They didn’t expect the big guns. They hoped for rifles, maybe, for AK-47s – cheap, accurate and mean numbers that did the job. And the US was more than happy to oblige. After all, stacked up against them, said president Jimmy Carter, was the greatest threat to peace since the Second World War. But, big guns – or rather, missiles – were what the Mujahideen (Afghanistan’s Islamic rebel forces fighting against the Afghan government and Soviet Russian forces) got in the 1980s. Stingers – about two thousand of them: heat-seeking, aircraft-smashing and shoulder-fired.
As a military experiment, Operation Cyclone was a wild success. In the hands of the hitherto lightly armed insurgents, the Stingers plucked dozens of Soviet choppers from the sky, forcing the Kremlin to eventually leave behind the blood, tears and their burnt-out hardware in Central Asia.
But as anyone who watched the film Charlie Wilson’s War knows, the plot in Afghanistan was somewhat lost after the US’s mission-accomplished banner was unfurled in the early 1990s and the post-war plan was tucked away in a subterranean Pentagon closet, à la an ark in a certain Spielberg film. And because of that short-sightedness, and because of the Stingers’ deadliness, and because, perhaps, of Murphy's Law, things took a turn for the worst.
In the 1990s, the US unsuccessfully attempted to buy back all the unused missiles, fearing they would land in the lap of anti-American fighters. And then came September 11th, after which Afghanistan’s then-Islamist government – the Taliban – and the closely associated terrorist group Al-Qaeda, jointly took the top spot for the US’s enemy number one.
It’s a story of unintended consequences known in intelligence circles as “blowback”: covertly arm a group to the teeth to bring down your rival, mix and stir, and then that group soon turns against you. Remember this when considering Syria.
At a recent press conference, US defence secretary Chuck Hagel admitted that the US may rethink its current hesitant stance on arming the Syrian rebels – that amorphous and ideologically incoherent group fighting Bashar al-Assad. This is unwise.
Two years of a desperate and angry struggle against the government has radicalised vast parts of the rebel forces. Extremists now make up the main chunk of the uprising. And Syria is now the destination-de-jour for the world’s most adventurous Islamists.
So, what to do? The atrocities in Syria are horrendous and the lack of a solution to the conflict is frightening. One doesn’t envy the policymakers whose job it is to solve it. Throwing American gunpowder into a smouldering furnace, however, is not the answer.
Daniel Giacopelli is a producer at Monocle 24.