What Does History Say About U.S. Success in Arming Rebel Movements?

Margaret Warner talks to former Reagan administration official Michael Pillsbury and The Nation's Robert Dreyfuss on what past endeavors by the United States to offer military aid to rebel movements can teach government officials today about providing weapons to the Syrian opposition.


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MARGARET WARNER: So what does history say about how successful the U.S. has been in arming rebel opposition movements?

On that, we get two views, Michael Pillsbury was assistant undersecretary of defense for policy planning during the Reagan administration. He was responsible for coordinating covert aid to the Afghanistan mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets. He's now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and still advises the Defense Department.

And Robert Dreyfuss is a journalist and contributing editor at "The Nation" and author of the book "Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam."

And welcome to you both.

Bob Dreyfuss, beginning with you, as the U.S. embarks on this, arming the Syrian rebels, what has been the track record in the past of success or failure in doing this?

ROBERT DREYFUSS, author, "Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam": Well, it is a mixed record, to say the least.

We can point to Afghanistan as the primary example of what happens when the United States kind of bumbles into a country that it really doesn't understand the dynamics of, and unleashes a force that it doesn't control.

You could say the same thing about Angola during the same period, during the Reagan doctrine era, when we tried to back rebel groups in that country against what was then a pro-Soviet government.

But, in both cases, you are unleashing a devilishly complex force that you don't control, you don't command and which is something that you are taking a huge risk in funneling arms and money into a group like that.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Pillsbury, is it -- has history proven that it is really a risk and in fact leads to more problems? I mean, take the Afghan example, in which you were intimately involved.

MICHAEL PILLSBURY, former U.S. assistant undersecretary of defense: I would say it is possible to succeed. Pessimists often paralyze action. So it is important to see the risks.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, do you think arming the Afghan resistance was, in the end, successful, or, as of course the history has shown, ultimately, many of those same mujahideen became the core of al-Qaida, which ended but, of course, becoming a sworn enemy and dangerous enemy to the United States?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Well, you mean the Taliban. They became the core -- some part of the people we worked with and aided and gave money to did, in fact, become Taliban leaders.

But the majority became part of the government in Afghanistan today, including President Karzai, Rahim Wardak, who has been his defense minister for six years.

So, no, we didn't end up unleashing forces we couldn't control. We ended up supporting the eventual victors, but far fewer people had to die than if we had done nothing.

ROBERT DREYFUSS: In Afghanistan, in particular, it wasn't just the Taliban, but actually because we were twice removed from that, we were funneling our money into the Pakistanis, who then, in turn, distributed the money and the arms to the rebels.

A big chunk, in fact the majority of the chunk of the money and the support we were giving went to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is now one of the leaders of the Hezb-e-Islami party, which is fighting -- literally fighting us today in Eastern Afghanistan.

We helped create al-Qaida by supporting the Islamists who rallied around Osama bin Laden's role in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. By going into Afghanistan, we led to a catastrophic civil war, which broke the country apart for five years after the Soviets left, and then led to the Taliban regime, and everything that has happened since then.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Mike Pillsbury back in this.

In this case, the administration is trying to arm the good guys among the Syrian rebels, that is, the ones who are the original Sunni opposition who are not Islamists, to strengthen them against the jihadi-minded rebels.

Have we ever attempted that kind of -- making that kind of fine distinction and with any success? Was that a problem in Afghanistan?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Yes, it was. There was a -- a problem involving the Pakistanis having a preference for the more jihadi-minded mujahideen and our trying to support those who had been trained in the West and were more secular in orientation.

There's a number of lessons that were learned by President Reagan's effort with the Afghan rebels. One of them was, the first five years, we made many mistakes. The program was too small. The weapons were single-shot World War I rifles. There was no political coordination. The second five years, where we were successful and where President Obama could learn lessons for what to do about Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: And the lessons are that you have to -- if you are going to go in, you go all in?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Exactly. We got much more involved with the Afghan rebels.

We helped them plan missions, we shared intelligence with them about what were the most vulnerable targets that would kill almost nobody, but the targets themselves would so impress the other side that the war would end sooner. That's the kind of intelligence information that the Syrian rebels need.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Dreyfuss?

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Yes, well, by all accounts, we just know that these Syrian rebels, the majority of them, are, in fact, one or another strain of radical Islamists, especially the best fighters.

And the idea that we understand Syria well enough to vet and pick and choose which of these rebels who we would support is ludicrous. We didn't understand Iraq when we went in there.

We didn't understand Afghanistan in 2001, when we went in there. And I would argue we still don't. And we certainly don't understand Syria in terms of its internal dynamics.

I don't see what the United States has to gain by supporting rebels, especially when there is a diplomatic path out of that, and that would start, by the way, with us putting pressure on Qatar and Saudi Arabia to wind down their support for the rebels, and then draw them and Assad into this Geneva peace conference, which the United States and Russia are trying to put together. And Iran could play a role in that too.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mike Pillsbury, final quick thought from you on the point that Mr. Dreyfuss just raised, that at the very least you have to have great coordination and common purpose with your allies in this and not be at cross-purposes?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: You also have to focus on humanitarian...

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: I do agree with that. That was in the second five years where the success came from.

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: But you also have to focus on the humanitarian side. If you read Samantha Power's book, you see, standing aside, to do what Bob Dreyfuss recommends, we stand aside and do nothing, we are not going to have a peaceful cease-fire.

A million people are going to die. That is the reason for the intervention. I support what President Obama has decided. And I think Bob Dreyfuss and others had better get on board. That debate is over. We are involved now. The question is, how to be effective, how to win.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I think, unfortunately, this debate is over.

But thank you both, Mike Pillsbury and Bob Dreyfuss.