Coveting the covert

Washington opted to hardly learn any lessons from terrible outcome of its decade-long ’80s covert war in Afghanistan.

Nasim Zehra December 16, 2013
The writer is a senior anchor at Capital TV and a fellow at Harvard University Asia Centre. She tweets @NasimZehra

While attending the memorial service of Nelson Mandela — the man who was considered the last word on peace and reconciliation — many saw the handshake between US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro as a poignant moment. Will this handshake mark the end of the 60-year-old boycott of Cuba? Much of what the US does in the global arena affects us all. So, we both rejoice and repent in America’s achievements and in its blunders.

The recent nuclear deal with Iran has provided comfort to millions across the globe. Does this mean that covert wars, regional battles and instability might reduce? The situation vis-a-vis Iran was preceded by Obama’s literally last-minute decision to overturn his own decision to use military force against the Syrian regime. Perhaps, we are seeing the elephant finally turning around, away from disaster. Perhaps, others within the impact range of this elephant, too, will be able to keep away from the shadows of disaster.

Such is the sense of vulnerability and the expectation of success, that people worldwide sit with bated breath, hoping that good will come and bad will be avoided. A decade into the US invasion, Iraq still remains steeped in bloodbath. After Syria and Iran, there are indications of a serious rethink on the Middle East within the US administration.

Recent US media commentaries warning of Syria becoming a strong al Qaeda base may well be signals of a coming somersault in the US’s Syria policy. An interesting New York Times article “Jihadist Groups Gain in Turmoil Across Middle East” by Robert F Worth and Eric Schmitt quotes Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan, one of the many US diplomats who have now experienced the limits of force. Earlier, there was a time when the US, in its hubris, believed that lethal force can overcome all else. Crocker now advises that “we need to start talking to the Assad regime again”. Belated wisdom. And seems to come at a very costly price too.

Across much of the region, US intelligence operatives were cleared by the White House and the US State Department to cultivate covert assets as foreign policy tools. In Washington’s calculations, these ‘tools’ would in some ways weaken Arab regimes the US and its core ally, Israel, were not comfortable with. They would also weaken pro-Iranian elements in the region or would help strengthen ‘moderate’ forces. This was an odd pairing of objectives. The math wouldn’t add up. Hence, inherently contradictory.

Even worse, Washington ventured into this insurgent build-up plan in the region after a similar ’80s and ’90s undertaking in Afghanistan had boomeranged. From the so-called Afghan victory against the Soviets had emerged, the haunting phenomenon of al Qaeda.

Of course, many have disagreed with the inevitability aspect. They have argued that the early departure of the Americans left the space open for the Afghan and non-Afghan fighters to take on their own colours. I disagree. Once religion was invoked with the faithful, who travelled across countries and continents to battle ‘evil’, then ordering their retreat was never on the cards. Especially after one conclusive victory, the heady and victorious are ready for greater causes.

Interestingly, while studying in the US in the ’80s, I saw numerous reports produced by training institutions of the US Army, which raised questions about the nature of unintended consequences that the US may be confronted with from the CIA’s covert war in Afghanistan. Military literature raised fears that US engagement in the war could even become open-ended.

The fact is that the US repeated the blunder of the ’80s post-2000. The blowback of the ’80s policy began with the US embassy bombings in Africa in August 1998.

Most strikingly, Washington opted to hardly learn any lessons from the terrible outcome of its decade-long ’80s covert war in Afghanistan. By the late ’90s, the insurgents had morphed into groups with independent agendas. It never mattered who had funded them in the past. But maybe, now, Washington has finally learnt some lessons. Good for us in the region.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2013.

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Zalmai | 9 years ago | Reply

@ Bakhtiyar Ghazi Khan

You would have to erase the collective consciousness of 30 million Afghans in order for Afghanistan and Pakistan to become allies.

The Afghan Pashtuns don't think like the Pakistani Pashtuns and we have nothing in common as far as regional geopolitics are concerned.

Bakhtiyar Ghazi Khan | 9 years ago | Reply

Afghanistan will be the 2nd Vietnam of the US. It is bleeding and has no choice but to leave. Pakistan only needs to maintain its current neutral position and it will come out the strongest in the region, especially with the inevitable coming of a Pukhtoon government in Afghanistan. I am hopeful for a Pakistan-Afghanistan alliance in the near future.

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