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Commentary: More fighting with enemy swords

A few days ago I felt like I stepped on a land mine.

I wrote an article suggesting that to defeat some of the terrorists stalking us and our allies around the world we may have to borrow their methods of fighting and arm insurgent groups to harass governments like Iran that threaten us.

I was swamped by negative messages from friends I deeply respect – people who have spent years in the field as diplomats, journalists or soldiers.

One said “we don’t do that – it’s not who we are.”

Another said that when we arm insurgent groups we may create monsters that we cannot control.

Others said that by arming the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s, we created the al Qaida and Taliban forces we are fighting today.

I was taken aback by the reaction at first. Then I saw how widespread it was and decided to rethink what I was trying to get at.

My primary question I hoped to answer was “how to we deal with terrorists that bomb planes and churches and hotels and hospitals?” Who has an answer?

For many years, we’ve tried working with armed intervention, drones, diplomacy, foreign aid and training local governments. We’ve applied pressure on international banks and shipping to halt supplies of weapons materials. But we have often failed to deter the bad guys because of the asymmetric aspect of guerrilla and insurgent/religious warfare. Suicide bombers are difficult to stop and, powerful weapons render dozens or even hundreds of people vulnerable to a single man with an AK-47 submachine gun or a truck with explosives.

So I thought about using the techniques of the terrorists and their supporters to defeat them. For example, Iran has been sending rockets to Hamas and Hezbollah to attack Israel. To respond, we could support Iran’s ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Baluchis and the 20 million Azaris. On June 21 in the New York Times, columnist Nick Kristof wrote: “that sense of hopelessness has led some young Iranians of ethnic Turkish origin to favor seceding and joining Azerbaijan.” Why not hurry that along?

And the lead article in that paper was that the CIA is “steering arms to Syrian rebels.”

If we look at the past we find that we have done this many times – sometimes successfully and other times not.

-- When Serbian troops slaughtered thousands of people as Yugoslavia broke up in a civil war in 1991, they were stopped only after the United States sent arms and advisors to help the Croats defeat Serb forces. I saw the defeated Serb soldiers in Vukovar, bitter at the U.S. intervention. But the United States did not send weapons to help Bosnia’s Muslims defend themselves and thousands died as a result.

-- After the attacks on New York and the Pentagon on 9/11, al Qaida and its Taliban backers were driven from power in Afghanistan when U.S. forces provided money, weapons and air power to the Northern Alliance, a Tajik insurgent group.

-- When the Soviet army occupied Afghanistan in 1979, U.S. weapons and other aid helped Mujahideen fighters drive out the Soviets. The Afghan War led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism. Because we did not stick around afterwards, we left a civil war to simmer. The Taliban took power with Pakistani help and al Qaida was born.

-- Vietnam rightfully drove out the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia in 1979. But it wrongfully remained as occupiers. So U.S. aid to guerrilla forces on the Thai border helped push Vietnam out and restore Cambodian independence.

-- When al Qaida set up terrorist control over western Iraq, torturing many in secret prisons in 2005 and 2006, U.S. forces allied with Sunni tribal leaders to defeat al Qaida and set up local militias that restored some tribal authority.

There are many other examples of U.S. forces helping or using guerrilla forces to achieve positive outcomes. We helped Serb partisans and the French resistance fight Nazi Germany. U.S. aid helped largely Christian Southern Sudan gain independence from the mainly Arab and Muslim north.

India also engaged in what it saw as positive intervention when it helped rebels in East Pakistan in 1971 to create the independent nation of Bangla Desh. But India failed when it backed Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka who then refused to lay down their arms and fought both the Indians and the Sri Lankans for years.

And does anyone remember the Spanish Civil War in which thousands of Americans fought with Spaniards against Franco’s fascists only to be bombed into submission by Nazi Germany's warplanes.

The sword of supporting rebels can cut two ways -- it can stir up hatred and violence to undermine legitimate national governments, or it can help to overthrow repressive regimes. It is up to those who provide such aid to carefully consider the consequences, to try and remain engaged long enough for some solution – negotiated or otherwise – to be reached.

Certainly we accept that terrible things will happen when people rise up against repressive governments. But what is our role to be? Do we stand by and let Bashar Assad slaughter 14,000 more Syrians?

When the Hutus slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda as they did in 1994, were we right to stand by and do nothing?

Some of my critics say the worst thing is U.S. intervention – we should not interfere in other countries. Do they mean leave the Tutsis to their fate? The Burmese Karens? The South Sudan Christians? The Tibetans?

Is the United States the “reluctant sheriff” as analyst Richard Haass has written? Is the powerful U.S. military and its shadowy arms such as intelligence and drones the only court of last resort in an otherwise dog-eat-dog world order?

The United Nations has lately been debating the theory known as “Responsibility to Protect” – it seeks to define the line we cross when the world community must intervene. I find it a bit ludicrous that this is still under debate 60 years after the U.N. was created precisely because of the failure to prevent the Holocaust. My father’s own native land Czechoslovakia was handed over to Nazi Germany as an act of British-French appeasement.

But despite the U.N. and international consensus that we must never again allow genocide and similar repression to take place, most nations are unwilling to act and send our sons and daughters into harm’s way unless our interests are directly affected.

So the final question my article asks is this: can violence be a cure for violence?

Unfortunately, the answer is sometimes “yes.” And those are the moments when we must accept the dangers and act responsibly.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2012 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.