Over the past year and a half, the United States and other military coalition members have launched nearly 10,000 strikes in Iraq and Syria.
Zooming out, the United States military has spent nearly the entire 21st century engaged in an amorphous war on terrorism, in which the whole world is a potential battlefield, from Yemen to Somalia to the now-expanding war in Afghanistan. Lurking beneath the surface of the seemingly endless series of military campaigns is the contradictory U.S. historical legacy of direct support for some of the very extremist combatants the war on terror is allegedly predicated on fighting.
A recent in-depth investigation published in Harper’s by journalist Andrew Cockburn finds that the U.S. is “teaming up with Al Qaeda, again,” suggesting that this sinister legacy is alive and well and raising disturbing questions about the logic underlying over 15 years of continuous war.
Cockburn is not the first to point out the United States’ role in backing such forces, and some prominent voices are even openly calling for the U.S. to embrace Al Qaeda. But what his account does offer is a devastating illustration of the historical symmetries, from Afghanistan in the 1980s to Syria in the 21st century, underlying what he calls the U.S. government’s “cold-blooded” calculations.
In the wake of 9/11, the story of U.S. support for militant Islamists against the Soviets became something of a touchy subject. Former CIA and intelligence officials like to suggest that the agency simply played the roles of financier and quartermaster. In this version of events, the dirty work — the actual management of the campaign and the dealings with rebel groups — was left to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). It was Pakistan’s fault that at least 70 percent of total U.S. aid went to the fundamentalists, even if the CIA demanded audited accounts on a regular basis.
Fast-forwarding to more recent history, Cockburn notes that U.S. officials have been eager to blame transgressions on allies:
[I]n 2014, in a speech at Harvard, Vice President Joe Biden confirmed that we were arming extremists once again, although he was careful to pin the blame on America’s allies in the region, whom he denounced as “our largest problem in Syria.” In response to a student’s question, he volunteered that our allies “were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
But Cockburn cites specific examples in which U.S. involvement was far more direct.
In the spring and summer of last year, a coalition of Syrian rebel groups calling itself Jaish al-Fatah — the Army of Conquest — swept through the northwestern province of Idlib, posing a serious threat to the Assad regime. Leading the charge was Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, known locally as Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front). The other major component of the coalition was Ahrar al-Sham, a group that had formed early in the anti-Assad uprising and looked for inspiration to none other than Abdullah Azzam. Following the victory, Nusra massacred twenty members of the Druze faith, considered heretical by fundamentalists, and forced the remaining Druze to convert to Sunni Islam. (The Christian population of the area had wisely fled.) Ahrar al-Sham meanwhile posted videos of the public floggings it administered to those caught skipping Friday prayers.
This potent alliance of jihadi militias had been formed under the auspices of the rebellion’s major backers: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. But it also enjoyed the endorsement of two other major players. At the beginning of the year, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had ordered his followers to cooperate with other groups. In March, according to several sources, a U.S.-Turkish-Saudi “coordination room” in southern Turkey had also ordered the rebel groups it was supplying to cooperate with Jaish al-Fatah. The groups, in other words, would be embedded within the Al Qaeda coalition.
A few months before the Idlib offensive, a member of one CIA-backed group had explained the true nature of its relationship to the Al Qaeda franchise. Nusra, he told the New York Times, allowed militias vetted by the United States to appear independent, so that they would continue to receive American supplies. When I asked a former White House official involved in Syria policy if this was not a de facto alliance, he put it this way: “I would not say that Al Qaeda is our ally, but a turnover of weapons is probably unavoidable. I’m fatalistic about that. It’s going to happen.”
And in another example, Cockburn writes:
The determination of Turkey (a NATO ally) and Qatar (the host of the biggest American base in the Middle East) to support extreme jihadi groups became starkly evident in late 2013. On December 6, armed fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and other militias raided warehouses at Bab al-Hawa, on the Turkish border, and seized supplies belonging to the Free Syrian Army. As it happened, a meeting of an international coordination group on Syria, the so-called London Eleven, was scheduled for the following week. Delegates from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East were bent on issuing a stern condemnation of the offending jihadi group.
The Turks and Qataris, however, adamantly refused to sign on. As one of the participants told me later, “All the countries in the room [understood] that Turkey’s opposition to listing Ahrar al-Sham was because they were providing support to them.” The Qatari representative insisted that it was counterproductive to condemn such groups as terrorist. If the other countries did so, he made clear, Qatar would stop cooperating on Syria. “Basically, they were saying that if you name terrorists, we’re going to pick up our ball and go home,” the source told me. The U.S. delegate said that the Islamic Front, an umbrella organization, would be welcome at the negotiating table — but Ahrar al-Sham, which happened to be its leading member, would not. The diplomats mulled over their communiqué, traded concessions, adjusted language. The final version contained no condemnation, or even mention, of Ahrar al-Sham.
Cockburn’s piece underscores the seemingly obvious point that there is a contradiction between the U.S. government’s supposed war on terror and its backing of such forces.
The Syrian war alone has killed nearly a quarter of a million people. According to a report released by the United Nations this summer, one out of every 122 people on the planet has been forcibly displaced by war and persecution. Meanwhile, many from within the region have argued that, in the wake of the Arab Spring, the U.S. and allies like Saudi Arabia played a profoundly counter-revolutionary force against grassroots movements seeking real, democratic alternatives to authoritarian regimes.
In the past year and a half, ISIS has expanded to over 20 countries. The Global Terrorism Index, produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, estimates that global terrorist incidents have significantly increased since the U.S. war on terror began.
As Iraqi-American activist Dahlia Wasfi told AlterNet over the phone, “The people who live in these countries that the U.S. has determined will be the battlefield—those are the people who are suffering.”
If the dealings Cockburn highlights in his report stem from well-thought-out and calculated policies, they are extremely dangerous. If they are merely the product of incoherence, we are already seeing who pays the price.