The US, Iraq, Afghanistan, the USSR, and Osama

Back when I was an adjunct professor, I had a free subscription to the Wall Street Journal. My opinion… their reporting is excellent, but their op eds are awful. Now that I don’t get the paper for free, I don’t read it… but some of their stuff appears online for free. Including this by Bernard Lewis:

During the Cold War, two things came to be known and generally recognized in the Middle East concerning the two rival superpowers. If you did anything to annoy the Russians, punishment would be swift and dire. If you said or did anything against the Americans, not only would there be no punishment; there might even be some possibility of reward, as the usual anxious procession of diplomats and politicians, journalists and scholars and miscellaneous others came with their usual pleading inquiries: “What have we done to offend you? What can we do to put it right?”

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These different responses evoked different treatment. While American policies, institutions and individuals were subject to unremitting criticism and sometimes deadly attack, the Soviets were immune. Their retention of the vast, largely Muslim colonial empire accumulated by the czars in Asia passed unnoticed, as did their propaganda and sometimes action against Muslim beliefs and institutions.

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We in the Western world see the defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union as a Western, more specifically an American, victory in the Cold War. For Osama bin Laden and his followers, it was a Muslim victory in a jihad, and, given the circumstances, this perception does not lack plausibility.

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From the writings and the speeches of Osama bin Laden and his colleagues, it is clear that they expected this second task, dealing with America, would be comparatively simple and easy. This perception was certainly encouraged and so it seemed, confirmed by the American response to a whole series of attacks–on the World Trade Center in New York and on U.S. troops in Mogadishu in 1993, on the U.S. military office in Riyadh in 1995, on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000–all of which evoked only angry words, sometimes accompanied by the dispatch of expensive missiles to remote and uninhabited places.

Stage One of the jihad was to drive the infidels from the lands of Islam; Stage Two–to bring the war into the enemy camp, and the attacks of 9/11 were clearly intended to be the opening salvo of this stage. The response to 9/11, so completely out of accord with previous American practice, came as a shock, and it is noteworthy that there has been no successful attack on American soil since then. The U.S. actions in Afghanistan and in Iraq indicated that there had been a major change in the U.S., and that some revision of their assessment, and of the policies based on that assessment, was necessary.

More recent developments, and notably the public discourse inside the U.S., are persuading increasing numbers of Islamist radicals that their first assessment was correct after all, and that they need only to press a little harder to achieve final victory. It is not yet clear whether they are right or wrong in this view. If they are right, the consequences–both for Islam and for America–will be deep, wide and lasting.

What I guess he’s saying, in plain English:
1. For the longest time, Muslims treated the Soviets with respect and disdained the Americans because the former were stronger and the latter acted weak
2. Defeating the Soviets was therefore a priority of Osama bin Laden
3. Once the Soviets were defeated, Osama and company thought the US weakling would be quickly defeated
4. The US attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq made Osama and company doubt item 3.
5. US wavering on Afghanistan and Iraq may yet prove Osama and company right, and if it does, we’ll all be wearing veils and bowing toward Mecca or some such outcome.

Now, I’m not expert on the Middle East like Lewis. But I have a different take on things. I want to cover what seem to be his points.

1. Its possible at some point the Soviets were seen as stronger than the Americans. Certianly, most Arab countries cast their lots with the USSR. But by the mid-1970s, its hard to believe that anyone in the Middle East would regard that as having been a good bet. I understand that US military aid to Israel was relatively small before the 1973 War, and that in fact, before the 1970 “War of Attrition” Arab countries had actually received more US military aid than Israel had.

And then came 1973 and a surprise attack on Israel. A weak Israel – outgunned, with less soldiers, with less equipment, all of it older than anything in the Arab arsenals. (In some battles, Israeli units were using equipment from WW2, while their Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian counterparts were using five year old Soviet planes and tanks.) The Arabs also had Soviet training and support. And yet, despite engaging in a surprise attack on Israel, a few weeks later these same countries had to count on US pressure to stop the Israelis… about 60 miles from Cairo and Damascus, with the much of the Egyptian Army cut off, surrounded, and days from annihilation.

The shock of this turn of events was very damaging to the Arab psyche. And the fact that Soviet doctrine, equipment, training, and advice had failed was lost on nobody in the region. Arab governments continued to receive Soviet assistance… but out of lack of choice. By then they had made their beds and had to lie in it.

2. Defeating the infidel was a priority for Osama. Why would he have started in Afghanistan? Easy… of every place where infidels could be found, it was where they were weakest. The ones with the lousiest equipment and worst training (as proven before), in a place where they couldn’t control their supply lines. If the goal was simply to fight infidels, he could have done that in Israel. The PLO or the PFLP would have taken him in a moment. He could even have worked on taking down the House of Saud, and not left home at all. But even this was more difficult than fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

3. There is talk, and there is propaganda. In 1973, Arab radio stations were broadcasting that “pushing the Jews into the sea” was right around the corner even after events on the ground made that impossible under any circumstance. Heck, US news sources were reporting on how well things going in Iraq until around September of last year.

4. Well, least for a while, which leads to…

5. If the US had performed as advertised – and we all remember we were promised a cakewalk, Osama and company wouldn’t be so bold. But where are we? Afghanistan doesn’t exist… our puppet regime controls 20 square miles around Kabul, and that’s when US soldiers pretend he does. As to Iraq… the pro-establishment Chatham House just issued a report saying:

[T]he Iraqi government is now largely powerless and irrelevant in many parts of the country.

It warns there is not one war but many local civil wars, and urges a major change in US and British strategy, such as consulting Iraq’s neighbours more.

What emboldens Osama and company is that the US fails. At this point, GW isn’t going to pull a rabbit out of the Iraqi hat. But that doesn’t mean there is no hope but a US failure in the eyes of Osama and company… another option is simple. Pull out of Iraq. Declare we did what we intended to do, but don’t want stay when its clear we’re fomenting a Civil War (or many). Instead, what Lewis should be advocating is to move the troops to Afghanistan. Do what the Soviets failed to do… beat Osama. Make Afghanistan work. If he’s so concerned about showing weakness to Osama, here’s a way to salvage a victory.