made that it was the covert and limited nature of American assistance, that allowed the myth to arise that the mujahedin had won on their own, a myth that was fairly important to their recruiting and ideology in earlier years.

badlieutenant said...

Things seem so much more simple without knowing these things. Then you can just focus on the bad-guy-of-the-day.

One also shouldn't place that sort of hindsight-blame on one man, either. ISI had quite the influence over both the mujahidin and our support to them.

But it still made an entertaining movie.