Project on Defense Alternatives

Don't Court Disaster In Iraq

by Alan J. Kuperman

Perhaps the only thing more dangerous than failing to study history is to draw the wrong lessons from it as Joshua Muravchik does in urging the U.S. to foster a military insurgency in Iraq ("Apply the Reagan Doctrine to Iraq," editorial page, Wall Street Journal November 3, 1999). Mr. Muravchik hails the Reagan Doctrine, which in the mid-1980s consisted mainly of supporting four anticommunist and ostensibly pro-democratic insurgencies: UNITA in Angola, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Mujahedin in Afghanistan and the Contras in Nicaragua. In retrospect, the results of this policy were decidedly mixed.

UNITA achieved a peace settlement in Angola, but lost subsequent elections and chose to slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians rather than accept the results. The Khmer Rouge rejected Cambodia's historic peace settlement, then was defeated militarily, and now apparently will stand trial for genocide. The Mujahedin have turned Afghanistan into perhaps the most oppressive state on earth for women, harbor accused terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, and were a breeding ground for terrorists who bombed New York's World Trade Center. The Contras are a relative success story in that they compelled Nicaragua's Sandinistas to hold democratic elections and peacefully hand over power, but the country appears none the better for it.

All this chaos might have been justified if fostering insurgency actually had triggered the demise of global communism, but there is scant evidence of that. Angola, Cambodia and Nicaragua had little if anything to do with the fall of the Berlin Wall. American policy toward Afghanistan did have an impact, but not because "the Mujahedin bled the mighty Soviet army dry," as Mr. Muravchik claims.

During a decade of occupation, the Soviets lost only 14,000 troops in Afghanistan--less than a quarter of American deaths in Vietnam. They never deployed more than 120,000 troops, a mere 3% of their total armed forces, yet never had their control seriously threatened. Anti-war sentiment among Soviets did not surface until President Mikhail Gorbachev intentionally lifted a domestic press embargo on war coverage to generate support for withdrawal. Though the Red Army never could completely wipe out insurgents able to retreat to rear bases in Pakistan, the occupation could have continued indefinitely at relatively low cost.

The real motivation for Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, according to recently opened archives, was a separate element of U.S. policy: the economic sanctions imposed by President Carter and steadfastly maintained by President Reagan in response to the invasion. Mr. Gorbachev desperately sought Western technology to revive his moribund economy, but the sanctions blocked such aid. As a result, he forged a consensus for withdrawal from Afghanistan within his ruling Politburo by the end of 1985, well before the much heralded U.S. provision of Stinger missiles to the rebels. (Negotiations and final withdrawal dragged out for several more years in the Soviets' vain attempt to leave behind a sturdy friendly regime, much as with the American departure from Vietnam.)

Thus, the Reagan Doctrine does not deserve credit for Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. The doctrine's net impact world-wide was to foster instability, terrorism and genocide in three conflicts, and to transfer power from one ineffective government to another in the fourth. Despite this motley record, Mr. Muravchik urges reprise of the Reagan Doctrine in Iraq, where it likely would have equally disastrous consequences. Past uprisings by Iraq's oppressed majority Shiites and minority Kurds have only strengthened Saddam Hussein and increased the killing of innocents, as his ruling Sunni minority and Sunni-led army rallied behind him to crush any threat to their power.

Given this ethnic dynamic and the strength of the Iraqi army, the most a new insurgency likely could achieve--even if the rebels united and received weapons and air support from the U.S.--would be to foster a protracted communal civil war in Iraq. Such a war likely would drag in Turkey's Kurds, Iran's Shiites and other neighbors with ethnic or religious links to the combatants, disrupting commerce in a region containing the bulk of the world's proven oil reserves. Saddam would be compelled to launch a brutal counterinsurgency and might again use unconventional weapons if he felt sufficiently threatened.

While nobody can be sanguine about someone as ruthless and risk-prone as Saddam Hussein continuing to rule Iraq, for the past eight years U.S. military forces and international sanctions have successfully deterred his external aggression or use of unconventional weapons. To switch now to a policy of fostering insurgency--based on a misreading of history and inappropriate analogies--could transform today's tense but manageable situation into a full-fledged disaster.

This commentary originally appeared as a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, November 18, 1999. Alan J. Kuperman is a fellow in transnational security at MIT's Center for International Studies.

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