walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: January 21, 2013
What the Algerian Attack Was Really About: Algeria

Over the past week or so, I have had recourse to critique the American mainstream, elite press for not doing justice to the situation in the Sahel on behalf of their readers. Over the past few days, the Algerian angle of the evolving situation has come to the fore, and here the MSM has done even worse. To judge by what has gone into print, some of our journalists have failed to understand what the Algerian leadership is thinking and why. The reason for that failure seems clear enough: A horrendous and protracted civil war wracked Algeria from about 1992 to 1999 (2002 by some measures), a war that continues to haunt the Algerian leadership and to influence deeply how it behaves; yet in the first three-day’s worth of coverage of the In Amenas gas-plant hostage ordeal, this civil war was never even mentioned. This is a little like trying to explain the astrophysics of an eclipse without ever mentioning the moon.

Now why was this? Well, it’s possible, I suppose, that the reporters and their editors simply forgot about this civil war. The Western press never covered it well in the first place, and again the reason is clear: All sides, two and more Islamist factions and the military government, had a nasty habit of murdering nosy journalists, Algerian and foreign alike. More than 70 died during the course of the fighting. The sides hated each other and couldn’t agree on much, but they did tacitly share the view that foreigners had no business snooping around their war.

Then again, maybe the reporters didn’t forget; maybe they never knew about the Algerian civil war in the first place. Maybe they’re too young to remember it; it started twenty years ago, after all.

But I don’t think so. The reason has more to do with what cognitive psychologists call the evoked set. This is just another, fancier way of saying that we see what we expect to see, and we disattend (pardon the jargon) what does not fit with our framing of the situation.  Hence, when we go to the airport to meet someone, we often “see” that person in several faces before the authentic individual shows up.  Similarly, if we’re sure that our range of expectations excludes a particular outcome, we will not see evidence of it until too late—rather like what happened to Admiral Kimmel at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Application here? The press has been strongly primed over the past week or so to see things framed by “Mali” and by “al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM)” and by a war being waged against it and other Islamist militias by France with ECOWAS troops. They are not expecting or looking for anything framed by “Algeria”, so it simply does not occur to them that a civil war that has been over since before even Facebook was invented—imagine that!—could possibly matter. It matters, and that’s not all that matters here.

Now, I don’t claim to be a world-class expert on Algeria, but you don’t have to be to get the gist. It’s enough to have paid professional attention to the MENA region as a whole for about the past forty years, which I think fairly describes my comparative advantage relative to the garden-variety newspaper reporter. So let me briefly go over the basics for those may be interested. To begin we need to get the frame right:

The In Amenas episode was not about Mali or even about terrorism per se. It was about Algeria. That doesn’t mean it has nothing to do with Mali or the Sahel or with AQIM, but it’s important to get the causal arrows straight.  So now let’s do exactly that.


The Algerian civil war was the first major blowback from the mujahedin war against the Red Army in Afghanistan. Returning Algerians from that fight, which ended in success in 1989, swelled the then-small cadre of Islamists in Algeria, and indeed at that time were often called “Afghan Arabs” after their veteran status. In 1991 the Algerian military, which ruled the country wearing street clothes and fronting a government political party (FLN), called an election, and, to their shock, lost it to the Islamic Salvation Front—the FIS. With support from France and the United States, the military annulled the election results, banned the FIS and jailed most of its leaders. By 1992, in response, the Islamists had formed an armed opposition and the shooting started. To make a formidably long and complicated story short, the Islamist side split into what turned out to be unstable factions that soon began fighting each other (the MIA and GIA versus the reformed FIS, now the AIS), to the government’s initial glee. But things soon got out of hand, with one of the Islamist factions (GIA) engaging in massacres of entire villages. This insane chiliastic violence gave the Algerian civil war its gruesome quality; at least 100,000 people, most of them complete innocents and all of them Muslims, died over the core 7-8 year period of the civil war. Some estimate that twice that number perished. This puts the only-nearly two-year total for Syria, so far, of 60,000 in some perspective.

Starting in around 1993, and through toward the most horrific years of the war (circa 1996-98), the French and U.S. governments concluded and remained convinced that the Algerian military could not win this war. After having had a hand in causing it by supporting the military’s annulment of the 1991 election, Paris and Washington now urged compromise. The senior Algerian generals, whose seminal experience had been the very bloody war for independence against France, believed otherwise. They doubled down, becoming utterly ruthless in an unshakable determination to win. They refused all compromise and they sustained as well as inflicted great pain—and they won. The main Islamist opposition group called it quits in 1999, but fringe groups, one called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) continued fighting until by 2002 the military had either tracked and killed them, or they managed to flee the country.

And here, folks, in the GSPC is the origin of AQIM (born as such in 2007). That is where Moukhtar Belmoukhtar, the supposed mastermind behind the In Amena raid, came from. He was a fighter in the mujahideen war in Afghanistan; he returned to his native country and fought in the Algerian civil war; and he escaped the country before the army could track him down and kill him, as it did so many of his compatriots. (I have been unable to determine for sure if he is an ethnic Arab or an ethnic Berber or a kindred but still distinct ethnic Tuareg, but his place of birth, in deep southern Algeria, suggests Tuareg. It’s noteworthy that none of the journalists who have written about him in recent days has bothered to establish this not-exactly-trivial fact.)

Over time AQIM became more than just a band of Algerian Islamist exiles with bases here and there, including one in northern Mali. But that is still largely its core, which explains why most of the attackers at In Amenas were Algerian nationals. Moreover, it was obvious from the moment the scale and sophistication of the attack became known that this was not a near-spontaneous response to the entry of French troops into combat in Mali, as the attackers’ spokesmen have claimed. This took a lot of planning, and it’s now clear that the attackers had good knowledge of the physical layout of the plant and the grievances of some of the Algerian workers in it.  Some claim that this attack’s source goes all the way back to al-Qaeda central, in Waziristan and Quetta, in which case, if it proves true, it is a more serious matter than had it been a one-off effort from a more or less autonomous, small cell. Be that as it may, In Amenas is still far better seen as a continuation of the Algerian civil war in a post-Libyan War setting, where these exiled Algerian Islamists have more money, more and better weapons, and more allies than they could have dreamed possible back in 2002, or even in 2010.

Is that all? Not quite. Now we know something about the attackers, but we need to know a bit more about the Algerian government to complete the background necessary to make sense of what has happened.

To properly set the stage for what I am about to tell you, dear reader, let me point out that the Algerian leadership is a stark atavism. There was a time when “progressive”, “socialist” and avowedly secular military elites lorded over huge swaths of the Arab world. These elites were invariably friendly with the Soviet Union in the Cold War parallax that defined the region’s geopolitics, with the conservative monarchies and a few outliers (Tunisia, Lebanon) more or less associated—one should not say allied—with the West, and in most cases the United States by indirection. Egypt before mid-1972, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Algeria and, for a time, Southern Yemen all muscled up with a Soviet-supplied and trained order of battle. Of these “progressive” military governments, Algeria is the only one left aside from the Assad regime in Syria, which is reeling on its last legs.

The present Algerian leadership consists of the very last remnants of the old guard that experienced the war of independence against France, and the generation right behind it experienced the civil war. Taken together, then, this leadership is as battle-hardened, ruthless and cold-blooded a group of guys as can be found anywhere. This is not a kind and gentle military that holds regular sensitivity-training sessions; it’s a military that uses eight bullets when two will do nicely, and that has no qualms about feeding still wriggling bodies through the wood chipper. They are also very proud and exquisitely sensitive to any slight coming from the general direction of foreigners. One former U.S. Air Force helicopter pilot (who of course will not be named) involved in a limited training mission has had this to say: “. . . the Algerians . . . . proved to be completely inflexible and almost hostile to the idea of working with us. Could it be their past experiences with the French or just garden-variety suspicion of the U.S. and our intentions?” Answer, friend: Both and neither. Yes, experience and suspicion figure in, but these people are just professional hard-asses and, as I say, they’re proud of it.

That said, they are also these days, I suspect, growing more fearful by the month. They are, as I say, the last of the breed of independence-era Arab military “progressives”, whose legitimacy formula has long since passed its sell-by date. If you look at a map of which parts of the country voted which way back in 1991, you can see that the government party won nowhere outside of the capital, and that the entire Tuareg south was disaffected both from the government and from the Arab Islamist opposition. Since 1991-92 the Amazigh—the Berbers—have also made their ticked-off presence very well known. And the general rise of Islamist energies with the so-called Arab Spring—particularly in neighboring Tunisia and in Egypt, but also in next-door Morocco—has probably got the Algerian leadership feeling not only somewhat antique but also increasingly isolated. At least some of them have to fear that if there is a second coming of their civil war, they might lose this time. These guys are so proud that they would never show fear publicly. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t down there somewhere in their guts.

And that, it seems to me, goes far to explain why they reacted to the In Amenas attack the way they did: quickly, and with deadly force. As I said in my second Flogging Mali post: “What the Algerians are saying, in effect, is we’re not going to come after you if you leave us alone, but if you mess with us we will show no mercy.” Well, just the next day, on the front page of the January 18 New York Times, I found evidence for my interpretation. The government spokesman, a fellow named Mohammed Said Oublaid, said as follows: “Those who think we will negotiate with terrorists are delusional.”  Just in case the Western journalists present did not get the point, Oublaid added: “Those who think we will surrender to their blackmail are delusional.”

It’s not hard to imagine the scene behind the curtain. The senior generals tell Oublaid to go out there and make one point, and one point only: We are focused on deterring more attacks against our country, period. And that had the merit of being true. The Algerian leadership did not give a flying fork about the hostages, Algerian or foreign. The way they see it, you play hard-ass and maybe a few dozen people die; you go soft and a new plague of civil war will kill tens of thousands. The bleating of some foreign governments about how the Algerians failed to employ standard counter-terrorist protocol—stun grenades and tear gas to help avoid needless bloodshed—completely missed the point. Maybe the Algerians know how to do that sort of thing and maybe they don’t, but it doesn’t matter because in this instance they wanted to shed blood. They wanted to look as unsentimental as a frozen brick, because that was the way to deliver the message they wished to send. And send it they did.

The Japanese government, in particular, seemed totally clueless on this point. Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pleaded publicly and privately for the Algerians to put innocent life above all else. That included negotiations with the attackers, as necessary, and lots and lots of time passing so that cooler heads might prevail. Now this is revealing, and not merely for the sake of general knowledge. Mr. Abe is something of a hard-ass himself by Japanese standards. Just hours after his election he began jutting his finger at the Chinese over the islands’ dispute the two countries are having. But here he is, in the Algerian ordeal, showing the whole world how extremely risk-averse and humanitarian-sensitive Japanese society has become. If Abe means to bump chests with China and strut around the East Asian roost, his supine demeanor in the Algerian business amounts to a case of diplomatic malpractice. The Chinese leadership understands exactly what their counterparts in Algeria are all about, and they are bound now to see Abe as an amateur bluffer. This is quite dangerous.


You will note that not all governments publicly criticized the Algerians. France and the United States held back compared to the Japanese and the British. Again, the reason is clear—and on this point we’ve actually been treated to some decent journalism: from Craig Whitlock in the Washington Post on January 19, and from Michael Gordon in today’s New York Times. The reason is that we have a lot of business with the Algerians and so do the French, whereas the Japanese and the Brits really do not.

What does that business look like?  Well, the U.S. government and the French government to some degree have managed to cooperate with the Algerians on the counter-terror agenda for some time now. We have some of the same enemies, and that accounts for the outcome. But the Algerian leadership is extremely wary of allowing any hint of that cooperation to go public because it contradicts its anti-colonialist image and it energizes Algerian Islamists eager to paint the government as infidel poodles of the Americans. So it’s not realistic for U.S. officials to expect the Algerian government to make nice with us in public, and it’s counterproductive to press the point.

Does that mean it has been foolish for U.S. officials since April, along with their French associates, to try to persuade the Algerians to cooperate in dealing with the problem in northern Mali. No. Don’t forget: While the Algerians will, in my view, never march along side the French and the French flag in a former French colony, the original plan, which has since fallen way behind the curve of the Islamist surge, called for a very low to vanishing French profile in favor of a Malian and ECOWAS effort. It was not unrealistic to reason that the Algerians might throw in with that, since it’s a problem for them, too. And it was something worth wanting because the Algerian military is serious, while the Malian and ECOWAS forces are not and were never going to be. But it turned out to be a bridge too far, in large part because the Algerians did not trust the Malian government’s intentions or capabilities, and for good reason. Now it’s beyond the pale of consideration.

But there’s more to it than that. Consider overflight rights. Both we and the French want to overfly Algeria. It’s important tactically to the French flying from France toward Mali, and it’s important to us for intelligence collection purposes. The Algerians refuse to give carte blanche in that regard; they insist that every request be considered on a case-by-case basis, and they usually demand that we share whatever intelligence we collect while loitering in their airspace. This is a problem, because Congress has obliged the U.S. military to deny such requests if there is any realistic possibility that a non-democratic government will use the information against its domestic political enemies. This is of a kind with Congressional insistence that we immediately cut off all military aid and liaison if a government experiences an anti-democratic coup, as happened in Mali not that long ago. These are unfortunate constraints. In the first instance they help to blind us, and in the second they force us to sever contact with others just when we often need it most.

These naïve insinuations into security policy dramatically underestimate the dynamic complexity of any significant bilateral relationship, our “business” with Algeria being only one of several dozen. Every one of these relationships has lots of moving parts, and the orchestration of words and deeds pertaining thereto should be left to professionals insofar as possible. That doesn’t mean the pros don’t make mistakes, don’t have their own blind spots, and don’t always play nicely in the interagency sandbox—no one will ever catch me making a claim like that. But a mélange of 535 Congressman and Senators variously holding forth on such matters, trying to make themselves look noble regardless of consequences, is no way to improve things.


After the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, I noted that the success of that operation (from the attackers’ perspective, of course) was worrisome because it illustrated how easy it was to attack symbolically potent but poorly defended targets with focused military assets of but modest capacity. Of course that applied to other consulates and embassies, and residences and so on; but it also applied to examples of non-governmental presence, and not just American non-governmental presence. So was the Benghazi attack a model for the In Amenas attack? Not exactly; in the Benghazi case there is no evidence that taking hostages was ever part of the plan. But we may learn—since some of the In Amenas attackers have apparently been captured alive—that it served as an inspiration if not as an exact model.

Finally for now, everyone seems to be content to call the In Amenas attack an example of terrorism. Is it?

The definition of terrorism, according to the State Department, the United Nations, and all standard texts on the subject, is—if I may paraphrase—the use of deadly force by non-state actors against random civilians for the purpose of generating terror, the better to trick the target government into doing counterproductive things in response. Was the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi full of random civilians? Is a gas-plant in southern Algeria full of random civilians?

It’s clear than when Islamists attack uniformed military personnel on foreign soil—as with the attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor, for example—that fits no one’s definition of terrorism. Targets of high symbolic profile, like a diplomatic mission or a major economic asset, are hardly random—it’s not like setting off a bomb in a movie theater or a suicide bomber driving an explosives-laden truck into a vegetable market. But they’re not legitimate military targets either, so these are ambiguous cases. Since we do ourselves no favors when our loose language enables others to nefariously counter-define a terrorist as just a freedom fight from another point of view, I would prefer to call these kinds of attacks examples of insurgency—in this case conducted by irregular, out-of-uniform assailants who therefore do not qualify for prisoner-of-war treatment under the Geneva Conventions (ah, but that’s another story). It will be interesting to see what the Algerians do with their captives. Not interesting for the captives, mind you……..

show comments
  • Pave Low John

    Good overview of recent Algerian history, including the analysis of how it fits into the bigger picture of the Trans-Sahal. I also liked the observation about the U.S. government’s policy of cutting off all aid, military and otherwise, to any country that experiences a coup. Some friends of mine were getting ready to make an official trip to Mauritania back in 2008, but that nation had a military coup one week before the team was scheduled to depart. The mission was immediately canceled, with no idea of when or how it might be rescheduled. I have no idea what the overall impact was on U.S. foreign policy but I can’t imagine that it made anyone at the State Department (or DoD) very happy to flush all that prep work down the toilet.

    With Algeria getting even more ruthless with their domestic foes, it will be very interesting to see if the U.S. reverses course and returns to a version of the ‘realpolitik’ of the old Cold War days, when we weren’t that picky about our allies against the Soviets. As the saying went back then, “Sure, the leaders we support (Ferdinand Marcos or Park Chung-hee, for example) are SOBs but at least they’re our SOBs. That might seem the way to go, especially when fighting groups like AQIM or Boko Haram, but it might also backfire in the long term. Hard to imagine a one-size-fits-all strategy to address that issue, however.

    But this Algeria angle does highlight one thing. The U.S. needs to stop changing its mind every three weeks about what our national goals and priorities should be in Africa and all the other different regions of the world. It must drive the national leadership in some of these countries crazy trying to figure out what the hell we really want. I know it really pisses off some of the people who work in our embassies overseas, they are the ones who have to try and implement this constantly mutating mess of a national strategy.

    If there was only some figure in the United States government who could provide the necessary leadership on this issue…but that would be crazy talk, right?

  • Pingback: Adam Garfinkle At The American Interest: ‘Flogging Mali Again (and the Attack in Algeria too)’ | Chris Navin()

  • WigWag

    “The Algerian civil war was the first major blowback from the mujahedin war against the Red Army in Afghanistan. Returning Algerians from that fight, which ended in success in 1989, swelled the then-small cadre of Islamists in Algeria, and indeed at that time were often called “Afghan Arabs” after their veteran status.” (Adam Garfinkle)

    If Adam Garfinkle is correct that the Algerian Civil War and all of the terrible consequences that it had for Algerians “was the first major blowback from the mujahedin war against the Red Army in Afghanistan” then partial but significant responsibility for the series of events leading from the civil war itself to the recent In Amenas gas-plant hostage ordeal can be laid at the feet of Zbignew Brzezinski.

    After all, Brzezinski has boasted that he and President Carter are responsible for tricking the Soviets into invading Afghanistan. Here’s the precise quote from Brzezinski from an interview that he gave to a French newsmagazine (“Le Nouvel Observateur”) on January 15, 1998; page 76.

    “According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahedeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention… We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.”

    The rest as they say is history. The Soviets (induced in part by Brzezinski’s ploy) invaded and in the immediate aftermath, President Carter cancelled American participation in the Moscow Olympics in retalation for undertaking an invasion that Brzezinski and Carter earnestly hoped they would undertake.

    Just as Brzezinski said he intended, the Soviets got “their Viet Nam.” Here’s the quote from the same Brzezinski interview,

    “That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, in substance: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.”

    How many Algerians died as a result of Brzezinski’s brilliant idea? How many victims of Radical Islam have been brutalized by a movement that had its genesis (at least in part) in the battles that the Afghan Mujahedeen fought with the incompetent communist regime the Soviets installed in Afghanistan and later, the Soviet army?

    How many Americans have died as a result?

    Adam Garfinkle has said that “…it is a completely false argument to say, for example, that U.S. support for Afghan mujahidin against the Red Army in Afghanistan was a bad idea because it eventually created 9/11.”

    He may or may not be right about that; but by his own admission, the Islamic insurgents or terrorists (or whatever he wants to call them), responsible for the nihilistic violence that killed between 100,000-200,000 Algerians got their training in the war that Zbignew Brzezinski lured the Russians into.

    Brzezinski is completely unapologetic about the consequences of his strategy. When asked by the interviewer from “Le Nouvel Observateur” whether he had any regrets at all, this is how he responded,

    “Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea…”

    Brzezinski went on to say,

    “What is most important to the history of the world…some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”

    Of course the Polish born Brzezinski was fiercely anticommunist. Growing up he had the opportunity to view the rise of the Nazis, the Hitler-Stalin pact and the communist takeover of Poland from a very close angle. Understandably his early experience must have contributed to his willingness to justify virtually any strategy in the fight against communism.

    But it seems that Brzezinski just can’t get himself as worked up about the plight of victims of radical Islam as he could about the heinous nature of the Soviet system. The Afghan victims, the Algerian victims, the Jewish victims, the Christian victims, the secular victims and even the Shia victims of Sunni extremism just don’t seem to stir his moral center as much as the victims of communism did. In fact, Brzezinski doesn’t seem to even think that an organized, militant, transnational form of Sunni extremism even exists. At the very least, as far back as 1998, he dismissed any suggestion of the possibility as ludicrous.

    When asked in 1998 “if Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today” Brzezinski responded,

    “Nonsense! It is said that the West had a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid. There isn’t a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries.”

    It seems to me that to understand the current reign of extremism in the Islamic world, it might make sense to not only examine the history of internicine conflicts of one stripe or another in the countries that comprise that community, but also to examine the role played by the Cold Warriors in the West. Brzezinski may be a darling of the left today because he is so highly critical of Israeli policy, but he was the biggest cold warrior of them all.

    Talk about blow back.

  • K2K

    Always worth reading, but even better to read WigWag again.

    History is always connecting dots.

    I usually blame British and French mapmakers for so many post-colonial conflicts, but I would really like for Brzezinski to be consigned to a closet somewhere in … Turkmenistan.

  • Kavanna

    Actually, it’s not that clear that the post-1989 Islamic movements were all that shaped by the Afghan war, except indirectly. There were a lot of claims of having fought, but not much record of doing more than fundraising and what amounts to marketing. The Afghans bore the overwhelming brunt of the fighting in the 1980s, with a handful of non-Afghan fighters.

    What is true is that certain Islamic forces, like the ISI in Pakistan and the Salafists in Saudi Arabia, took advantage of favorable atmospherics to raise money and awareness — in the Saudi case — and to inject themselves more and more aggressively into trying to control the Afghan resistance — in the Pakistani case. The atmospherics were pleasant for the US, as the Iranian revolution had just happened, and it was nice for Islamic militants to direct their hatred towards the Soviet Union, at least for a while.

    The roots of these Islamic movements, in their current form, date from the 1970s, although the MB-inspired format dates all the way back to the 1920s. The Iran-Iraq and Afghan wars diverted all their attention for a while, though, so that the anti-American and anti-Western thrust of these movements was obscured.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      I never said that the Afghan War “shaped” the Algerian civil war–never used the verb. It was a significant influence, as were other, more local factors. Just a few dozen returnees from Afghanistan can make a lot of difference in some environments, but I never made a strong causal argument of A to B directly. Obviously, unifactoral arguments for complex social phenomena make no sense. You have “over-read” what I actually said.

  • C. Philips

    The war in Afghanistan played a huge role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the most evil regimes ever to exist, with far more dead to its “credit” than the Nazis. To denounce supporting Islamists against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan is like denouncing support for the Soviet Union in the war against the Nazis.

    Sometime after the Soviet collapse, buried in the inside pages of a newspaper, I saw reports on a large scale Soviet biological weapons program. It was fairly close to being ready for use. Nobody had any serious defense against it, and, even without actual use, it would have disastrously changed the balance of power. The collapse of the Soviet Union apparently came just barely in time to avoid utter catastrophe for freedom world wide.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      This is correct, and stated in calm analytical language. The comments to which this reply is directed are not.

      • L. Wei

        I think the comment was more of a response to what the other commentators were saying, more so than what the article quoted.

  • WigWag

    C Philips and Adam Garfinkle are correct; the Soviet Union posed a massive threat and the decision by Carter and Brzezinski to lure the Soviets into invading Afghanistan was perfectly in keeping with the manner in which the U.S. and U.S.S.R. dealt with each other during the Cold War. The heinous nature of the Soviet Empire may well have justified the strategy Brzezinski recommended to Carter although other options were available. It would be patently unfair to blame Brzezinski for his failure to foresee that U.S. support for the Mujahedeen would, many years later, be one of several proximate causes for the rise of violent, transnational Sunni extremism. Only a clairvoyant could have foreseen that.

    What Brzezinski can be blamed for is his unwillingness to recognize the consequences of the strategy he recommended to Carter as unforeseen as those consequences may have been. In the “Le Nouvel Observateur” interview that I cited above, Brzezinski ridiculed the notion that there was or might ever be a transnational Sunni terrorist movement. He said,

    “Nonsense!…That is stupid. There isn’t a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries.”

    The interview was conducted in the late 1990s, but to this day Brzezinski is reluctant to concede that radical Islam poses a threat to Western values and freedoms that is in any way analogous to the threat posed by communism. Obviously communism and Radical Islam are entirely different in scope and nature, but each poses a serious threat to the West that Brzezinski stubbornly refuses to acknowledge. Whether he is willing to concede it or not, the strategy that he recommended to President Carter became a significant factor in facilitating the rise of radical Islam and those of us in the West are still living with the consequences of that decision today.

    Brzezinski can also be blamed for the entirely different views he had about the victims of Soviet communism compared to the views he has about today;s victims of radical Islam. He viewed the victims of communism as so severely put-upon that virtually any behavior by the West could be countenanced if it helped free tens of millions of innocent victims living in the Warsaw Pact nations. Obviously he feels differently about the victims of radical Islam; at best Brzezinski’s strategy for dealing with violent Islamists is benign neglect; at worst, its appeasement. He certainly wasn’t inclined to appease the Soviets. He certainly was far less interested in attempting to reason with communists than he is with Islamists.

    There are other interesting aspects of Brzezinski’s career. Today his ideological brethren can be found in the small coterie of realist foreign policy Mandarins who have largely been marginalized by both political parties. It is fascinating to reflect on the ideological journey Brzezinski has made. With the exception of George Kennan, no important foreign policy advisor in modern times did more to effectuate a realist foreign policy than Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was responsible for moving the passionately anti communist Richard Nixon in the direction of opening American relations with China and pursuing detente with Soviets. Zbignew Brzezinski did more to obliterate the Nixon/Kissinger strategy of detente than anyone. In fact, the strategy that he recommended to Carter; luring the Soviets into invading Afghanistan, put the final dagger though the heart of detente.

    It is also interesting to reflect on how Brzezinski’s upbringing effected the foreign policy views he had during the Cold War and the views that he has today. Brzezinski was born in Poland in 1928; his father was an important figure in the Polish Government of the time. It’s little wonder that he developed a passionate hatred first for the Nazis and later for the communists; the young Brzezinski had a bird’s eye view of what they did to his nation and to the surrounding nations.

    It has become a preoccupation of the popular press to perseverate on how the influence that Benzion Netanyahu had on his son Benjamin effects Bib Netanyahu’s policies today; there have been scores of stories on the subject. In light of this, it seems equally pertinent to wonder how the milieu in which Brzezinski was raised affected not only his view of communism in the 1970s and 1980s but also his current views about Israel and the Middle East. Did the atmosphere he grew up in Poland affect more than his views on the Soviets? Did the atmosphere in pre-World War II Poland influence how Brzezinski thinks about Israel in the 21st century? If we can speculate about the effect of Benzion on Bibi, surely we can speculate about that.

    One problem with this post by Adam Garfinkle is that he buries the lead. You have to get to his eighth paragraph to get to his main theme; “blow back.” He mentions three examples; (1) the blow back which provided a disincentive for Algerian Government officials weaned in an atmosphere of anti colonialism to cooperate with former colonial masters during the recent hostage taking crisis; (2) the blow back from terrorists in Algeria (and elsewhere) weaned on the violent stew of hatred that got its start with the Brzezinski-induced Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and (3) the blow back that the Japanese Prime Minister might expect from the Chinese as a result of his feckless attitude towards the Algerian hostage situation.

    All that I am suggesting is that the difficulties the world is experiencing in Mali, Algeria, Nigeria and so many other places can partially be attributed to another source of blow back; the blow back emanating from the decisions that Cold Warriors like Brzezinski made more than 40 years ago.

    Brzezinski’s unwillingness to come to terms with this brings him no credit. In fact, its par for the course.

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  • Pave Low John

    I’ll have to be honest here, I’ve never been a big fan of “blowback” theories. Too many of them imply that since Y happened sometime after X, then X caused Y. As in, “The U.S. supported the mujahideen against the Soviets. Since former mujahideen are a large part of Al Qaida, then the U.S. supported the people who planned and conducted the attacks on 9/11.” The unanswered accusation being, of course, that if we had just minded our own business and done nothing to help the mujahideen, then 9/11 wouldn’t have happened. This, incidentally, is a very arrogant viewpoint, it assumes that the entire world revolves around the decisions and actions of U.S. policymakers, as opposed to the most realistic notion that people and groups around the planet having their own internal reasons and rationales for the actions they take.

    A history professor of mine sometimes talks about his intense dislike for “alternate history,” especially the speculative stuff written for entertainment. In his eyes, we can’t say what would have happened if, for instance, the South had won at Gettysburg because the South did not, in fact, win that battle. Any other interpretation of Gettysburg is pure guesswork, in his eyes. I guess I have a similar attitude towards this whole notion of “blowback”, it all strikes me as a higher form of Monday morning quarterbacking.

    Now, I’m not saying that actions don’t have consequences, they obviously do. However, in the field of international politics, a lot of the big decisions, especially with regards to national security, have a bunch of unintended consequences attached to them. But you can take that idea to some very weird extremes. I’ve heard people argue that if Hitler hadn’t rearmed Germany and attacked the Soviet Union, then Stalin would have eventually attacked with a massive Soviet army and conquered all of Europe in the name of Communism. Seriously, how the hell do you prove something like that? The answer is, you don’t, you just throw it out there and hope it sounds semi-coherent.

    Which leads back to Algeria and Mali. Will there be “blowback” if the U.S. gets heavily involved in Mali? Maybe, maybe not. Will there be “blowback” if the U.S. doesn’t get involved in Mali? Again, maybe, maybe not. If it sounds like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, it is, in some ways. That’s why most ambassadors and senior diplomats have grey hair.

    The bottom line for me: Both action and inaction can have unforeseen consequences. So try and elect (or appoint) non-idiots to run things. It at least makes you feel like you tried your best when bad things happen, regardless of whatever solutions your “best and brightest” came up with.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      Oh brother, not again…..

      First let me refer you to two sources. The first is to look up the concept of “field theory” as propagated by Professor Kurt Lewin. There you will find a theoretical and methodological basis for much of your comment. Second, let me refer you to one of my own favorite essays, now nearly a decade old: “Foreign Policy Immaculately Conceived,” Policy Review, #120 (Aug./Sept. 2003). In this essay I make pretty much the same points you do, with examples.

      Which explains my exasperation: you are now the second commentator to vastly over-interpret what I actually wrote. With respect to the influence of the Afghan mujahedin war on events in Algeria, I never used the word “shape”, I never used the word “cause”, I never used the word “determine”, or any other such word. If you go back and read it carefully, you will see that all I assert is that there was an influence. Of course there was also an influence from the Iranian Revolution, and there was an influence from two dozen other factors, most of them local.

      In the world I inhabit intellectually, no serious person makes a “strong” blowback argument. No one who has done archival history and no one who has served in government is naïve enough to make such arguments, no matter how popular they are among the inexperienced, the simpleminded and the tendentious. I see now that I should never have used the word “blowback” at all.

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  • D. Fodor

    While it^s true that one cannot predict the future, one has to project into it in making national policy. That`s what Zbig did when he counseled blind-siding the Soviets into their Afghan misadventure.It then fell to succeeding administrations to deal with the side-effect of the blind-siding,namely controlling the intentions
    of that newly -formed power within Afghanistan, the American-armed Taliban. This was not done, which gave impetus to a gathering Islamic insurgency throughout Islamistan.It`s what we got for not persevering in a acogent foreign policy.

  • Pave Low John

    My apologies to everyone, I was inadvertantly painting with a wide brush there. My comment about ‘blowback’ versus ‘unintended consequences was meant to be directed at the fellow commenter who button-holed Brzezenski, and his fellow Cold Warriors, as the hidden cause of all our woes for the past 40 years. If there is proof that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan because we “lured” them there, I have yet to see it. The Soviets had their own reasons for that course of action. The same applies to Vietnam, the U.S. wasn’t lured there by some devious plan of the Chicoms or the Soviets, we had our own reasons and rationales for that particular mistake.

    The spread of the “Islamic gunslingers” after Afghanistan is something I would label an “unintended consequence.” In my opinion, their spread would have eventually happened regardless of whether or not we had helped the Afghans (thru the ISI, of course). Even without a conflict against the Soviets, there was, and still is, plenty of Islamic combat against their enemies in the Balkans, Sudan, Kashmir, Palestine, Lebanon, etc… Afghanistan was a big source of experience and talent but it wasn’t the only source. This kind of thing has been building up ever since petrodollars started transforming Iran, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East back in the 1970s.

    So, I am in absolute agreement with Dr. Garfinkle with regards to using the “B” word. There are much better words, such as influence, impact or effect, when talking about the linkages in international affairs. I’ll be a little more careful in my future posts, use some better proofreading and try to keep the misunderstandings (and attendant exasperation) to a minimum.

  • WigWag

    “In the world I inhabit intellectually, no serious person makes a “strong” blowback argument. No one who has done archival history and no one who has served in government is naïve enough to make such arguments, no matter how popular they are among the inexperienced, the simpleminded and the tendentious. I see now that I should never have used the word “blowback” at all.” (Adam Garfinkle)

    In this post, Adam Garfinkle makes the “blowback argument not once, not twice, but three times. While he may regret using the word, it perfectly describes the relationship he cites between the war the Mujahadeen fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan and the role of Islamists extremists in the Algerian civil war. In fact, he not only calls it “blowback,” he calls it the “first major blowback.” Despite his insistence that experts in the intellectual space he occupies don’t believe in the concept of “blowback” the only reason for him to mention that it was the first case of “blowback” is if he thought there were other cases of “blowback.” The clear implication of his description of the “blowback” as major is that he also thinks that there were other examples of “blowback” that we’re less than major.

    In fact, Garfinkle goes on to describe two other examples of “blowback” in this post. The blowback against the European colonial enterprise which discouraged the current Algerian Government from cooperating with the West during the recent crisis and the “blowback” the Japanese Prime Minister might expect from the Chinese as a result of his feckless behavior during the recent crisis.

    One last thought; if in the world that Adam Garfinkle no serious person takes the concept of “blowback” seriously, maybe this tells us everything we need to know about the very serious people who pass themselves off as experts in international affairs. Perhaps, given half a chance the “inexperienced, simpleminded and tendentious” would perform in a superior manner compared to the Mandarins.

    They could hardly do any worse.

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  • Smain

    I have always noticed this in the West, apart from France. When a subject is about Algeria, commentators find their ways, bifurcate or veered off to another country to talk about.

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