HOW PRESIDENT Bush and his team handle the three remaining years of his tenure in office-especially their efforts to deal with the interrelated problems of terrorism, proliferation and the war in Iraq-will have a major impact not only on his legacy but, more importantly, on American security. Whether a distracted White House can undertake a hard-headed assessment of these problems, give them the priority they deserve, and find ways to work more effectively with others, especially other major powers, remains to be seen.
Regrettably, this administration and recent administrations of both parties have fallen far short in dealing with the danger of extremist terror. In fact, as most Americans would be shocked to learn, the United States played a major role in unleashing the global Islamic jihad now focused on our country. Surely no American policymaker ever sought a radical Islamist assault on the United States-yet several successive administrations undertook multiple policy sins of both commission and omission that helped the jihad to become established, to gain momentum, and finally to flourish virtually unopposed until it hit New York and Washington.
Still, instead of learning from past mistakes, we seem hell-bent on celebrating them. Some of the current administration's most vocal critics conveniently disregard their own responsibility for the emergence of the anti-American jihad. Worse, they press for policies that increase American vulnerabilities at a time when terrorists are trying to acquire nuclear weapons.
Many realize that Al-Qaeda grew in part from the mujaheddin Washington armed and supported to drive out the Soviet Union after its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. But few are aware of the full impact of U.S. decisions at key points both before and after the Soviet intervention-decisions taken by several successive U.S. administrations-that unintentionally breathed life into this Frankenstein monster.
ACCORDING TO former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, now one of the most acerbic critics of President Bush's handling of both Iraq and radical Islam, the Carter Administration authorized a covert CIA operation, notwithstanding an expectation that it would provoke a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In an interview in Le Nouvel Observateur in 1998, Brzezinski said that clandestine U.S. involvement in Afghanistan began months before the Soviet invasion; in fact, he added, he wrote a note to President Carter predicting that "this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention." As Brzezinski put it, "we didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would." And even in hindsight, Brzezinski thought "that secret operation was an excellent idea", because "it had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap" and exploited "the opportunity of giving the USSR its Vietnam War."
Of course, this is not what the Carter Administration told Congress or the American people at the time.
In view of Soviet expansionism elsewhere, the United States had little choice but to fight the invasion of Afghanistan once it occurred. But supporting resistance to a Soviet occupation is very different from intentionally "increasing the probability" of a Soviet invasion.
More recently, Brzezinski has acknowledged that one of his motives in entangling the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was promoting the liberation of Central Europe by diverting Soviet attention from responding more forcefully to Solidarity's challenge. Yet, desirable as this end might have been, one may question whether it justified using means that would provoke an almost decade-long war in Afghanistan that both devastated the country and jump-started a global Islamic jihad against America.
Nevertheless, the Carter Administration was not alone in making mistakes in Afghanistan. The Reagan Administration's decision to "outsource" responsibility for arming and organizing the resistance to Pakistan's intelligence service and Saudi-funded foreign mujaheddin was insufficiently thought out. Though no one could reasonably have been expected to predict that the same groups would attack New York twenty-some years later, stronger reservations were appropriate in the wake of the Iranian revolution, which showed very clearly how easily Muslim extremists could turn against the United States. It was also no secret that some of the mujaheddin commanders in Afghanistan were, even during the 1980s, already talking about establishing an Islamic caliphate and about the United States being next on the receiving end of their righteous zeal.
This lack of sober evaluation explains why, when the United States had an opportunity to try to put the Islamist genie back into the bottle, we failed to take it. In 1988 Mikhail Gorbachev decided to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan and was looking for a face-saving solution that would create a coalition government in Kabul to avoid chaos and prevent Pakistani-supported Muslim extremists from taking over the country. The feasibility of a coalition government is substantiated by the fact that even after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the Najibullah regime managed to control Kabul for over three years. With a modicum of U.S. support, a coalition government in Afghanistan could have been created that would probably have prevented the Taliban's rise to power, with consequences for Al-Qaeda's ability to operate in Afghanistan with impunity.
Yet despite the efforts of Jack Matlock, then-U.S. ambassador to the USSR, the Reagan Administration rejected the Soviet attempt to find a negotiated solution to the Afghan war by insisting that for the United States to end its support of the mujaheddin, Moscow had not only to withdraw its troops but to cut off military assistance to the Afghan government. As Matlock writes in his book Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended (2005), "The U.S. attitude [toward Afghanistan] was driven more by politics in Washington than by the situation in Afghanistan", since it was clear that if Soviet troops could not defeat the Afghan resistance, the Soviet-backed regime "could hardly do so whether or not it received additional military supplies from Moscow." Indeed, as Matlock continues:
The main issue for the Americans had always been the Soviet military occupation. If that ended, there was no good reason for the United States to continue giving arms to some Afghan factions whose aims, other than expelling Soviet military forces from their country, were remote from any American interests.
But this viewpoint was rejected. Brzezinski, for example, was quite critical of President Reagan's alleged willingness to "play along" with the Soviet "game" of using arms control concessions to improve Moscow's image while threatening "the stability of Pakistan" and seeking "dominance over the Persian Gulf region"-this at a time when perestroika was already well underway and it was clear that Soviet "new thinking" in foreign policy was demonstrably for real.
THOUGH HISTORY rarely gives second chances, the United States did have another opportunity to blunt Islamic extremism in Afghanistan in the 1990s. While few still take seriously Francis Fukuyama's claim that history ended with the U.S.-led Western victory in the Cold War, there is no doubt that the absence of the apocalyptic Soviet challenge gave America considerably greater freedom of choice in defining its foreign policy priorities.
One would have thought that the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the simultaneous attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and the strike on the USS Cole in 2000, among other incidents, would have alerted policymakers that a new major challenge to American interests and American lives was in the making. However, instead of combating this threat, the United States focused on "wars of choice" and haphazard attempts to "nation-build" in the Balkans.
The architects of this tragic diversion are unrepentant and even proud of what they have done. As Richard Holbrooke, the person largely responsible for shaping a flawed U.S. policy in the Balkans, wrote in the Washington Post in July 2005, "Was Bosnia worth it? As we approach the 10th anniversary of Dayton, there should no longer be any debate."
Holbrooke's claim that there should be no debate about Bosnia demonstrates his chutzpah, but it does not pass even minimal analytic scrutiny. If the United States had wanted to stop the war, it could have supported the Vance-Owen plan-rejected by the Clinton Administration at the time as allegedly too favorable to the Serbs. And given the administration's inaction on genocide in Rwanda, it is not surprising that major powers like China and Russia found it difficult to accept that humanitarian considerations alone motivated the United States to act, first in Bosnia, then in Kosovo, especially when American protÅ½gÅ½s engaged in ethnic cleansing operations of their own.
The "unintended consequences" of the Kosovo war in 1999 were to poison U.S. relations with Russia and China alike, leading eventually to the Clinton Administration's contemptuous rejection of Russian proposals for joint action against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda-proposals that resurfaced after 9/11 and eventually contributed to removing the Taliban from power.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush Administration appropriately, if belatedly, broke with the past by identifying the fight against radical Islamic terrorism as America's top foreign policy priority-and by understanding that at times hard choices have to be made to secure America. Yet that commitment has weakened, in part under a steady barrage of domestic criticism from senior members of the American foreign policy community.Essay Types: The Realist