On August 31, the United States pulled its troops from Afghanistan marking the definitive end to its longest ever war. With more than 2 trillion dollars spent and countless lives lost, the manner of the US’s withdrawal is reckless, embarrassing and irresponsible – a point repeated in the media and across both sides of the aisle in congress.
Footage from Kabul showing Afghan refugees falling off of American military planes is both heartbreaking and representative of the severity of the US’s actions.
President Joe Biden will have to shoulder the blame. After all, it was his decision to implement such a hasty withdrawal plan. Nonetheless, a closer inspection at America’s recent war efforts reveal that there are other culprits more responsible than the president for the current predicament. America’s involvement in Afghanistan can be traced back all the way to the 1970’s. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 fueled jihadism in the region and gave birth to the Mujahideen.
Containment was the main objective of America’s foreign policy during the Cold War. Moral decency was a secondary objective to Communist containment, while promoting liberal democracy was simply never a priority. Soviet aggression was to be stopped by any means necessary and the Central Intelligence Agency was more than willing to oblige.
Operation Cyclone was the official code name of the CIA program to arm and finance the mujahideen in Afghanistan between 1979 to 1989, which allowed the mujahideen to wage war against the Soviets on an equal footing. While the CIA supplied the mujahideen with the means to fight, Saudi Arabia supplied them with the ideology and zealots.
America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia started in 1933 on the basis of oil exploration and economic interests, leading to the creation of ARAMCO – the world’s biggest oil producing company. During the Cold War, the focus of the alliance was shifted towards combating against the mutual enemy in the form of the Soviet Union.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Rachel Bronson:
During the Cold War, Saudi Arabia, whose leaders wielded considerable international religious influence because of their ability to speak for Mecca and Medina, became a useful U.S. partner. Realizing that religion could be a tool to staunch the expansion of godless communism, U.S. policymakers sought to partner with religious believers. As far back as the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration had hoped to make King Saud (1953–1964) into a globally recognized Islamic leader and transform him into “the senior partner of the Arab team.” Later, Saudi Arabia’s value was augmented by its oil wealth, which provided ample resources to fund anti-Soviet operations. Yet, such funding was often accompanied by religious proselytizing. – http://www.mafhoum.com/press8/249P5.pdf
In other words, the Afghan mujahideen were radicalized with Saudi Arabia’s oil money and were weaponized by the CIA. Even though Operation Cyclone eventually led to the withdrawal of the Soviet forces in February 1989, Afghanistan immediately fell into a civil war afterward. Various mujahideen groups were fully armed with American weaponry and wanted total domination of Afghanistan. It took until 1997 for the Taliban to take control of the country and establish some sort of order, before being torn apart again in the wake of September 11.
This two-pronged approach of radicalization and weaponization is also prevalent in Thailand’s history. The US’s support of Thailand’s authoritarian regimes started with Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram before settling with Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in 1957.
With a total of 8 US air bases positioned in Thailand throughout the Vietnam War, weaponizing the Royal Thai Army was never a problem. Gaining Thai public support to fight the communist, however, was much more challenging. Fearmongering campaign of communists coming to take away people’s farmland and property were largely ignored, while the portrayal of communism as some kind of invading monster was simply not understood. America’s Psychological Strategy Board (PSB), however, made a breakthrough when the anti-communist propaganda campaign was paired with the threat to the monarchy.
Rallying support from royalists that lost their power during the Siamese revolution in 1932 and a sizable portion of the public that was tired of the country being in the state of flux, the messaging of communism as a threat to the monarchy struck the right note. To amplify the effect, Communist Suppression Operations Command (CSOC) was established in 1965 with the support of the CIA before changing its name to Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) under Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in 1974.
According to Professor Puangthong R. Pawakapan, an international relations professor at Chulalongkorn University:
“Thai ruling elites [realized] that the use of armed suppression alone was inadequate,” the professor writes. The ‘Democratic Soldiers’ within the Army’s intelligence circles thus pushed the new perception that the root cause of the armed conflict was socio-economic and political injustice.
That meant mopping up by the military must be in tandem with political offensive measures including economic development, mass organization and psychological operations – a strategy advocated by the US government, which viewed Thailand as an ‘important component in the US’s containment policy in Southeast Asia throughout the Cold War period and thus benefited from US assistance for security and economic development.’” – https://www.asiasentinel.com/p/thailand-military-deep-state
Therefore, the fight against communism in Thailand was legitimized through the claim of protecting the monarchy, eventually leading to royalism radicalization and communist hysteria that culminated in the Student Massacre of 14 October 1973 and Thammasat Massacre of 6 October 1976.
Thus, despite sitting on a completely different part of the continent and having no cultural similarities, the radicalization of Afghan mujahideen and the Royal Thai Army shares a common root in being a byproduct of America’s Foreign Policy of Communist Containment and the CIA’s two-pronged approach of radicalization & weaponization during the Cold War.
In both cases, weapons supplied by the Americans were used to gundown fellow countrymen by the radicalized party. In Thailand’s case, it also killed our democracy. This is why the current junta, and many that came before it, have a cult-like personality of truly believing that they are the only worthy protector of the monarchy and the country.
As the US exits its disastrous campaign in Afghanistan, the failures of America’s intelligence and foreign policy is on full display. Its reckless pursuit of national security and political interests is costing countless innocent lives and trillions of dollars. While President Joe Biden will be remembered for his hasty withdrawal program from Afghanistan, the systematic errors conducted by the The State Department and Central Intelligence Agency must be scrutinized.
It is worth mentioning that collaboration between the CIA and Thai military appears to continue to the present day. The nomination of Gina Haspel by President Donald Trump to become CIA Director drew widespread condemnation given her previous record of running a Black Site in Thailand. The Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT) used at the CIA Black Site are now still being used by the Thai authorities to extract information from southern insurgents.
As Afghanistan starts to rebuild again under the Taliban rule, Thailand has to realize that we are still living under the repercussions of the US actions during the Vietnam War. For democracy to prosper in this country, we must undo the wrongs that were done by partly by the United States.
That starts with the dismantling of ISOC, who are still waging psychological warfare (i.e. information operations) against its very own citizens, which was exposed by Future Forward and Move Forward MPs in the Censure Debate for 3 years in a row. The Vietnam War ended 46 years ago. It is time to start setting things right.