Syria won’t be another Iraq – but it’s already another Afghanistan

“Lay down your arms; fight with the pen” in northern Afghanistan. (Photo by Dean Chahim)“Lay down your arms, fight with the pen.”

Take a lesson from Afghanistan: the only way to end the bloodshed in Syria is to stop the flow of weapons to both sides.

The public debate over whether to strike Syria is a welcome change from the media cheerleading that led up to the Iraq War.

But it is also missing the point.

Our intervention began long before the debate on a military strike. Along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, we have already thrown our lot in with the rebels. We are providing them with aid, intelligence, training, and arms. In the middle, Israel slowly pushes from behind to keep the bloodbath going. On the other side, Russia (and allegedly Iran and China) are providing Assad’s regime with the same support.

Welcome to Cold War politics in the 21st century.

Americans have been told we have two choices: help Syrians with our bombs or leave them to die on the killing fields. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Foreign intervention has driven the bloodletting so far. More arms — let alone air strikes — will not bring peace for the Syrian people. (And it will not help us make amends for helping overthrow Syria’s last democratically elected leader in 1949, either.)

We must demand a third choice: strike a deal with Russia not only about the chemical weapons, but about all weapons. Let’s end the flow of ammunition and bring each party — and their foreign backers — to the negotiating table. The diplomatic bargain may not be perfect for anyone. But it will involve far less death for everyone.

We need only to look to Afghanistan to imagine the grim alternative of growing extremism, a fractured society, and an endless war.

My parents fled from Afghanistan to the U.S. in 1980 as refugees, finally settling in Seattle in 1990. I cannot speak from my own experience, but I when I visited in 2012, I witnessed the hopeless, empty gazes of Afghan people — some in my own family — caught in the crossfire of a proxy war not unlike what is unfolding in Syria today. I cannot bear to watch an encore in Syria.

My great-uncle's grave in Afghanistan, with my cousins looking on. In 1984, during the U.S.-Soviet proxy war, he was killed when a shell hit his house and killed him. The green cloths above his grave indicate he is considered a martyr. (Photo by Dean Chahim)My great-uncle’s grave in Afghanistan, with my cousins looking on. In 1984, during the U.S.-Soviet proxy war, he was killed when a shell hit his house. (Photo by Dean Chahim)

Let me be the first to say it: Afghanistan and Syria are vastly different countries, each with their own culture and history. Yet the history of foreign involvement — particularly that of the U.S. — follows an eerily similar pattern.

Over three decades ago, we started down a similar path in Afghanistan. Foreign powers — the Soviet Union, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and so on — jostled for power, leaving a trail of millions of dead and displaced Afghans in their wake.

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support a fledgling Communist state being undermined by the U.S.-backed rebel mujahideen, many of whom expressed a radical interpretation of Islam that was completely foreign to most Afghans. The proxy war that ensued throughout the 1980s left 1.5 million Afghan civilians dead, 7 million displaced, and the country in shambles, divided, and on the verge of anarchy.

Then the hired guns that once fired in unison at the Soviet forces soon turned on one another, with echoes that would ring out around the world. The U.S.-backed rebels won in 1992, deposing the government of Dr. Najibullah, who had been aided by the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. The four-year civil war that ensued was the most horrifying time in Afghan history.

In the words of my aunt, “You [Americans] brought us all these guns and left. And now you ask why we are fighting?”

Nearly half my family, which had been able to tolerate the Soviet-US proxy war of the 1980s, was forced to flee as neighbors turned to enemies and cities were flattened under the shells of rival warlords.

The Taliban then emerged from the rubble in the mid-1990s as the only force with the foreign backing (from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, chief recipients of U.S. military aid) to force Afghanistan under their iron-fisted rule.

My female cousins spent the five years under the oppressive regime attending underground schools, struggling to get even a fraction of the privileges my mother enjoyed in 1970s Kabul, where she studied architecture and walked to school with girls in miniskirts.

The author at a ruined shrine in Afghanistan during a visit in 2012.The author at a ruined shrine in Afghanistan during a visit in 2012. 

Our efforts since 9/11 to have a surgical war to root out the “bad guys” in Afghanistan today has left the country more divided than ever. The Taliban are surging back, along with a new breed of corrupt warlords and businessmen drawn from the ranks of the mujahideen. My cousins in Afghanistan who are my age can neither remember nor imagine peace in their lifetimes. Their hopelessness haunts me.

Is this the path to democracy we want to promote in Syria?

We may be doing our best to selectively arm only the “good guys,” but we run the risk of repeating our mistakes from Afghanistan, arming the very extremists we now bomb wantonly with drones elsewhere across the globe. Like Afghanistan, Syria was never a stronghold of conservative Islam, and yet now radical Muslim groups flooding in are changing the face of the rebels — and in turn, changing the very social fabric of the country.

If our rebels depose Assad, as the mujahideen overthrew Dr. Najibullah in Afghanistan, what next? After our bombs — if we choose to use them — stop falling, and our arms stop flowing, who will take control?

Like Afghanistan, the power vacuum that would be created by weakening Assad could be easily filled with an even bitterer civil war between the dozens of rebel factions. As Bob Dreyfuss put it in March as word broke that the CIA was training rebel fighters, “there’s just no telling what Syria after the fall of Assad might look like.”

But if we keep funneling arms into the country, I believe it will be a tragic sight.

Neither an American strike, nor American arms, will “save” the Syrian people from slaughter any more than the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan saved Afghans from capitalism’s excesses, or the American invasion freed Afghans from the repression of misogynistic warlords and the Taliban.

The fates of both peoples were sealed when foreign powers decided that it was in their geostrategic interests to keep a proxy war going until their puppets won.

As Rania Masri and others have exhorted, I believe we can do something and must do something. But it is not to step up as the “anchor of global security” as Obama boldly claimed last night, but to step down as the world’s leading purveyor of arms.

We must call on Obama to strike a deal to end the flow of arms with Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and all others who are fueling this proxy war.

Once the ammunition runs dry and the mortars can no longer fire on Syrian civilians, we can bring together all the parties and their foreign supporters with a vested interest in this war to negotiate in good faith, while providing badly needed aid for refugees across the region.

This will not be easy. But as Obama reminded us, “the burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.”

That means sometimes we must use our influence not to arm wars, but to disarm them.


To make your voice heard on intervention in Syria, sign the petition at and call your congressional representatives and tell them to support disarmament.


  1. Good commentary,Mr. Chahim.
    The world would be a better place if we banned sales of all weapons.My heart aches for people in places we’ve tried to “help” by supplying their countries with military hardware.

  2. Thank you for this excellent piece of writing. If only the USA had a Peace Department instead of an Indutria//War machine driven economy. A world power focussed on peace, real peace through goodwill and diplomacy, now that would be way cool. Today would be agood day to end war.

  3. This is excellent writing, informative, inspiring, and a presentation of the throught process essential to addressing the long term, core, structural issues restraining our capacity to flourish.
    “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”
    This quote is not a fact, it is a call to action. Thank you Mr. Chahim for shining a light.

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