CIAO DATE: 11/01

Outside View: Blowback

Thomas H. Lipscomb
October 11, 2001

NEW YORK, Oct. 11 (UPI) — Our understanding of solutions to the complicated mess we are currently experiencing in U.S. relations with the Islamic world is not helped by the self-serving statements being thrown around by those former officials of the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations whose policies lead to it

Ironically, the most recent howler comes from former Republican Sen. Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire who was active in assisting the Afghan resistance during the Reagan and first Bush administrations "We did almost everything right between when we first began aiding the Afghan freedom fighters in the early '80s right up until 1988."

Would it were true. And as a gallant and often lonely fighter for an intelligent U.S. policy toward Afghanistan in those crucial years, no one knows the real story better than Humphrey.

The facts are considerably more complex. The American support of the mujahidin was a "proxy war" in the sense that great powers have taken pains many times in the past, like the Spanish Civil War, Korea, Vietnam and other examples, not to directly oppose one another when they felt the consequences were too dangerous. It was a lot safer to oppose the allies of another great power through a proxy, as the Soviets did by encouraging the attack by North Korea against South Korea in 1950, or supplying equipment and advisers to the North Vietnamese war against South Vietnam.

The almost half-century Cold War, with its hovering specter of nuclear massive retaliation, was understandably full of proxy "brushfire" wars on almost every continent as the Soviet Union and Chinese looked for vulnerable points to expand into Western spheres of influence. When the Soviet Union went into Afghanistan at the end of 1979 in support of its puppet government, the new Reagan administration backed into a new variation on proxy war that was followed by subsequent administrations and it turned out to be a disastrously bad idea.

After the committee headed by Idaho Sen. Frank Church effectively ended the operational activities of the CIA in the mid-'70s, the CIA felt itself barred from direct involvement and withdrew from even proxy operations like the support of Savimbi's rebels against the Marxist Angola government. Funding for Savimbi was channeled through Mobutu's Congo and South Africa, rather than run by the CIA. Under the new presidency of a bristling Ronald Reagan eager to confront "the Evil Empire," neither the State Department nor the CIA wanted to directly involve themselves in the Afghan resistance. They had been fairly and repeatedly warned by their Soviet contacts that Afghanistan fell under the protection of the "Brezhnev doctrine" and any U.S. intervention would have grave consequences.

Even humanitarian aid to the Afghan people voted by Congress in the last year of the Carter administration was bottled up by a State Department too timid or too indifferent to administer its distribution. Finally a compromise was reached whereby Pakistan agreed to handle humanitarian aid though its common border with Afghanistan. State and the CIA breathed a sigh of relief, and when pressure in Congress started to build for military aid it was once again channeled through the Pakistan cutout. Carefully avoiding any direct relationship with the Afghan resistance may have lowered the risk of confrontation with the Soviet Union, but the U.S.'s interests were now filtered through the priorities and preferences of Pakistan. The United States lost both control and accountability for the hundreds of millions of dollars of supplies and equipment that moved through the distribution system.

Tens of millions of dollars of this flood of armament and material never reached the Afghans and was simply cashed in on the world weapons market by the Pakistanis who received it. More dangerously, however, the traffic though this indirect support turned an obscure department of the Pakistani military, The Inter-Services Intelligence into a powerful influence in the Islamic world. Pakistan had its own interests in creating a weak Afghanistan dependent upon it, rather than the Soviet Union or the United States. But the ISI turned against mujahidin leaders like Gallani, Rabbani, or Masood who were pro-Western and sent the bulk of the supplies to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a vicious and fanatical fundamentalist like Osama bin Laden, who did much to destroy the effectiveness of the 7-force alliance trying to remove the Soviet puppet state.

After the Soviet withdrawal, Hekmatyar, with the full support of the ISI, subverted and then continually attacked the Afghan Interim Government under Rabbani and was a major factor in its collapse and the rise of the subsequent Taliban regime.

In short, the United States' mistake was not in leaving a power vacuum after the Soviet withdrawal — it was in trying to use a proxy cutout — Pakistan — to manage a proxy war against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the peace as well. And by doing so the United States not only sat on its hands after the Soviet departed leaving a puppet regime in place that lasted three years, but allowed the creation of the unstable Afghanistan Taliban regime, which felt dependent on bin Laden's "foreign legion" of Arabs from Africa and the Gulf for its survival, and seriously destabilized Pakistan itself. It remains to be seen whether Pervez Musharraf's recent military staff shuffling at ISI and through out the increasingly conservative Pakistani military will be enough to save his regime.

The unpleasant fact is support for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden is widespread in Pakistan. And the Pakistani ISI has been up to its neck in their conspiracies since the very beginning. This week the Times of India reported that ISI Director-General Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmad who "retired" on Monday had actually been forced out by demands from the United States after FBI investigators found $100,000 were wired to World Trade Center attacker Mohammed Atta from Pakistan by Ahmad Umar Sheikh at the instance of Gen Mahumd. A highly respected observer, Ahmed Rashid, further reported that after the bin Laden attack on the World Trade Center ISI operatives visited the Taliban in Kandahar to help them prepare their defenses against a U.S. attack, even after the Musharraf regime's alliance with the United States.

A number of former administration officials who had a hand in this bungled process have protested that the Taliban and Osama bin Laden terrorist threats can not be regarded as "blowback," or unintended consequences for U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. That is clearly ridiculous unless they wish to claim they planned the current predicament. The record over the past 20 years under two Democratic and two Republican presidents is its own indictment. Bureaucrats more interested in doing the minimum they could to avoid responsibility while running a sloppy low profile operation backed the United States into the shaky position it currently occupies with the Islamic world. "Almost everything" was never right from the very beginning of the American involvement with Afghanistan in 1980. Denying these realities will be not help in planning future policies. But if the American national security establishment has learned nothing more, one may hope it has learned that proxy wars are too important to be left to proxies.

(Thomas H. Lipscomb a veteran journalist who is chairman of the Center for the Digital Future based in New York City.)

Copyright 2001 by United Press International.All rights reserved.

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