I swear this is the last time I’ll gripe about Clinton’s Syria comments today, mostly because I’m going to drink a fifth of NyQuil right after I finish writing this. But I couldn’t let this one go (honestly, I tried!):
“My view is that we shouldn’t over-learn the lessons of the past,” Clinton said. “I don’t think Syria is necessarily Iraq or Afghanistan — no one has asked us to send any soldiers in there. I think it’s more like Afghanistan was in the ’80s when they were fighting the Soviet Union … when President Reagan was in office [and] got an enormous amount of influence and gratitude by helping to topple the Soviet-backed regime and then made the error of not hanging around in Afghanistan” to try to cash in on the gains.
I agree that we shouldn’t over-learn the lessons of the past, but luckily for us, statements like this make it clear that our leaders can’t even remember the goddamn past well enough to learn, let along over-learn, anything from it. No, really, let’s take, as our model for effective intervention in Syria, Reagan’s efforts to arm the Afghan resistance against the Soviets in the 1980s, because we helped out some really awesome folks while we were there, and earned an enormous amount of influence and gratitude, which was great not just for Afghanistan but also too for US America like such as.
I wonder if Clinton was just rolling along by this point in his spiel, getting carried away in the moment, because I’d hate to think he actually believes what he said. Let Juan Cole explain:
Clinton compared what the US could do in Syria to Ronald Reagan’s effort against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But that covert operation of giving billions of dollars and high-tech weaponry to Afghan jihadis was a huge catastrophe, contributing to the creation and rise of al-Qaeda and setting the background for the emergence of the Taliban. It surely would have been far preferable to let the Soviets try to build a socialist state in Afghanistan, as they tried in Uzbekistan. The whole thing would have fallen apart in 1991 anyway. (There is no truth to the notion that the Afghanistan war bled the Soviet Union or contributed to its collapse. Soviet military spending was flat in the 1980s). The Reagan jihad destabilized both Afghanistan and Pakistan and left us with a long term terrorism problem. We let the Soviets alone in Kazakhstan, and we never worry about today’s Kazakhstan.
Got that? Bill Clinton’s model for American intervention in Syria was this one time, in
band camp Afghanistan, where we armed the resistance to a rotten empire that was crumbling no matter what we did, and those people we helped later thanked us by flying airliners into a couple of our buildings for us. This was not a matter of the US “not hanging around” in Afghanistan. We sent military aid to the Afghan rebels via Pakistan, whose intelligence services funneled most of that aid to religious zealots like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar, who was also getting a lot of support from Saudi Arabia, recruited most of the foreign jihadi fighters in Afghanistan to his cause, and they contributed to the anti-Soviet resistance by letting other resistance leaders expend their meager manpower and resources fighting the Soviets, after which Hekmatyar’s men would attack their fellow resistance fighters to knock off his rivals.
Eventually Hekmatyar proved to be such a virulent asshole that Pakistan’s ISI realized he’d never be able to serve as their puppet ruler in Kabul, so they simply transferred the Pakistani material-Saudi money-foreign jihadi organization they’d built around Hekmatyar to this tiny but deeply committed fundamentalist student movement based in the Pashtun areas of northern Pakistan, led by a one-eyed revolutionary named Mullah Muhammad Omar. The factional in-fighting in which warlords like Hekmatyar specialized ensured that the government that immediately succeeded the Soviet occupation would fail miserably and that the Afghan people would demand stability and order. With Pakistani support, Saudi money, and the loyalty of the best and most committed fighters in the country, the foreign jihadis under the command of men like Osama bin Laden, the Taliban had little trouble taking power. Now, what exactly would America “hanging around,” in a country we were never in to begin with, have done to change the fact that the Taliban were the best supported, best funded, most committed faction in the Afghan civil war, backed by the best fighters?
There’s a parallel here with Syria, but it’s not one that Bill Clinton would like. The Afghan resistance was trying to push the Soviets out of their homes, yes, but “home” in a historically fragmented place like Afghanistan could mean a city, or a province, or a neighborhood; it doesn’t necessarily mean the artificially, and poorly at that (thanks, British map-makers!), constructed nation-state of Afghanistan. The foreign fighters like bin Laden and his followers were there for the long fight; while elements of the resistance might stop resisting once their little piece of land was free of Soviet control, the foreign fighters were there until the Soviets were gone and a truly Islamic government was put in place. What do we see in Syria now? Pretty much the same thing. The best, most committed fighters on both sides have proven to be the foreign imports, Hizbullah for Assad and al-Qaeda for the rebels, because they’re the ones who are in it for total victory, not just freeing this neighborhood or regaining this city quarter. Say that American intervention succeed and Assad is toppled; who takes over the country? There’s almost no question that it will be whoever has the al-Qaeda contingent on their side, and that will be whoever commits to establishing a fundamentalist Sunni theocracy in Syria. Just like the Taliban did in Afghanistan, and America will have helped them do it. Again.
Only in this case America isn’t fighting a proxy war with its opposing global superpower, it’s immersing itself into a centuries-old sectarian conflict within Islam itself, and maybe trying to fight a proxy war with a country, Iran, that doesn’t warrant being elevated to the status we’re according them. Global behemoths like the United States don’t engage less powerful nations like Iran in proxy fights; it’s countries like Iran that goad superpowers into things like this and then watch them wreck themselves over it.
I like Bill Clinton. Smart guy, reasonably successful presidency (although signing the repeal of Glass-Steagall was arguably not his finest moment), has made himself a transcendent figure post-presidency by leading a foundation that seems to do some good around the world, although I confess to not knowing a whole lot about it. But his comments on Syria were disturbing for their lack of historical foundation and ignorance of the potential consequences of US intervention. I’ve devoted way too much time to them at this point, but I haven’t written anything in days and I’m high on cold medicine, so bqhatevwr.