Blowback Balderdash

News Abroad

Mr. Henriksen is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of Foreign Policy for America in the Twenty-First Century.

EVEN BEFORE PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH approved covert support for the factions opposing the Taliban regime, pundits began warning us about"blowback," in which we are engulfed by the unintended consequences of our actions. Time and again, we are told, American support for Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s"blew back" on us as Afghanistan came to harbor Osama bin Laden, the chief perpetrator in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. This bad history could potentially lead to bad policy at a time when more American lives--civilian and military--are on the line.

Like other accepted myths--Paul Kennedy's American"imperial overstretch," CIA knowledge of a contra-drug dealers connection, the"accidental presidency" of George W. Bush--the blowback story has taken on a life of its own. A putative CIA term,"blowback" is now a staple of pundits' pontifications. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times recently invoked the Law of Unintended Consequences and declared that misdirected"quick strikes" by U.S. aircraft on targets in Afghanistan would likely kill many civilians. According to Lewis's version of the law, this would produce"an opposite and totally disproportionate reaction"--just as, allegedly, America's arming of the anti-Soviet forces led to Afghanistan's ending up"in the hands of anti-Western Islamic extremists."

Lewis & Co. are recycling and popularizing the arguments made by Chalmers Johnson in his 2000 book"Blowback: The Cost and Consequences of American Empire." A proponent of the late 1980s flim-flam about the superiority of Japan's model of"guided capitalism," Johnson has now taken up the banner of a backlash to U.S. global hegemony. He describes bin Laden as"a former protege of the United States," without mentioning that the terrorist mastermind brought his own financial resources to the anti-Soviet struggle. To Johnson, America's imperial structure, made up of military and economic power, invites a host of eventual, if unspecified, paybacks.

If Johnson paints with a broad brush, attributing every global wrong to U.S. policy, John K. Cooley focuses on Afghanistan as the genesis of political Islam's anti-Americanism in his 1999 book"Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism." A journalist and author, Cooley reduces the debate on the U.S. role in Afghanistan to a new low by seeing it through a mono-causal lens: The CIA caused terrorism and drugs to flow from Afghanistan. Never mind that Kabul was a hippie drug mecca in the sixties.

Then there are the rejuvenated"peace activists" left over from Vietnam War protests, such as Noam Chomsky. In a recent 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, such activists are certain to protest any Bush administration effort to help the Afghan people displace the Taliban. The mounting evidence of the Taliban's more-than-passive support of the horrific assault on the United States cannot extinguish their insane belief that some 6,000 people--Americans and others from around the world--deserved their fate because of a"blowback" legacy.

Here are the facts. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, ultimately sending over 100,000 troops to prop up the faltering pro-Moscow regime of 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 effort grew to include training, equipping, and arming the mujahedeen forces, including the transfer of shoulder-fired, ground-to-air Stinger missiles that lessened Soviet aerial dominance. 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 in Afghanistan, the United States (along with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and China) assisted it logistically--much the same way we underwrote resistance to communism in Poland's Solidarity movement and the contras in Central America (neither of which later"blew back" on the United States). Now the Bush administration ponders the extent of support it will provide the Northern Alliance, a loose grouping of ethnic and political opponents to the Taliban regime.

Helping the enemy of our enemy whenever possible is generally good policy. Unfortunately, the United States ignored this precept when it abandoned the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War--even though we had encouraged its rise. 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.

A grander question is, 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 allowed the Soviet Union to escape a devastating wound.

After World War II, the United States helped friend and foe rebuild because it was in our national interest. The same generosity and strategic mix justified sending billions of dollars to Eastern Europe and Russia after the Berlin Wall came down. But in the case of Afghanistan, after the collapse of the pro-Soviet Najibullah government in April 1992, rather than aid a war-ravaged"front-line state" in the Cold War, Washington did nothing. We neither furnished assistance nor embarked on credible diplomatic efforts with neighboring states to stem the flow of weapons then pouring into one or another of the Afghan factions.

This left Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran free to support client Afghan fighters. Washington turned its back on some 45,000 combatants who were left to their own devices when the Soviets withdrew after a 10-year incursion. These idle warriors were swept up into a civil war, from which the Taliban ultimately emerged the temporary victors.

This brings us back to America's leveraging of surrogates in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Aiding forces within a country to combat an evil regime spares U.S. casualties, contributes to a force with internal legitimacy, broadens the anti-regime coalition, and may well lay the foundation for a more enlightened society. To be sure, backing indigenous insurgents can have pitfalls, but failing to build support for a nasty regime's opponents is often worse still.

This piece was first published in the Weekly Standard, and is reprinted with permission.

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