Libyan War Recalls Afghan Pitfalls
The historical parallel most unnerving the Obama administration about the Libyan conflict is not Vietnam or Iraq, but Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration eagerly armed Islamic fundamentalists as a proxy force against Soviet troops only to see these “freedom fighters” morph into the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
In the 1980s, today’s U.S. political/media structure was also taking shape, with the public debate dominated then as now by tough-guy rhetoric. Politicians and pundits kept one-upping each other over how much military support should flow to the Afghan mujahedeen. Anyone who objected was “soft.”
At the end of the decade, the Afghan proxy war was viewed as a great victory for the United States and the CIA, supposedly paving the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. But the intervention proved to be a case of applying a treatment with dangerous side effects, which have included the 9/11 attacks and the nine-year U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Regarding Libya, Washington's talking heads again are competing to prescribe the most violent solutions to the current conflict. Some speak glibly of assassinating Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi; others want to provide the anti-Gaddafi rebels with weapons and training; some condemn President Barack Obama for limiting the U.S. military role to air attacks.
Surprising to some, it has been Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Pentagon brass who have been most resistant to the escalating demands from hawkish members of Congress and Washington’s neoconservative-oriented pundit class for a new proxy war in Libya.
As for arming the Libyan rebels, Gates bluntly told Congress on Thursday that "my view would be, if there is going to be that kind of assistance to the opposition, there are plenty of sources for it other than the United States."
It seems that Robert Gates may finally have learned from history.
In the 1980s, as a senior official at the CIA and the National Security Council, Gates was part of the decision-making of the Reagan and Bush-41 administrations regarding Afghanistan. As an anti-Soviet hardliner, Gates supported the strategy of assisting the Afghan mujahedeen, the Nicaraguan Contras and other armed rebel groups harassing Soviet-allied governments.
At CIA, Gates’s mentor, Director William Casey, also promoted the use of religion – both Christianity and Islam – to undermine Moscow which officially embraced atheism. The CIA not only distributed Bibles in Eastern Europe but Korans in traditionally Muslim areas in the southern Soviet Union.
In Afghanistan, where the Soviets had intervened with 100,000 troops to support an allied communist government, the Reagan administration was so eager to stir up trouble that it collaborated with Pakistan’s dictatorship to funnel money and weapons to Afghan Islamic fundamentalists whose ranks swelled with Arab jihadists, including Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden.
To keep Pakistan happy, the Reagan administration turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s development of a nuclear bomb. The thinking was that bloodying the Soviets was a higher priority than stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Reagan's Bargain, Charlie Wilson's War."]
Even after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989, Washington ’s hardliners wouldn’t let go. They saw a complete triumph over the communist regime in Kabul as the only acceptable outcome.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev proposed peace talks between the communist leader Najibullah and the Afghan mujahedeen, but was rebuffed by President George H.W. Bush.
At the time, I was a Newsweek national security correspondent and asked my CIA contacts why the U.S. government didn ’t just collect its winnings from the Soviet withdrawal and agree to some kind of national-unity government in Kabul that could end the war and bring some stability to the country.
One of the CIA hardliners responded to my question with disgust. “We want to see Najibullah strung up by a light pole,” he declared.
What I thought I was hearing was CIA bravado, but the comment actually reflected an internal U.S. government debate. Since the last year of the Reagan administration in 1988, the CIA, where Gates was then deputy director, had been predicting a quick end to the Najibullah government – if and when the Soviet army left.
In contrast, the State Department foresaw a drawn-out struggle. Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead and the department’s intelligence chief Morton Abramowitz challenged the CIA’s assumptions and warned that Najibullah’s army might hold on longer than the CIA expected.
But Gates pushed the CIA analysis of a rapid Najibullah collapse and prevailed in the policy debates.
Gates described this internal battle in his 1996 memoir, From the Shadows, recalling how he briefed Secretary of State George Shultz and his senior aides about the CIA’s prediction prior to Shultz flying to Moscow in February 1988.
“I told them that most analysts did not believe Najibullah’s government could last without active Soviet military support,” wrote Gates, who was predicting privately that the Soviets would not depart Afghanistan at all, despite Gorbachev’s assurances that they would.
After the Soviets did withdraw in early 1989, some U.S. officials felt Washington’s geostrategic aims had been achieved and a move toward peace was in order. There also was concern about the Afghan mujahedeen, especially their tendencies toward brutality, heroin trafficking and fundamentalist religious policies.
Yet, the new administration of George H.W. Bush – with Gates having moved from the CIA to the White House as deputy national security adviser – chose to continue U.S. covert support for the mujahedeen, still funneled primarily through Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI.
Instead of a fast collapse, Najibullah’s regime used Soviet weapons and advisers to beat back a mujahedeen offensive in 1990. Najibullah hung on. The violence and the disorder continued.
Gates finally recognized that his CIA rapid-collapse analysis was wrong. In his memoir, he wrote: “As it turned out, Whitehead and Abramowitz were right” in their warning that Najibullah’s regime might not collapse so quickly.
However, by then, Gorbachev was no longer in position to help broker a settlement. He was struggling to keep his own government afloat. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, surprisingly survived by Najibullah’s regime in Kabul.
Dream Come True
It would take another half decade for my CIA contact’s dream to come true.
Though Najibullah relinquished power to a relatively moderate mujahedeen group in 1992, he chose not to flee. When the extremist Taliban finally captured Kabul in 1996, they hunted Najibullah down. They tortured, castrated and killed him – before literally hanging his body from a light pole.
As it turned out, the Afghan “victory” – though widely celebrated in American books and movies – had many grave consequences, besides Najibullah's grisly demise.
Pakistan ended up with a nuclear arsenal, destabilizing South Asia and creating terror risks for the world; the Taliban imposed harsh Islamic law on Afghanistan and crushed the rights of women who had gained freedoms under the communists (indeed those freedoms were a chief cause for the Islamic mujahedeen to take up arms in the first place); and the Taliban granted safe haven to Saudi exile bin Laden and Al Qaeda, opening the way to the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. [For more, see Consortiumnews.com's "Why Afghanistan Really Fell Apart."]
So, the lesson from the Afghan conflict in the 1980s would seem to be that all the tough-guy talk about ousting some unsavory leftist dictator – whether Najibullah or Gaddafi – can lead to a cure worse than the disease, especially if the United States doesn’t understand who its new friends are.
That uncertainty explains why the Obama administration has rushed CIA officers into rebel-controlled areas of eastern Libya to assess the identities and ideological tendencies of the anti-Gaddafi forces. Clearly, many Libyan rebels are simply motivated by their frustration with Gaddafi’s autocratic rule, but there have been intelligence reports that some radical jihadists are mixed in with the ragtag rebels.
Still, many hardliners in Washington, especially the neoconservatives, have chosen to ignore the lessons of Afghanistan as they press their demands for a broader U.S. participation in “regime change” in Libya and for Gaddafi's murder. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocons Regroup on Libyan War.”]
However, it seems Gates may have finally learned some lessons from his prior service in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He is suggesting that muscular triumphalism is not always the best strategy; sometimes, compromise makes sense.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a two-book set for the discount price of only $19. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.
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