March 19, 2022
The U.S. approach to the conflict in Ukraine is starting to take on the contours of the operation the CIA launched more than forty years ago in Afghanistan, from the types of weapons being delivered to the extremist elements on the receiving end and of course the overriding objective – that being, countering Moscow. Although the strategy may yield some short-term military gains, the U.S. is at risk of repeating the same mistakes Washington made during the anti-Soviet jihad.
Earlier this week, President Joe Biden announced that an additional $800 million in weaponry would be directly transferred to Ukraine to counter Russia’s military operation that began on February 24. The new tranche brings the total U.S. security assistance committed to Ukraine to $2 billion since Biden took office.
The amount of investment is certainly staggering as is the reported “break-neck” pace at which the U.S. is trying to ship these weapons to Ukraine – including items like Stinger Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems (MANPADS), which can take down aircraft. Even more concerning is the fact the U.S. appears well aware that they could fall into the wrong hands.
“Frankly, we believe that risk is worth taking right now,” a senior U.S. defense official told Reuters last week when pressed on this possibility.
POURING FUEL ON THE FIRE?
The total package, combining already provided and committed weaponry as tallied from a White House fact sheet released on March 16, includes 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft weapons,10,000 Javelin and AT4 shoulder-fired antitank systems, hundreds of grenade launchers, thousands of rifles, pistols, machine guns and shotguns, and over 60 million rounds of ammunition. In addition, the laundry list includes 100 drones – including so-called Kamikaze or suicide drones, 70 tactical vehicles, and five military choppers, just to name the big ticket items.
The Biden administration also underscored that at least 30 countries have provided security assistance to Ukraine within the past three weeks alone.
It is too early to tell if the U.S. aid has been effective although there are reports that Ukraine forces have shot down some Russian aircraft but the numbers are disputed and there have been fake videos of such incidents that have gone viral. Expert opinions have ranged from it will be nothing more than an annoyance to Russian aircraft to an ability to create a no-fly zone from the ground. But former Lt. General Douglas Lute said the weapons are unlikely to provide a “decisive edge” for Ukraine.
It is also important to note that, as the Pentagon admitted, Russia has not even employed most of its firepower yet. Although the invasion appeared clumsy and poorly-planned, the Russians at any time can easily escalate the fight to more than match the new weapons flow.
During the CIA’s Operation Cyclone (1979-1992), the U.S. spent $3 billion – roughly $10.3 billion in today’s dollars – to fund, arm, and train mujahideen fighters, with most of the funds going through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The Saudi government said they spent $2.7 billion with private sources adding $4 billion more for a U.S.-Saudi total of almost $10 billion (roughly $34.3 billion in 2022) invested in the freedom fighters.
The initial weapons shipments included basic rifles but were followed by more sophisticated equipment – and by the end of the operation some 2,300 Stingers had made their way into Afghanistan.
One could argue that the Stingers were militarily effective – they certainly boosted the resistance’s air defense capabilities for a period – although the Americans and mujahideen reportedly grossly inflated the number of aircraft shot down. Also, scholar Alan Kuperman noted that the Soviets came up with counter-measures and it was strategic reasons – like Gorbachev’s reluctance to boost troops – that were more decisive to the outcome than the Stinger.
What were the repercussions of unleashing this weaponry? A RAND study revealed that 60 civilian aircraft have been hit by MANPADS since the 1970s, killing more than 1,000 civilians. Moreover, some 57 non-state armed groups – including terrorist outfits like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State – had gotten their hands on Stingers by 2019, according to the report.
A larger problem than the equipment itself is that the U.S. is finding itself partnering with unsavory elements in Ukraine most notably neo-Nazi militants. This is often the case in these situations because the nastiest types are believed to be the most effective at killing. This same theory is the reason Afghan war criminal and butcher Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his ilk became the CIA’s darlings in the 1980s.
According to journalist Ahmad Rashid, some 35,000 radicals from 40 states joined the fight in Afghanistan from 1982-1992. And this was done as Rashid said, “with the active encouragement of the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI, who wanted to turn the Afghan jihad into a global war waged by all Muslim states against the Soviet Union.”
The U.S. decision to knowingly funnel most of the aid to the most extremist elements within the mujahideen would, of course, come back to haunt the United States on September 11, 2001. Just like now, U.S. officials knew they were taking high risks. In fact, many to this day have no regrets – despite the rise of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, as Carter’s security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski would go on to admit in an interview in 1998.
In retrospect, it seems like the anti-Soviet operation was devised by a bunch of lunatics. However, at the time there were very few who saw this – and those who voiced concern were marginalized or even called traitorous. And this very same phenomenon is what we are seeing today, for anyone who objects to Biden’s current policy is accused of being a Kremlin agent or an apologist for Putin – himself mocked for claiming he wants to de-Nazify Ukraine and halt NATO enlargement. Detractors claim he purely wants to conquer Ukraine to reinstitute Russia’s lost empire. Yet even imperial ambitions do not discount the fact that there are neo-Nazis in Ukraine and NATO is building up on Russia’s borders.
Take for example the current controversy over the fighting in Mariupol, where Russia is accused of targeting innocent civilians while falsely blaming casualties on right-wing Ukrainian extremists. Well, it turns out, Moscow is telling the truth in at least one respect: Mariupol is the headquarters of the notorious ultranationalist Azov battalion, which uses the Nazi Wolfsangel as its emblem.
“The city of Mariupol, which has a population of 500,000, is primarily being defended by the Azov Battalion,” Germany’s Deutsche Welle reports. “Mariupol is also where the Azov Battalion, which is part of the Ukrainian National Guard and thus subordinate to the Interior Ministry, has set up its headquarters. Its fighters are well trained, but the unit is composed of nationalists and far-right radicals.”
U.S. legislation at first explicitly banned arming the battalion and in 2019 lawmakers even attempted to designate the regiment as a “terrorist organization,” but to no avail.
The SITE intelligence group has warned that neo-Nazis are exploiting the war, noting that not since the rise of ISIS have they seen such a flurry of extremist recruitment activity.
“Just as the Syrian conflict served as a perfect breeding ground for groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, similar conditions may be brewing in Ukraine for the far right,” SITE executive director Rita Katz wrote in The Washington Post on March 14.
Facebook has even made an exception to its hate speech policy and now allows praise of Ukraine’s neo-Nazis. Facebook will “allow praise of the Azov Battalion when explicitly and exclusively praising their role in defending Ukraine OR their role as part of the Ukraine’s National Guard,” according to an internal document read by the Intercept.
It is quite amazing that the entire Western media without blinking would take the side of the neo-Nazis. There is something quite perverse about this: In World War II, the U.S. and Soviets teamed up to defeat the Nazis and, now, the U.S. is apparently in league with Nazis fighting the Russians.
But the enemy of my enemy is my friend, apparently the logic goes and so we are left with more American-backed “freedom fighters.”
U.S. PRE-INVASION MOVES
Another interesting similarity is the actions U.S. administrations took before Moscow launched its invasions. Brzezinski in the same interview also admitted to the “Bear trap.” He said the U.S. authorized secret aid to the mujahideen in July of 1979 and in a note to Carter said “this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.”
The Obama administration had refrained from giving Ukraine lethal weapons because they figured Russia would retaliate, held an escalatory advantage, and extending such aid would lead to more bloodshed and prolong the conflict, which especially in hindsight seemed quite prudent.
But under both the Trump and Biden administration’s this calculus changed – partly driven by domestic political factors rather than strategic ones. But behind the scenes were anti-Russian hawks who were hell-bent on building up Ukraine forces and extending NATO’s reach.
What recently drew Putin’s ire more than anything is how senior Biden diplomats and defense officials recklessly made noise about NATO’s so-called “open door policy,” and constant clamoring that Russia had no veto on whether or not Ukraine would join the alliance.
Also consider that Russia invaded on a mission to “demilitarize” Ukraine – including destroying all the weapons the U.S. and NATO has provided. Now, it appears Russia may have to stick around even longer. The same security dilemma played out in Afghanistan contrary to Washington’s narrative. The American and Saudi weapons did not drive the Soviets out – it kept Soviets in! But that was the plan all along. And that might be the U.S. gameplan again.
CATO Institute scholar Ted Galen Carpenter, while acknowledging Moscow’s overreaction is worthy of condemnation, sums up the reality that there are two sides to this story – just as there was in the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
“The culpability of the United States and its NATO allies also is sizable. Moving an alliance that one great power dominates to the border of another major power is inherently destabilizing and provocative,” Carpenter wrote in an op-ed earlier this month. “Those people who are familiar with even the basics of international relations should grasp that point; it was inexcusable that so many U.S. and NATO leaders apparently did not do so.”