The enemy of my enemy is my friend…until he becomes my enemy.
On 07 December 1941, Japan launched a blitzkrieg that swept across the Pacific. In just six months, Japan added Burma, the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, the Philippines and much of the British Western Pacific Territories to her empire. Japanese air and naval forces conducted raids on Darwin and Columbo. A push into the Solomons threatened to isolate Australia. In the wake of the Japanese juggernaut, the United States sought allies wherever she could find them regardless of their political stripe. One such group was the Viet Minh, an independence movement that first fought against the Vichy French and then the Japanese after they occupied what was then known as Indochina. The leader of that movement would play a major role in world events from 1938 until his death in 1969.
His name was Nguyen Sinh Cung (aka Nguyen Tat Thanh, aka Nguyen Ai Quoc). He was born in Hoang Tru, the village of his mother in 1890. He grew up in Lang Sen, the village of his father. As a concession to his father, a Confucian scholar, teacher and imperial magistrate, Nguyen received a French education – attending lycee (secondary school) in Hue. At twenty-one Nguyen signed on as a cooks helper on a ship bound for America. From 1912-1919 he divided his time between the United States and the United Kingdom working at various jobs – more often than not, as a waiter, chef or baker. In 1919, Nguyen settled in France where a friend introduced him to the Socialist Party of France. Socialism appealed to Nguyen but he felt its doctrines did not go far enough to address the injustice of colonialism. Increasingly radicalized Nguyen became a founding member of the Parti Communiste Francais. His political activities brought him to Moscow where he served as the Comintern’s Asian authority specializing in colonial warfare. Nguyen used this time to hone his expertise in propaganda, sabotage and revolutionary support. In 1923, he enrolled at the Communist University of the Toilers in the East and attended the Fifth Comintern Congress in June 1924. November 1924 found Nguyen in Canton organizing Youth Education Classes and giving lectures at the Whampoa Military Academy on the revolutionary movement in Indochina. The anti-communist coup of 1927 led by Chiang Kai-Shek forced Nguyen into exile. He drifted from Moscow to Paris, then Brussels, Berlin, Bangkok, Shanghai, Hong Kong (where he was briefly jailed but released by the British), Milan and finally back to Moscow. In 1938, Nguyen returned to China serving as an advisor with the Chinese Communist army. In 1940, Nguyen took the name by which he is now most recognized – Ho Chi Minh (He Who Enlightens). In 1941, Nguyen / Ho took control of the independence movement in Vietnam fighting first the Vichy French and then the Japanese occupying forces. It was here that he perfected the craft of revolutionary warfare , which he pursued with a ruthlessness and single mindedness on a par with Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Ironically or tragically, depending upon your point of view, in April 1945 an OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA) agent with the unlikely name of Archimedes Patti met with Ho offering support in return for intelligence information on the Japanese. Ho readily agreed and the OSS began sending supplies, equipment and military teams to train the Viet Minh. In the interim Ho fell critically ill with malaria and dysentery. An OSS doctor assisted in his recovery.
The rest as they say is history. Following the August Revolution in 1945, Ho became Chairman of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. On 02 September 1945, following the abdication of Emperor Bao Dai, Ho Chi Minh declared independence for Vietnam with himself as premier. A communist government on his southern border was an anathema for Chiang Kai Shek and the Nationalist Chinese government, who, as the war with Japan ended, now found themselves in a life or death struggle with Mao Tse Tung. The Republic of China dispatched an army of 200,000 men to Hanoi ending Ho’s revolution. It was a temporary setback. When Chiang traded Chinese influence in Vietnam in return for French concessions in Shanghai, the Viet Minh quickly recouped their previous position. In the ensuing power struggle thousands of members of rival factions such as the Constitutional Party, the Party for Independence, National Party of Vietnam and Dai Vet National Party were jailed, exiled or killed. After a failed coup in July 1946, all opposition parties were abolished and the purges intensified in order to tighten control and eliminate any possible future resistance. These purges were but a harbinger of things to come. Of course, the French had other plans for their former colony in Indochina. The French saw the Viet Minh as a useful tool to eliminate Vietnamese nationalists and counter the Chinese who were also attempting to exert control in the region. They offered to recognize Vietnam as an autonomous state within a reconstituted Indochinese Federation; in other words a colony by another name within the French Union. Return to the status quo ante bellum was unacceptable to Ho. On 19 December 1946, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam declared war on France, beginning the First Indochina War. The debacle at Dien Bien Phu marked the end of French involvement and the beginning of America’s war with her former friend, Ho Chi Minh.
Lessons Learned – None
You would think some corporate knowledge would have been passed down as the OSS evolved into the CIA or that President Truman would have left a cautionary note regarding former friends for his successors but that was not the case.
For thirty-five years, the United States followed President Truman’s policy of containment regarding the Soviet Union. Over time, containment devolved into detente and detente into accommodation allowing a government responsible for an estimated 100 million deaths to dominate nearly forty nations, shape events throughout the world and foment revolution from Angola to Nicaragua. In 1980 that paradigm radically changed – “We win and they lose.” Immediately upon taking office, President Reagan directed his National Security Council to formulate a strategy to defeat what he labeled “an evil empire” and the mortal enemy of the United States. The end product was a series of National Security Decision Directives summarized below:
• NSDD-32 support anti-soviet movements (including covert action)
• NSDD-66 disrupt the Soviet economy
• NSDD-75 bring about fundamental change
At every opportunity, President Reagan used the national and international stage to verbally attack the Soviet Union while lauding those who opposed it such as Lech Walesa. By implementing a massive build up of the United States military, including the Strategic Defensive Initiative or Star Wars program as its detractors called SDI, he forced the Soviet Union into an economic competition it could not win. In addition to the public relations campaign and what amounted to economic warfare in October 1983, President Reagan intervened in Grenada, directly challenging the Brezhnev Doctrine that the USSR would use force if necessary to ensure that a Socialist state remained Socialist as brutally demonstrated in Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968. Another opportunity to “beard the lion” came when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. During Operation Cyclone (1979-1989), the CIA provided money and weapons, most importantly Stinger missiles, to the mujahedeen through Pakistan’s Intelligence Service, which, in conjunction with the Pakistani Army, trained Islamic insurgents.
America prevailed. Due to Reagan’s multi-front offensive, the inherent internal contradictions of communism, resurgent nationalism in the Soviet Union’s client states and the fact that in the emergent electronic age the Political Bureau could no longer control the information its citizens received, the USSR ceased to exist in December 1991. Vaclav Havel, the former President of Czechoslovakia, described this event as “on the same scale of historical importance as the fall of the Roman Empire.” Victory over the “evil empire” came a high price however, for in vanquishing one foe the United States played midwife to a perhaps even more dangerous, certainly more insidious enemy.
The son of a billionaire construction magnate with close ties to the Saudi Royal family Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Raised as a devout Wahhabi Muslim, bin Laden attended Al-Thager Model School and King Abdul-Aziz University. As an adult bin Laden inherited an estimated 25-30 million dollars, which he used to found his own construction company and, later on, to fund terrorist activities.
Increasingly radicalized bin Laden’s convictions came to include the belief that:
• the Saudi Royal family had betrayed Islam by allowing infidels to occupy the two holiest sites of Islam – Mecca and Medina
• the United States had oppressed, killed and exploited Muslims and as a decadent, multi-cultural society was the mortal enemy of Islam
• the imposition of Sharia law by violent jihad was God’s will and the only way to save true believers
• civilians, including women and children, were legitimate targets in the war against infidels
• non believers, to include Shia Muslims, were heretics that must be converted by the word or the sword
• Pan-Arabism, socialism, communism, democracy, etc. were an anathema to Islam
• Afghanistan under the Taliban was the one true Islamic nation and the model for a worldwide caliphate
Bin Laden was true to his beliefs, extreme though they were. In 1979 bin Laden went to Pakistan where he joined forces with Abdullah Azzam, using his own money to support the Mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. After five years, that effort grew into the Maktab al-Khidamat, an organization that funneled money, arms and fighters from around the Arab world to Afghanistan. Based inside the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, Al-Khidamat provided tickets, quarters, false identification and other paperwork, training camps, etc. to the “faithful” who sought to join the holy war. To assume a more active role in 1988 bin Laden split from al-Khidamat to form al-Qaeda a group that, in his words, would be an “organized Islamic faction, its goal to lift the word of God, to make his religion victorious.”
Emboldened by the defeat of the USSR and angered by the American “occupation” of Mecca and Medina the two holiest shrines of Islam bin Laden denounced the Royal family. Banished by Saudi Arabia he promptly established new base of operations for al Qaeda in Khartoum. There he came in contact with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. This group formed the core of al-Qaeda. In 1996, pressured to leave Sudan, bin Laden returned to Jalalabad, Afghanistan. There he forged close ties with Mullah Mohammed Omar. In that same year, he declared war on United States for its continued occupation of Saudi Arabia and its support of Israel. He also took over Ariana Afghan Airlines. Bin Laden used the airline to ferry Islamic militants, arms, cash and opium through the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. The international arms smuggler Viktor Bout helped run the airline that CIA agent Michael Scheuer termed a “terrorist taxi service.”
Bin Laden’s strategy, as it had been with the Soviets, was to lure the United States into a long war of attrition and “bleed America to the point of bankruptcy.”
In February 1998, he co-signed a fatwa with Ayman al-Zawahiri in the name of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders. In this declaration, he called for the murder of North Americans and their allies by any means and decreed it the duty of every Muslim to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque (in Jerusalem) and the holy mosque (in Mecca) from their grip. Thus began the series of attacks and bombings culminating in the attack on the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001. He justified that action in the following statement:
“God knows it did not cross our minds to attack the Towers, but after the situation became unbearable – and we witnessed the injustice and tyranny of the American-Israeli alliance against our people in Palestine and Lebanon – I thought about it. And the events that affected me directly were that of 1982 and the events that followed – when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon, helped by the US Sixth Fleet. As I watched the destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me punish the unjust the same way: to destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we are tasting and to stop killing our children.”
To understand why American efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are so difficult it is necessary to look beyond the purely military aspects of these operations to the broader political, social, economic and cultural elements that produce Muslim extremists and why they view the United States as vulnerable.
For all its wealth, the Middle East is a region in crisis. In the year 2000, its population stood at 304,055,000. By 2015 that figure is projected to rise to 400,085,000. The population is largely young (less than 20), poorly educated, impoverished, alienated and, consequently, easily manipulated. Far too many live in crumbling cities overwhelmed by a burgeoning population; victims of weak, often corrupt governments which fail to provide even basic public services such as education, housing, garbage collection, transportation and health care or utilities such as sewage, potable water and electricity. The government’s inability to fulfill or outright abandonment of its obligations creates a void in the social contract. The local mosque fills that void providing Islamic schools, clinics, hospitals and welfare services. In the hands of zealots such as the Wahhabis, these institutions are used to recruit new adherents and support extremist causes. The feral cities of failed states are breeding grounds for terrorists who exploit the alienated for their own ends. Palestine is a perfect example of a government, which deliberately keeps its people in poverty and ignorance in order to promote its political agenda perpetuating a vicious cycle of violence and hatred for its own ends.
Unlike Christianity Islam is both religion and sociopolitical system. There is no separation between church and state so revered in the west. In a system where God’s rule (Hakimiyat) and divine law (Sharia) originate from the same source, the Koran, man-made political orders are blasphemy. According to the righteous, those who live in moderate Arab states reside in ‘the abode of the infidels’ (dar al Kufur). It is the duty of the pious to struggle (Jihad), even wage holy war (Harb Mukaddasah) against the infidel until all know the blessings of Allah. No wonder a rich, secular and polyglot nation such as the United States is seen as the ‘Great Satan’ corrupter of the faithful. Support for Israel and our superpower status further exacerbates the problem.
President Clinton responded to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 bombings in Saudi Arabia, the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, the 1998 bombing of U. S. embassies in Africa and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole with much rhetoric and token gestures. His timorous, ineffectual response to these events coupled with our perceived defeat in Somalia emboldened our adversaries especially Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden’s own words are noteworthy, “Where was this false courage of yours when the explosion in Beirut took place in 1983? And where was this courage of yours when two explosions made you leave Aden in less than twenty-four hours! But your most disgraceful case was in Somalia; where – after vigorous propaganda about the power of the United States and its post-cold war leadership of the new world order – you moved tens of thousands of an international force, including 28,000 American soldiers, into Somalia. However, when tens of your soldiers were killed in minor battles and one American pilot was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu you left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you…. You have been disgraced by Allah and you withdrew. The extent of your impotence and weakness became very clear.” Osama Bin Laden viewed the United States as a ‘paper tiger’ and having defeated one super power in Afghanistan felt fully capable of and morally justified in taking on another.
Although Osama bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda is a hydra. As current events have amply demonstrated al-Qaeda, its affiliates and like-minded organizations are growing in reach and power throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Capitalizing on the fervor of religious extremists and utilizing the tactics of asymmetrical warfare terrorists will be a significant threat to the United States for the foreseeable future.