Some advice for those thinking about conducting unconventional warfare.
Afghan lessons for arming the Syrian rebels from the CIA's mujahideen point man.
BY JOSHUA E. KEATING | JUNE 14, 2013
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 toldForeign Policy today. "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."
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