When you're trying to overthrow your government, it helps to have friends—foreign friends. Especially if the government also has foreign friends.
Just ask the Afghans. The mujaheddin are determined, courageous, and ruthless fighters with terrain and time on their side. But with 115,000 Soviet troops in their country, armed with helicopter gunships ideal for ferreting out "bandits," they needed more than time and courage. They needed help.
And they got it: from the Chinese, who share a very tiny border with Afghanistan and a very long one with the Soviet Union; from the Saudis, who provided the rebels' earliest source of funds and later matched U.S. contributions dollar-for-dollar; and, of course, from the United States. All told, the mujaheddin received at least $4 billion over nine years.
Thanks to this help, the Afghan resistance could face the Soviets with more than World War I–vintage Enfield rifles and captured surface-to-air missiles. Now the Soviet troops are leaving. The future is unclear, but the trend is in the direction of the mujaheddin.
Meanwhile, on our side of the world, the Contras are collapsing. A couple thousand may fight on, an annoyance to the regime, but the Nicaraguan resistance is done for as a large-scale movement or credible threat. The Sandinistas can expand their airfields, dredge their harbors to accommodate Soviet ships, and consolidate their revolution in peace.
As the two conflicts that drove the debate over the Reagan Doctrine draw to a close, it is time to take a careful look at the strategy of aiding anti-Soviet guerrillas. Why did it succeed half a world away and fail—miserably—in our own hemisphere? Can we in the United States, as well as any future anti-Soviet resistance movements, learn anything from these experiences?
From the point of view of resistance fighters, it's safe to conclude that outside military support—not troops, but money and matériel—is absolutely essential. You can't fight the Soviets (or any other major power, for that matter) on a shoestring budget with black-market weapons, unless, of course, you're going for martyrdom, not victory. Those who use the Vietnam analogy would do well to remember that it was not the will to win that was traveling down the Ho Chi Minh trail to the Viet Cong. It was supplies, and plenty of them.
But not every kind of aid helps. It did the Contras no good for the CIA to hire Argentine goons to train them. It was not only morally disgusting, it was tactically stupid, since the Argentine "dirty war" was fought by the government against urban guerrillas (and the population in general), while the Contras are the guerrillas and have almost no urban base.
Similarly, the soldiers in the field have to get what they need, not what their foreign friends think they should have. The CIA and State Department fought tooth and nail against providing handheld Stinger missiles to the Afghan resistance. But those missiles changed the course of the war.
Which brings us to a more general point: weapons are better than advice. In rhetoric if not reality, the Reagan Doctrine was designed to offer assistance to indigenous forces, not U.S. puppets. Constant "advice" creates puppets. Do what we say, goes the implied threat, or we'll take our weapons and go home. And if the resistance really does need continuous handholding, it's not very likely to be effective in action.
In fact, dependency is the potential downfall of any resistance. Just as a business risks financial disaster when one customer accounts for most of its sales, so a guerrilla movement risks rapid collapse if it depends on a single source of supply. Any country can change its mind, and democracies like the United States are especially likely to.
The mujaheddin would not have sent the Soviets packing so quickly without U.S. weapons. But even without those weapons, they had both the will and the ability to hold on for a long time, as everyone was well aware. Because they didn't depend on the aid bill of the month—their determination was crucial, but so were their Saudi and Chinese patrons—the mujaheddin could be defeated only in the hills of Afghanistan, not in the halls of Congress.
The Contras, by contrast, were completely dependent on the United States. They never even created a reliable overland supply network, so much did they count on U.S. air deliveries. Even when other countries contributed to their cause, the U.S. government made the overtures. So when Congress finally decided to cut off aid, the Contras were finished.
Where does all this leave the United States? Maybe we should get out of the aid business and rely on our nuclear bombs and maybe-someday-to-be-built SDI to counter the Soviet Union.
Such a strategy is, however, not in the best interests of peace, security, or freedom. In the nuclear age, the last thing anyone should want is a direct superpower-to-superpower confrontation. But the alternative is grubby little wars fought in distant places by brown people with their own goals in mind.
Such small wars don't have that World War II–style glamour, but they are devoutly to be preferred to the big bang—or to Red Dawn daydreams of turning U.S. citizens into anti-Soviet guerrillas, sans foreign friends. And it is better to give local forces the wherewithal to fight their own battles than to constantly draw lines in the dirt that demand U.S. invasion if crossed.
Backing anti-Soviet forces on their own turf still offers the most promising strategy for curtailing Soviet expansion. Afghanistan demonstrates that it can even lead to rollback. History is not, as too many Americans believe, inevitably on the side of the Soviet Union.
But neither is it on our side. History is what you make it. So before we start playing games with people's lives, as we did in Nicaragua, we ought to learn a few lessons of recent history.
First, if we're going to back a resistance force we have to clarify the objectives—ours and theirs—and be honest about them. The goal in Nicaragua was to overthrow the Sandinista government. Everyone knew that. But it didn't sound very nice, so the Reagan administration claimed other objectives, such as stopping the flow of arms to the Salvadoran guerrillas. That was a perfectly acceptable subsidiary goal, but once it was more or less accomplished, aid to the Contras became difficult to justify.
Similarly, if we're going to help we have to be clear about why. Freedom (or at least independence) is part of the reason, but only part. The Reagan Doctrine is based not on charity but on strategy, on weakening the Soviet Union's grip in the Third World without directly involving American troops.
When Reagan focused on the Contras as freedom fighters and not on the Soviet threat in this hemisphere, he drew yawns of indifference from most Americans. Maybe people should care about the fate of freedom in a small country somewhere down south, but they don't.
They do, however, care about the Soviets, which is the major reason the mujaheddin enjoyed near-universal support from the very beginning. (Leftists, unable to understand this motivation, drove themselves to distraction trying in vain to convince people that the mujaheddin were unworthy of U.S. support because they make women wear veils and don't like Israel.)
Focusing on the Soviet threat helps avoid another pitfall—playing Pick a Faction, a favorite CIA pastime. Revolutionary movements tend to be splintered. The U.S. government often tries to select its favorite splinter, almost always one of the smallest ones, and promote it as the legitimate successor to the yet-to-be-overthrown people in power. Or, as happened in Nicaragua, we waste precious time trying to push disparate forces to unite.
In Afghanistan, by contrast, the United States didn't pick a favorite among the seven mujaheddin groups. Instead, we let the rebels themselves work out their differences, and they formed a fractious but workable alliance. We still don't know what the government will look like if and when the current regime collapses. But it's a good bet that a noncommunist successor will be better for its own people, its neighbors, and American security.
The Reagan Doctrine is not dead, as both its critics and supporters have been quick to declare. For it is less a true doctrine—we will support anyone, anywhere—than a general approach. As long as Third World people claim the right to alter or abolish Soviet-backed governments, we will have the opportunity to support them. Not the obligation, but the opportunity. It is an opportunity we should handle with care.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Let’s Reassess the Reagan Doctrine".