Unintended Consequences

With kind permission, the following article which appeared on Alternet, online news site, on October 24, 2001, has been reposted here. It is an article about looking at the deeper history in the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy to understand wider aspects of terrorism. You can see the original article at http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=117961

Unintended Consequences
John Tirman, AlterNet
October 24, 2001

All wars have unintended consequences. No matter how cautious generals and political leaders are, war sets in motion waves of change that can alter the currents of history. More often, generals and political leaders are not troubled by long-term side effects; they are sharply focused on achieving a victory and war's aims. The result is that the unseen and unintended occur, at times as a bitter riptide which overwhelms the original rationales for engaging in armed combat.

This unpredictable cycle of action and reaction has thwarted U.S. policy in southwestern Asia for 50 years. It began with attempts to contain the Soviet Union and control the oil-rich fields of the Persian Gulf, and continues today in the popular assault in Afghanistan to destroy the al-Qa'ida terrorist network. In that half century, nearly every major initiative led to an unexpected and sometimes catastrophic reaction, for which new military remedies were devised, only again to stir unforeseen problems. The cycle, regrettably, may be repeating again.

The half-century history begins with CIA intrigue in Iran. The original spigot of Middle Eastern oil, Iran was long dominated by Britain and its oil company, British Petroleum. During World War II, strongman Reza Kahn, a Nazi sympathizer, was deposed by the British in favor of his son, Reza Shah, who in turn was shunted aside by the increasingly assertive parliament, the Majlis. In 1951, the Majlis elected as premier Mohammed Mossedegh, a nationalist reformer, who quickly sought control over Iran's oil wealth. The British, aghast at seeing 50 percent of BP's stake in Iran nationalized, sought his ouster, which the CIA provided in 1953. The Shah was reinstated and ruled with an iron fist, enabled by lavish American military aid.

The overthrow of Mossedegh remains a bitter memory for Iranians, and for Muslims more widely. While he was mainly a secular nationalist, even Islamic militants bewail his fate as another instance of Western interference and violence. In the years of the Shah's rule, many of the beleaguered reformers gravitated toward the ulama, the clerical class, who were relatively independent of the regime. So U.S. policy, which targeted the left as possible Soviet sympathizers or threats to oil interests, had the unintended effect of strengthening the political power and sophistication of the ulama.

By the 1970s, the Shah had become a self-styled regional power, flush with an unfettered flow of weaponry from the United States. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, neither a wallflower when it came to arming allies against perceived Soviet expansionism, had bluntly dismissed the Shah's pleas for military supremacy, but President Nixon embraced the Shah without restraint. Not only were the newest jet fighters and other advanced weaponry made available, but endless commercial ties were created, bringing thousands of Americans to Teheran. In 1971, the Shah's oil minister launched a cascade of price increases that rocked the American economy for nearly a decade, but it was American guns and products that the ever-richer Shah and his cohort really sought. A widely perceived decadence eroded whatever support the regime maintained, and by the late 1970s, the Shah was struggling against the now-familiar Muslim "street" that detested the Westernized elite and resented their fabulous oil riches in the midst of poverty. In 1979, the Shah abdicated and left Iran in a stew of disarray. It was only a matter of months before the Islamic Revolution came to full flower.

The Devastating Aftermath

Apart from the war in Vietnam, where millions died, the U.S. role in imposing and sustaining the Shah in Iran is perhaps the most invidious episode in America's foreign policy. The consequences are colossal, and malignancies continue to appear. Among the first of these was the change in Soviet policy toward the region, and specifically in Afghanistan.

The Soviets had meddled in Afghanistan for years, supporting its on-again, off-again communist party. A mildly pro-Soviet regime in Kabul was under intense pressure from Islamic radicals in the late 1970s, however, and Moscow kept a wary eye on the chaotic events in neighboring Iran. As Islamic militancy gained in the post-Shah governments in Teheran, the Kabul regime became less and less tenable. In the Kremlin, the Soviet leadership opposed intervention until the Afghan regime was in complete turmoil. A high-level Russian, Georgy Kornienko, notes it was Defense Minister D.F. Ustinov who finally convinced the others to intervene:

"The push to change his former point of view," he recalls in a memoir, "came from the stationing of American military ships in the Persian Gulf in the fall of 1979, and the incoming information about preparations for a possible American invasion of Iran, which threatened to cardinally change the military-strategic situation in the region to the detriment of the interests of the Soviet Union. If the United States can allow itself such things tens of thousands of kilometers away from their territory in the immediate proximity from the USSR borders, why then should we be afraid to defend our positions in the neighboring Afghanistan? -- this was approximately Ustinov's reasoning."

Politburo minutes from the entire previous year, now available, make clear the Soviet leaders' view that the Islamic militants were responsible for major attacks on government forces in Herat and elsewhere, and posed a threat, particularly with the active aid of the new Khomeini regime in Iran. The USSR, after all, included five Central Asia republics that were predominantly Muslim and bordered both Afghanistan and Iran. So the Shah's decades-long brutality gave rise to a broad Islamic movement in the region that, once in power in Teheran, not only alarmed Washington but also worried the much nearer Moscow.

The U.S. response to the collapse of the Shah, the triumph of Khomeini, and the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was to be played out tragically over the coming dozen years. Beginning with the Carter administration in the summer of 1979 -- months before the Soviets invaded -- the CIA provided arms and training to the Afghan opposition, the now infamous mujaheddin, first to provoke the Soviets to ill-considered action (as Carter advisor Zbigniew Bzrezinski has since revealed), and, after the December 1979 invasion, to make the Soviet stay in Afghanistan as inhospitable as possible. The large flow of arms and high-tech weapons like shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles did not come until 1986, by which time the Soviet leadership was firmly committed to departure. But a steady supply of Chinese-made AK-47s and Soviet-made weapons sent via Egypt provided the Islamic rebels with ample firepower to cripple the Soviets' aims in Afghanistan. It was, at the time, heralded as the wondrous victory of the "Reagan Doctrine," the strategy to arm "freedom fighters" against Soviet-leaning regimes in places like Angola and Nicaragua.

In all its venues and applications, the Reagan Doctrine had no qualms about the human costs of fomenting warfare, and most important for the present predicament, had no post-conflict strategy. The wages of war were high for all. Angola is still in a civil war more than 20 years later, with the Reagan-backed Savimbi fueling a self-aggrandizing conflict. Nicaragua is devastated, impoverished; the Contras, who battled the Sandinista regime, engaged in a drug trade that now swamps the region.

So, too, with Afghanistan: the Soviets left in 1989, defeated, but their departure also left Afghanistan a political minefield (to go along with the 10 million real land mines left by both sides in the war). Warlords battled with each other for nearly a decade until the most extreme faction, the Taliban, gained ascendency in the late 1990s and provided the home to the terrorists the United States now seeks to rout. In the meantime, the 3 million AK-47s sent to the mujaheddin have been located as far away as Liberia and Mozambique, the fodder for other wars and misery. Professor Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics wrote at the end of the 1980s:

"The most striking feature of the Reagan Doctrine was the way in which Washington itself came to be a promoter and organizer of terrorist actions. The mujaheddin in Afghanistan, UNITA in Angola and the Nicaraguan Contras were all responsible for abominable actions in their pursuit of "freedom" -- massacring civilians, torturing and raping captives, destroying schools, hospitals and economic installations, killing and mutilating prisoners ... Reagan was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people through terrorism."

At about the same time the Afghan resistance was being organized with U.S. aid, the Iraq regime of Saddam Hussein launched an attack on Iran to gain the oil fields on the gulf. This unprovoked act of war followed a period of quiet rapprochement with Washington (Bzrezinski again), and throughout the ensuing eight years of carnage -- in which one million people died -- the U.S. government increasingly helped Iraq, supplying it with more than $5 billion in financial credits, intelligence data, heavy equipment like trucks and political respectability. In most estimates, the U.S. "tilt" toward Baghdad was indispensable in saving Saddam from defeat.

The reason for the "tilt" was to frustrate the Islamic radicals in Teheran. This counter-Khomeini strategy extended beyond Iraq to countries like Turkey (where the U.S. approved a military coup in 1980 and suppression of Kurds, resulting in a civil war that has taken 30,000 lives) and Saudi Arabia (the keystone of U.S. oil policy, which led the U.S. to cast a blind eye on Saudi corruption and human-rights abuses). But Iraq, during the 1980s, was the centerpiece of this gambit.

After the catastrophic war of 1980-88, the new president, George Bush, embraced a policy of accommodation with Iraq. Within a few months of taking office, National Security Directive (NSD) 26 set the policy: "Access to Persian Gulf oil and the security of key friendly states in the area" were the two rationales of a strategy that would "pursue, and seek to facilitate, opportunities for U.S. firms to participate in the reconstruction of the Iraqi economy ... Also, as a means of developing access and influence with the Iraqi defense establishment, the United States should consider sales of non-lethal forms of military assistance." Said a senior official of NSD 26: "The concern over Iranian fundamentalism was a given." The Reagan-Bush accommodationist policy toward Iraq meant that Saddam received only a slap on the wrist or the murder, with chemical weapons, of 5,000 Kurds in the north at the end of the war with Iran.

But when Iraq occupied Kuwait in August 1990, the tilt fell over. The anti-Iran strategy, itself a response to the ruinous policy of supporting the Shah, now had unavoidable consequences: the long and devastating war in Afghanistan; intensified bloodshed in the Iran-Iraq war; the Kurdish massacres in Turkey and Iraq; an acceleration of Islamic militancy in Pakistan and civil war in Kashmir; and the subjugation of Kuwait and the threat to oil fields of Saudi Arabia. It has had other corollary effects, such as a tolerance of Syrian misdeeds, as well as devotion to the perversely corrupt and fragile House of Saud, as Seymour Hersh so chillingly reports in the Oct. 22 issue of the New Yorker. One must ask, in the wake of such an astounding set of catastrophes, if leaving Khomeini's Iran alone after 1980 would not have been less devastating in human terms, or whether Soviet "hegemony" over Afghanistan would not have been far better for Afghans, than 20 years of war, displacement and impoverishment.

The Next Catastrophe?

What will be next in this series of haunting mistakes? If this 50-year history teaches us anything, it is that aggressive military actions surely will earn a violent reaction, and that the pattern consistently displays three characteristics: large-scale human misery; the "involvement" of neighboring countries; and the amplification of militant Islamic sentiment around the world. In just a matter of weeks, all characteristics are now visible in the "war on terrorism."

While the responsibility for hundreds of thousands of starving or displaced Afghans cannot directly be laid at the feet of President Bush, the U.S. bombing campaign is the proximate cause. Panicky refugee flows are beginning to swell; on Oct. 19, the responsible U.N. agency said there are now refugees in the thousands and that conditions on the border with Pakistan are "chaotic." This steady stream of hungry and homeless is likely to enlarge if the bombing continues, civil war worsens or on-the-ground U.S. action escalates. By mid-November, food supplies will be harder to convey to "our" Afghans as winter sets in; she