Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
The demise of the Warsaw Pact and the announced withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe even provided a bonus of sorts. The possibility of repurposing U.S. forces now presented itself. Units once earmarked for plugging the Fulda Gap were now becoming available for reassignment. War games evaluating preliminary versions of the revised OPLAN 1002 had revealed a shortage of available mechanized forces to counter the large number of Iraqi tanks.
By the end of 1989, the U.S. Army found itself awash with more tanks and tank crews than it knew what to do with, all made redundant by the Cold War’s sudden end. Here was a reservoir of combat power on which CENTCOM could draw.
For those paid to think about potential wars in the Middle East, in other words, the fading danger of World War III meant opportunity. What some at the time were calling a “peace dividend” offered CENTCOM a way of expanding its portfolio of assets.
The alacrity with which the United States fingered Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as its next Public Enemy Number One—a judgment seemingly validated by Saddam’s subsequent actions—offers one important explanation for why the hoped-for peace dividend never materialized.
Rather than ushering in a debate about first-order questions related to national security, the end of the Cold War—commonly described as an event of seismic significance—produced remarkably little change in the makeup and posture of America’s armed forces. To the extent that change did occur, it involved little more than making an about-face—a reorientation toward a new foe.
Yet if designating Iraq as successor to the USSR solved some problems—enabling the Pentagon to avert unwelcome change—it also planted the seeds of complications to which U.S. military leaders at the time appeared oblivious.
With something akin to unanimity, civilian policymakers and their military advisers at this juncture took it for granted that the principal threats to Persian Gulf stability
came from states.
The key to maintaining access to the region’s oil reserves, therefore, was to
make states behave
. And when it came to keeping unruly or recalcitrant states in line, they were counting on military power to do the trick.
In later years, among senior U.S. military officers, it became fashionable to say of some particular problem in the Greater Middle East that there existed “no military solution.” At this juncture, just the opposite judgment applied. When it came to Persian Gulf security, alternatives to a military solution appeared inconceivable. It was guns or give up.
During the Cold War, in places like the Fulda Gap, the reliance on military power to make states behave had produced more or less satisfactory results. For the most part, when facing the prospect of a determined U.S. response, the Soviets and others in the Communist orbit had backed off. Rather than mounting a direct challenge to the United States, they had opted for prudence as the better part of valor. There had been exceptions, of course—in 1948, the Berlin Blockade; in 1950, the Korean War; in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis—but Washington generally saw these as proving the rule. In each instance, standing firm had limited the scope of a problem that could have gotten much worse.
Overall, containment had worked. The Cold War mostly stayed cold. World War III never happened. Some observers described the result as a “Long Peace,” attributed to American vigilance backed by armed might. Here, in a nutshell, was the unspoken justification for postwar U.S. national security policy with its very large, heavily armed, and globally deployed military establishment.
Yet however valid this formula when applied to Western Europe or East Asia, it did not translate easily to the Greater Middle East. The problem was not that Iraq differed from the Soviet Union, although it did in myriad ways. Instead, the problem was that the most fundamental threats to the stability of the Greater Middle East did not come from states that the United States chose to put on its enemies list, whether the Soviet Union in 1980 or Iraq by 1990. Rather, the real threats arose from factors that CENTCOM planners were inclined to ignore or to categorize as beyond their purview.
One such factor was history, above all the pernicious legacy of Western imperialism to which the United States, willingly or not, had become the principal heir. Whether in drawing borders, installing compliant rulers, or abruptly abandoning colonies, protectorates, and mandates no longer deemed worth the bother, Europeans, above all the British, had fostered dysfunction across much of the Greater Middle East, thereby creating the basis for an endless stream of intraregional conflicts. In this regard, Iraq, created by arbitrarily cobbling together disparate bits of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, ranked as Exhibit A. Trailing not far behind were Israel-Palestine and Pakistan.
A second factor was religion, which mattered in two respects. On the one hand, it created fault lines that became in turn the basis for conflict within and beyond the CENTCOM AOR. The division between Sunni and Shia Muslims offers the best-known but hardly the sole example. More broadly, religion posed obstacles to the reconciliation with modernity that may hold the best prospect of peoples across the Greater Middle East finding an antidote to the troubles afflicting the region.
But among those paid to think about strategy, soldiers and civilians alike, history and religion counted for little. In the wake of World War II, in large part due to the primacy assigned to nuclear issues, economists, mathematicians, political scientists, and specialists in game theory had come to exercise an outsized influence in framing the debate over basic national security policy. On matters where so little history existed, historians seemingly had little to offer and could therefore safely be ignored. As for theologians, with rare exceptions, they were excluded altogether. National security policy was a thoroughly secular enterprise.
For Generals Kingston, Crist, or Schwarzkopf to incorporate history or religion into their thinking alongside geography or the prospective enemy’s order of battle would have required an enormous leap of creative imagination. At CENTCOM headquarters, such imagination was—and would remain—in short supply.
During the 1980s, while CENTCOM found its footing and responded to the loss of one would-be enemy by identifying another, the Reagan administration was simultaneously engaging in a variety of military and paramilitary operations on several fronts across the Greater Middle East. These preliminary campaigns accustomed Americans to the idea of the United States playing a more forward-leaning role in managing developments in the Islamic world.
Yet apart from conditioning domestic opinion, the several probes undertaken on Reagan’s watch had little in common. In terms of locale, they were scattered from Libya in the west to Pakistan in the east. In terms of character, they differed markedly from one another. One involved supporting insurgents waging jihad against hated occupiers. Another was an inopportune venture into “peacekeeping” that ended in disaster. Employing, in effect, an updated version of gunboat diplomacy, a third attempted to cow or intimidate one particularly annoying two-bit antagonist. A fourth found Washington becoming party to a bitter conflict and offering assistance to both sides before ultimately coming down in favor of the aggressor.
If any overarching theme connected these episodes, it was this: activism to convey the image of a nation that had gotten its moxie back. Jimmy Carter’s perceived weakness and passivity had cost him his presidency and ruined his reputation. Ronald Reagan was not going to repeat that error. Yet apart from projecting renewed pugnacity, the thread tying together Reagan’s various forays into the Islamic world was all but invisible. Assertiveness absent any appreciation for what might be lurking just around the next corner makes a poor basis for strategy.
Near the beginning of his first term as president, Reagan had explained to an aide his approach to the Cold War. “My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple,” he remarked. “It is this: We win and they lose.”
To simplify was to clarify, stripping down to essentials as a basis for understanding.
Reagan’s ability to do just that numbered as not least among the qualities that endeared him to many Americans. Here was language—direct, unvarnished, even manly—they could grasp and appreciate. Us against them. Red Sox vs. Yankees. Notre Dame vs. USC. Here too was the formula that ostensibly served as Reagan’s azimuth—at least until he discovered in Mikhail Gorbachev a communist with whom he could do business. Yet however mightily Reagan strove to employ a similarly Manichaean approach when dealing with the Greater Middle East, the realities there refused to cooperate.
So while Reagan certainly stepped up the level of U.S. military activity in that region, he achieved little by way of lasting benefit. Implicitly endorsing the premises of the Carter Doctrine, Reagan never quite figured out a coherent approach to implementing that doctrine. So his piece of America’s War for the Greater Middle East was confused, slapdash, and inconsistent. In sum, it was a dog’s breakfast.
In retrospect, this appears readily apparent. At the time, the Reagan administration claimed that it had more wins than losses to its credit. Yet while Reagan meted out punishment to parties that arguably deserved what they got, doing so produced consequences both unforeseen and undesired. Notably, in each case where the administration claimed victory—over the Soviets in Afghanistan, over Moamar Gaddafi in Libya, and over Iran in the Persian Gulf—the outcome proved at best inconclusive and at worst plain bad. Meanwhile, in the one instance where the administration inarguably failed—inserting U.S. Marines into Israeli-occupied Lebanon—sacralizing that failure took precedence over learning from it, thereby making future failures on a larger scale that much more likely.
On this roster of campaigns, Afghanistan stands out as the ostensibly big win that over time gave way to an even bigger mess. This signature initiative of the Reagan era, undertaken to wound the Soviet Union, eventually became a wound inflicted by the United States on itself.
In the years since the Carter administration had first begun providing a trickle of assistance to the Afghan resistance, that program had grown dramatically. Neither CENTCOM nor the Pentagon directed that program, which belonged entirely to the Central Intelligence Agency.
Yet Operation Cyclone, as the Agency dubbed it, deserves inclusion in a military history of America’s War for the Greater Middle East for at least two reasons. First, the CIA’s nominally covert activities in Afghanistan during the 1980s laid the basis for the very overt conflict involving U.S. forces that began in 2001. On the day that the last Soviet soldier departed from Afghanistan in February 1989, the CIA operative charged with running Cyclone famously cabled headquarters in Langley, “We won.”
Superficially correct, this judgment proved to be both premature and misleading. Having made the USSR pay dearly for foolishly flinging itself into the “graveyard of empires,” the United States proceeded to repeat the Soviet mistake without achieving an appreciably better outcome. Put simply, this First Afghanistan War paved the way for a second, even longer iteration.
Second, Operation Cyclone illustrates one of the central ironies of America’s War for the Greater Middle East—the unwitting tendency, while intently focusing on solving one problem, to exacerbate a second and plant the seeds of a third. In Afghanistan, this meant fostering the rise of Islamic radicalism and underwriting Pakistan’s transformation into a nuclear-armed quasi-rogue state while attempting to subvert the Soviet Union.
Washington did not act unilaterally in Afghanistan. Rather, it drew on the assistance of a very substantial “coalition of the willing”—or perhaps, more accurately, a coalition of the dissimilar—that included not only Pakistan but also Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China, the United Kingdom, and Israel. Beyond a shared hostility toward the Soviet Union, motives for participation differed, as did perceptions of the stakes involved.
This is hardly unusual, of course. History is replete with examples of opportunistic alliances forged in the face of a common enemy. When the absolutist King of France threw in with antimonarchical American revolutionaries in 1778, he was not aiming to advance the inalienable rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. And when Winston Churchill made common cause with Joseph Stalin in 1941, he did so without amending his decidedly negative view of Bolshevism.
Yet two things distinguished this particular conglomeration of strange bedfellows. First, none of the participants cared a lick for the Afghan people. Second, apart from Pakistan, none attributed any intrinsic value to Afghanistan itself. What lent that impoverished, landlocked country its fleeting political significance was the Soviet presence there. End that presence and Afghanistan would command as much international attention as Fiji. As a result, policymakers intent on making Afghanistan a staging ground for a “Vietnamese quagmire” paid scant attention to exactly what that might imply once the agents of mayhem left the scene. “We expected post-Soviet Afghanistan to be ugly,” Robert Gates, then a CIA official, later confessed, “but never considered that it would become a haven for terrorists operating worldwide.”