What Afghanistan can teach us about arming Syria's rebels
You probably already know the story of Charlie Wilson's war, but if not, here's a brief refresher: The Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The Afghans, stubborn and proud, were not thrilled about their invaders and sought to fight back. On the other side of the world, a charismatic, hard-drinking, handsome Texas congressman named Charlie Wilson read with interest about the Soviet actions in Afghanistan and saw an opportunity for the United States to promote freedom, defend the weak, and bleed the Soviet empire all at the same time. Wilson decided to make the Afghan "freedom fighters" his cause, and he used his position on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense to see to it that the U.S. sent covert aid to the mujahideen.
And so the United States began sending money and, indirectly, weapons to mujahideen leaders like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The program was an unqualified success. The Soviets sustained untold losses, the Afghans regained control of their country, and the U.S. did not have to send a single solider into harm's way.
Then this happened: The nation the U.S. helped liberate fell into the hands of the Taliban, who gave refuge to bin Laden and al Qaeda, which then declared and carried out war against the United States. Leaders like Hekmatyar allied with the Taliban and continue to pose a threat to the United States and U.S. forces stationed abroad to this day.
Now, consider America's current dilemma on Syria. For the last 40 or so years, the world has become used to watching various members of the Assad family ruthlessly wield power over Syria's citizens. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Syrian city of Hama served as something akin to the Syrian capital of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the early 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood began sponsoring terrorist attacks against government forces. This continued until February 1982, when Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad ordered his brother to take the Syrian army and crush the opposition. That month, the government killed as many as 40,000 of its own citizens.
In light of this history, no one should have been surprised when Hafez al-Assad's tyrannic son Bashar reacted to populist protests against the government by turning to what Tom Friedman famously called "Hama Rules," and ruthlessly began turning on its own citizens, killing tens of thousands in the name of preserving his own rule.
But Assad's stranglehold on the country seems genuinely threatened and, one way or another, it has become increasingly difficult to imagine him emerging with his power intact. That said, the rebels lack the weaponry to overtake the regime, and a stalemate has resulted.
With 70,000 Syrians dead and no signs of true progress, the world is looking west for the United States to do something to break the deadlock. The most obvious idea was, you guessed it, to arm the rebels, just as we did decades ago in Afghanistan.
At congressional hearings in February, we learned that several former Obama Cabinet members wanted to do just this. But the White House vetoed the idea, and not without good reason. Foremost in the minds of most White House officials were probably concerns about who would be getting these weapons. We now know that the Syrian opposition is filled with Islamists and has been infiltrated by al Qaeda. In other words, some number of individuals fighting for Syrian freedom also probably want to kill Americans.
But as time has gone on and more and more people die, the administration appears to be reconsidering its position. This week, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that the United States supports efforts of other Middle Eastern countries to arm the Syrian rebels. After meeting with the prime minister of Qatar, Kerry tried to reassure people that America was not arming our enemies again:
We did discuss the question of the ability to try to guarantee that it's going to the right people, and to the moderate Syrian opposition coalition, and I think it's really in the last months that that has developed as a capacity that we have greater confidence in.
The notion that the United States can be confident that supplies and weapons are falling into the right "moderate" hands is preposterous. From our experience in Afghanistan, we know that some of those supplies and some of those weapons will likely be turned against the U.S. one day. That does not mean we should not be assisting the rebels, but if there is an argument for supporting the rebels actively, the argument must be that America has a responsibility to take the side of the people and do whatever it can (within reason) to stop the slaughter in Syria, even if it means that we have to supply some bad guys that we will fight later.
To act as though these decisions are costless is irresponsible and counterproductive. Very few foreign policy issues have good solutions; there is only the least bad solution. Public discourse would do well to recognize this so that we might actually weigh the options as they are rather than as we wish them to be.