In weighing a future course on the Afghan War, President Barack Obama might want to ponder the lessons of two other recent American interventions, “regime modification” in Nicaragua at the end of the contra war and “regime change” in Iraq achieved though a U.S. invasion and occupation.

“Regime change” – the overthrow of a targeted government and removal of its key institutions – may offer the swaggering pleasure of total domination, but “regime modification,” which seeks significant change while accepting a continued role by former enemies, may achieve U.S. national interests at a much lower cost and ultimately be more sustainable.

Obama faces that kind of choice in Afghanistan, either going all in militarily to defeat the Taliban – the country’s former rulers who were ousted by the U.S. invasion in 2001 – or accepting a more limited end game that may envision a coalition government that includes the Taliban, while insisting that al-Qaeda terrorists be kept out.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush confronted a similar decision regarding Afghanistan after Soviet troops pulled out ending a decade-long occupation that had been resisted by CIA-backed mujahedeen rebels. The goal of the CIA’s semi-covert war had been to expel Soviet forces from the country.

After the Soviet departure, Bush had the choice of accepting a proposal from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to negotiate a coalition government that would have included both the Soviet-backed communist regime in Kabul and the mujahedeen – or of making the new U.S. goal the complete destruction of the communist government.

Urged on by hardliners in his administration, Bush opted for full-scale regime change in Afghanistan, with the expectation that the government headed by communist leader Najibullah would fall quickly and CIA-backed forces could then claim total victory.

However, Najibullah’s army managed to beat back a mujahedeen offensive in 1990 and the communist government didn’t collapse until 1992 – when the Soviet Union no longer existed and new Russian President Boris Yeltsin cut off support. By then, however, the prospects for a negotiated end to the Afghan conflict had faded.

Najibullah was replaced by one of the more moderate mujahedeen commanders, Ahmad Shah Massoud, a member of the Tajik minority. However, Massoud lacked a major ally from the dominant Pashtun population and thus made little progress in defeating more extreme mujahedeen warlords and bringing order to Afghanistan.

Finally, a new Pashtun group found a winning message: End the fighting, control the warlords, clean up the corruption, hold elections and perhaps bring the King back. This group was the Taliban, young Islamic fundamentalists who had been organized from refugee camps inside Pakistan by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI.

When the ISI-backed Taliban drove Massoud from Kabul in 1996 – and lynched Najibullah who had remained behind – they began to show their true face. Their idea of reform was to transform Afghanistan into a medieval Pashtun village governed by repressive Islamic law that denied education and other rights to women.

The Taliban also provided sanctuary to Arab extremists who had come to Afghanistan for the anti-Soviet jihad and later formed an anti-Western terrorist organization, al-Qaeda.

In the case of George H.W. Bush’s 1989 decision, the insistence on “regime change,” rather than “regime modification,” transformed what had been a significant achievement for U.S. foreign policy – the ouster of Soviet troops from Afghanistan – into what evolved over the next two decades into a foreign policy disaster. [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Why Afghanistan Really Fell Apart.”]

The Nicaraguan Comparison

In contrast, one can examine how the Nicaraguan conflict was resolved with “regime modification” based on compromise and collaboration among former enemies.

The Nicaraguan story began with the 1979 victory of leftist Sandinista rebels over longtime U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he viewed the Sandinista regime as representing a Central American beachhead for the Soviet Union’s “evil empire.” Reagan authorized the CIA to give covert military aid to a contra rebel force that conducted raids into Nicaraguan territory.

Reagan’s covert war always tip-toed along the line of “regime change.” Officially the administration insisted that it only wanted to modify Sandinista behavior, like discouraging its friendly ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union and in stopping its assistance to other leftist movements in Central America.

Yet, by the mid-1980s, it was clear that the administration’s goal was to see the contras march into Managua and take power. Under the then-dominant neoconservative ideology, it was considered an indisputable truism that “communist” regimes could only be removed by force.

That neocon view set up a confrontation between the presidency and Congress, where Democrats favored a less aggressive strategy and were alarmed by the brutality of some contra units – as well as high-risk CIA actions such as mining Nicaragua’s harbors.

To stop the excesses, Congress imposed restrictions on CIA aid to the contras, first barring efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan government and then banning military assistance outright.

Those prohibitions, known collectively as the Boland Amendments after their sponsor, Rep.  Edward Boland, angered administration hardliners, such as Elliott Abrams, the neoconservative assistant secretary of state for Latin America who emerged as a leading voice for the contra cause.

Reagan administration officials bristled at constraints on presidential power and, in defiance of Congress, started off-the-books secret programs to supply the contras with weapons and money. Those operations gave rise to the Iran-Contra scandal in late 1986.

Over the next year, as a congressional investigation kept the Reagan administration on the defensive, five Central American presidents got together to seek peace. They met in Guatemala City in August 1987 and endorsed a plan put forward by President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, calling for free elections in Nicaragua and demobilizing the contras.

Jim Wright

Yet, it was doubtful that the Arias plan would have stood much of a chance if House Majority Leader Jim Wright had not intervened.

A Texas Democrat with longstanding personal knowledge of Central America, Wright worked with Arias to refine the plan's language and to pressure both the Sandinistas and their political opposition to make concessions.

However, the Arias plan still didn’t please Reagan hardliners who believed that only more years of contra warfare could force the Sandinistas to accept major changes, including elimination of its revolutionary government and its replacement by a regime acceptable to Washington.

So, by late 1987, after the congressional Iran-Contra investigation had run its course, the Reagan administration tried to revive the contra war. In particular, Abrams lobbied for a new contra aid package by citing threats that the Sandinistas supposedly posed to regional stability.

However, Wright and other supporters of a negotiated settlement rejected those alarms as exaggerated and pushed instead for U.S. acceptance of the Arias plan. The decisive vote on contra support came on Feb. 3, 1988, with Wright and other contra-aid opponents carrying the day, 219-212.

Wright’s push for a negotiated solution also maneuvered the Sandinistas into accepting an earlier date for presidential elections, which pitted incumbent Daniel Ortega against opposition leader Violeta Chamorro. Her campaign enjoyed U.S. financial backing and also benefitted from voters’ hopes that her election would end both the brutal contra war and a harsh American trade embargo.

When the election was over on Feb. 25, 1990, Chamorro had won handily, garnering 55 percent of the vote to Ortega’s 41 percent. The decisive victory put Chamorro into the presidential palace but didn’t entirely drive out the Sandinistas who retained key posts in what amounted to a coalition government.

While happy about the Sandinista defeat, some of the old Reagan crowd disapproved of the Sandinistas holding any continued influence in the government. But the new political equilibrium in Nicaragua contributed to greater regional stability as civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala also were brought to negotiated settlements.

In the end, U.S. policy – especially Wright’s intervention in the late 1980s – had promoted “regime modification,” rather than “regime change,” an ending not to everyone’s liking but a result that stopped the killing and restored at least a semblance of order to Central America.

For their part, the Sandinistas largely accepted their role as an opposition party and competed for power in subsequent elections. (Ortega regained the presidency by the ballot box in 2007, and critics say his governance since then has exhibited some of his old anti-democratic tendencies.)

‘Regime Change’ Redux  

Despite the largely successful outcome from “regime modification” in Central America, the neoconservatives never lost their hunger for more fundamental “regime change.”

When the neocons returned to power in George W. Bush’s administration – with Abrams holding a key Middle East policy post on the National Security Council staff – they pushed for full-blown “regime change” in Iraq.

They got their chance after al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington and after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan drove the Taliban from power by late 2001.

Under neocon urging, Bush turned his attention to Iraq, diverting U.S. military and intelligence assets from Afghanistan to the Iraq theater. The March 2003 invasion took only three weeks to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein.

But the neocons were not satisfied with simply a change at the top. They wanted to thoroughly reconstruct Iraq as a kind of model government in the Middle East that would be a reliable – or at least acquiescent – friend of the United States and Israel.

In the first weeks of the U.S. occupation, retired Gen. Jay Garner ran the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq. He favored quickly re-establishing the Iraqi bureaucracy and military with many of its old officials back in place. There also would be prompt elections and a rapid turnover of power to the new Iraqi government. That, in his view, would allow a speedy drawdown of U.S. military forces.

Garner listed his reasons for standing the Iraqi army back up early, including the danger of having 300,000 to 400,000 unemployed soldiers roaming the streets and the need to use the army for national reconstruction. [See Tom Ricks’s Fiasco, pp. 161-162]

Garner also worked with Iraqis in key posts at various ministries even though they had been members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

But Garner had little staff in Iraq and less clout in Washington. He was soon out-muscled by the ascendant neocons at the Pentagon. He was done in particularly by Douglas Feith, Under Secretary for Policy in the Defense Department who was in charge of day-to-day Pentagon activities in Iraq. [Ricks, p. 105]

By May 11, 2003, barely a month after U.S. forces had taken Baghdad, Garner was removed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and replaced by ex-diplomat and neocon favorite Paul “Jerry” Bremer. This time, the neocons weren’t going to be satisfied with just a change of faces at the top.

Bremer’s Choices

After arriving in Iraq on May 16, 2003, Bremer made two decisions in the next eight days that changed the whole tenor of the occupation and undid all of Garner’s work.

Bremer banned members of the top four ranks of the Baath Party from government employment. He also discharged the personnel in the Army, the Navy, Military Intelligence, the Interior Ministry, and the Defense Ministry.

Feith’s office was responsible for drafting the executive order that reversed the administration’s earlier thinking that stressed the value of showing leniency. Feith argued that dissolution of the Iraqi armed forces was inevitable and the U.S. should embrace it.

What Bremer’s extreme de-Baathification did was to remove from the civil service between 30,000 and 50,000 people who were the brains and the backbone of the government ministries.

Then, Bremer’s order dissolving the armed forces cashiered 386,000 military personnel, who were out on the streets along with 285,000 ex-officials of the Interior Ministry.

In one week, Bremer had purged from the government more than 500,000 people, many of them carrying weapons and some with the organizing skills that would prove crucial for putting together an insurgency.

The most aggrieved were Sunnis who had occupied most of the higher jobs in government and comprised most of the army officers. Their potential for restoring order after Saddam Hussein’s ouster was transformed into a means to create mayhem and rebellion.

But that was not the expectation of the neocons who saw Iraq as a chance to test out their theories of “regime change” during an era of American military supremacy.

Young neocons and Republican activists were soon flooding into Iraq with ideas for reorganizing the entire Iraqi political structure into some idealized democracy, equipped with mini-versions of commissions to regulate securities and oversee elections.

Hubris and Ideology

Ideology had won out over practicality. Hubris was the prevailing sentiment. It apparently never occurred to the neocons that their decisions would provoke a stubborn insurgency. Nor did they seem to understand the value of having an indigenous bureaucracy to help carry out an occupation.

The neocons were shooting at bigger fish. They had a vision of an Iraqi democracy as a base for a “democratic tsunami” that would sweep the Middle East and extend as far as China, according to neocon theorist Joshua Muravchik.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer eyed Lebanon and Syria as the next two countries that would undergo democratization in this neoconservative moment. That, in turn, would protect Israel from attack, since it was central to neocon theories that democracies don’t attack other democracies.

However, these theories ignored the realities of the Middle East, where true democracy – representing the opinions of the populace – might just as easily reflect the strong anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments of the Arab “street,” as was seen with Hamas’ electoral victory in the Palestinian territories in 2007.

Meanwhile, back in Iraq, many Sunnis felt disenfranchised and disempowered. They chose to rise in rebellion against their Shiite rivals and the Americans. Sunni insurgents even collaborated with elements of al-Qaeda that had opened up an affiliated organization in Iraq under the brutal leadership of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The American occupation of Iraq might have gone quite differently – and quite a bit better – if the original Garner plan had been implemented, restoring the old bureaucracy and army, though under new management, and then withdrawing U.S. troops as quickly as possible.

That, however, would have represented a form of “regime modification” like House Majority Leader Wright helped mid-wife in Nicaragua. That required compromise and a willingness to share power with old enemies.

The neocons, who were unwilling to budge on their ideological certainties, preferred the more sweeping “regime change,” wiping the old government slate clean and starting with a tabula rasa that would allow the sketching of an entirely new government.

[For the most comprehensive report on these events, see Rajiv Chandrasekaram’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City.]

The results of that neocon political experiment in Iraq have included an estimated price tag of $1 trillion-plus, and more than 4,300 American soldiers dead along with uncounted thousands and thousands of dead Iraqis.

In deciding what course to follow in Afghanistan now, the United States ironically finds itself back at a moment similar to the one that faced President George H.W. Bush in 1989 – whether to compromise and take half a loaf or to reach for the whole loaf even if that means fighting for years into the future.

In making that choice, President Obama might want to gauge the relative costs and benefits between all-or-nothing “regime change” versus the give-and-take of “regime modification.”

Bruce P. Cameron has served as a Washington lobbyist for various governments over the past several decades, including Nicaragua, Mozambique, Portugal and East Timor. He is the author of My Life in the Time of the Contras.

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