Reagan’s legacy in Afghanistan debated
By Carol Giacomo
Experts fault Reagan’s successor, Bush Senior, and President Clinton, for “walking away” from Afghanistan after the Soviet departure, allowing extremists to find havens there
WASHINGTON: Ronald Reagan’s support for mujaheddin fighters helped oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989, a defeat that ultimately contributed to the communist superpower’s own collapse.
But should Reagan, who died last Saturday at 93, carry some of the blame for the rise of extremists headed by Osama bin Laden and the current instability in Afghanistan? Like so much about America’s 40th president, that is a matter of debate. Richard Clarke, former anti-terrorism adviser to President George W. Bush, wrote in a new book that acquiescing to the involvement of an “army of Arabs,” including bin Laden, in Afghanistan in the 1980s was one of four Reagan administration “mistakes” that affect the United States today.
Milton Beardon, who ran the CIA’s covert aid programme in Afghanistan during the Soviet period, thinks that argument is misleading. “The whole concept of the Arabs and the (Afghan) war has been overblown,” he said.
If mistakes occurred, it was the price of forcing Moscow to withdraw from Afghanistan, said Beardon, adding: “There is always an unintended consequence of war.” Reagan was so committed to confronting the “evil empire” that he forged an aggressive policy of backing anti-communist insurgents in proxy wars worldwide.
According to Clarke’s book, “Against All Enemies,” Afghanistan was Reagan’s best opportunity to drain the Soviets because they were ill equipped for such a major deployment.
At first Reagan did not offer much financial aid to the Afghan resistance, but later he provided them with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and boosted funding from $35 million in 1982 to $600 million in 1987, Clarke wrote.
“The idea of trying to hit at what was perceived as the vulnerable underbelly of the Soviet Union had wide support among experts and in retrospect, it definitely contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Kenneth Katzman of the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service. Some say bin Laden financed and recruited fundamentalists to fight alongside Afghan tribal leaders, but Beardon said most of the money went for orphanages and homes for widows. Bin Laden was in one important battle in 1987, but his military role was also minor.
While Afghanistan did become a magnet for “Arab bad boys,” Islamic extremists were already active before they arrived, Beardon said. Also, Reagan’s administration did not give weapons to Arab “volunteers” but focused on Afghan factions, experts said. Nevertheless, Clarke said, when Washington engaged Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in the anti-Soviet fight, “America sought (or acquiesced in) the importation into Afghanistan and Pakistan of an army of ‘Arabs’ without considering who they were or what would happen to them after the Soviets left.”
Nobody predicted these tacit U.S allies would later turn so threatening towards America. “I think it would have been very difficult to forsee,” said Katzman. Critics complain the United States should have given its funding to moderate Afghan tribal groups and accuse Washington of being beholden to Pakistan’s intelligence service, which channeled U.S aid to the most extreme Afghan factions.
More broadly experts fault Reagan’s successor, father of the current president, and President Bill Clinton, for “walking away” from Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Soviet departure, allowing extremists to find havens there. reuters