Who’s Next? Lessons From the Long War and a Blowback World

by , October 19, 2009

Is it too early – or already too late – to begin drawing lessons from “the Long War”? That phrase, coined in 2002 and, by 2005, being championed by CENTCOM Commander Gen. John Abizaid, was meant to be a catchier name for George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror.” That was back in the days when inside-the-Beltway types were still dreaming about a global Pax Americana and its domestic partner, a Pax Republicana, and imagining that both, once firmly established, might last forever.

“The Long War” merely exchanged the shock-’n'-awe geographical breadth of president Bush’s chosen moniker (“global”) for a shock-’n'-awe time span. Our all-out, no-holds-barred struggle against evildoers would be nothing short of generational as well as planetary. From Abizaid’s point of view, perhaps a little in-office surgical operation on the nomenclature of Bush’s war was, in any case, in order at a time when the Iraq War was going disastrously badly and the Afghan one was starting to look more than a little peaked as well. It was like saying: Forget that “mission accomplished” sprint to victory in 2003 and keep your eyes on the prize. We’re in it for the long slog.

When Bush officials and Pentagon brass used “the long war” – a phrase that never gained much traction outside administration circles and admiring think-tanks – they were (being Americans) predicting the future, not commenting on the past. In their view, the fight against the Islamist terrorists and assorted bad guys who wanted to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction and truly bloody the American nose would be decades long.

And of that past? In the American tradition, they were Fordian (as in Henry) in their contempt for most history. If it didn’t involve Winston Churchill, or the U.S. occupying Germany or Japan successfully after World War II, or thrashing the Soviet Union in the Cold War, it was largely discardable bunk. And who cared, since we had arrived at a moment of destiny when the greatest country in the world had at its beck and call the greatest, most technologically advanced military of all time. That was what mattered, and the future – momentary pratfalls aside – would surely be ours, as long as we Americans were willing to buckle down and fund an eternal fight for it.

Arm and Regret

With the arrival of the Obama administration, “the Long War,” like “the Global War on Terror,” has largely fallen into disuse (even as the wars that went with it continue). Like all administrations, Obama’s, too, prefers to think of itself as beginning at Year Zero and, as the new president emphasized more than once, looking forward, not backward, at least when it came to the CIA, the Bush Justice Department, and torture practices.

Perhaps, however, the Long War shouldn’t be consigned to the dust bin of history just yet. It might still have its uses, if we were to do the un-American thing and look backward, not forward.

As we call a contentious era in European history the Hundred Years’ War, so our war in “the Greater Middle East” has already gone on for 30 years, give or take a few. If you wanted to date its exact beginning you might consider choosing president Ronald Reagan’s brief, disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1983, the occasion for the first suicide truck bombings of the modern American era. (As Mike Davis has written, “Indeed, the suicide truck bombs that devastated the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 prevailed – at least in a geopolitical sense – over the combined firepower of the fighter-bombers and battleships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet and forced the Reagan administration to retreat from Lebanon.”)

An even more reasonable date, however, might be July 3, 1979, when, at the behest of national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, president Jimmy Carter signed “the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul.” In other words, six months before the actual Soviet invasion of Afghanistan began, the U.S. threw its support to the mujahedin, the Afghan anti-Soviet fundamentalist jihadists.

As Brzezinski later described it, “[O]n the same day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained that in my opinion this aid would lead to a Soviet military intervention.” Asked whether he regretted his actions, given the results so many years after, he replied: “Regret what? The secret operation was an excellent idea. It drew the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? On the day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, saying, in essence: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.’”

Another inviting date for the start of our 30-years’ war might be Jan. 23, 1980, when Carter, in a speech officially billed as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, outlined what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine, which would put an armed American presence in the middle of the globe’s oil heartlands. Having described the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf as a “vital interest” of the United States, Carter went on to state in the speech’s key passage: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

What followed was the creation of a Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, meant in a crisis to get thousands of U.S. troops to the Gulf region quickly. In the Reagan years, that force was transformed into the Central Command (CENTCOM, of which Gen. David Petraeus is now commander), while its area of responsibility grew as the U.S. built up a massive military infrastructure of bases, weaponry, ships, and airfields in the region.

Since then, war, however labeled, has been the name of the game: in Afghanistan, our war began in 1979 and, in start-and-stop fashion, still continues; in Iran, it’s gone on largely in a proxy fashion, from 1979 to the present moment; in Iraq, from the First Gulf War in 1990 to now; briefly and disastrously in Somalia in 1993 and intermittently in this new century; and more recently in Pakistan.

The future is, of course, unknown, but as our president and his foreign policy team prepare to make crucial decisions in the coming months about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq, shouldn’t our 30-years’ war across the oil heartlands of the planet, essentially one disaster-hailed-as-a-victory after another, offer some cautionary lessons for us? Shouldn’t it raise the odd red flag of warning?

American Jihad

Let me suggest just one lesson that seems to be on no one else’s mind at a moment when a key “option” being offered in Washington – especially by Democrats not eager to see tens of thousands more U.S. troops heading Afghanistan-wards – is to arm and “train” ever more thousands of Afghans into a vast army and police security force for a government that hardly exists. Based on the last three decades in the region, don’t you think that we should pause and consider who exactly we may be arming and who exactly we may be supporting, and whether, given those 30 years of history, we have the slightest idea what we’re doing?

With those questions in mind, here’s a little potted history of our own 30-years’ war:

In the Afghan branch of it, our fervent American jihad of the 1980s involved the CIA slipping happily into a crowded bed with the Saudis, the Pakistanis, and the most extreme Islamist fundamentalists among the anti-Soviet Afghan fighters. In those years, the Agency didn’t hesitate to organize car-bomb and even camel-bomb terror attacks on the Russian military (techniques endorsed by then-CIA director William Casey). The partnership of these groups wasn’t surprising at the time, given that Casey, himself a Cold War fundamentalist and supporter of Opus Dei, believed that the anti-communism of the most extreme Islamist fundamentalists made them our natural allies in the region.

With that in mind, in tandem with Saudi funders, the CIA provided money, arms, training, and support (as well as thousands of American-printed Korans). The funds and arms were all funneled through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence organization (ISI). At the time, our generosity even included offering Stinger missiles, the most advanced handheld, ground-to-air weapon of the era, to our favored Afghans. The CIA also came to favor the most extreme of the jihadists, particularly two figures: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani.

In the early 1990s, after the Soviets left in defeat, the jihadists descended into a wretched civil war, and Washington essentially jumped ship, a new movement, the Taliban, initially a creation of the ISI (with at least implicit American backing at least some of the time), almost swept the boards in Afghanistan, creating a fundamentalist Islamic state in most of the country.

Now, leap forward a couple decades. In that same country, who exactly is the U.S. military fighting? As it happens, the answer is: the forces of the old Taliban, rejuvenated by an American occupation, as well as its two key allies, the warlords Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, who are now our sworn enemies. And we are, of course, pouring more billions of dollars, weaponry, and significant blood into defeating them. In the process, with hardly a second thought, the Obama administration is attempting to massively bulk up a weak Afghan army and thoroughly corrupt police force. The staggering ultimate figure for the future combined Afghan security forces now regularly cited in Washington: 400,000.

In other words, 30 years after we launched our jihad against the Soviets by arming the Afghans, we are now fighting almost all the people we once armed and arming a whole new crew. All sides in the debate in Washington find this perfectly sensible.

Then, of course, no one should forget al-Qaeda itself, which emerged from the same anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan in the late 1980s – Osama bin Laden first arrived there to fight and fund in 1982 – part of the nexus of Islamist forces on which the U.S. bet at the time.

Our Man (and Mortal Enemy) Saddam

Above all, let’s not forget Iraq. Indeed – not that anyone mentions it these days – back in the early 1980s, the Reagan administration threw its support behind the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein against the hated Iranian Shi’ite regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in the brutal eight-year Iran-Iraq War that began when Saddam launched an invasion in 1980. According to Patrick Tyler of the New York Times, Washington went far indeed in its support of Saddam’s military on the battlefield:

“A covert American program during the Reagan administration provided Iraq with critical battle planning assistance at a time when American intelligence agencies knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war, according to senior military officers with direct knowledge of the program.”

In other words, when it came to Iraq, we were for weapons of mass destruction before we were against them. Of course, you know the story from there. Next thing, Saddam Hussein had transmogrified into a new Adolf Hitler, and after his next invasion (of Kuwait), Gulf War I commenced – another smashing American “victory” in the region that only led to ever more war and greater disaster. A decade of regular U.S. air attacks on Saddam’s various military facilities and defenses ensued before, in March 2003, the Bush administration launched an invasion to “liberate” his country and its oppressed Shi’ite and Kurdish populations.

Soon after, Washington’s viceroy in occupied Baghdad would demobilize what was left of Saddam’s largely Sunni-officered 400,000-man army. (According to Bush administration plans, liberated Iraq was to have only a lightly armed, 40,000-man border-patrolling military and no air force to speak of.) Soon, however, the U.S. found itself in yet another war, a bitter, bloody Sunni insurgency amid a developing sectarian civil war. Once again, we chose a side and, after some hesitation, began rebuilding the Iraqi military and its intelligence services, as well as the country’s paramilitary police force. The result: a largely Shi’ite-officered army for the new government we set up in Baghdad, which we proceeded to arm to the teeth.

Now, Iraq has a U.S.-created army of approximately 262,000 men, and the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, employs another 480,000 people. This is, of course, a gigantic security infrastructure, and not even counted are an estimated 94,000 members of the Sunni Awakening, mostly former insurgents and erstwhile opponents of the army and police that the U.S. paid and armed to make the “surge” of 2007 a relative success. The Iraqi government has recently purchased 140 Abrams tanks from the U.S. through the Foreign Military Sales Program and, as soon as the price of oil rises and it feels less financially strapped, it’s eager to buy F-16s for its still barely existent air force.

Let me point out the obvious: No one yet knows whom all this fire power may someday be turned upon, but given that there is now a significantly Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad and little short of a shuttle of key Shi’ite leaders heading Tehran-ward, there’s no reason to assume that the Iraqi military will be our “friend” forever. The same would obviously be true of a gigantic Afghan army, if we were capable of creating one.

In a region where the law of unintended consequences seems to go into overdrive, you choose and arm your allies at your peril. In the past, whatever the U.S. did had an uncanny propensity for blowing back in our direction – something the Israelis also experienced when, in the 1980s, they chose to support an embryonic fundamentalist Islamist organization we now know as Hamas as a way of containing their then dreaded enemy Fatah. (This “law” may turn out to apply no less to the Palestinian army that U.S. Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton has been creating on the West Bank for Fatah. As Robert Dreyfuss recently reported, the general, speaking in Washington, warned that the Palestinian troops he’s training “can only be strung along for just so long. ‘With big expectations, come big risks. … There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you’re creating a state, when you’re not.’”)

We now tend to think of blowback as something in our past, something that ended with the attacks of 9/11. But in the Greater Middle East, one lesson seems clear enough: for 30 years we’ve been deeply involved in creating, financing, and sometimes arming a blowback world. There’s no reason to believe that, with the arrival of Barack Obama, history has somehow been suspended, that now, finally, it’s all going to work out.

There is a record here. It’s not a pretty one. It’s not a smart one. Someone should take it into account before we plunge in and arm our future enemies one more time.

[Note on further reading: As those of you who have clicked on links in this piece will realize, I've made good use of the work of Robert Dreyfuss, who writes the Dreyfuss Report for the Nation Web site. His 2003 Mother Jones piece "The Thirty-Year Itch" was a canny consideration of our Long War long ago. Little wonder, since he's a man who knows a lot about the unsavory crew of Islamist extremists Washington bedded down with back when. He wrote a superb – even prophetic – book on the subject, The Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

If you want to check out how "the Long War" lingers inside the military, check out Tom Hayden's striking recent piece "Kilcullen's Long War" in the Nation magazine, or read Dexter Filkins' puff piece profile of Gen. McChrystal in the New York Times magazine last Sunday.

Thanks for research on this piece goes to Nick Turse. I would cease to exist without him.]

Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt

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