In July 1999, Chalmers Johnson began the prologue to Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire this way: "Instead of demobilizing after the Cold War, the United States imprudently committed itself to maintaining a global empire. This book is an account of the resentments our policies have built up and of the kinds of economic and political retribution that, particularly in Asia, may be their harvest in the twenty-first century." The book (which I edited) was published in 2000 and only modestly attended to until... you know perfectly well until what... until, on September 11, 2001, a terror group by the name of al-Qaeda that had emerged from the American proxy war against the Soviet Union in the South Asian country of Afghanistan sent three hijacked American commercial jets crashing into iconic buildings in New York and Washington.
To use the term of CIA tradecraft for "the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people" that Johnson put in our everyday vocabulary, it was "blowback" of the most stunning kind. Not surprisingly, his book suddenly hit the bestseller list. Unfortunately, popular as it became -- as U.S. Army Major and TomDispatch regular Danny Sjursen points out today -- Americans have thought all too little about the role that blowback has played in all our lives since 9/11. Now, Sjursen takes Johnson's concept and gives it a new, even more sweeping meaning in a world in which Washington's war on terror has become a war of and for terror, as countries are destabilized across the Greater Middle East and Africa and terror groups only spread. Consider it the story from hell -- and its repercussions, its blowback, what Sjursen calls its "insider attacks," may only have begun. Tom
Blowback From U.S. Policy in the Greater Middle East
By Danny Sjursen- Advertisement -
He was shot in the back, the ultimate act of treachery. On September 3rd, a U.S Army sergeant major was killed by two Afghan police officers -- the very people his unit, the new Security Force Assistance Brigade, was there to train. It was the second fatal "insider attack," as such incidents are regularly called, this year and the 102nd since the start of the Afghan War 17 long years ago. Such attacks are sometimes termed "green-on-blue" incidents (in Army lingo, "green" forces are U.S. allies and "blue" forces Americans). For obvious reasons, they are highly destructive to the military mission of training and advising local military and security forces in Afghanistan. Such attacks, not surprisingly, sow distrust and fear, creating distance between Western troops and their supposed Afghan partners.
Reading about this latest tragic victim of Washington's war in Afghanistan, the seventh American death this year and 2,416th since 2001, I got to thinking about those insider attacks and the bigger story that they embodied. Considered a certain way, U.S. policy across the Greater Middle East has, in fact, produced one insider attack after another.
Short-term thinking, expedience, and a lack of strategic caution (or direction) has led Washington to train, fund, and support group after group that, soon enough, turned its guns on American soldiers and civilians. It's a long, sordid tale that stretches back decades -- and one that, unlike the individual instances of treachery that kill or maim American servicemen, receives next to no attention. It's worth thinking about, though, because if U.S. policies had been radically different, such green-on-blue incidents might never have occurred. So let's consider the last decades of American war-making in the context of insider attacks.- Advertisement -
The Ground Zero of Insider Attacks: Afghanistan (1979-present)
In 1979, the Washington foreign policy elite saw everything through the prism of a possible existential Cold War clash between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Such a focus tended to erase local context, nuance, and complexity, leading the U.S. to back a range of nefarious actors as long as they were allies in the struggle against communism.
So in December 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded neighboring Afghanistan, Washington knew just what to do. With the help of the Saudis and the Pakistanis, the CIA financed, trained, and armed -- eventually with sophisticated anti-aircraft Stinger missiles, among other weapons -- a range of anti-Soviet militias. And it worked! Eight years later, having suffered more than 10,000 combat deaths in its own version of Vietnam, the Red Army left Afghanistan in defeat (and, soon after, the Soviet Union itself imploded).
The problem was that many of those anti-Communist Afghans were also fiercely Islamist, often extreme in their views, and ultimately anti-Western as well as anti-Soviet -- and among them, as you undoubtedly remember, was a youthful Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden.
It was, then, an easy-to-overlook reality. After all, the Islamist mujahideen (as they were generally called) were astute enough to fight one enemy at a time and knew where their proverbial bread was being buttered. As long as the money and arms kept flowing in and the more immediate Soviet threat loomed, even the most extreme of them were willing to play nice with Americans. It was a marriage of convenience. Few in Washington bothered to ask what they would do with all those guns once the Soviets left town.
Recent scholarship and newly opened Russian archives suggest that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was driven as much by defensiveness and insecurity as by any notion of triumphal regional conquest. Despite the fears of officials in the administrations of presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the Soviets never had the capacity or the intent to march through Afghanistan and seize the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. Like so much Cold War-era thinking, this was pure fantasy and the meddling that went with it anything but necessary.- Advertisement -
After the Soviet exit, Afghanistan fell into a long period of chaos, as various mujahideen leaders became local warlords, fought with one another, and terrorized average Afghans. Frustrated by their venality, former mujahideen, aided by students radicalized in madrassas in Pakistani refugee camps (schools that had often been financed by America's stalwart partner, Saudi Arabia), formed the Taliban movement. Many of its leaders and soldiers had once been funded and armed by the CIA. By 1996, it had swept to power in most of the country, implementing a reign of Islamist terror. Still, that movement was broadly popular in its early years for bringing order to chaos and misery.
And let's not forget one other small but influential mujahideen group that the U.S. had backed: the "Afghan Arabs," as they were called -- fiercely Islamist foreigners who flocked to that country to fight the godless Soviets. The most notable among them was, of course, Osama bin Laden -- and the rest, as they say, is history.
Bin Laden and other Afghan War veterans would form al-Qaeda, bomb American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, blow up the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and take down the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. These, though, were only the most well known acts of those anti-Soviet war vets. Thousands of Afghan Arabs left that war zone and returned to their own countries with plenty of zeal and fight still in them. Those veterans would then form local terror organizations that would challenge or help destabilize secular governments in the Middle East and North Africa.