The “Blowback” Myth : How Bad History Could Make Bad Policy

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Aftermath: The War on Terrorism

Even before President George W. Bush approved covert support for the factions opposing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a spate of pundits warned us about engineering another "blowback" phenomenon, in which we become engulfed by the unintended consequences of our actions. Time and again, we heard accounts of how American support for Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s blew back on us after Afghanistan harbored Osama bin Laden, the chief perpetrator of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. As subsequent events showed, this was bad history with a potential for bad policy at a time when more American lives—civilian and military—were on the line.

The Myth

Like other accepted historical myths—Paul Kennedy’s American "imperial overstretch," CIA knowledge of a contradrug dealers connection, or the "accidental presidency" of George W. Bush—the Afghanistan blowback myth has taken on a life of its own. A putative CIA term, blowback has insinuated itself into a variety of pundits’ pontifications.

At the start of the bombing, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis declared that misdirected "quick strikes" by U.S. aircraft on targets in Afghanistan would likely kill many civilians. According to the Lewis version of cause and effect, this would produce "an opposite and totally disproportionate reaction." Without offering proof, or noting that Allied bombing in World War II contributed to the weakening of Axis forces, Lewis postulates that "Afghanistan is a prime example" of his rendition of the law of unanticipated results. Lewis, like others, jumped from the U.S. arming of anti-Soviet forces to the conclusion that Afghanistan "ended up in the hands of anti-Western Islamic extremists."

America’s misstep in Afghanistan took place, in part, after the collapse of the pro-Soviet government in April 1992. Rather than aiding a war-ravaged frontline state in the Cold War, Washington did nothing.

Lewis and others are just recycling and popularizing the arguments made by Chalmers Johnson in his recent book Blowback: The Consequences of American Empire. A proponent of the late 1980s humbug about the superiority of Japan’s model of "guided capitalism," Johnson has now taken up the banner du jour of a backlash to U.S. global hegemony. He portrays bin Laden as "a former protégé of the United States," with no mention that the Saudi terrorist brought his own financial resources and political agenda to the anti-Soviet struggle. To Johnson, America’s imperial structure, made up of military and economic power, invites a spate of inevitable, if unspecified, paybacks.

If Johnson paints with a broad brush, attributing a host of global wrongs to U.S. policy, journalist John K. Cooley focuses on Afghanistan as the genesis of political Islam’s anti-Americanism in his recent book Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism. Cooley holds an unconcealed anti-CIA bias as he reduces the debate on the U.S. role in Afghanistan to a new—lower—level by seeing it through a monocausal lens, one in which the CIA caused all of Afghanistan’s travails, from civil war to terrorism to the export of drugs beyond its borders. Never mind that instability has plagued the country since the early 1970s, that the U.S. intervention was in response to the Soviet invasion, and that Kabul had emerged as a hippie drug mecca as far back as the 1960s.

Then there were the slew of rejuvenated "peace activists," such as Noam Chomsky, left over from the Vietnam War protests. In a recent Znet interview, Chomsky referred to bin Laden as a "graduate" of the "terrorist network set up by the CIA and its associates 20 years ago to fight a Holy War against the Russians." Coming out of the hate-America woodwork for the first time since the Gulf War, these activists predictably protested any effort on the part of the Bush administration to support the ouster of the Taliban by the Afghan people. The mounting evidence of the Taliban’s support of the horrific assault on the United States did nothing to extinguish the misplaced belief held by many in this quarter that thousands of innocent people—Americans and others—deserved their fate because of a blowback legacy.

Just the Facts, Please

Here are the facts. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 with, ultimately, more than 100,000 troops to prop up the faltering pro-Moscow regime of Hafizullah Amin, who was executed shortly thereafter. In his place, the Soviet occupation forces installed Babrak Karmal. Reacting as they have for centuries to foreign incursions, the Afghans resisted. First President Carter, then, more decisively, Ronald Reagan moved to support the Afghan resistance, which was joined by Arab volunteers from throughout the Middle East. This support grew to include training, equipping, and arming the mujahideen forces in the early 1980s. Later, Washington transferred the shoulder-fired, ground-to-air Stinger missiles that lessened Moscow’s aerial dominance and contributed to the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The invasion and resistance became a pivotal episode in the eventual breakdown of the calcified and corrupt Soviet Union.

Far from "creating" an anti-Soviet movement, the United States—along with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and China—logistically assisted it, much the same way it underwrote resistance to communism by Poland’s Solidarity trade movement and by the contra guerrillas in Central America, none of which later boomeranged on the United States. Similarly, following the attacks of September 11, the George W. Bush administration found itself pondering the extent to which it should support the Pashtun tribal groups located in the south and the Northern Alliance, a loose grouping of ethnic and political opponents to the Taliban regime. At the time, the Taliban held about 90 percent of the country.

Not helping the enemy of our enemy made for ill-advised policy when the United States failed to back the anti–Saddam Hussein opposition in the wake of the Gulf War—despite our encouraging its rising. Minimal assistance at that critical juncture might have rid the world of a cruel tyrant who now sponsors terrorism, destabilizes the Middle East, and strives to assemble weapons of mass destruction. History offers other illustrations. Few today, for example, would question the wisdom of U.S. aid to the Soviet Union during World War II, despite the fact that the liberal democracies of the day largely considered Moscow an international pariah.

Where Afghanistan is concerned, a grander question remains: What if the United States had not aided the Muslim-led anti-Soviet movement? Standing on the sidelines while Moscow brutalized a pastoral people would have diminished America’s prestige and undercut our Middle East policies. By not bolstering the Afghan people, we would have tacitly sided with communism and Soviet aggression. Moreover, the Soviet Union would have escaped a devastating wound.

America’s misstep in Afghanistan took place, in part, after the collapse of the pro-Soviet Najibullah government (which had replaced Babrak) in April 1992. Rather than aiding a war-ravaged frontline state in the Cold War, Washington did nothing. In contrast, after World War II, the United States helped friend and foe alike rebuild because it was in our national interest to do so. The same mix of humanitarianism and strategy made for billions of dollars in aid to Eastern Europe and Russia after the Berlin Wall came down. But in the case of Afghanistan, Washington neither furnished assistance nor embarked on credible diplomatic efforts with neighboring states to stem the flow of weapons then pouring in to arm the many Afghan factions. That left Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran free to support client Afghan fighters.

Since at least the War of the Roses, we have known that demobilized soldiers are trouble-bent. In that celebrated internecine baronial blood feud, returning English knights from the Hundred Years’ War in France, rather than watch their armor rust and their combat skills atrophy, fueled the dynastic rivalry between two aristocratic families and their henchmen for the English crown. In Afghanistan, Washington turned its back on some 45,000 combatants, who were left to their own devices upon the Soviet withdrawal. These idle warriors were swept up into a civil war, from which the Taliban ultimately emerged the temporary victor.

Washington alone, however, is not responsible for the terror nest that is Afghanistan today. Moscow’s intervention ignited the tragic downward spiral in that country. Yet the chain of events leading to the emergence of Osama bin Laden is far too complex to attribute to a single spark of causation. Not the establishment of Israel, the Gulf War, or even the current cause célèbre—the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia—can singly explain the rise of militant Islam. It is but one offshoot of the far wider force of contemporary Arab nationalism.

Like nationalistic impulses elsewhere, the Arab manifestation quickened in the nineteenth century. Before World War I, it was directed against Ottoman rule in the Levant and later against British and French colonialism. Now, America—and its perceived enclave, Israel—is one focal point. The image of the Muslim world’s rejection of modernization, secularism, and globalization is offset by a more complex picture in which large numbers of people in the Middle East aspire to a higher standard of living and genuine democracy.

This brings us back to the U.S. leveraging of surrogates in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere. Aiding forces, such as the Northern Alliance, within a country to combat an evil regime spares U.S. casualties; contributes to a force with internal legitimacy; broadens the antiregime coalition; and, finally, may well lay the foundation for a more enlightened society.

To be sure, backing indigenous insurgents can have its pitfalls, but failing to build support with a regime’s opponents is often worse. Washington’s preoccupation with Afghanistan and its neighbors will be prolonged. It is time to correct the record so as to construct a policy on facts, not on distorted history.