The Failure of Reagan’s Afghanistan Policy
The Reagan administration policy in Afghanistan was not a “most successful
departure” but, in my opinion, an absolute disaster that led in many ways
directly to September 11. The Soviet Union was already on its last legs
economically in the 1980s. As the empire collapsed, a Soviet-dominated
Afghanistan would have just become a post-Soviet Uzbekistan or
Kyrgyzstan–hardly a threat to world peace.
Instead, members of the Reagan admistration like Ikle and Wolfowitz
supported the dangerous idea of giving billions of dollars to far
rightwing Muslim militias like that of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and allowing an
Islamic International to grow up of trained terrorists targeting Soviet
boys. The US met some resistance to this idea even from the Pakistanis, so
US officials flew to Beijing to put pressure on Pakistan’s ally, China, to
induce Pakistani intelligence to acquiesce in the arming of these
Islamists with extremely high-tech weaponry. In this they succeeded.
Then, having created this situation, the United States abruptly abandoned
both Pakistan and Afghanistan to the mercies of the band of warring
fanatics it had spawned and armed. In that matrix of hatred al-Qaeda and
the Taliban grew up, and that is how you get September 11. The attacks on
that day are not Reagan’s fault, or Wolfowitz’s, or Ikle’s. They are
al-Qaeda’s fault. But the conditions for them to occur were set up by
policies of actively fostering and massively funding and arming the most
reactionary and wild-eyed elements of the Islamist movement.
It was not Carter who funded the Islamists to the tune of half a billion
dollars a year. It was Reagan.
Wolfowitz has been wrong at almost every point along the way. In the
1980s he authored a report on Soviet military capabilities that we now
know vastly over-estimated them.
Wolfowitz has been the lead man on an Iraq campaign, and started agitating
for it well before September 11. In fact, Wolfowitz wanted the US
response to 9/11 to *be* an immediate Iraq campaign. Leaving al-Qaeda
alone in Afghanistan while pursuing an Iraq adventure last fall would have
been an enormous disaster, in my view.
Wolfowitz’s paranoia has been about states, not terrorist groups. He was
not vindicated by September 11. Rather, he was blindsided because he did
not expect the danger to come from small fringe elements but from places
like the old Soviet Union and from China. He hates China so much that he
even stopped an order for 600,000 berets made in China for the US armed
Whether it is realistic to expect a harmonious and democratic Iraq to
emerge from a US campaign there is still a big question mark. Maybe it
could happen. Maybe it won’t. But the chaos and terrorism that emerged
from Reagan’s Afghanistan effort should be a reminder to us all of the law
of unintended consequences. They haven’t been abrogated just because
Wolfowitz is getting his way on Iraq. And he arguably has caused US
citizens to be significantly less secure by his past actions than they
would otherwise have been.