Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Afghanistan, bin Laden, and all that

A mindworm has returned, one familiar from 2001 and 2002. Inspired by the book and recent movie, Charlie Wilson's War, and Pakistan's troubles, the worm says something like this: in the 80s, "the US supported bin Laden," or "bin Laden supported the US," or the 1980s anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan is somehow responsible for al Qa'eda. None of this is true. Those events and forces do have significance today, most of it not foreseen back then. But the Afghan anti-Soviet war (1978-1989) helped to delay the rise of al Qa'eda and Sunni radicalism directed at the US, rather than accelerate it. And Sunni radicalism needed certain prerequisites - the end of the Iran-Iraq war (1988), the end of the Cold War (1990), American troops stationed in the heart of the Muslim world (Arabia, 1990-2003), the rise of Arabic satellite television (after 1994) - that didn't start falling into place until the end of the 80s.

Few people in the Western world in the 1960s and 70s foresaw the rise of radical Islam. Superficially, at least, the Middle East was dominated by ideologies familiar in a Western context: nationalism, and various types of socialism. Not understanding that the Middle East is really a distinct civilization with a history very different from the West or Asia, most pundits and experts projected the future as more of the same. Most people unthinkingly believed in an automatic secularization, modernization, and so on. The Middle East was mentally lumped into an artificial construct, the "Third World," made up of non-white peoples either patronized as "noble savages" or feared as simply "savages."

The Islamic revival of the late 1970s came as a shock to the West, the communist bloc, and Westernized elites in the Middle East. Several events marked turning points and milestones in the return of political Islam. The failure of modernization and the Arab defeats in 1967 and 1973 helped to discredit secular regimes. At the same time, Saudi Arabia's successful orchestrating of the 1973-74 oil embargo - taking the industrialized world's economy hostage, in effect - marked a power shift away from secular governments like Egypt's and Syria's, once the centers of the Arab world. The Saudis already enjoyed a unique prestige from their position as keepers of the Muslim holy cities (Mecca and Medina) and as the strictest Muslims. There and elsewhere in the Middle East, Muslim radicals began to argue that Islamic purism was an authentic identity Muslims should return to and reject alien imports like nationalism, secularism, and socialism. The 1977 and 1979 hostage crises, one in Washington DC, the other in Mecca, were both carried out by Sunni radicals enraged by the gap between the Saudi regime's purist rhetoric and its modernizing, semi-cosmopolitan, and often corrupt reality. These marked the first of what would, later in the 1990s, become a familiar stream of events. At the same time, a double opposition to the Shah's regime of autocratic modernization in Shi'ite Iran put the region's secular autocrats on notice. Most Western observers expected the liberal, secular opposition to win and were stunned when the 1979 Iranian revolution turned Islamic.

In those days, everyone in the West viewed the Cold War as far more important and failed to take Islamic radicalism seriously. The war between North and South Vietnam had just ended (in 1975) with a communist victory. Only in the Iranian case was Islamic revolutionary politics viewed as genuine and threatening: by the US, because of the Iranian hostage crisis (1979-81),* and by the conservative Gulf monarchies, who rule over significant Shi'ite populations and live next door to Iran. In fact, the Gulf governments were thrown into a panic, one that led them in 1980 to prod Iraq into launching the Iran-Iraq war.** Few could see how Muslims from the ultra-conservative Gulf states would experience a growing and intolerable tension between the supposed purity of Islam in Arabia (its home) and the reality of the Gulf kingdoms, then being showered in oil wealth.

The 1978 communist coup in and December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought this budding Sunni radicalism to a stop, or rather temporarily transformed and redirected it. Suddenly the region was under a genuine threat, not from the US, but from the Soviets. After the 1978 coup, the US began to support Afghan groups directly. The most important was the Northern Alliance of Ahmad Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik and not a member of Afghanistan's Pashtun majority. The US continued to support Massoud, but later in the 80s, found itself shut out of the more important channels for helping the Afghans, controlled by Pakistan and its military intelligence service (the ISI). (This is the part where Charlie Wilson came in.) The US, which has always had a rocky relationship with Pakistan, upgraded its ties and kept them there until 1990, when they were downgraded again, because of Pakistan's nuclear program.

Here truly a devil's bargain was made, but it has nothing to do with the Afghans. (No Afghan has been involved in terrorist attacks on the US.) The problem is Pakistan and the later involvement of Saudi religious institutions in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which began after the anti-Soviet war was over, in the 1990s. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1988-89, the US made a terrible (if familiar) mistake of just walking away from Afghanistan. It entered into a vicious, three-way civil war pitting against each other the remains of the pro-Soviet regime, Massoud's forces and allies, and radical Islamic groups sponsored by Pakistan. From the Saudi seeds and Pakistan's continued attempts to take over Afghanistan sprang the Taliban, whose core were madrassa (religious school) students determined to turn Afghanistan into an Islamic utopia.† After coalescing in 1994 and obtaining widespread popular support for bringing the civil war to an end, the Taliban (with massive Pakistani aid) took over most of the country by 1996. Popular support evaporated, once Afghans got to see the Islamic utopia close up (as in The Kite Runner), but by that point, popular Afghan sentiment meant little. Poor and isolated, Afghanistan had been unwillingly and unwittingly turned into a "jihad theme park," with Islamic radicals implementing the vision they could not in their home countries.

As for the rest of the myth, it's almost all fabricated, largely in retrospect by al Qa'eda, its supporters, and credulous Western journalists. The "Afghan Arabs" who supposedly fought against the Soviets actually did no fighting, confining their support of the Afghans to monetary donations. The religious motives for Sunni radicalism are rooted in Arabia, the home of Islam, and fundamentally result from the large contradiction between its dominant Wahhabi (Salafi) type of Islam and the materially modern life made possible by all that oil wealth. Pakistan, an artificial country lacking a national identity, finds promoting Islamic radicalism an almost irresistible temptation. It's a practical good as well, since it helps the ISI run an insurgency next door in the Indian province of Kashmir (claimed by Pakistan) and promote Pakistani control of Afghanistan, its geographic "rear," through the dominant Pashtuns who live on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghani border. To come full circle, when the US invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, its local allies were made up of - you guessed it - the same Northern Alliance we started supporting in 1978, but then abandoned in 1989. Massoud had visited the US in the summer of 2001 to warn Americans about the Taliban and its al Qa'eda allies. After his return to Afghanistan, he was assassinated, two days before the 9/11 attacks, by an al Qa'eda suicide bomber posing as a journalist. The Taliban and al Qa'eda guessed correctly that their upcoming attacks on the US would lead to a US invasion. Killing Massoud, in advance, deprived the US of an important local ally, one we had supported in the past.

The radical Islamic project remains today, among Sunnis, a violent cult inspired and funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and largely hosted by Pakistan. That these are supposedly American "allies" just adds what history will view as a cruel twist. From this perspective, the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq are, not diversions, but sideshows, chasing around and killing or capturing terrorists whose beliefs and activities are the result of the policies and religious proclivities of countries we dare not touch. A year-and-a-half after invading Afghanistan to overthrow a government made possible and supported by Pakistan, we failed to logically take the struggle home to the countries that hatched the crisis and instead invaded Iraq.

There are some important lessons here, but they have little do with lachrymose theories of "blowback" and other "radical" claptrap.†† The most important is the damaging American habit of walking away from a foreign involvement after a period of intense engagement, abandoning hard-won friends in the process. The US has always had, and probably will always have, a strong isolationist streak, reinforced by our attention-challenged media and short election cycles. But foreign policy is not about one-night stands and can't be built on dubious "allies" and so-called "friends." And the other lessons are familiar to readers of this blog: the sinister roles played by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the rise of radical Sunni Islam and our strange relationship with Saudi Arabia. Even an enormity like the 9/11 attacks was not enough to shake that relationship, in the end. Our descendants will stare at this fact in wonder.

POSTSCRIPT: There's another angle to Afghanistan, besides the fact that its security problems are all baked next door in Pakistan. We've heard over and over in the last few years how much the US needs to be multilateral and follow the NATO model of Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, and not the Iraq model of largely unilateral action. But there's trouble on the horizon for NATO. It's an organization that was founded to cope with the Cold War, which it did, with great success. But in the 1990s, it was pressed into service in new ways not part of its original mandate and which are now proving more difficult, costly, and unpopular than originally anticipated. Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, supposedly models of multilateralism, may instead prove its graveyard. US military action in the future will probably look a lot more like Iraq than people think.

Another important development that our wonderfully unbiased and objective news media are all over - right?
* Notice how often the word "hostage" comes up in this posting.

** Here's a place to lay to rest another myth, that the US supported Iraq and Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. While the US did quietly grant security guarantees to the Gulf kingdoms, it was officially neutral in the conflict ("it's too bad both sides can't lose," was Kissinger's famous quip). It was the Gulf kingdoms themselves that directly supported Iraq with money. Using that and his own oil money, Saddam bought weapons mainly from the Soviets and, to a smaller extent, from France. (The French had their own reasons to back Iraq against the Iranian revolutionary mullahs.) Iraq didn't fight Iran with American weapons, but with Soviet ones: AK-47s, not M-16s; T-55s and T-62s, not M1s; MiGs, not F-16s. But the price of oil collapsed in the later 1980s, and Saddam's income dried up. Unable to pay off his loans from the Gulf states, he invaded one of them and threatened to invade the others.

† In Farsi (Persian) and related languages, taliban just means "students."

†† As for "blowback," the ultimate in tragic backfiring is the death of Benazir Bhutto. It was during her terms as Pakistani prime minister (1988-90 and 1993-96) that the ISI turned into a dedicated machine for promoting radical Islamic groups in Afghanistan and in Pakistan itself. And of course, it is just those groups who were responsible for her assassination.

Again, these developments started after the end of the anti-Soviet war. Only once Pakistan was no longer an object of superpower interest did it unabashedly and recklessly go full-time into the Islamo-radicalism business, picking up the thread dropped in 1980.

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