One of President Donald Trump’s virtues is his willingness to say and do things that many think but will not say. This is perhaps most felt in the area of foreign policy, where the president regularly chastises allies to act more like allies and questions the wisdom of unpopular military campaigns in the Middle East that have ambiguous objectives. That’s not to say the specifics of the president’s conclusions are always right, but they often are. And his willingness to challenge bipartisan consensus when it seems not to make sense to the average American is a feature not a bug.
But he said something about a historical event during his Cabinet meeting yesterday that was not merely unconventional, it was wrong—objectively, without question, wrong. And it’s dangerous to misunderstand history and its lessons.
President Trump seemed to be making the points that the United States should be wary of sinking further resources on wars in the Middle East and that other nations more directly impacted by the terrorism and sectarian Islamist wars should contribute more substantially to stabilizing the region. But this was his illustration:
Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. Russia… The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt; they went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union. You know, a lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer part of Russia, because of Afghanistan.
The president’s understanding of the cause of the war, the nature of the Soviets, and the rebel forces they were fighting is erroneous. He has things backwards. The Soviets were not “right to be there.” The Soviets invaded Afghanistan not to fight terrorists who were “going into Russia” but to expand the USSR’s communist empire by propping up the Afghan communist government to ensure the country was locked in as another client state.
The United States rallied partners and allies to get behind its containment policy to stop the brutal, imperialist ambitions of the Soviet Union. Part of that containment policy included backing rebel forces called the mujahideen to repel the Soviets in Afghanistan.
As for terrorism, the Soviets carried out a merciless, unjust, inexcusable campaign against civilians. They laid bombs disguised as toys to maim and kill children, used gas and chemical weapons on civilian populations, and the Afghan secret police under Soviet control operated nightmarish torture chambers.
One of the primary lessons from the Soviet-Afghan War is not for benevolent superpowers to learn that they should be wary of fighting terrorists in Afghanistan even if terrorists are launching attacks against your people from there.
Rather, the lesson is for would-be authoritarians: don’t subscribe to an evil ideology that motivates you to seek global domination because the United States will not tolerate the destruction of our people and our way of life. And if you threaten that fate we’re prepared to use overwhelming military force against you and will tank your economy in the meantime.
Rebeccah L. Heinrichs, a contributing editor at Providence, is a fellow at Hudson Institute where she provides research and commentary on a variety of international security issues and specializes in deterrence and counter-proliferation. She is also the vice-chairman of the John Hay Initiative’s Counter-proliferation Working Group and the original manager of the House of Representatives Bi-partisan Missile Defense Caucus.
Photo Credit: President Donald Trump arrives on stage to addresses his remarks to US troops on December 26, 2018, at the Al-Asad Airbase in Iraq. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.