There is the old saying, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. As a former manager once told me, “I am quite happy for you to make mistakes; that means you’re being active and learning. But if you make the same mistake again, you have learnt nothing from the first”.
On a geopolitical level, the Western nations seem to have made mistakes again and again, and yet are constantly surprised and amazed at the predictable result. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the US and the UK found themselves again on the front lines of the Cold War. The Place, Afghanistan. The Enemy, Russia, and the Communist backed government of Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the Americans flooded Afghanistan with sophisticated weapons, including MANPAD systems, explosives, and small arms. Along with the arms came money. Millions of dollars were poured into the country through the ISI in Pakistan, all for the purpose of “liberating” the country. Americans such as Charlie Wilson and the Right Wing Christian movement pushed vigorously for increased support to the Afghan Mujahedeen.
Along with weapons and money can support in the form of a public image campaign. American and British movies, from Rambo to James Bond, all portrayed a heroic struggle by a simple yet courageous people against a brutal government.
Support came also, from all over the world. Arab and Muslim fighters flocked to Afghanistan, where they enlisted in the call to Jihad against the infidel Soviets. Along with the droves of fighters came a wealthy Saudi Arabian man who dreamed of using his talents, his money, his connections, and his whole life to advancing the cause of Islam. His name of Usama Bin Laden. Usama, and many others like him, found their true calling in life in the fires of the Afghan resistance against the Soviets. CIA and SAS units were eager to arm and train anybody who would fight against the Soviets. Along with these arms came valuable training in explosives, assassination, sophisticated weapons systems, and other black arts. These lessons were learnt all to well by the young Muslim recruits, who then used them to great effect against the Soviets.
The Americans were successful. Through their proxy armies, they had defeated the Soviet Union, turning Afghanistan into a Russian Vietnam. Indeed, the defeat, and the expense incurred, was instrumental in bringing down an increasingly weak USSR some years later.
But as the victory celebrations died down, warlords such as Hekmatyar, Massoud, and other individuals realized that they now had to govern a power vacuum. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum, but politics and power do so even more. The weapons and training which had driven out the Soviets now were turned on each other, as the warlords fell to fighting each other for power.
In this vacuum arose a new power. Hailing from the religious schools on the Afghan border with Pakistan, and fired with religious zeal from the Whabbist schools of thought in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban swept into Afghanistan from the east, capturing Kabul, and controlling most of the country except for the northern areas held by Massoud and the Northern Alliance.
Having no love for the West, the Taliban imposed a strict view of Sharia upon the whole country, plunging the country back into the Dark Ages.
Others, though, had a more globalist view of the Jihad they had just won. Men like Bin Laden, Khalim, Basayev, Khattab, and al-Zawahiri were veterans of this war, which imbued them with the confidence to take on the West. After all, they had defeated one Superpower. Why not another one? When Bin Laden formed Al Qaeda in the 1990s in response to what he saw as American aggression towards Muslims and a desecration of Islam, he had a large source of recruits to choose from. Men who had fought with him in Afghanistan found themselves with a set of skills which could be very easily turned against their former benefactors, the United States. The Jihadists built up their experience and skills in Africa, in Afghanistan in support of the Taliban, in Pakistan, in Chechnya, in Palestine, in the Balkans, and in the Philippines. The view of Bin Laden was to leverage the contacts he had made in Afghanistan into a worldwide network to bring the fight to the West. Bin Laden came full circle when he returned to Afghanistan with Al Qaeda. Safe in the country, he established training facilities, to which a new generation of aspiring young men who sought the glories of Jihad flocked.
The reason we have discussed this history is that it bears very serious lessons for American foreign policy today, which are being very quickly forgotten by the current Administration. The Neo Conservative idea under President Bush was that if America only removed dictatorial regimes from power in the Middle East, other regimes would fall like dominos, creating a wave of freedom across the region. America put this theory to the test in Iraq, with a far less than satisfactory result. Rather than embracing freedom and democracy and the American way, Iraqis first turned against the American invaders and then against each other. More than any place on earth, the Middle East cannot have a political vacuum present without some group attempting to fill it. In Iraq, the Americans soon found that they lacked both the support and the political know-how to even consider filling the political vacuum they had created with the destruction of the regime of Saddam Hussein.
As a result, Al Qaeda moved in force into Iraq, carrying on both attacks against American forces, and then against Shiite Muslims in the country. Iran responded by filling the power vacuum with Shiite supporters such as the Madhi Army. These two groups brought Iraq into the verge of Civil War, before the Sunni backed Al Qaeda was pushed out of the country.
America should have learned valuable lessons from both Afghanistan and Iraq. Regime change in the Middle East is often the prelude to anarchy, violence, and greater bloodshed. And dictatorial regimes can be seen as being far superior to the violence which follows their demise. American styled Democracy does not take root easily in the Middle East, as has been seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, and Libya.
Instead, the current American strategy is still to support and fight for regime change. In the case of Libya, this was successful, and a military campaign ousted Gadhafi from power, leading to his death and the formation of a new government. Around the same time, Mubarak fell from power in Egypt, bringing in new “democratic” elections.
The Arab Spring was touted by pundits, activists, and neoconservatives as being an amazing example of “People Power” rising up against oppressive regimes and overcoming them through willpower and the might of the population. It was seen as being a new wave of freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Very few voices, in the days of Libya’s revolution, sought to criticize the movements in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Yemen. After all, were not the governments in question corrupt, violent, and despotic? Isn’t the rule by the people the best kind of government?
American writers, bloggers, political scientists, and activists were not the only ones watching and rejoicing at the Arab Spring. Al Qaeda was watching events very carefully also. With the death of Usama Bin Laden, and on the run worldwide, Al Qaeda was in dire need of another safe haven, where they could regroup and plan their comeback. The Arab Spring gave them exactly this. It was a movement which posed serious threats to the secular, despotic governments who had so often waged war against them. In every country which has seen regime change, or attempted regime change, the Governments have waged an often brutal war against Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. Libya, Egypt, and Syria had all sought to destroy their influence and power. And with these governments now crumbling, Al Qaeda saw the creation of more political vacuums. And as we have seen before, whenever there is a vacuum, the Jihadists are quick to try and take advantage of the opportunity.
In a four part series, we will discuss the impact of Al Qaeda and other extremist groups on the Arab Spring, their current successes in Libya, Syria, and Egypt, and the bleak future it poses for the region as they have seized power. Al Qaeda is back with a safe haven. It now has another battle to fight, it now has another source of recruits for their war, and another battle ground to test their skills in. And ironically, they are now fighting on the same side as an often well meaning but hopelessly ignorant America.