Anti-war activists have a new item in their arsenal of bones to pick with the war effort. Hopping with delight from one strategic error to the next, many undoubtedly squealed with glee as Senator Robert Byrd (D-WVa) assailed General Petraeus on a new phenomenon: Sunni tribes in Iraq allying with Coalition forces to battle al Qaeda.
In last month’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Byrd suggested that the tribes will “turn around and use the guns we gave them against our troops.” He then compared the effort to “arming the Taliban to fight the Soviet Union,” warning that that “short-term policy hurt our long- term interest.”
There are three things wrong with this position.
First, the premise. Calmly pointing out that “we are not arming the tribes,” the general echoed what those who follow the details of the war effort knew: the tribes are already armed. As Frederick Kagan, one of the surge’s architects, wrote in National Review Online, “The last thing former insurgents need is weapons.”
Second, the history. The US couldn’t have armed the Taliban to fight the Soviets. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, three years before the Taliban was created. It was with Pakistani, not American, support that the Taliban took power in 1996. Senator Byrd apparently is too busy not reading the news to read a history book.
What the esteemed gentleman from West Virginia probably intended to say was that the US armed al Qaeda, an organization distinct from the Taliban. Respected journalist Peter Bergen has called this assertion a “folk myth,” and with good reason.
The US supported Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Many Arabs, like Osama bin Laden, did indeed participate, but they were relatively few in number. Bin Laden and al Qaeda, created in 1988, remained non-entities to US intelligence until the mid-1990s.
The third and final error Senator Byrd made was to infer that by empowering the Sunni tribes in Iraq, we run the risk of “blowback”—just as the imaginary American-armed Taliban struck on 9/11.
Thomas Henriksen, historian at the Hoover Institution, noted just weeks after the 9/11 attacks that “Washington turned its back” on Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Had America remained committed to rebuilding and engaging with the country, one wonders if the Taliban would ever have come to power—and had they not, where al Qaeda would have found sanctuary.
The lesson to draw is that the empowered Sunni tribes can stab us in the back only if we turn our back.