Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978, the US sought to support any group that opposed its rival using the strategy of proxy warfare that had achieved varying degrees of success in other conflicts during the Cold War . As the war escalated, the United States was urged by its allies in the Middle East and South Asia (most notable Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) to fund Islamic militias that were fighting against Soviet forces. The international support afforded to these groups over a decade of war with the Soviets laid the foundation for the rise of groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, both of which were active in Afghanistan during the war. When an uneasy period of short-lived peace began in the early 1990s, the American eye shifted its gaze to Iraq just as these groups began to establish their footing; left to operate freely, al-Qaeda developed a violent anti-American agenda as the Persian Gulf War concluded, and the Taliban overran Afghanistan, creating an environment where al-Qaeda and groups with similar objectives could train and operate without fear of outside intervention. The seeds sown during the Afghan Civil War produced a bitter harvest for the United States on September 11, 2001, and its efforts to lead the war on terror that followed now comprise a decade-long struggle to destroy the foundation laid in the 1980s.
Viewed through the lens of Afghanistan, the events that unfolded in Libya and Syria during and after the Arab Spring comprise a parallel set of circumstances. In both states, the US and its allies were presented with the tantalizing prospect of deposing dictators known for their anti-American rhetoric and actions, at the cost of supporting nascent militias with unknown ideological political motivations. To oust Muammar Ghadaffi, a NATO coalition provided heavy military and financial support to such groups in Libya, which initially appeared successful when they ousted the dictator and set up the National Transitional Council; however, this success was tempered by the conflict’s spill into Libya’s neighbors (embodied by the rise of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al-Shariah in North Africa), culminating in the assassination of US ambassador Chris Stevens on the eleventh anniversary of the September 11th attacks one year later. This was especially true as speculation arose that those responsible for Stevens’ murder were armed and funded by the US during the civil war, a notion that was sickening for an American public weary of war and eager to disengage itself from conflict with terrorist groups. In Syria, the international community has proceeded much more carefully, for what appear to be a myriad of reasons. The most positive outcome of this course, whether intentional or not, is that the United States has managed to avoid directly empowering anti-American groups in the country. This was most apparent in Hillary Clinton’s disassociation with the Syrian National Council on October 31, 2012, which directly responded to concerns that radical actors might try to hijack the revolution.
Though America’s involvement in Libya will remain a contentious issue, the majority of the fighting in that nation has concluded and support for armed groups will ratchet down accordingly, making it harder for them to act violently against their former benefactor. In Syria, the situation is not so clear-cut. Even if the United States continues to view possible allies with a discerning eye, other states are not guaranteed to do so. Gulf Cooperation Council states in particular have proven likely to fund both Islamist and salafi groups in Syria whose desired outcome may still run contrary to American interests. Further, Syria is already proving to be a magnet for would-be jihadis in the same way that Iraq was during the first decade of the new millennium, making it difficult for the United States to avoid picking at least one favorite amongst the anti-Assad crowd. America’s biggest obstacle by far is that there may turn out to be no pro-American voice at all amongst this contingent, meaning that the best choice is no choice at all. If this is the case it would be better if the US supported no Syrian opposition group at all, lest it test the age-old adage of enemies yet again with little hope for a different result. Instead, it should focus on planning for the post-Assad era, preventing the war from spilling into neighboring territories, and if necessary, providing strategic support for NATO allies such as Turkey (who are more easily held accountable for their actions than militias) as it continue to escalate its military involvement in the conflict. Only by employing strategies such as these, and thus innovating out of the Cold War mentality of dealing with sectarian conflict, can the US avoid being embroiled at home and abroad in fights that ordinarily would have few direct implications for the American people.
McGhee Cost is an Analyst at 361Security