Global Policy Forum

The US Proxies Who Haunt Washington


By Jason Motlagh

Asia Times
July 29, 2006

After four months of bloody gun battles shook the streets of the Somali capital Mogadishu, jihadist militias loyal to a union of Islamic courts preside over a tense calm and a routed alliance of US-backed warlords is on the run.

Now that the dust has cleared, however, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is under fire for its clandestine support of secular fighters in a thorny conflict critics say it has failed to grasp, and inadvertently fueled. Worse still, it appears to have chosen the losing side.

But as the United States' messy history of using proxy forces in Africa and elsewhere shows, short-term victories in such dubious dealings assure little. The most successful campaign to date, the CIA-sponsored Afghan war against the Soviets, has in fact also been the most destructive: a Faustian pact with Islamist militants that helped end the Cold War while cultivating the "terror" in the global "war on terror" that will consume the foreseeable future.

During the height of Washington's almost half-century-long showdown with communist Russia, bristling nuclear arsenals in both countries made a direct confrontation between the superpowers too dangerous. The alternative to mutually assured destruction was to engage allies in proxy wars that spanned almost every continent as both sides looked to expand their spheres of influence.

In Asia, Moscow pushed North Korea to attack South Korea, and provided munitions and guidance to the North Vietnamese in their war against South Vietnam. In the Western Hemisphere, Fidel Castro's Cuba became a Soviet spearhead where nuclear warheads once poised 150 kilometers off US shores nearly imploded the globe. And lying at the center of the game board was a vast African continent that came to be viewed as strategically vital, with its massive left-leaning populations apparently up for grabs in the heady days after colonialism.

Ugandan-born political scientist Mahmood Mamdani, who now directs Columbia University's Institute for African Studies, argues that after the Vietnam debacle, the US government changed its tack to staunch the spread of communism from direct armed intervention to indirect support of private armed groups in nationalist insurgencies. "In practice," he writes in his book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror, "it translated into a United States decision to harness, or even to cultivate, terrorism in the struggle against regimes it considered pro-Soviet."

This approach was never more cynically illustrated than in Angola, where the CIA, without congressional approval, sustained right-wing rebel groups that included the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Led by proto-terrorist Jonas Savimbi, the guerrilla force dragged the country through a 26-year war that killed half a million people and displaced 3.5 million.

The Cold War in Africa was anything but. Then-US secretary of state Henry Kissinger became paranoid Angola was falling under Moscow's spell; he advocated US intervention on grounds the Soviets were already providing Cuban troops and military hardware to their Angolan proxy, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. Although declassified documents torpedo Kissinger's claim, the US proffered a steady stream of arms and logistics support to Savimbi's forces, channeled through apartheid South Africa and the Congo dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, who himself became a close US ally while stealing an estimated US$5 billion.

In the Horn of Africa, meanwhile, the deployment of 5,000 Cuban troops to assist Ethiopia's Marxist pro-Soviet regime, known as the Dergue and led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, moved Washington to back the Somali dictatorship of Mohammed Siad Barre, which was at war with Ethiopia. At stake were the critical Red Sea shipping lanes leading to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf and, with them, regional clout. The escalations of 1975-76, in effect, scuttled the prevailing policy of detente between the United States and the Soviet Union, according to Herbert Cohen, senior director for Africa on president Ronald Reagan's national-security staff.

As the Siad Barre regime grew more repressive and corrupt, the US Congress voted in 1989 to cut off military funding; two years later, Siad Barre, saddled with a deplorable human-rights record, was driven out of office by a group of rival warlords, and Somalia was plunged into civil war. Although the Cold War was over and Ethiopia defeated, experts say grassroots Somalis never completely forgot their ousted ruler's harmful links with the United States. During the 1980s, US foreign policy was guided by the Reagan Doctrine, which called for military aid to low-intensity movements opposing Soviet-supported regimes. US intelligence applied the Africa strategy it had used in Angola and Somalia to reinforce the Contras in Nicaragua and a host of other proxies.

In a fight to the finish against the "Evil Empire", victory against the Soviets was acceptable by any means - even as an ill-fated decision to create and empower an ideologically stateless force in Afghanistan spawned Washington's own Frankenstein monster.

The Soviet presence in Afghanistan was perceived as a threat to US strategic oil interests in the Middle East. To push the Soviets back, beginning in 1985 the Reagan administration green-lighted the CIA to furnish mujahideen with arms and intelligence to bleed the enemy; as a departure from covert operations in Angola and Nicaragua, direct contact with the rebels was left to the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. In what became the largest covert action since World War II, the United States gave more than $2 billion in guns (including the infamous Stinger anti-aircraft missiles) to the mujahideen over the decade. Much was siphoned off by the ISI, which officials and experts say continues to sustain al-Qaeda and the Taliban behind the Pakistani border.

Despite the price tag, on one hand the Afghan proxy could be viewed as a bargain considering it expelled the Soviets and hastened the fall of the Iron Curtain. But the unintended consequences, or "blowback", were far worse: a new, elusive and potent international jihadist network had formed under the umbrella of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda.

"The real damage the CIA did [in Afghanistan] was not the providing of arms and money," writes Mamdani, "but the privatization of information about how to produce and spread violence - the formation of private militias - capable of creating terror." Unified by a common mission to strike at the heart of a godless West whose armies dishonored Muslim holy lands, Islamist radicals were primed to commit unprecedented acts of terror without nationalist pretext or the yoke of a centralized operational structure. Al-Qaeda, nurtured by the Taliban in Afghanistan, gained the traction needed to carry out the attacks against the United States of September 11, 2001, and major subsequent strikes in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

The US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban ultimately served to disperse Islamic terrorists into suburban basements and failed states, a post-Cold War dynamic that has again made lawless deserts such as Somalia's, all but forgotten by the US, a strategic liability.

Fearing that lawless territories in Saharan Africa could become "Afghanistan-style" terrorist safe havens, the US government is slated to spend $500 million over the next seven years to secure the region. The Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative provides military aid and expertise to nine at-risk countries - Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. However, a report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, affirms that the Sahara is "not a terrorist hotbed", explaining that repressive governments in the region are taking advantage of the Bush administration's "war on terror" to reap US largess and deny civil freedoms in a scenario that could backfire.

Somalia, for its part, is known to have harbored al-Qaeda operatives. Southern Somalia (Somaliland and Puntland, comprising the northern two-thirds of the country, have declared themselves independent) was the staging ground for the terrorists who attacked US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; radicals have given sanctuary to the al-Qaeda cell that bombed a Kenyan resort and attempted to shoot down an Israeli airplane in Kenya in 2002, according to US State Department reports.

The last US military intervention in Somalia was a 1992-93 humanitarian mission that ended in disaster with the deaths of 18 American special forces, later depicted in the book-turned-movie Black Hawk Down. In the aftermath, Washington turned its back on the dirt-poor country until evidence that it was becoming an al-Qaeda foothold demanded action. Because Somalia has been without a functioning government for 15 years, experts say the United States had no choice but to deal with the warlords - the lesser of two evils.

"Today the game is different ... but the enemy of my enemy is still my friend," said John Pike, director of military studies group "In Afghanistan, the Islamists were seen as the good guys; now it's the other way around. "In Somalia [US intelligence] has opted to lie down with dogs, as the saying goes, and it's not afraid to get up with the fleas."

Some observers have noted that Washington has funded some of the same warlords it fought in 1993. Somali leaders reportedly traveled in March to meet with officials of the Djibouti-based US counter-terrorism task force to plead the case that covert funding of widely loathed warlords would backfire and strengthen radical elements within the Islamic Courts Union. The policy was perceived as an attack on Islam itself, they protested, and support for the very factions whose infighting has shattered the country would rekindle anger smoldering from past US involvements in Somalia.

The administration of US President George W Bush has neither confirmed nor denied bankrolling the self-styled Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism. But US intelligence officials have disclosed that the administration approved CIA financial support for the warlords coordinated by the agency's station in Nairobi. Crisis Group's John Prendergast, a Somalia expert and former official of the Bill Clinton administration, estimates warlords have received about $100,000 a month from the CIA to combat the Courts Union, which he asserted remains anti-Western and has killed Western peace workers.

Still, it is unclear what the Courts Union plans to do, since it is a fragmented alliance of 14 clan-based Islamic institutions. According to Crisis Group, most of the clerics appear to be moderate and seek to restore order in a lawless land: three of the courts represent radical militant factions, with clerics who adhere to Sunni Wahhabi Islam - the brand of al-Qaeda - yet the majority practice mystical Sufi Islam, which Wahhabis snub.

The union's chairman, moderate cleric Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, has rejected allegations that the courts seek to create a Taliban-style state and have shielded al-Qaeda members. Last week he invited the United Nations to dispatch a task force to confirm his pledge, and as his militia moves to control all of southern Somalia, the Islamists may be the only faction left for Washington to deal with.

Unfavorable as this sounds, most experts agree that Somalis are traditionally not inclined toward radicalism. It is now a question of which factions within the Courts Union emerge as the most powerful, they say. Bush, after learning of the Islamic militia's takeover, said his first concern "would be to make sure Somalia does not become an al-Qaeda safe haven, doesn't become a place from which terrorists plot and plan".

Faced with a failed policy in a failed state, US State Department officials convened an international Somalia contact group with European counterparts a week ago in New York to hammer out a new Somalia strategy, to no avail.

"You play the hand you're dealt with," Pike said, invoking the Cold War logic. "States don't have friends, states have interests."

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