Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
Imagine a physician intent on reducing a malignant growth subjecting a patient to an arduous regime of chemotherapy, only to abandon the weakened and vulnerable patient as soon as the growth disappeared. Tumor excised, responsibility fulfilled. Dealing with any lingering aftereffects was someone else’s problem. This, in essence, describes U.S. policy toward Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal.
Close observers quickly glimpsed the potential implications. Already in March 1989, a correspondent with the Minneapolis
suggested that while celebrating the triumph of the mujahedin, “Americans might also contemplate the possibility that other Islamic ‘holy warriors’ may soon be perched near airports around the world, targeting civilian planes with the deadly U.S. missiles we sent to the ‘freedom fighters.’ ”
Another American journalist reported on widespread worries that “the international warriors” who had joined the holy war in Afghanistan might provide the basis of “a dedicated and devout army of fundamentalist Muslim revolutionaries, trained in the art of guerrilla war and prepared to move on to the next jihad.”
By “encouraging a rebellion based on religious zealotry without stopping to analyze what would happen if the zealots triumphed,” had the United States “created a monster”?
Long before most Americans had ever heard of Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden, that possibility had begun to present itself.
An ironic de facto collaboration between Washington and Moscow had transformed Afghanistan from a failing state into a failed one. The nine-year U.S.-led effort to prevent the Soviets from pacifying Afghanistan succeeded without the loss of a single American life. From the experience, the United States took away two lessons destined to shape Washington’s response to other crises in the Greater Middle East. The first lesson discredited timidity, with Operation Cyclone seemingly proving that fortune favors the bold. After all, the outcome had vindicated those who had advocated perilous steps such as providing the mujahedin with arms traceable to the United States. The second lesson suggested that sophisticated weapons could have game-changing implications, with Stingers offering seemingly irrefutable proof. Put to further test, both of these lessons would prove wildly misleading.
In fact, by reducing that country to a shambles, Operation Cyclone set in motion a train of events that soon enough produced an even longer pacification campaign, this one led by the United States itself and destined to consume considerable American blood and treasure. In the end, Washington’s success in luring the USSR into an Afghan quagmire transformed Afghanistan into an incubator of terrorism and drew the United States back into what became a quagmire of its own.
What judgment to render on all this is a matter of perspective. Asked in 1998 if he had any regrets about having helped instigate Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in many respects the godfather of Operation Cyclone, reacted with astonishment. “Regret what?” he replied. “That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it?”
The interviewer pressed the point. Hadn’t the subsequent rise of radical Islamism tarnished that victory? Not in Brzezinski’s view. “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”
With the passage of time, the answers to rhetorical questions that Brzezinski deemed self-evident became decidedly less so. As U.S. military involvement in the Greater Middle East deepened, dismissing “stirred-up Moslems” as inconsequential came to seem a trifle glib. In the eyes of successive presidential administrations, they represented something akin to a threat of sufficient danger to justify war on an ever-widening scale.
All of this lay in the future, of course. For the moment, Washington fancied that it had finished its work in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Afghanistan was not yet finished with the United States.
Even as events in Afghanistan were unfolding, Ronald Reagan had ordered a contingent of U.S. Marines to Beirut, Lebanon, of all places. There they suffered grievous losses and soon thereafter departed the premises, their mission ending in abject failure. Like a dimwitted cop armed only with a billy club, the United States had wandered into the middle of a gang war. By the time it ended, radical Islamists had “inflicted the largest tactical defeat on the U.S. military since the Korean War.”
The contrast between the U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Lebanon could hardly be greater. Afghanistan was covert and protracted and seemed for a time to have ended successfully. By comparison, the U.S. intervention in Lebanon was overt and comparatively brief and yielded a catastrophic outcome. In Afghanistan, working through intermediaries, the CIA actively promoted violence. In Lebanon, with the stars and stripes prominently displayed, the Marines sought to curb it. Whereas no American policymaker believed that gestures and symbols were going to affect Soviet behavior in Afghanistan, more than a few somehow concluded that a symbolic military presence, accompanied by professions of benign intent, was going to affect the behavior of the various powers vying to control Lebanon. In sum, whereas the architects of U.S. policy in Afghanistan at least had a clear sense of purpose, those who ordered Marines to Beirut had next to none.
As an episode in America’s War for the Greater Middle East, the U.S. intervention in Lebanon, lasting from August 1982 to July 1984, surely ranks as one of the most bizarre, leaving the historian to wonder: What exactly possessed policymakers to think this was a good idea? Answering that question requires first reconstructing the circumstances that prompted Reagan to send in the Marines.
An Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which began on June 6, 1982, along with the consequences that ensued, triggered that decision. The political scientist Samuel Huntington once created a stir by writing that “Islam has bloody borders.”
Much the same can be said about Israel during the first several decades of its existence.
Throughout the preceding decade, the Israeli-Lebanese border had been notably bloody. Expelled from Jordan in 1970, thousands of Palestinians had transformed southern Lebanon into a state-within-a-state controlled by Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. A seemingly endless series of raids and reprisals ensued, reviving among Israeli leaders a long-nurtured ambition to fix Lebanon once and for all, eliminating any further threats from that quarter.
The recently signed peace treaty with Egypt along with the presence of an avid supporter of the Jewish state in the White House made such an attempt appear plausible. A secure southern flank and Ronald Reagan’s assurances of undying friendship enhanced Israel’s freedom of action.
Meanwhile, the ongoing disintegration of Lebanon, wracked since 1975 by a civil war pitting Maronite Christians, Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and Palestinian refugees against one another, made such an attempt imperative. For the right-wing government of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, the prospect of a failed state and haven for terrorists as an immediate neighbor was intolerable.
Yet fixing Lebanon, its territory occupied not only by the PLO but also by the Syrian army, posed immense challenges. Begin’s minister of defense, the fiercely hawkish Ariel Sharon, thought otherwise. He resolved to end “the Lebanese problem in one great sweep of Israeli armor” that would destroy the PLO and send the Syrians packing. Israel would then install in Beirut a Maronite government. The two nations would become friends and allies. “In one stroke, Lebanon would move from an Israeli liability to an asset.”
Operation Peace for Galilee did not live up to Sharon’s expectations, however, either militarily or politically. Begin lied to Reagan in describing Israeli aims as modest, merely a brief push into southern Lebanon to disrupt PLO artillery and rocket attacks. As the actual scope of the Israeli offensive exposed those lies for what they were, Washington reacted with outrage. Although given to tough talk, the Reagan administration was hardly in the mood to have fighting in Lebanon provoke a major East-West showdown. As Israeli mechanized formations clobbered the Syrians and closed in on Beirut (and as the Soviets prepared to make good Syrian equipment losses), U.S. demands for Israel to accept a United Nations–mandated ceasefire became more insistent. At noon on June 11, Israel acceded to (without fully honoring) those demands.
Although Israel Defense Forces had taken up positions in West Beirut, they had neither destroyed the PLO nor ousted the Syrians. And while the Israelis had linked up with Maronite militia fighters led by the erratic quasi-fascist Bashir Gemayel, their dream of installing in power a friendly Christian government remained well beyond reach. Yet Begin and Sharon refused to admit failure. So under the cover of the ceasefire, the IDF laid siege to Beirut itself, indiscriminately pummeling the city with artillery, air strikes, and gunboats operating offshore, cutting off electricity and water supplies, all in an effort to flush Arafat’s forces.
Having caught the PLO in a vise, Israel squeezed hard. Yet as the IDF ratcheted up its punishment of Beirut from one week to the next, the Reagan administration ratcheted up its pressure on Israel to lift the siege. Demanding “an end to the unnecessary bloodshed,” Reagan warned Begin that “the relationship between our two nations is at stake.”
On August 12, after an especially harsh series of IDF attacks, the president denounced Israeli actions as “unfathomable and senseless.”
So Israel too found itself caught in a vise, one of its own making. With the PLO and the government of Israel each under extreme duress and sharing an urgent need to escape, the makings of a deal were at hand. To survive, the PLO agreed to leave Lebanon. To placate Washington, Israel agreed to permit that departure to occur, with the Reagan administration expecting a withdrawal of Israeli forces to follow soon thereafter.
Here was a scenario not envisioned by the Carter Doctrine. Yet reticence about intervening in the Islamic world was already waning. Carter’s declaration had signaled greater activism on Washington’s part. Enter the United States Marine Corps.
For the previous six weeks, the possibility of Reagan dispatching peacekeepers to Lebanon had been a hot topic on the nation’s op-ed pages. In general, the prospect had attracted support, albeit without much enthusiasm. Still, there were dissenters. Among the most prescient was Rear Admiral Robert J. Hanks, a retired naval officer with experience in the Middle East, who argued that sending Marines into Lebanon would provide the “ultimate proof” in Arab eyes that the United States was doing Israel’s bidding. U.S. support for Israel had already “engendered widespread antagonism, indeed hatred” throughout much of the Islamic world, Hanks wrote. Troops deployed in the guise of peacekeepers would provide Arabs an ideal target “against which to vent their wrath.” It was “wholly unrealistic,” Hanks insisted, “to expect any outcome other than American Marines…falling casualty to the rage and vengeance of frustrated Palestinians, whether operating under the banner of the PLO or some new and more desperate organization.”
Hanks erred in one regard only: His timing was off by a year.
In the event, such warnings were easily ignored. So in Beirut, on August 25, 1982, a task force consisting of eight hundred U.S. Marines came ashore, charged by President Reagan “to be once again what Marines have been for more than 200 years—peace-makers.” On hand to greet the Americans as they landed were diplomats, local dignitaries, and members of the press. Although the Marines were entering a combat zone, the atmospherics did not suggest expectations of imminent hostilities. Indeed, Reagan himself and Secretary of State George P. Shultz repeatedly emphasized that the mission was not going to involve fighting.
So while armed, the Marines did not load their weapons, a “deliberate decision” intended to “demonstrate that the Americans were on a peace-keeping mission.”
With the port secured, the evacuation of PLO fighters and some family members commenced almost immediately. Within a matter of days, under watchful American eyes, a total of 6,436 Palestinians had boarded ships bound for Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and other countries that had agreed to accept the exiles. One of the last to go, on August 30, was Arafat himself, cheered by well-wishers and accompanied by a platoon-sized bodyguard.