How Myths Can Kill
Myths can be innocuous enough, providing pleasure and comfort to believers, for instance, the Jesus birth stories that are celebrated at Christmas or the legends of Abraham and Moses conveying God’s promised land to the Israelites.
But myths can have a darker side when they are embraced as religious or ideological truths. A millennium ago, Christian Crusaders slaughtered tens of thousands of Muslims to secure the Holy Land for Christian pilgrims, and even today many Israeli Jews resist compromises for peace because of the legends contained in the Torah, or Old Testament.
Other Judeo-Christian myths have contributed to horrendous bloodshed. The crucifixion story in one gospel – that of John – shifted blame for the killing of Jesus from the Romans to his fellow Jews, contributing to centuries of vicious anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust. Most likely, John’s story reflected a religious rivalry between early Christians and Jews and was a bid to appease the Romans by lessening their role.
Similarly, over the past century, Zionists who advocated a Jewish homeland in ancient Israel exploited the myth of the Diaspora, the supposed Roman dispersal of Jews from the Holy Land to be scattered throughout Europe. The Diaspora justified the return of European Jews to their “original” home, thus correcting a historical injustice.
However, research by Israeli historian Shlomo Sand and others indicates that the Diaspora never happened, that the vast majority of European Jews originated from the religious conversion of large tribes in Eastern Europe and Northern Africa more than a millennium ago, not from some mass exodus organized by the Romans after Jewish uprisings almost two millennia ago.
The research further suggests that most of the original Israelites remained in the Middle East. They either created strong Jewish communities across the region or converted to Islam. In other words, the Palestinians who have been displaced by the modern state of Israel were likely the descendants of the ancient Israelites, not the European Jews who emigrated after World War II.
In that way, when history replaces myth, powerful narratives can change – shifting the sense of right and wrong, often bestowing greater humanity on a persecuted people, whether the Arabs killed by the Crusaders, the Jews persecuted in Europe, or the Palestinians displaced from their land.
There also have been modern myths used to justify political decisions, whether on a grand scale or more narrowly.
For instance, grand theories about American “exceptionalism” have rationalized U.S. imperial interventions around the world, wars and covert actions that would have been condemned as aggression or even terrorism if carried out by some other nation.
A smaller myth, George W. Bush’s “successful surge” in Iraq, contributed to President Barack Obama following a similar surge strategy in Afghanistan.
Though the “successful surge” myth in Iraq is now a cherished conventional wisdom in Washington, the actual evidence of why Iraqi violence declined points to many other reasons – some predating President Bush’s 2007 order to send in more than 20,000 additional troops. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Explaining the Drop in Iraqi War Dead” and “Obama Pleases the Neocons.”]
Another Afghan-related myth is the hard lesson supposedly learned from the U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan immediately after the Soviets departed in February 1989. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has cited that experience – popularized in the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” – to explain why the Obama administration must now stick it out there.
Accompanying Gates on a recent trip to Afghanistan, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described how “Gates promised that America would not repeat its disappearing act of 1989. Flying from Kabul to Iraq, I asked him if … he was driven to war because of guilt at abandoning people we had promised to stand by.
“‘I don’t feel guilt about it, but we made a strategic mistake,’ he said. ‘And it wasn’t just the Afghans. At almost the same time, we basically cut off our relationship with the Pakistanis. And the mistrust that exists today is a reflection of that action on our part.’” [NYT, Dec. 15, 2009]
However, as Gates well knows, there was no sudden disappearing act. Indeed, as the Soviets began pulling out in 1988, Gates – as deputy CIA director – was in the middle of policy discussions about what to do next.
The State Department was open to working with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev who favored a negotiated settlement to the war, followed by a coalition government involving remnants of the communist regime of President Najibullah and representatives of the U.S.-backed mujahedeen.
However, Gates championed the CIA faction that wanted to rebuff Gorbachev and rely on the mujahedeen to quickly wipe out Najibullah.
At the time, I was a Newsweek correspondent covering intelligence issues and I asked some CIA officials why the United States wasn’t willing to just collect its winnings from the Soviet withdrawal and help patch Afghanistan back up as best they could.
One CIA hardliner responded to my question with disgust. “We want to see Najibullah strung up by a light pole,” he snapped.
Gates was on the inside pushing a CIA analysis that Najibullah’s government would fall promptly once the Soviets left, which their final combat units did on Feb. 15, 1989.
By then, Gates had moved from CIA to be President George H.W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser -- and Gates’s position carried the day.
Instead of collaborating with Gorbachev on a peace initiative or simply cutting off U.S. covert aid once the original goal of a Soviet withdrawal had been achieved, Bush signed a new finding that justified a continued war on behalf of Afghan “self-determination.”
In the authoritative book on the Afghan conflict, Ghost Wars, author Steve Coll wrote that “throughout 1989, the CIA pumped yet more arms, money, food, and humanitarian supplies into the Paktia border regions where the Arabs [Osama bin Laden’s group] were building up their strength.”
With the CIA determined to oust Najibullah from power, U.S. officials also continued to press Saudi Arabia to continue its massive investment in the Afghan conflict. Only gradually did Congress reduce the level of U.S. funding, though it remained substantial more than a year after the Soviets left.
“For the period from October 1989 through October 1990, Congress cut its secret allocation for the CIA’s covert Afghan program by about 60 percent, to $280 million,” Coll wrote. “Saudi intelligence, meanwhile, provided $435 million from the kingdom’s official treasury and another $100 million from the private resources of various Saudi and Kuwaiti princes. Saudi and Kuwaiti funding continued to increase during the first seven months of 1990, bettering the CIA’s contribution.”
Contrary to Gates’s expectation, however, the Najibullah government didn’t fall easily. Using its Soviet weapons and advisers, Najibullah’s regime beat back a mujahedeen offensive in 1990. Najibullah hung on – and the war, the violence and the disorder continued ripping Afghanistan apart.
Gates finally recognized that his CIA rapid-collapse analysis was wrong. In his memoir, From the Shadows, he acknowledged that the State Department’s analysis predicting a more resilient Najibullah army had proved correct.
Yet, by the time George H.W. Bush’s administration recognized that Gates and the CIA hardliners were wrong, it was too late to work with Gorbachev on a negotiated settlement. He was struggling to survive a challenge from communist hardliners before the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 and Boris Yeltsin rose to power.
In his memoir, Gates revealed that he was well aware that the United States did not immediately abandon the Afghan cause once the Soviet troops left in February 1989.
“Najibullah would remain in power for another three years [after the Soviet pull-out], as the United States and the USSR continued to aid their respective sides,” Gates wrote. “On Dec. 11, 1991, both Moscow and Washington cut off all assistance, and Najibullah’s government fell four months later. He had outlasted both Gorbachev and the Soviet Union itself.”
[By the way, Gates and the CIA analytical division that he helped politicize also missed the collapse of the Soviet Union.]
Najibullah’s belated fall in 1992 may have brought an end to the communist regime, but it didn’t stop the war.
The capital of Kabul came under the control of a relatively moderate rebel force led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, an Islamist but not a fanatic. However, Massoud, a Tajik, was not favored by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, which backed more extreme Pashtun elements of the mujahedeen and funneled most of the covert aid to them.
The various Afghan warlords battled for another four years as the ISI readied its own army of Islamic extremists drawn from Pashtun refugee camps inside Pakistan. With the ISI's backing, this group, known as the Taliban, entered Afghanistan with the promise of restoring order.
The Taliban seized the capital of Kabul in September 1996, driving Massoud and his Northern Alliance into a northward retreat. The ousted communist leader Najibullah, who had stayed in Kabul, sought shelter in the United Nations compound, but was captured.
The Taliban tortured, castrated and killed Najibullah, his mutilated body hung from a light pole, just as CIA hardliners had envisioned seven years earlier.
Setting the Stage for 9/11
The victorious Taliban then imposed harsh Islamic law on Afghanistan. Their rule was devastating to women who had made gains toward equal rights under the communists, but were forced by the Taliban to live under highly restrictive rules, to cover themselves when in public, and to forgo schooling.
In the late 1990s, the Taliban also granted Saudi exile Osama bin Laden and his extremist al-Qaeda organization a safe haven when they were on the run from the United States angered over bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa and other terrorist attacks.
Bin Laden, who shared the Taliban’s fundamentalist view of Islam, was welcomed back because bin Laden and his fellow Arab militants had collaborated with the CIA-supported Afghan rebels in their war against the Soviets in the 1980s.
By the late 1990s, however, bin Laden and al-Qaeda had a new enemy: the United States. The stage was set for the 9/11 attacks.
Though Gates is familiar with all this ugly history – and even recounts some of it in his memoir – he was happy to exploit the widely accepted myth of the immediate U.S. abandonment of the Afghan cause once the Soviets departed.
Today, the abandonment myth plays into Gates’s desire for an escalated war in Afghanistan rather than serious peace talks aimed at bringing together a coalition government that would include some factions that might be very distasteful to the United States.
As with so many myths that prove useful to powerful interests, the Afghan abandonment myth also obscures the actual history, which – if known – would teach a strikingly different lesson.
If the American journalists traveling with Gates had understood that Gates and other Bush-I officials chose to continue the earlier Afghan war with visions of total triumph dancing in their heads, the reporters might have challenged Gates and argued that the real lesson of 1989 was that an imperfect peace can be preferable to an expanded war.
They also might have recognized that Gates’s reputation as an esteemed Wise Man, who in the words of Washington Post columnist David Broder is “incapable of dissembling,” is another myth. [For more on Gates’s real history, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Secret World of Robert Gates.”]
So, while myths – whether ancient or modern – can sometimes tell a pleasing tale, they have the capacity to get many people killed.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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