Lessons learned and forgotten

Roy Gutman, currently serving with distinction in Istanbul as McClatchy bureau chief for the Middle East, has kindly given me permission to publish this longer than usual post. Read and weep. 

Until recently, few Americans had even heard of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). But a new poll just out shows that 70 per cent of the population view ISIS as the number one threat to the United States. From nothing to 70 per cent in six months. What’s behind the phenomenon of the Islamic State? Who’s to blame? What do you do about it?

My premise is that the Islamic State did not spring from nowhere. It is the product of five wars over 35 years, three of which took place in Afghanistan; there was one long war in Iraq and we’re now three years into war in Syria. A major contributor to its rise is us, the United States, and how we’ve dealt with those wars.

We need to go back 25 years to 1989. That astonishing year began with the Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in February, and ended with the opening of the Berlin Wall and the Czech revolution. The Soviet Empire collapsed, and a new era began with one superpower and no defined order about how to handle crisis. What we’ve seen since then is a good deal of disorder and, with some notable exceptions, flawed responses to it. Possibly it’s because many of the crises occurred in countries that had been in the Russian orbit or non-aligned.

Afghanistan ushered in the post-cold war era, and the US response there set a pattern. The crisis is now in its 35th year. It has produced not just tragedy and threat, indeed radical modern Islam got its start there — but lessons as well. In my book, now out in a second edition (How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and the Hijacking of Afghanistan), I documented well over 50 policy decisions that led to the continuing crisis. I’ll choose just 10 lessons that should have been learned. They weren’t, as we are seeing in Syria today.

Ten lessons

1. First, and most important, security vacuums appear in unexpected places. When an empire collapses, power vacuums form along the periphery that can lead to security vacuums and civil war, and from there it’s a short path to regional conflict. Regional wars have given rise to the evils of this post Cold War era, providing cover for terrorists, war criminals, drug production and crime and opening the way to far bigger wars. Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had a better grasp of the inherent opportunity in such conflicts than we in the US. So the first lesson of security vacuums is to identify them and act to counter them. In the absence of government and of support by status-quo powers, radical forces flock to the ungoverned spaces — because no one can stop them.

2. The second lesson is don’t walk away from a country with a security vacuum. I believe there was, and still is, a moral obligation to help put Afghanistan right. No American died in the anti-Soviet war in which the US was a key arms provider, but one million Afghans did. The 10-year insurrection helped bring down the Soviet Empire and end the Cold War on U.S. terms. Yet presidents of both parties took steps to disengage from Afghanistan– first closing our diplomatic mission in Kabul, withdrawing aid, failing to reappoint an ambassador, even a special envoy and then turning over the political issues to the United Nations and security to Pakistan.

3. Don’t abandon a sovereign country at war to someone else’s sphere of influence. Robert Oakley, the ambassador to Pakistan after the Soviet withdrawal, gave that very advice. “Whose sphere of influence was Afghanistan supposed to be under – the United States?” he told me. Lesson learned: You cannot subcontract U.S. policy to another country, especially if you are simultaneously sanctioning that country. Their leaders will work assiduously against US interests, as Pakistan did.

4. You can’t stay neutral; you have to pick sides. Choose the player most likely to support a stable outcome. Allies in an ungoverned space, such as guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, are imperfect, still don’t treat them like lepers. Massoud was the enemy of our enemy, and the failure to treat him as friend deepened the vacuum in Afghanistan.

You’ve got to back your friends. Astronomical sums were available for capturing bin Laden under the Clinton administration. But at most $100,000 or $200,000 per visit was all that was available to keep Massoud’s struggle against Taliban alive.

The same thing happened after 9/11. As the international community in Bonn was anointing Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s interim leader, the US military helped a warlord into power in Kandahar, shutting Karazai out of the power structure for southern Afghanistan, puncturing his charisma and impairing the legitimacy.

5. In the search for a political solution, force or the threat of the use of force will be needed, but it must be but subordinated to political goals. And the prequisite for setting political goals is to first analyze the political landscape. The internal politics of Afghanistan, its lack of security, is what led to 9/11. The Taliban could not defeat Massoud, and bin Laden saw that as his opening, putting his training camps, forces and strategy at the service of the Taliban. That won him the political space to plan his attacks on the US. The US government wasn’t watching that internal political space.

After 9/11, the Bush administration used bombers and missiles to attack the Taliban defenses, and then drones and raids to decapitate leaders, while establishing a “light footprint” by US forces. It was an attack on the symptoms, not the causes. The root cause for bin Laden’s rise was the lack of security, and that couldn’t be cured with a “light footprint.” Everything got worse when the decision was made to invade Iraq. The Bush administration withdrew US troops, intelligence support, heavy weapons and most important – attention – and that action signalled Pakistan that the US was headed for the exits. Pakistan responded by helping revive the Taliban.

6. Don’t let your foreign policy be undermined by a domestic agenda. In 1998, after Al Qaida attacked U.S. embassies in east Africa, Bill Clinton gave in to domestic constituencies and didn’t fight Congressional sanctions on Pakistan for testing a nuclear weapon. But the US needed Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban. As those new sanctions took hold, cooperation with Pakistan ceased.

7. Turning over diplomacy to the UN, and but not backing it up by the threat of coercion, is a formula for stalemate; it deceives no one but the American public. It’s in fact a cover for a lack of policy. If no means are committed, the ends morph into what’s available rather than what’s needed.

8. The public should be informed of U.S. policy. Support for the Afghan resistance was no secret in the 1980s. The policy made sense and it can be explained. If it doesn’t make sense, it should be revised. At the same time, we should beware of CIA operations, even if they work brilliantly and have broad support, they rarely lead to long-term stability. There should always be a public side to a covert policy, as there was in the 1980s in the Afghan war. It should be open to discussion and challenge.

9. War Crimes. The US, as world leader, should put the spotlight on war crimes and demand accountability. In Afghanistan, American silence helped create a climate of impunity that led to more war crimes and embittered the population. Abdul Rahim Dostum’s killing of captured Taliban in 1997 in Mazar I Sharif set the stage for the Taliban’s mass murder of Hazaras in that city in 1998. But the US was silent. And then in 2001, U.S. military covered up when Dostum killed thousands of Taliban by suffocating them in containers. A cycle of revenge is now under way. It undercut U.S. standing in the country. The US should uphold Humanitarian Law. It is a hallmark of world order, for gives an accepted guide to unacceptable misbehavior.

10. Refugees. These are people who flee their homes and abandon all their goods after massive crimes or the threat of more, and we need to hear their stories. In Afghanistan there were 4 million refugees in neighboring countries plus millions more who were internally displaced. The Taliban were almost entirely responsible. But in the five years up to 1999, the U.S. took in 103 Afghan refugees.

The rise of ISIS and Syria

American policy errors in Afghanistan helped lay the groundwork for the rise of radical Islamists. The anti-Soviet war in the 1980’s proved a magnet for Islamist volunteers who came to fight but were under the control of no state. When the war ended, the volunteers celebrated the victory over the Red army as their victory, and formed al Qaeda. They began to formulate plans that climaxed in the 9/11 attacks.

The rise of Al Qaeda took place, as I noted earlier, in the context of five wars. When Russia pulled out of Afghanistan, civil war broke out over who would govern the state, and the last phase of the civil war, from 1996 to 2001 was fought by the Taliban against a varying opposition, but principally Massoud. The US proclaimed neutrality in this war, but bin Laden did not. For those who contribute military support, war provides an excellent camouflage for their agendas.

9/11 led to American intervention, and a new war. The Taliban fled to fight another day, as Afghan contenders often do. But the US underestimated Afghanistan’s security needs, the Taliban returned. Volunteers again flocked to the scene, among them Arabs who met up in Khorasan. They’re fighting now in Syria and call themselves the Khorasanis.

The US invasion of Iraq gave Al Qaeda new purpose. We helped them along. By disbanding the Iraqi army, the US created a security vacuum that it could not fill. That was the opening for Al Qaeda to team up with ex-Baathists in an insurgency against the US presence.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Syria, Bashar al Assad feared he was the next target and he threw in his support. His security forces welcomed foreign volunteers from throughout the Islamic world, trained them and infiltrated them into Iraq, and he provided sanctuary to former top Saddam aides. US military counter-insurgency and the troop surge of troops stabilized Iraq, but their departure at the end of 2011 reopened the security vacuum. The Maliki government could not fill it; Iran tried but Al Qaeda was most successful.

Syria’s national uprising, inspired by the Arab Spring, gave Al Qaeda another opening. It began as a peaceful citizens’ protest, but Assad labeled his opponents terrorists. Then he opened his jails and released all the terrorists who’d fought in Iraq and that he’d been holding since 2009. When Al Qaeda in Iraq began to send fighters, he did nothing to stop them, instead he staged incidents and then claimed the Nusra Front carried them out before its existence.

When the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham split off from Nusra in April 2013 and began to seize towns from moderate rebel forces, Assad attacked only rebel forces. ISIS developed a sanctuary in Raqqa, sent convoys back and forth to Iraq, and captured Mosul in June with complete impunity. Could ISIS have grown to its current threat without the sanctuary in Syria? Could it have captured Mosul and declared its caliphate without Assad’s knowledge? All we know is that Assad watched them prepare their plans and did absolutely nothing to stop them.

So that brings me to the war in Syria. By my reading, we are making many of the same mistakes in Syria today that we did in Afghanistan in the 1990s. We know from Afghanistan the consequences. For those who say this is a different situation, I say it’s another chapter in the same saga. The foe is the same, with a different name, a different leader, but the same goals and methods, and a lot of experience under its belt. They’ve adapted to the new circumstances and learned from the past. But have we? Bearing in mind that all analogies are imperfect, here are the parallels:

1. The Syrian uprising produced a security vacuum in the northern provinces, which rebel forces filled. But they sprang up locally, spontaneously. Organization was lacking, and radicals spotted it as an opportunity. Now the entire north of Syria threatens to be taken over by either the Islamic State, or Jabhat al Nusra. Far from dealing with this security vacuum by seriously supporting a ground force, the US is now withdrawing its support.

2. Don’t subcontract U.S. interests to another government, certainly not to a rogue government which sponsors terrorism, and above all not to a government under US sanctions. The letter President Obama reportedly sent to the Supreme Leaders not long ago assured Iran the Assad regime is not a target for US bombing. But Iran is the Assad regime’s principal backer and bears responsibility for Assad’s military operations and for his failure to attack the Islamic State. The administration now sees Iran as a potential partner in fighting terrorism. But Iran is a part of the problem. Between the lines, the letter seems to authorize Iran to determine the future of Syria. It’s not their country. They don’t belong there.

3. You have to pick sides and support your friends, even if they’re not perfect. The President says he doesn’t have a policy for Syria, meaning he is unwilling to decide how to deal with the Assad regime. But he also has no policy for the volunteer moderate forces on the ground. They need intelligence, defensive weapons and sustenance. The need secure communications. They need moral support, but instead they are disparaged as farmers and doctors, overlooking who it was that fought in the American war of independence. And now, the US is cutting its support for the existing rebel forces.

4. In the drive for a stable political solution, it is indispensable to subordinate the use of force to political ends. But you must understand the politics on the ground. Assad could not defeat the opposition, so he made common cause with the Islamic State. As John Kerry put it Sunday, Assad claims to be the last line of defense against a terrorist takeover in Syria, the truth is his relationship to Daesh has been symbiotic.

5. Bombing of the Islamic State and Nusra, but not coordinating with the pro-Western forces, undercuts them and alienates the volunteer fighters under their command. The US won’t even examine their plans for tackling the Islamic State. Instead, we’re seeing classic counter-terrorism tactics, with no consultation of the ground forces.

6. Don’t get swayed by your domestic agenda but focus on the situation on the ground. Why announce a plan to train new forces when there’s already a force in place? Here’s one theory: the Administration is trying to deflect criticism, by showing the public it’s doing something. But that training plan, coupled with the withdrawal of support for the forces now fighting, could be totally counterproductive.

And why make Kobani the main theater of war when the battle cannot be won except with outside ground forces, which the Kurdish rulers of Kobani reject? The bombing started on the eve of US midterm elections, giving the impression that this was an attempt to avoid a humiliating defeat before TV cameras. I have the impression a similar calculation is at work in providing just enough aid to rebel forces to hold Aleppo, whose fall would be a big black eye for the Administration.

7. Turning diplomacy over to the UN, and not backing it up with the threat of the use of force, is a formula for empty discussions. It’s just like the six plus two talks in Afghanistan. Lakhdar Brahimi took on both tasks, and quit both in frustration.

8. Another lesson was the need to conduct policy openly, starting with the president himself, as well as the rest of his administration. Instead they have clamped a firm lid on discourse. I am sure they have a reason for suppressing discourse, but I can only speculate what it is.

9. War Crimes. Not since Bosnia and Rwanda has there been a war where the main protagonist has committed so many war crimes. Two hundred sortees on one weekend over Aleppo, dropping barrel bombs. But the administration is silent. Clearly this government doesn’t plan to act. But should they deny self-defense to protect civilians in Aleppo? A no fly zone may no longer be realistic. But air defenses to knock down Assad’s helicopters with barrel bombs would be.

Silence in the face of crimes against humanity could cost us and everyone for the disregard of humanitarian law is a signal that impunity is tolerated. The US, for better or worse, is the gatekeeper, and the alarm-sounder for war crimes; and the US silence is going to be read as approbation.

10. And finally, we haven’t learned the lessons of refugees. 308 have now been accepted, most had applied before the Syrian crisis began. So there’s no way Americans can get a close up view of real people who have real stories to tell. And I should mention 3 million children, who are now going without school. They’ve lost their childhood. How do they grow up?


My critique of US policy in Afghanistan is of course 20-20 hindsight, but if we learned from our past errors, we might gain 20-20 foresight. There’s not much of a public debate. The inaccessibility of high officials to discuss what’s going on the ground — which the administration seems to be deliberately trying to avoid — is an extremely worrying sign. I hope my quick review of Afghan history will provide some material for that debate before we wind up in another worst-case scenario. Just remember, 70 per cent of the American people think ISIS is the number one threat.

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One thought on “Lessons learned and forgotten”

  1. Thanks Dr Swever for taking the time and effort to repost and discuss Mr. Gutman’s analysis. Based upon my own observations in the field, US policy has been flawed due to being driven by altogether too much by DOD and Intelligence, perhaps too closely linked to US military-industrial complex weapons makers input, in our “.. drive for a stable political solutions”. My biggest line of questions for the American public fall under are Why “… it is indispensable to subordinate the use of force to political ends.” as well as helping the American public better understand and get involved in helping to create policy related to points 7, 8, 9 and 10.

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