2006 January 15 Sunday
Dimitri Simes: Jihad Unintended

Dimitri Simes, president of The Nixon Center and publisher of The National Interest says a Carter Administration covert operations in Afghanistan helped push the Soviets to invade.

ACCORDING TO former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, now one of the most acerbic critics of President Bush's handling of both Iraq and radical Islam, the Carter Administration authorized a covert CIA operation, notwithstanding an expectation that it would provoke a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In an interview in Le Nouvel Observateur in 1998, Brzezinski said that clandestine U.S. involvement in Afghanistan began months before the Soviet invasion; in fact, he added, he wrote a note to President Carter predicting that "this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention." As Brzezinski put it, "we didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would." And even in hindsight, Brzezinski thought "that secret operation was an excellent idea", because "it had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap" and exploited "the opportunity of giving the USSR its Vietnam War."

Of course, this is not what the Carter Administration told Congress or the American people at the time.

In view of Soviet expansionism elsewhere, the United States had little choice but to fight the invasion of Afghanistan once it occurred. But supporting resistance to a Soviet occupation is very different from intentionally "increasing the probability" of a Soviet invasion.

More recently, Brzezinski has acknowledged that one of his motives in entangling the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was promoting the liberation of Central Europe by diverting Soviet attention from responding more forcefully to Solidarity's challenge. Yet, desirable as this end might have been, one may question whether it justified using means that would provoke an almost decade-long war in Afghanistan that both devastated the country and jump-started a global Islamic jihad against America.

The US use of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to funnel support to Afghan rebels helped push the rebellion in a more Islamic direction and helped to radicalize many Saudis. Plus, Pakistani ISI agents developed lots of relationships with radical jihadists. This helped the Taliban come to power and stay in power. Suppose the CIA had put more effort into directly supporting the insurgency against the Soviets rather than use Muslim intermediaries. The CIA might have been able to favor relatively less religious insurgents. Though it would have taken a fair amount of foresight for the CIA to appreciate how big a problem the Muslims were going to become.

Simes also says the US could have prevented the rise of the Taliban by compromising with the Soviets to keep a coalition government in power on Soviet withdrawal. He also says the Clinton Administration rejected Russian proposals for joint action against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Simes points out that in some cases where the US government claims to take a position based on principle it supports outcomes which have important implications for many other border disputes and legitimacy questions.

What if Russia takes the predictable position that what is good for Kosovo should be good for other unrecognized but de facto independent states such as Nagorno-Karabakh or the Transdniester Republic? What of separatist regions like South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which share borders with Russia and where local populations overwhelmingly do not want to be a part of Georgia? In the latter case, the United States would face a series of unpleasant choices. Would the United States, in the name of principle, compel a pro-American Georgian regime to abandon its desire to restore the country's territorial integrity? Or would Washington side with Tbilisi, especially if it decides to use force to recapture these regions? If the latter, the United States could find itself embroiled in a major dispute with Russia that could effectively end cooperation on other matters of vital importance to the United States. And how would the United States force a resolution granting independence to Kosovo through the UN Security Council over probable Chinese objections, without offering guarantees that Taiwan will never become a separate, independent state? Or argue that Kosovo deserves full independence without setting a dangerous precedent that the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey may seek to emulate? The potential for trouble seems serious and real.

One thing I find annoying about Bush Jr Administration rhetoric on foreign policy is the seeming sincerity with which Bush and his underlings claim they are taking principled positions. The many inconsistencies in the Administration's positions make the claims of principle really hard to believe. When Bush Senior claimed we were fighting Saddam over Kuwait due to considerations of high principle I was gratified to know that he didn't really believe this (James Baker off-the-record to the NY Times: “We are talking about oil. Got it? Oil, vital American interests.”). Bush was just trying to prevent Saddam from becoming too powerful and to send a message to other governments (especially governments eyeing oil properties) not to go on wars of conquest. But Bush Jr. often seems too intellectually lazy to bother thinking out the many ramifications of his decisions. Simple moral principles can not replace the need for understanding the rest of the world. Clinton also made mistakes (many outlined by Simes) though not so much due to intellectual laziness as due to beliefs in myths.

Simes thinks in a calculus considerably more nuanced than what we hear from the Bushies or many ex-Clinton Administration foreign policy makers. It seems fitting that Simes runs The Nixon Center. Nixon would have understood these calculations and he would probably have made better decisions than Clinton or Bush II on events in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Russia, and other foreign lands.

Read the full Simes essay. It reminds me of just how ignorant not just US presidents but many US foreign policy makers tend to be about just how different foreign lands are from the US. The belief in the universalism of US or Western values continually trips up US policy makers who seem unable to grasp just how different other ethnicities, cultures, societies, and religions really are.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 January 15 09:40 PM  Politics Grand Strategy

gcochran said at January 15, 2006 10:06 PM:

I don't think that Simes is making much sense.

Randall Parker said at January 15, 2006 10:14 PM:


He makes many arguments. Do you object to them all? Or to assumptions of his? Or what exactly?

Invisible Scientist said at January 16, 2006 12:54 AM:

The Russians fully understand that the intervention of the United States in Afghanistan by helping the rebels, caused the final collapse of the Soviet Union, and therefore they probably feel some degree of anger against America. It is possible that Russia is maintaining the old alliance with Iran, Syria, etc in order to keep the United States under pressure, but Russia cannot afford to go too far with this policy of vendetta, because the Russian Federation is surrounded and infiltrated by Muslim nations and minorities that can potentially fragment what is left of Russia. Without Russian help, the United States might be able to defeat Iran, but Russia would like to keep the price of oil high because the Russian oil is expensive to extract, and without oil exports Russia would collapse because raw materials is their only serious income, and despite the outstanding Russian scientific culture, they do not have a commercial manufacturing infrastructure like China or Japan. This is rather too complicated... If Russia gives too much help to Iran, Russia can get itself in trouble with the strenghtened Muslim influence in Asia, and so the Russians want to maintain some kind of equilibrium between the US and Iran over there. And if the Taliban people get armed with portable nukes in the future, there is nothing preventing them from marching to Moscow with WMD backpacks because more than 10 % of Russia is already Muslim, even 10 % of Moscow city is Muslim. The law of unintended consequences is at work here, and Karma seems to work.

Neil Craig said at January 18, 2006 2:47 AM:

Taking the example of Kosovo the Russians, Chinese etc would have a clear moral case for insisting that the US relinquish those parts of southern California & Texas with a Mexican majority. I don't see it happening in the near future but Clinton & co have definitely established a legal precedent.

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