Thursday, March 30, 2006

Iraq, al Qaeda and "blowback": Correspondance with my sister 

My sister, who consorts with six-legged fauna for a living, sent me an email this afternoon with a gently worded question about the risk that Iraq might result in blowback against Americans or American interests, just as the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan did. I thought you might be interested in the question and the response (slightly edited from the originals).

The sister:
My book group just read Good Muslim, Bad Muslim : America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani, an interesting analysis of current global events from an African. Have you read it? (You once told me that your time was better spent reading authors you disagree with rather that agree with.) [True, until I can't take it any more. - ed.] It's clear this author has an agenda, but his thesis is compelling. One part of it
(which I believe is pretty well accepted in the mainstream) is that in training the Afghan mujahideen to fight the Soviets and then cutting them loose after Soviet withdrawl, we basically unleashed a lot of bloodthirsty killers on the world who were in need of a new target. It struck me during discussions of the book that this is not a new problem. Remember Dad's research on the French routiers? ["Routiers" were brigands -- in effect, unemployed knights -- that were the scourage of Europe for much of the late Middle Ages. They terrorized the country for generations, until finally the French king rolled them up into an army. - ed.] My question is, putting aside any benefit that has occurred or can occur from this point in Iraq, aren't we doing the same thing now? (This time it isn't
the CIA training the future terrorists, but we have provided a training ground by turning the country over to chaos.)

My brotherly answer:
Hey, how are you? How's my niece? And [the brother-in-law] for that matter?

Haven't read Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, although it sounds familiar. I'll take it under advisement.

My solicited thoughts:

1. There is no question that al Qaeda is, to some significant degree, blowback from the Soviet/Afghan war. The book to read on that topic is Ghost Wars by Steven Coll.

The question, of course, is what lesson there is to be learned from this. All wars create the conditions for the next security problem. So, for example, the Treaty of Versailles created the conditions in Germany that made National Socialism a popular alternative. Hitler was, to some degree, "blowback" from the Allied victory in World War I. Had Germany won, or at least won the peace, fascism might never have taken root there.

Similarly, the Soviet Union was a wimpy power until its victory over Germany in World War II. We armed the Russians so that they would take most of the casualties during the war (roughly 60 Russians died for every American in World War II) and drain Germany. The result? Soviet occupation of half of Europe and a Cold War that involved massively more American bloodshed than Iran, Afghanistan, and September 11 combined. Again, blowback.

Still, we generally view both of these victories as worth the cost, notwithstanding the subsequent security problems that flowed from them. My own take is that the same can be said of the aid we provided to the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Which is worse: the Cold War, which cost a staggering amount of money (defense spending is still only about half what it was during that period) and hundreds of thousands of lives and which always presented the risk of global annihilation, or the current war, even if broadly defined? I'll take this war over the Cold War any day of the week.

2. There is also no question that the war in Iraq is going to result in blowback. I wouldn't dream of arguing with that point. But: the inquiry should not end there, however much that critics of the war wish that it would. We are not the only people in the world who suffer blowback. The jihad is also suffering from blowback. The tactics of the insurgency in Iraq have created a great many new enemies of al Qaeda, both in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world. It is very instructive that the popularity of al Qaeda in the Arab and Muslim world peaked in 2003, and has been steadily declining since. Lots of Arabs and other Muslims around the world have taken up arms against al Qaeda since 2001, and the trend has only accelerated since 2003. So, my answer is that it is far too soon to know whether Iraq is a strategic defeat for the United States. Even with all the troubles there, I do not see how the position of the jihad is stronger today relative to all its enemies than it was in early 2003.

I have written a ton on this subject, as you may or may not know, but this post captures most of my thinking in one handy reference.

Love, "TigerHawk"

That's the kind of family we are.


By Blogger doug, at Thu Mar 30, 10:28:00 PM:

The only quibble I have is with your analysis of the Afghanistan Question.

In retrospect, I feel that the support of the Islamists against the Soviet backed Kabul Regime was unwise in the extreme.

Frankly the Soviet Empire was on the road to history's scrap heap. I have heard many say that it was Reagan's steadfast opposition to it and the runious military spending that his position mandated of the Soviet Regime that essentially brought the house down. Or just the rotten mess it really was behind the facade as we have since learned.

Maybe the Afghansitan Quagmire did hasten the day of final collapse. Maybe. But look what we got as what you call 'blowback'.

Listing a 'maybe' accerlerant as justifying a sure-thing negative, seems highly dubious to me. Perhaps our involvement really made no difference, but in hindsight I would have let the Soviets deal with the jihadis as they well might have done had we not supplied all those 'Stingers'. Frankly maybe they would have dealt with all those Bin-Laden types so that we do not have to.

But that's just my opinion.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri Mar 31, 05:37:00 AM:

It is certainly possible that you are right. Another argument in your favor is that we do not yet know the full cost of the blowback from Afghanistan -- it may well be that it will be far worse than having accelerated the end of the Cold War.

Indeed, the same thing may be said about the cost of Hitler vs. the defeat of Germany in World War I. Had the United States not intervened and let the Germans force a settlement in 1918 (as perhaps they would have done), would we have avoided both the rise of Hitler and the Cold War? Perhaps, but there would have been some other huge fight with Germany down the road.

The point is, there is always blowback in war, and it is only sometimes forseeable. Even when it is forseeable -- there is always somebody who can be credited with a "warning" after the fact -- you still don't know what it means. Who would have thought that arming a bunch of tribal guys in Afghanistan would have had the results it did? We'd been arming tribal guys all around the world for 40 years, and none of them had attacked the United States. Ultimately, you do what you can to win the war at hand, and worry about the next war later. Nobody has really found a better solution in ages of trying.  

By Blogger Charlottesvillain, at Fri Mar 31, 03:07:00 PM:

Of course the reason the cold war was cold, nuclear weapons and MAD, was pretty much inconceivable in 1918, so it is hard to draw direct threads back to those decisions. Wonder what inconceivable future is taking shape for us now?

A more important question in my mind is this. The TH sister tends to lean far more in the direction of, say, Uptown Ruler in political orientation. Her letter as reproduced lacked a certain level of intensity I have come to expect from her dialogs on political matters. Her letter sounds like it was written by you! Exactly how much editing was done here? Or has motherhood and pervasive Tigerhawk logic simply worn her down? Inquiring minds want to know!  

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