In the film "Charlie Wilson’s War," Phillip Seymour Hoffman, cast as former CIA Afghan Task Force Chief Gust Avrakotos, offers a cautionary tale to those who try to prophesy the outcome of any action.
“There's a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse. And everybody in the village says, ‘How wonderful. The boy got a horse.’ And the Zen master says, ‘we'll see.’
“Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, ‘How terrible.’ And the Zen master says, ‘We'll see.’
Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight... except the boy can't cause his leg’s all messed up. And everybody in the village says, ‘How wonderful.’”
Tom Hanks, as Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, responds, “Now the Zen master says, ‘We’ll see.’”
Hoffman’s parable was told in the context of Operation Cyclone, a covert operation where the CIA financed and armed the Mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.
The operation, in which the CIA spent billions training hundreds of thousands of Afghan militants and equipped them with FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles, prevented the Soviets from seizing control of Afghanistan and helped bring an end to the Cold War.
However, the United States left Afghanistan in shambles, neglecting to help the country rebuild following the conflict. On this oversight, the real Charlie Wilson famously reflected, “We f*cked up the endgame.”
The consequence of that decision was al-Qaeda, the organization that would orchestrate the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil. During the US war in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda militants used those same FIM-92 Stingers to shoot down American aircraft.
Though intervention in Afghanistan helped end the spread of communism in the 80s, our failure to appreciate the degree of resentment it fostered in the Afghani people started us down a path to later wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a more ambiguous, interminable “war on terror.”
I have argued that the United States should behave as global hegemony at times. When it comes to providing humanitarian aid or helping an adolescent democracy create the framework of a lasting government, we can and should help.
But promoting global democracy and peace through military force is no longer an option. As Barry Posen, professor of political science at MIT says in his book "Restraint," “Efforts to defend everything leave one defending not much of anything.”
Now in Iraq, we’re forced to decide whether or not to defend the “democracy” that we spent nearly a decade building as it teeters on the bring of being undone by Sunni militants, who, like al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, exploited the power vacuum left when our forces withdrew from the country.
On Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry promised to provide “intense, sustained” support to the Iraqi military after meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Malik.
His statement came on a day when militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, seized three more Iraqi cities, taking control of 70 percent of the Anbar province as the group continues to march towards the capital of Baghdad.
Ironically, the meetings took place one day after Raouf Abdel-Rahman, the judge who presided over Saddam Hussein’s trial in 2006, was reportedly captured and killed by ISIS members.
"I'm here to convey to you President Obama's and the American people's commitment to help Iraq," Kerry said while meeting with Iraq's speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujayfi.
"The principal concern is the integrity of the country, its borders, its sovereignty," he said. ISIS "is a threat to all of us."
Kerry isn’t wrong. ISIS is a major threat to both the United States and to stability throughout the region.
The group, which strives to implement strict Sharia law throughout the Muslim world and onward, has reportedly slaughtered thousands of Shiite civilians and military forces across the country in recent weeks.
And according to some calculations, the organization has accumulated a staggering $2 billion, $430 million of which was stolen during heist of Mosul’s central bank earlier this month.
President Obama declared last week that the United States would not send ground troops into Iraq to combat the incursion. Instead, 300 US military advisors were dispatched to analyze the situation and provide support Iraq’s security forces.
Right now, ISIS is focused on exerting its influence in Syria and Iraq. But we must ask, where will it turn next? Moreover, what can we do to ensure that the best-funded terrorist organization in the world doesn’t set its sights on the United States?
In Iraq circa-2003, we failed to consider that Saddam Hussein’s tyranny was a product of the same tribal conflicts between Sunni and Shiite factions that have embroiled countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa for centuries.
Military intervention can quell the violence for a time, but once troops depart, the conflict inevitably resurfaces with new tenacity. Only now, you’ve placed yourself front and center as a champion for the opposition, whomever it may be.
When we choose sides in this conflict, even when it’s undeniably the right side, becoming a visible presence on the ground, opposition forces turn to their young and say, “Do you see the American oppressors? They are taking your land and destroying your cities? This is why we fight. This is why you must fight.”
They might be wrong, but that doesn’t matter. The cycle continues.
The cause is noble, but this is not the type of war that can be won. As Hoffman warned, we can never fully predict what will happen next.
With its money and resources, ISIS could become a global terrorist force that makes al-Qaeda seem tame by comparison. Or, it could unravel from infighting or missteps. No one can know with certainty, and don’t believe anyone who suggests otherwise.
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested in a Financial Times op-ed Sunday that “ISIS and other al-Qaeda-type groups in Iraq were flat on their back four years ago, having been comprehensively beaten by a combination of US and UK forces and Sunni tribes,” and that “The civil war in Syria allowed them to get back on their feet.”
Perhaps ISIS exploited the opportunity to exercise its authority amid Syria’s collapse, but even without Syria, prevailing instability in the region would have provided opportunities to ISIS or other extremist elements to surface following the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
I am not arguing that the United States should simply remove itself from the situation entirely. Only that we should proceed with caution.
We must learn to identify when there is a credible existential threat. In those situations, we should move tactically to reduce such threats. But large-scale, boots on the ground intervention historically results in greater problems down the line.
Iraq, Afghanistan and even Vietnam have shown us that the United States has neither the military resources nor the political resolve to successfully build a friendly democracy abroad. It has, however, shown us that we are capable of creating new, more dangerous enemies, wherever we’ve tried.
Now, as we wrangle with how to respond to the threat ISIS poses in Iraq, we should tread gingerly. ISIS might be stopped, but militant Sunni jihadists cannot. They’ll undoubtedly resurface in time, just as they always have.
With that in mind, we really can’t afford to “f*ck up the endgame,” again.
Photo courtesy: CBS