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Friday, June 11, 2004

The Law of Unintended Consequences 

Although your genial hosts at King of Zembla have never bought into the proposition that Ronald Reagan his-own-bad-self was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fred Kaplan of Slate recently argued the case as compellingly as any commentator we've read. Which doesn't mean he's convinced us -- not when we have the wily Max B. Sawicky reinforcing our prejudices here ("Reagan's principal military triumph was the conquest of Grenada") as effectively as Robert Parry and Juan Cole did below -- but we do respect the integrity of the effort.

Now Kaplan turns his attention to another, less appreciated aspect of the Reagan legacy: how Ron's rejection of a deal under which Gorbachev would have withdrawn Russian troops from Afghanistan led to the rise of a new folk hero from among the ranks of the mujahedeen:
Without U.S. cooperation, Gorbachev couldn't proceed with his plans to withdraw. Instead, he allowed his military commanders to escalate the conflict. In April, Soviet troops, supported by bombers and helicopters, attacked a new compound of Islamic fighters along the mountain passes of Jaji, near the Pakistani border. The leader of those fighters, many of them Arab volunteers, was Osama Bin Laden.

In his magisterial book Ghost Wars (possibly the best diplomatic history written in the past decade), Steve Coll recounts the fateful consequences:
The battle lasted for about a week. Bin Laden and 50 Arab volunteers faced 200 Russian troops . . . The Arab volunteers took casualties but held out under intense fire for several days. More than a dozen of bin Laden's comrades were killed, and bin Laden himself apparently suffered a foot wound . . . Chronicled daily at the time by several Arab journalists . . . the battle of Jaji marked the birth of Osama bin Laden's public reputation as a warrior among Arab jihadists . . . After Jaji he began a media campaign designed to publicize the brave fight waged by Arab volunteers who stood their ground against a superpower. In interviews and speeches . . . bin Laden sought to recruit new fighters to his cause and to chronicle his own role as a military leader. He also began to expound on expansive new goals for the jihad.
Had Gorbachev thought that Reagan was willing to strike a deal, the battle of Jaji would not have taken place—and the legend of Bin Laden might never have taken off.

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