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?
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“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is correct, and stated in calm analytical language. The comments to which this reply is directed are not.
I think the comment was more of a response to what the other commentators were saying, more so than what the article quoted.
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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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.
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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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.
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.
“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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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.