Jeremy Kotkin: R.I.P. Mr. Wilson, Father of the Taliban

Roundup: Talking About History

[Major Jeremy Kotkin is an Army officer who specializes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.]

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This proverb which has become a mainstay of foreign policy courses of action has, in fact, pushed the United States to make horrifically misguided and ignorant decisions about how to view challenges across the globe and the ways and means used to confront them. With this proverb in mind, and often with the best of intentions in tow, organs of U.S. national security have walked blindly into situations where our own ignorance became the single most crippling factor to long term success of a program. In turn, this has allowed U.S. strategy to be high jacked by naïve and/or stunningly blinded officials and officers entrusted with defense of our nation.

One such official was the Honorable Charles N. Wilson of Texas. His fervent and black and white view of a problem led him to get into bed with a culture, a paradigm, and a mission which had positively no bearing on our national security. Unknowingly, he coupled U.S. foreign policy with a growing and insatiable malevolent influence in the region, and still today, 30 years later, we cannot extricate ourselves from it. The poison he and idealists such as him injected into the veins of our foreign policy runs that deep. Mr. Wilson, to be sure, was not the first to use, as a tool, a foreign body as a host to carry our democratic antibody to the Communists. But it is he who singled out a loose band of Afghan mujahedeen under Islamist hardliners as the standard-bearers of this policy. If anyone can be held responsible for the birth of the Taliban and the shambles that is today the quasi-state of Afghanistan, it is Mr. Wilson and his like-minded cohorts then in Congress and the CIA. That we as a nation are there again, almost 10 years since 9/11, owes solely to that old and tired policy and the ghost of Mr. Wilson’s idealism still haunting the halls of the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom.

His formative adult years were molded in the U.S. Navy surface fleet, which, along with the rest of the DoD and nation beginning in the 1950’s were singularly focused on the Soviet bear and it’s expansion. Later, as an elected official in Congress and the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, he further refined his ability to wage war on the spread of Communism. The manner in which Mr. Wilson chose to constrict and drive back the Soviets was wars by proxy. In a time when direct military confrontation with the Soviets was unthinkable, Mr. Wilson and similarly-minded defense and security officials determined that whoever around the world might be or become enemies of the Soviets must then become our friends. And not friends in name only, but friends we would fund and equip and urge to do our fighting for us. The policy of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” took firm hold in the mountains of Afghanistan in 1980 when Mr. Wilson made it his personal mission to enable the Afghan mujahedeen to fight off the invading Soviet troops. While superficially, this may seem like a noble gesture (he had seen for himself the horrors of war inflicted on the Afghan civilians by the heavy hand of the Red Army) and possibly even a militarily prudent one given our fears of nuclear escalation, in the case of Afghanistan, it unnecessarily birthed a much more serious monster than a Soviet invasion of a far-off and strategically negligible place on a map ever could.

There is no doubt that the U.S. won the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. However much as we might like to pat ourselves on the back for the rightfulness of our cause or the morality of our actions, we actually did take the easy way out; we decided that the ends justified the means and we would use whoever was necessary, on a global scale, to achieve those results. We would find the stooges to fight for us in the name of ‘democracy.’ That, however, is not the worst of it; the sad fact is that we had a much nobler blueprint in hand though we chose not use it. We had the ways and means that were suitable, feasible, and acceptable, although we ended up choosing means that were the converse of all three; if not, why then were they funded and conducted under the cover of black appropriations? Simply to hide from the American people what was being done in their name and with whom we had gotten into bed. More importantly, idealists as Wilson could not let the uneasy truth be known that that we were spending money on a solution that politically entwined us with such monsters as Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, Somoza in Nicaragua, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or eventually a band of xenophobic atavists in Afghanistan.

The blueprint mentioned above was NSC-68, penned in theory by George Kennan in the Long Telegram and implemented by Paul Nitze in policy. Echoing Shoeless Joe in the movie Field of Dreams, Nitze described a “Build it and they will come” strategy; America maintains its most credible influence and intrinsic power when it acknowledges and reinforces the “strength and appeal of its idea, and feels no compulsion sooner or later to bring all societies into conformity with it.” Proxy wars such as those which Mr. Wilson and the CIA enabled in 1979 and even what we are doing today in Afghanistan is directly contrary to this advice. Furthermore, Nitze says that only by leveraging the “moral and material strength of the free world” and “building a successfully functioning political and economic system” can we defeat the threat. In other words, only by ensuring our own house is in order and living up to the ideals which first made us a great nation can we “truly frustrate” the designs of our enemies, be they the Taliban or al-Qaeda of today or the Soviets of yesterday. Only then can we convince authoritarian regimes and the disenfranchised groups who become insurgents of the “falsity of [their] assumptions.”

But this is not the path Mr. Wilson chose...

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Arnold Shcherban - 2/14/2010

Someone with the authority of vastly greater knowledge and expertise in the matter in question speaks out as it was and as it is.