By David K. Shipler
A sad coincidence occurred this week. As the 14-year-old Pakistani campaigner for girls’ education, Malala Yousafzai, was being flown to Britain for treatment after being shot in the head by the Taliban, David Sanger of The New York Times was reporting from Washington that most small arms flowing to Syrian rebels were ending up in the hands of “hard-line Islamic jihadists.” On the surface, Pakistan has nothing to do with Syria, but when you throw Afghanistan into the picture, you get a cautionary tale.
In the late 1970s, the Soviet-imposed regime in Kabul sparked religious resistance in the Afghan countryside, in part by requiring schooling for girls, a socialist (and Western) doctrine that violated absolutist Islam. For a decade after Moscow’s 1979 invasion an insurgency of mujahideen, organized by regional warlords, bled the Soviet army with weapons from the CIA, finally driving the Russians into a humiliating withdrawal, much like America’s retreat from Vietnam.
It would be too much to say that the mujahideen were motivated solely by their opposition to educating girls. The warlords—clan and tribal leaders used to ruling their regions—sought to restore their power by throwing off the foreign occupation. But they rode the wave of cultural and religious rejection of Western influence—its permissive, secular values and the upheaval it threatened to bring to Afghan traditions, especially in rural areas. The mujahideen and the Americans were odd bedfellows.
Looking back, you could argue that the United States was on the wrong side in Afghanistan. If Washington hadn’t been blinded by the superpower contest for global influence, in which every Soviet gain was assessed as an American loss, we might have made a different calculation—not to support a Soviet puppet in Kabul, of course, but not to care so much that we opened political and military space for the mujahideen’s successors: the Taliban.
It may be, as some speculate, that Moscow’s failed adventure in Afghanistan discredited Soviet hardliners and thus hastened the rise of the reformers, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, which ultimately led to the Communist Party’s loss of power and the breakup of the Soviet empire. But the Soviet Union was vulnerable to a good many other factors as well, most notably its economic and technological sclerosis. As a closed society, it lacked the interplay of ideas and inventions necessary for its military to keep up with the speedy advances of its adversaries—an argument the reformers used to advantage. (The backwardness of Soviet weaponry had been dramatized in a huge air battle in June 1982, when Israel destroyed all of Syria’s Soviet-built anti-aircraft missile batteries in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, then shot down 85 Soviet-made MiGs without losing a single Israeli aircraft to enemy fire.)
So it is unclear how the U.S. benefited from supporting the mujahideen in their war against the Russians in Afghanistan. The Taliban, which evolved from factions within the mujahideen, are heirs to anti-Western, radical versions of Islam that gained ground during the war, and which held power in Kabul from 1996 until the American invasion that followed September 11, 2001. Some of our surrogates and allies morphed into our enemies.
This is the cautionary tale about Syria. It’s always satisfying to see the good guys win, but it’s not always easy to find the good guys. Not every opponent of every dictator is automatically virtuous. Not every popular uprising benefits the populace in the end. Sometimes there are just no good choices. From inside the Beltway, Washington’s power over global affairs tends to appear larger than life. Some unruly events cannot be controlled, and many solutions create new problems.
The campaign season is full of bluster about how little the Obama administration has done to support the “free Syrian army” in the face of the Syrian regime’s endless slaughter of its own people. But given how little is known about the insurgency, and given intelligence assessments that al-Qaeda sympathizers are flooding into Syria, President Obama’s cool restraint is about right: a green light to small arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but opposition to heavier weapons that could fall into the wrong hands and come back to bite us—or Israel—in the near future.