From Michael Reynolds
The other week over at ForeignPolicy.com, in a post titled “The ‘safe haven’ myth,” Stephen M. Walt offered six reasons to be skeptical of the argument that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan would pose a significant threat to the United States. On the same website, Peter Bergen rebutted Walt. Running through Walt’s six reasons one by one, Bergen argues that the historical record severely undercuts Walt’s assumptions about how a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan would have little impact on US security.
Bergen is unsparing in his criticism. Yet although he calls Walt’s sixth reason “one of his flimsiest arguments,” he misses just how flimsy it is.
Walt writes, “Sixth, one might also take comfort from the Soviet experience. When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the mujaheddin didn’t ‘follow them home.’” Bergen rightly responds that even before the U.S. invasion, Al Qaeda was carrying out attacks on American targets while based in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
But what he might have stated is that self-described mujaheddin in fact did follow the Soviets home, and did so quite deliberately. Afghanistan served to support violent Islamism in former Soviet Central Asia and inside Russia in the Caucasus.
Islamist militants in former Soviet Central Asia—most famously in Uzbekistan, but also in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan—used Afghanistan as a base of training and support and cooperated with the Taliban. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 knocked back these movements for a time. For the past several years their members have been preoccupied with defending themselves inside Afghanistan, and little was heard from them.
The resurgence of the Taliban, however, may have already made it possible for some of these militants to again take up arms in Kyrgyzstan. At the least, others inside Afghanistan are again openly talking of carrying their jihad deeper into Central Asia. For two recent reports, see this one by New York Times correspondent David Lloyd Stern, and this one by The Guardian‘s Ghaith Abul-Ahad.
Stern is a long-time friend whom I have known since our days studying Russian as undergraduates, and he has extensive experience reporting from throughout the former Soviet Union. Writing from Kyrgyzstan, he correctly notes that in the past, Central Asian governments have been quite happy to hype the threat of Islamist militants to suppress dissent and justify crackdowns. But as Abul-Ahad reports from within Afghanistan, there exist militants all too willing again to take up arms in the name of Islam against the governments in Tashkent, Bishkek, and Dushanbe as well as Kabul.
Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors have unsophisticated armies made up of poorly trained and motivated conscripts, and had a difficult time countering these movements in the late 1990s. It is likely that this time around, their insurgent opponents will prove more capable in combat. U.S. military personnel fighting in Afghanistan have observed a steady and marked improvement in the Taliban’s tactical and combat skills. This is not unusual; practice makes perfect. But it does not bode well for the Central Asians.
Were the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan, there is good reason to believe that the surrounding countries will again face violent insurgencies. This is not to predict a domino effect of toppled governments. States waging counter-insurgency campaigns can compensate for the lack of professionalism of their security forces by applying coercion and repression more widely. Uzbekistan’s security forces in particular are known for their mercilessness, and it is possible that Uzbekistan and the other states could contain their insurgencies by continuing to employ draconian measures. But it is, however, to predict that the misery index in countries bordering Afghanistan will go up. True, some might argue, the United States would not be paying that cost directly, Central Asians would be, and therefore it is not a U.S. national interest. But in that case we should at least be honest about it, and not ignore it in an effort to salve our collective conscience.
The fallout from Taliban-led Afghanistan was not restricted to Central Asia, however, but extended into Russia. Boris Yeltsin’s ill-advised, even criminal, attempt to crush the defiant Mafioso-state of Johar Dudaev by invasion in 1994 ignited a popular insurgency in Chechnya. Joining the Muslim Chechens who rallied to defend their homeland were self-styled mujaheddin who had trained in Afghanistan. Their ranks included Samir Saleh Abdullah Al-Suwailem, a Saudi citizen known more famously as Amir Khattab.
Khattab was a dedicated jihadist. Before coming to Chechnya, he had trained in Afghanistan and fought in Tajikistan. Although the depth of his tactical prowess has been debated, his charisma was exceptional. By 1996 he emerged not merely as the leading foreign jihadi in Chechnya, but as one of the principal power brokers inside Chechnya.
After the end of the first Chechen war and Russia’s withdrawal from Chechnya in 1996, Khattab teamed up with the most famous of the Chechen warlords, Shamil Basaev. Basaev himself has stated that he had trained in Khost, Afghanistan in the spring of 1994, prior to the beginning of the first Chechen war. Together, Basaev and Khattab established their own camps inside Chechnya where they trained volunteers from throughout Russia’s North Caucasus in guerrilla warfare. Their activities, which extended to involvement in hundreds of kidnappings inside Chechnya and neighboring regions, undermined the elected government of Aslan Maskhadov and created hellish conditions for inhabitants in Chechnya and surrounding areas.
Whether by design or accident, Chechnya and its environs were coming to resemble Afghanistan. Residents were being reduced to having to choose between unbridled criminality or a rudimentary order based on a harsh interpretation of sharia. It is worth noting that during this period in 1997 Ayman al-Zawahiri, described often as the mastermind of Al Qaeda, was arrested and detained in Dagestan for five months. Zawahiri was searching for a safe haven, and had been trying to make his way to Chechnya. Upon being released from Dagestan he then made his way to Afghanistan.
The aim of Basaev and Khattab was to drive Russia out of the whole North Caucasus and unite the region in an Islamic state. To assist their cause they recruited Adallo Aliyev, a famous Dagestani poet, as their figurehead leader. (I met with Adallo on several occasions while he was on the lam in Turkey. Adallo was later amnestied by Dagestani authorities due to his age and stature as a cultural icon. He was the subject of a good overview of the turbulent North Caucasus in Der Spiegel this past July.)
Basaev and Khattab attempted to execute their plan in 1999 and invaded Dagestan, triggering the second Chechen war. Shortly after, the Taliban “recognized” Chechnya to underscore its solidarity. It was, of course, an almost wholly symbolic act, but one that did encourage still more Chechen fighters to identify still more closely with the radical Islam of the Taliban. According to the U.S. State Department, Basaev returned to Afghanistan in 2001, and allegedly also sent Chechens to fight in Aghanistan, returning the favor, as it were.
The second Chcchen war proved to be much more difficult for the jihadists. Khattab was poisoned in 2002, and Basaev was killed in 2006. But from 1995 until about 2001, Chechnya was of immense importance to the jihadi propaganda and fundraising. The example of Chechnya seemingly illustrated the underlying promise of jihad: that a small group of Muslims could defeat a major power so long as they trusted in God and their arms.
After U.S. forces entered Afghanistan in 2001, news accounts were filled with implausible claims of “Chechens” fighting in the ranks of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, to the point that the uninitiated would have thought that the Chechens were a major ethnic group inside Afghanistan, and not a nation of barely a million in the Caucasus. Clearly, these are exaggerations. The best explanation I have seen for this phenomenon is that the word “Chechen” became shorthand among Afghans for any Russian-speaking Muslim. The glory associated with Chechnya’s struggle against Russia up until Chechnya’s pacification popularized the Chechens and endowed them with a mythic reputation vastly larger than their numbers. Nonetheless, a multitide of sources leave no doubt that the ties between the Taliban and jihadists in Chechnya were considerable.
The presence of jihadi training camps inside Afghanistan and the Taliban’s support for foreign jihadists were not the sole or even primary cause of Islamist insurgencies in Central Asia or the Caucasus, but they did contribute to the development of those insurgencies. The only consoling thought one can take from the Russian or post-Soviet experience is the suggestion that even states with limited capabilities can contain jihadist insurgencies, albeit at a high price of repression.
In short, when contemplating the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Soviet experience should give us no comfort. To the contrary, that experience would tell us to expect that the return of a Taliban-led Afghanistan will invigorate jihadists and again facilitate the spread of militant Islam inside Central Asia, the Caucasus, and elsewhere.
In his response to Bergen, Walt makes no attempt to dispute Bergen’s critique. Instead, he writes that his original post really was directed toward the omission of any cost-benefit analysis in the debate over Afghan policy. The need to weigh objectives and resources and define clear priorities in policymaking is axiomatic. Given the consistent tendency of policy wonks only to insist that their pet issue deserves a higher priority and greater resources without deigning to explain what issues deserve fewer resources, perhaps this point, however basic, bears repeating.
I actually share some of Walt’s pessimism about the U.S. course in Afghanistan and I can agree that that question of whether our policies might be making things worse rather than better is an urgent one. But what I cannot agree with is the refashioning of history to make us feel better about our preferred policy choices. If Afghanistan is all about bad choices, and I think it is, we owe it ourselves to be honest about how bad those choices are when we debate them.
Comments are limited to MESH members and invitees.
One Response to “False comfort on Afghanistan”