In her autobiographical work, based on her tenure as U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton makes a startling statement while explaining the need for U.S. intervention around the world, despite the “dangers” to American lives. “While we can and must work to reduce the danger,” writes Ms. Clinton, “the only way to eliminate risk entirely is to retreat entirely and to accept the consequences of the void we leave behind. When America is absent, extremism takes root, our interests suffer, and our security at home is threatened” (Hard Choices, p.387, Simon & Schuster, 2014).
It is curious that Ms. Clinton thinks that extremism thrives when America is absent, as empirical facts and the patterns one can glean from them indicate that the opposite is truer. While Iraq and ISIS’ brutal advance on Baghdad is at the top of the news now, it must be remembered that each of the countries today at the center of the world’s concerns over extremism is in fact a country that has seen direct or indirect western intervention, not western absence — Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Iraq.
Authoritarian yet secular regimes
There are other patterns to these interventions. In each of these countries, what the United States, along with allies sought to oust were authoritarian regimes that were secular. The Soviet-backed regimes of President Najibullah in Afghanistan, President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. The movements these leaders set up were dictatorial; they controlled their people through stifling intelligence agencies, and crushed all political Islamic movements where they could. But a by-product of the secularism was that women and minorities had a more secure status under these regimes than under their Islamist and monarchist neighbors like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. Unlike them, Mr. Assad, Qadhafi, Saddam and Najibullah had women and minorities in their cabinets, and a sense of Arab/Afghan nationalism overshadowed the sectarian divide in their countries.
When the West has tried to intervene to oust them, it has always strengthened the opposition to these leaders, which by definition includes groups that are anti-secular, jihadi extremists. Whether it is by design or otherwise, it is these groups that have eventually taken control of the entire opposition. Finally, this intervention has led to a carving up of the country on sectarian lines; along bitter, historic, ethnic and communal lines.
“It seemed like a great idea,” she said in an interview to U.S. channel CBS (October 6, 2009), “Back in the ‘80s to — embolden — and train and equip — Taliban, mujahidin, jihadists against the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan. With our help, and with the Pakistani support — this group — including, at that time, Bin Laden, defeated the Soviet Union … And we left the problems of a well-equipped, fundamentalist, ideological and religious group that had been battle hardened to the Afghans and the Pakistanis.”
Such candour was clearly not possible toward the end of Ms. Clinton’s term and the possible beginning of her campaign for U.S. President in 2016, and hence was not repeated in her book, Hard Choices, but the point is understood. Extremism takes root, not when America is absent, but indeed when America is present, and then goes absent, leaving “battle hardened,” “fundamentalist groups” in its wake with each intervention.
Ms. Clinton is not alone in her faulty logic however, and is joined by other western leaders. In New Delhi this month for bilateral meetings, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who had pushed the Security Council for direct intervention to oust Mr. Assad, including counselling air strikes, made a baffling statement in response to a question on ISIS terrorists. “The groups now attacking Iraq,” he said, “are exactly the groups that France has been fighting in Syria. France has always spoken of opposing terrorist groups everywhere.”
Again, this is not quite accurate. During the Libyan crisis, the French government was at the forefront of backing the Libyan rebels who eventually stormed Tripoli after six months of air raids by NATO aircraft. During that time the French military admitted to airdropping weapons and ammunitions for the rebels, and the local media reported that about 40 tonnes of weapons and tanks were sent in over the western Tunisian border. None of this was in line with the U.N. mandate of the “responsibility to protect” citizens. When the rebels finally entered Tripoli, NATO forces on the ground were led in by the “Tripoli Brigade,” with three commanders — Abdel Hakim Belhadj, a former al-Qaeda terrorist, arrested by the U.K. several years earlier, Abu Oweiss, a Qatari-trained commander, and Mahdi Al-Harati, an Irish Libyan who quit the revolution later that year to set up the Islamist militant group “Liwa Al-Umma” that went to fight against Mr. Assad’s army in Syria.
Helping the ‘extremist’ militants
Meanwhile in Libya, Qadhafi’s ouster and brutal killing ushered in an era of jihadist control Libya had never seen before. Cities like Benghazi came under the control of groups like Ansar-al-Sharia, while the newly elected assembly voted in full Shar’ia law in 2013. AQSL or Al-Qaeda Senior Leadership and AQIM or Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib have strengthened their presence and use parts of the country to train cadres operating in other parts of Africa including Kenya and Mali. Inside Libya, those who protested, like the secular army commanders and human rights activists who had originally rebelled against Qadhafi, were either sidelined or murdered. Last month, famous human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis, a firebrand who rejected the hijab, and criticized Belhadj openly, was shot dead in Benghazi. Speaking to the New Yorker magazine, her best friend said, “Sometimes I think that we just ****** up by removing Qadhafi — that I would rather live under a dictator and not worry about the safety of my family.” It’s a “mistake” Libyans are paying for every day, even as the West turned its interest and attention away from them, and to Syria.
Turning on the West
Unfortunately, for the West, there is also another pattern to its form of intervention — that the groups it enables, invariably take its weapons, and then turn their jihadi guns on it (the West). From the Taliban and Osama, to the rebels in Benghazi, the U.S. has been the hardest hit by these very groups it once saw as the means to its interventional ends. Yet, U.S. Senator John McCain, who was in New Delhi recently to meet the Indian leadership, seems to ignore the evidence repeatedly. In 2011, he visited rebels in Libya and demanded that they be armed by the U.S. “I think we could do the same thing that we did in the Afghan struggle against the Russians,” he said in a speech at that time. Two years later, he was in Syria, being photographed with militant leaders, and demanding that the U.S. arm them, the way it had in Afghanistan.
Following that lead, the U.S. and its European allies will be guilty eventually, of having helped the same terrorists in Syria, whom they want to attack in Iraq, much like when the West helped the Taliban in Afghanistan, only to end up sending drones after them in Pakistan. All of which will certainly disprove the case made by Ms. Clinton on the absence of America and the rise of extremism. Churchill once said, history is written by the victors. In the jihadi wars of Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan however, the narrative is conflicted, because there really are no winners, and everybody loses.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in The Hindu, a leading Indian daily. Click here to go to the original.