Steve Dunham’s Trains of Thought

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Foreign Policy Can Fight Terrorism at Its Roots

By Steve Dunham

Journal of Homeland Security, December 2001. Copyright 2001 Analytic Services. Reproduced with permission.

Make friends for yourselves through your use of this world’s goods.

—Luke 16:19, New American Bible

Did we miss an opportunity to defeat the Taliban 12 years ago—five years before they began their ascent to power in Afghanistan?

In 1989, “after ten years of war, the Soviets finally pulled out of Afghanistan, leaving behind a country full of land mines and more than one million Afghan dead,” wrote Sebastian Junger in his book Fire.1

A country can’t sustain that kind of damage and return to normal overnight. The same fierce tribalism that had defeated the Soviets—“radical local democracy,” the CIA termed it—made it extremely hard for the various mujahidin factions to get along. (It would be three years before they would be able to take Kabul from the Communist regime that the Soviets had left.) Moreover, the mujahidin were armed to the teeth, thanks to a CIA program that had pumped three billion dollars’ worth of weapons into the country during the war. Had the United States continued its support—building roads, repatriating the refugees, clearing the minefields—Afghanistan might have stood a chance of overcoming its natural ethnic factionalism. But the United States didn’t. No sooner had the Soviet-backed government crumbled away than America’s Cold War–born interest in Afghanistan virtually ceased. Inevitably, the Afghans fell out among themselves. And when they did, it was almost worse than the war that had just ended.

Junger wrote this after visiting the front lines of the Northern Alliance rebels under Ahmad Shah Massoud in Afghanistan, only months before terrorists under the leadership of Usama bin Laden struck the American homeland.

While the commanders fought on, life in Afghanistan sank into a lawless hell. Warlords controlled the highways; opium and weapons smuggling became the mainstay of the economy; private armies battled one another for control of a completely ruined land.

Meanwhile, said Junger, the Pakistani government could see that its front man in Afghanistan, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was not defeating the rebels, and so turned to a new force—the Taliban—to create a government that it could approve.

Armed and directed by Pakistan and facing a completely fractured alliance, the Taliban rapidly fought their way across western Afghanistan. The population was sick of war and looked to the Taliban as saviors, which, in a sense, they were …

By 1996, the Taliban had taken control of most of Afghanistan, including Kabul. What was America’s reaction? We wanted their cooperation in gaining access to oil.

There was a growing movement from a variety of Western countries—particularly the United States—to overlook the Taliban’s flaws and recognize them as the legitimate government of the country. There was thought to be as much as two hundred billion barrels of untapped oil reserves in Central Asia and similar amounts of natural gas. That made it one of the largest fossil fuel reserves in the world, and the easiest way to get it out was to build a pipeline across Afghanistan to Pakistan. However appalling Taliban rule might be, their cooperation was needed to build the pipeline. Within days of the Taliban takeover of Kabul, a U.S. State Department spokesman2 said that he could see “nothing objectionable” about the Taliban’s version of Islamic law.

While Massoud and the Taliban fought each other to a standstill at the mouth of the Panjshir Valley, the American oil company Unocal hosted a Taliban delegation to explore the possibility of an oil deal.

Five years later, we still haven’t gotten our hands on the oil, but we have found something objectionable about the Taliban.

We are partly the victim of our own shortsighted decision influenced by our lust for oil. Although calls for energy independence—coming from Senators Chuck Grassley and Dick Lugar, for example—have increased, we are a long way from reaching that goal, and are in danger of not seeing beyond the next fix for our addiction when it comes to making foreign policy.

“An oil crisis is unlikely to happen and to add to the other difficulties of the current fight against terrorism,” wrote George L. Perry, a Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. “However it could happen and becomes more likely if the current fight escalates in a way that further inflames the anti-American sentiment in much of the Arab Muslim world.”3

Another oil crisis could be caused by anti-American sentiment, or it could lead to policy decisions that inflame anti-American sentiment and spark more terrorism against the United States.

Although the Bush Administration appears to be prosecuting the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in a way calculated not to make more enemies for the United States, the President appears not to understand how anti-American sentiment becomes inflamed in the first place. “I’m amazed that there’s such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us,” he said at a news conference on 11 October 2001.

We need to recognize that there are people who do find something objectionable about the United States.

“To the detractors of the United States, the Gulf War was not about resisting aggression against Kuwait,” wrote Donald Scherer, Professor of Applied Philosophy at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. “It was about propping up a government that would feed our energy consumption habits regardless of how much Muslim nations came under the influence of American culture and values. To our detractors, the ugly side of those values includes our materialism, wanton sexuality and disregard of spiritual values.”4

This is not to say that there is nothing good about the United States and our influence on world culture. We have earned many friends, and we have many times been a good neighbor, and often an unappreciated one. Nor is it to say that we have made enemies only by bad actions. If we pursue justice, we will make enemies.

The point is that every policy is sowing seeds that will grow into something. Policies that benefit the strongest party—usually us—may be planting seeds of resentment. Sometimes this is even clear when the actions are taken. Look at what happened in 1919, when the victorious Allies imposed the Treaty of Versailles on the defeated Central Powers. Its onerous conditions were intended to subjugate Germany indefinitely and prevent another world war. Maybe the Allies could not have predicted that another war would grow out of the seeds of that treaty, but German resentment was openly expressed. Germany had sought a peace based on President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which included German evacuation of all Russian territory, evacuation and restoration of Belgium, and return of Alsace-Lorraine to France—in short, Germany had to give up all the territory it had taken. Germany signed the armistice of November 1918 expecting that the subsequent peace treaty would be based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which also prescribed “open covenants of peace” (no more secret treaties or alliances), “absolute freedom” of the seas, and “the removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers” to trade.

The Treaty of Versailles piled burdens on top of the Fourteen Points: Germany was forced to accept all blame for the war; lost its submarines, air force, and colonies; had to pay £6.6 billion in reparations; and was excluded from the new League of Nations. In reply to the draft of the treaty, the German delegation to the Versailles conference complained, “A whole nation is called upon to sign its own proscription, yea, even its own death warrant.” Germany offered to take the lead in disarmament, to return the territory conquered in the war, and to make reparations, but begged for self-governance, for participation in building a “Peace of Right,” and to retain its prewar homeland territory and colonies. Except for a few border adjustments in creation of a new Polish state, the Allies rejected every German request, ensuring that Germany would be powerless (as long as the Allies were willing to strictly enforce the treaty, which wasn’t long) and guaranteeing a festering German resentment.

When those seeds grew into a Germany that was far more hostile, aggressive, and militant than the Germany of 1914, the United States (which signed the Treaty of Versailles, even though it went far beyond Wilson’s peace proposal) had at least learned a lesson from 1919: not to make enemies into permanent enemies.

With the Marshall Plan, which pumped more than $12 billion into rebuilding Europe after World War II, the United States made a friend out of a former enemy, and did the same thing with Japan. Even this did not sit well with everyone: the Soviet Union and its satellite states resented the American influence, which virtually preempted communism in Europe outside the sphere of Soviet control. Doing the right thing can make both friends and enemies.

Before World War II, the United States cut off oil supplies to Japan because the Japanese were already waging a war of aggression in the Far East. Opposing Japanese aggression cemented the hostile relationship.

Opposing Iraqi aggression in Kuwait made enemies, some of whom are still attacking us a decade later.

We can’t avoid making enemies.

What we can, and must, do is make friends—not just with those who obviously could harm us, or whose oil we covet, but with all nations as much as possible. For example, is it hard to imagine that with different American policies, Cuba might today be a friend of the United States?

To return to Junger’s comments about the failure of American policy in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union pulled out: “Had the United States continued its support—building roads, repatriating the refugees, clearing the minefields—Afghanistan might have stood a chance of overcoming its natural ethnic factionalism.” This is not to say that we would not be under attack by Usama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. But Afghanistan might not have fallen under Taliban rule, and bin Laden and people like him might have one fewer refuge, and we might not have had to fight a war to depose his hosts. We might even have acquired a pipeline to that Central Asian oil.

America’s riches can be—and often are—a blessing to the rest of the world, and America has generously, and rightly, aided countries that have been hardly cordial to us.

As John F. Kennedy said in his commencement address at American University on 10 June 1963, let us focus on a practical, attainable peace—“on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned.… Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts.”

At every step, we should be looking to plant seeds of friendship, peace, and justice. We will still have wars to fight, and we will still have enemies.

We can’t avoid making enemies. We can avoid making friends—and that is something we cannot afford.

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1 “The Lion in Winter,” in Fire by Sebastian Junger (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), originally published in National Geographic Adventure, March/April 2001.

2 Glyn Davies, on 27 September 1996.

3 George L. Perry, “The War on Terrorism, the World Oil Market and the U.S. Economy,” Brookings Institution Analysis Paper #7, 24 October 2001.

4 Donald Scherer, “Energy and the Quest for Peace.”