After four days of debate, the House of Representatives recently approved a nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush’s troop increase in Iraq by a vote of 246-182. According to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the legislation was designed to “signal a change in direction in Iraq that will end the fighting and bring our troops home.”
To be sure, withdrawal from the bloody fighting in Iraq might save lives in the short term. It would certainly provide relief from the relentless stream of bad news coming out of Baghdad. But has Congress stopped to consider the lessons to be learned from recent history, when Islamist fighters forced superpowers to surrender in a guerrilla war?
For those who have forgotten, the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan led directly to the burgeoning and metastasizing of the al Qaeda movement. Indeed, al Qaeda was founded in 1988 or 1989, as the Soviet army, which had occupied Afghanistan since 1979, began to buckle under the pressure of the U.S.-backed mujahideen war. Using CIA-supplied weapons, the Afghan fighters inflicted painful blows on the Soviets for as long as they occupied Afghanistan. Finally, on February 15, 1989, the last Russian soldiers left that country.
While Washington celebrated the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan as a CIA victory, the Arab and Afghan rebels cheered the Soviet withdrawal as a victory of their own. Indeed, bin Laden believed that Allah “provided us with his support and kept us steadfast until the Soviet Union was defeated.” With a perceived victory against a world superpower, the nascent al Qaeda organization grew in confidence, popularity, and numbers.
Al Qaeda’s success against the Soviets was shortly followed by another successful challenge to a superpower. Al Qaeda claims to have provided the weapons and training behind the 1993 “Blackhawk Down” incident, in which two American Army Blackhawk helicopters were shot down and a third crash-landed in Mogadishu, Somalia. The result was that 18 Americans died and 78 were injured. Thus, bin Laden boasts, “America exited dragging its tails in failure, defeat, and ruin, caring for nothing. America left [Somalia] faster than anyone expected.” The U.S. withdrew from its peacekeeping mission in Somalia in March 1994—less than two years after it entered the country, leaving the mission to flounder.
With two victories under its belt, al Qaeda was emboldened to carry out increasingly audacious attacks against the United States. From the twin embassy bombings of 1998 to the USS Cole bombing in 2000 to the September 11 attacks, bin Laden and his henchmen continued to issue direct challenges to the United States that went largely unanswered. Indeed, one could argue that U.S. inaction during the Clinton administration led to the perception that America was a paper tiger, which only encouraged al Qaeda to further test American will.
Consider this quote from bin Laden: “We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weakness of the American soldier. He is ready to wage cold wars but unprepared to fight hot wars….We are ready for all occasions, we rely on God.”
Al Qaeda and its affiliates are clearly willing to fight a hot war in Iraq. The White House and Pentagon, despite some painful lessons, have steeled their resolve to fight back. Washington’s antiwar politicians, however, are proving to be the kind of American politicians that al Qaeda grew to count on during its rise in the 1990s.
A return to Clinton-style military decision-making would demonstrate an amnesia about the brutality of America’s Islamist enemies. If the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 led to the growth of al Qaeda, and the U.S withdrawal from Somalia in 1993 invited increasingly deadly attacks, an American retreat from Iraq would likely invite a new wave of violence at levels never before seen.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury intelligence analyst, is director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center. He is the author of Al-Qaeda’s Armies: Middle East Affiliate Groups and the Next Generation of Terror.