Paul R Pillar: Replaying Afghanistan in Syria

Roundup: Media's Take

Paul R Pillar is a former senior CIA counterterrorist officer and now professor at Georgetown University. 

Reports that most arms being sent to Syria in the name of toppling Bashar Assad's regime are winding up in the hands of “hard-line Islamic jihadists” recall a similar earlier experience in Afghanistan. The United States, Saudi Arabia and other outsiders wished to use material support to Afghan rebels to help defeat the Soviets and to topple the Soviet-installed Najibullah regime in Kabul. Working through Pakistan as a conduit and middleman, the outside patrons had to bestow their largesse on several different Afghan militias, which collectively constituted the armed resistance in Afghanistan. About half of the militias could be called hard-line Islamic jihadists. These also were the most effective fighters against the Soviets. If one wanted to use assistance in the form of arms shipments to defeat the Soviets and to do so sooner rather than later, these were the principal groups one needed to aid.
When Najibullah finally fell in 1992 (three years after the Soviet Union withdrew its own troops from Afghanistan), there was hardly a pause before the militias that had been allies in the war began fighting among themselves. The Afghan civil war simply moved into a new phase. In addition to the resulting chaos setting the stage for the Taliban sweeping to power over most of Afghanistan a couple of years later, we are seeing today other legacies of this pattern of outside assistance more than twenty years ago. One of the most potent of the hard-line Islamist elements that was in the middle of the fight against the Soviets was the militia led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who would come to be seen as an enemy of the United States alongside the Taliban itself and the Haqqani group.
In Syria today as in Afghanistan three decades ago, it is illusory to think that the United States or anyone else on the outside of the fight can fine-tune where the arms go so that we deal only with groups to our liking while still getting a return on our investment in terms of hastening the fall of the regime that the fight is directed against. The opposition in Syria is if anything even more disorganized and disaggregated than was the opposition in Afghanistan...

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