The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Hillary misspeaks on AfPak

Hillary Clinton has made some interesting and fairly forthright statements on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, most notably on Islamabad's use of proxies against hostile regimes in Kabul and New Delhi. (the interview was originally given to ABC but, not surprisingly, was quickly picked up by Indian media).

Of particular note is her seemingly candid assessment that similar use of proxies by the US against the Soviets during the 1980s had backfired, the less-than-subtle implication being that Pakistan should learn from American mistakes and not do likewise.
“Part of what we are fighting against right now, the United States created. We created the Mujahideen force against the Soviet Union [in Afghanistan]. We trained them, we equipped them, we funded them, including somebody named Osama bin Laden. And it didn't work out so well for us.”
It's an interesting statement: honest and circumspect. The one problem is that it isn't actually true.

While it is undoubtedly true that America's covert action towards the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s created blowback, her very specific claims that the US trained, equipped and funded Osama Bin Laden's network are not accurate, if we are to believe the evidence presented by Steve Coll in Ghost Wars. Coll states that Bin Laden (who at the time was a financier and not an operator) never received money from the US, or from Pakistan for that matter. Indeed, he had plenty of his own.

In fact, Coll's research makes it very clear that the US funnelled its cash and weapons through Pakistan - more specifically the ISI - rather than directly fund and equip mujahideen units, bearing in mind that this was after all a covert war. Over time the CIA would begin to directly supply certain mujahideen - notably Ahmed Shah Massoud - who were marginalised by the ISI but Coll presents no evidence that the US directly funded Arab jihadists generally, or Osama Bin Laden specifically.

However, the trade-off for running a covert war through Pakistan was that the ISI decided which muj received the money and arms. These were invariably the most radical Islamists in Afghanistan, as the ISI argued they were the more effective fighters. Not only did this empower the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, it also meant that the ISI itself - and hardline elements within it - were empowered and emboldened to pursue their security interests through proxies in Afghanistan and in Kashmir, the result being the major instability we see across the region today.

In short, the US may not have directly supported Osama Bin Laden but they did help create a situation where he and other equally malign - if not more so - elements were radicalised and strengthened during the war against the Soviets and its aftermath.

Why is this distinction important? Taking Hillary Clinton's statement at face value, we might conclude that the US was simply careless and/or misguided in choosing the wrong ally against the Soviets. The truth is both more complex and more serious than that and it would be both deeply disappointing and (potentially) highly dangerous if that important lesson were lost.

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