The Lessons of Afghanistan

Here’s another very important bit of foreign policy news. I have criticized President Obama for his Hamlet act over Syria and for letting local allies support the rebels and steer money and weapons to Islamists.

I thought that we hadn’t learned the big lesson of Afghanistan, where we were so eager to break the power of the Soviet Union—an entirely worthwhile goal—that we let our Saudi and Pakistani allies steer money and weapons to the more Islamist elements within the mujahedeen, creating the core of what would later become the Taliban.

Well, it looks like we may have learned that lesson after all. A recent report describes how, in increasing our support for Syria’s rebels, we have taken sides with the Saudis against Qatar. While Qatar has been supporting the Islamists in Syria, the Saudis view both the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda as threats to their monarchy. Thus:

“One little-publicized consequence of the US-Saudi alliance will be to curb the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, a key Saudi goal. This has put the Saudi kingdom at direct odds with its neighbor, Qatar, the Islamic group’s prime Arab protector and promoter.

“It has also placed the United States in the awkward position of taking sides between its closest Gulf allies. Qatar hosts the Pentagon’s main forward operations center, while Saudi Arabia is the keystone of US efforts to build an Arab military counterweight to Iran in the Persian Gulf.

“In this case, the Obama administration has decided to side with the Saudis to prevent extremist Islamic groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda branch, from dominating a post-Assad government. In return, the Saudi government has agreed to halt its own arms purchases for fundamentalist Salafi groups it favors elsewhere in the Arab world because of its adherence to this same trend of Islam. Instead, according to Syrian and diplomatic sources in the Gulf, it will join the United States in funneling arms through the US-backed Supreme Military Council, made up of secular rebel fighting groups.

“The US-Saudi alliance against the Russian-backed al-Assad regime revives their earlier one in Afghanistan during the Cold War….

“One major difference between Afghanistan and Syria is it that the two old allies this time have agreed to work against the emergence of an Islamic-dominated government in place of the al-Assad regime. Saudi Arabia backed the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and was one of only three countries that ever recognized the Taliban government there. But after many Saudi Afghan veterans joined Al Qaeda in its campaign to overthrow the monarchy, it has become extremely wary of a similar blowback from aiding militant Islamists in Syria.”

I don’t know if we’ll pick the right people in Syria or how effective our efforts will be, but it’s good to know that even the Saudis have learned one of the big lessons of Afghanistan.

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