Paul Pillar

Replaying Afghanistan in Syria

Afghan mujahideen, 1985.Reports that most arms being sent to Syria in the name of toppling Bashar Assad's regime are winding up in the hands of “hard-line Islamic jihadists” recall a similar earlier experience in Afghanistan. The United States, Saudi Arabia and other outsiders wished to use material support to Afghan rebels to help defeat the Soviets and to topple the Soviet-installed Najibullah regime in Kabul. Working through Pakistan as a conduit and middleman, the outside patrons had to bestow their largesse on several different Afghan militias, which collectively constituted the armed resistance in Afghanistan. About half of the militias could be called hard-line Islamic jihadists. These also were the most effective fighters against the Soviets. If one wanted to use assistance in the form of arms shipments to defeat the Soviets and to do so sooner rather than later, these were the principal groups one needed to aid.

When Najibullah finally fell in 1992 (three years after the Soviet Union withdrew its own troops from Afghanistan), there was hardly a pause before the militias that had been allies in the war began fighting among themselves. The Afghan civil war simply moved into a new phase. In addition to the resulting chaos setting the stage for the Taliban sweeping to power over most of Afghanistan a couple of years later, we are seeing today other legacies of this pattern of outside assistance more than twenty years ago. One of the most potent of the hard-line Islamist elements that was in the middle of the fight against the Soviets was the militia led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who would come to be seen as an enemy of the United States alongside the Taliban itself and the Haqqani group.

In Syria today as in Afghanistan three decades ago, it is illusory to think that the United States or anyone else on the outside of the fight can fine-tune where the arms go so that we deal only with groups to our liking while still getting a return on our investment in terms of hastening the fall of the regime that the fight is directed against. The opposition in Syria is if anything even more disorganized and disaggregated than was the opposition in Afghanistan.

It is not feasible to expect aid to hasten the defeat of Assad if the aid is limited to groups “who share our values,” as Mitt Romney has put it. Resistance groups in Syria are operating in an environment in which they would hardly have an opportunity to demonstrate adherence to any such values. And even if the leaders of some groups seem to express allegiance to particular values, we can have no confidence that the same concepts or terms mean the same thing to them as they do to us. Many people in that part of the world, for example, believe that democracy means nothing more than majority rule, with “majority” defined in terms of something like a religious sect.

There is no opportunity for the United States to do anything approaching precise management of a flow of arms. It is not as if the Defense Logistics Agency is on scene to parcel out the materiel. Other outside actors are needed to facilitate the flow. With the war in Afghanistan the key outside actor in that regard was Pakistan. In Syria today the Saudis and Qataris seem to be particularly important. They are likely to be less disturbed than we are by anything that smacks of hard-line Islamic jihadism.

We should not be surprised if in Syria, as in Afghanstan, the more extreme groups also tend to be the more effective ones in carrying the fight. What is going on in Syria is not some peaceful process of political change in which our “values” would mean much. It is instead a brutal civil war. Brutally extreme groups tend to be in their element in brutally extreme conflicts.

In light of all of the foregoing, we also should not be surprised that despite incessant hand-wringing about what is going on in Syria and expressed wishes that somehow this conflict could be pushed speedily to a successful conclusion, no one has offered any good ideas for how to do that.

Image: Erwin Franzen