‘Don’t Try to Convince Yourself That You’re in Control’
Afghan lessons for arming the Syrian rebels from the CIA's mujahideen point man.
Thirty-year CIA veteran Milton Bearden knows a thing or two about providing arms to rebels. As a field officer in Pakistan and Afghanistan from 1986 to 1989, he oversaw the $3 billion covert program to arm the Afghan mujahideen to fight the Soviet occupation — a program that has become the textbook example of how arming rebel groups can have unintended consequences once the war is over.
With the announcement that the United States is planning to begin providing small arms to rebel groups in Syria, Bearden is blunt as to what the CIA’s experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s should teach us. "The lesson here is that once we start providing anything to the rebels, we better understand that if they win, we own it," he told Foreign Policy on Friday, June 14. "The big cheerleaders on the Hill for doing this aren’t focused on this. The biggest lesson from the Afghan thing was that over a 10-year period we supplied all this stuff and then walked away once the Soviets left. The same Congress that was cheerleading the brave freedom fighters against the Soviet occupation — and they were brave and they did suffer brutally — just walked away and wouldn’t give them a nickel. If we start arming anyone in this enterprise, implicit in that is that we own it once the Assad regime falls."
Bearden also believes the administration should think carefully before providing the anti-aircraft systems that the Syrian rebels have requested. "If you do, don’t try to convince yourself that you’re in control," he said. "It was the right thing to give the Afghans the Stinger missile. It was a moral. Otherwise, we were just fighting to the last Afghan and letting them die with a little more dignity. The Stinger did turn things around and force the Soviets to change tactics. But there are still some of those Stingers lying around over there. A shoulder-fired weapon is really something you have to contemplate. Into whose hands should they fall?"
Since last year, media reports have suggested that the CIA is already involved in "vetting" the rebel groups receiving aid from neighboring countries, separating acceptable Syrian combatants from those affiliated with al Qaeda or other anti-Western militants. In Bearden’s experience, distinguishing "good" from "bad" rebels is a tricky task.
"People have criticized the CIA effort in Afghanistan because we gave weapons to Islamic fundamentalists," he said. "Well, I don’t know how many Presbyterians there are over there. The implication is that if only some history professor could have told us who to give the weapons to, we would have found the Methodists and the Presbyterians. You can try, but you can’t do that very well. It’s their rebellion. They have their agenda. Our agenda now is to turn up the heat on Bashar al-Assad. [The rebels] have an agenda that goes beyond that, and certainly beyond what they understand on Capitol Hill."
In any event, such vetting only has limited usefulness, said Bearden, since "once you begin arming any rebellion that involves fractious parties in the same rebellion against a common enemy, you’ve got to understand that the materials you give to the group of your choice will be sold, traded, bartered to most of the other players."
The nature of the operation also determines the type of guns you’ll want to send. In Afghanistan, the U.S. aid program was a covert operation, "even though the whole world seemed to know," Bearden said. The CIA, therefore, chose to supply the rebels with Soviet-designed AK-47s purchased from China and Egypt in order to maintain plausible deniability. But Warsaw Pact weapons also had a tactical advantage, since they were interoperable with the weapons already in the field: If the mujahideen captured a Soviet ammunition cache, they could just load the bullets into their own U.S.-provided rifles.
While this is also presumably also true for the rebels fighting Assad’s Russian- and Iranian-backed military, Bearden suggests that providing the rebels with "Made in the USA" guns might be one way to control how they’re used.
"Since this is not a covert thing, and we’re not trying to conceal the U.S. hand in it, you can limit the mobility of the weapons you provide if you were to not use Warsaw Pact equipment," he said. "If you had a specific group you wanted to arm and not have that bleed into the other groups, you could give them U.S. equipment. The ammunition would not be interchangeable with the stuff that’s on the battlefield right now. You can then control what happens by monitoring or turning on or off the supply of ammunition to those systems."
But beyond tactics, Bearden says the biggest lesson of Afghanistan is to begin planning for how to handle the aftermath — before you start sending guns. He believes this could have saved both countries years of grief.
"We needed to say, ‘You just lost a million people dead, and million and a half wounded, you have 5 million people driven out into exile in Pakistan and Iran and maybe a million and a half internally displaced persons and a totally destroyed country. We’re going to help you!’" Bearden said. "There were seven separate parties, and when we walked away they did what was natural — [they] began to fight for a very small pie. We now have had to come back in there primarily because of that and have had to spend close to $1 trillion. I have no idea what it would have cost us in 1989, but I guarantee it wouldn’t be approaching $1 trillion."
Bearden also believes U.S. politicians should be under no illusions about who will ultimately be held responsible for the outcome in Syria: "Don’t say, ‘Oh, it’s a coalition with the British and the French.’ No, it’s us. We had a coalition supporting the Afghans against the Soviets. We had the U.K.; we had the Saudis; we had the Chinese for God’s sakes! But when it was over, we owned it. And we walked away."