Do you remember the scene in David Lean's epic film, Lawrence of Arabia, where Colonel TE Lawrence, to shouts of "Aurens! Aurens!" rides back to his Bedouin allies in the company of... mercenaries? "Killers, cutthroats," say the disgusted princes and tribal leaders. Lawrence has bought himself some protection, but at the cost of the respect of those who are fighting with him for a cause.
A century later, we have lots of modern-day Lawrences in Army and Marine camouflage BDUs, mingling in the Middle East and hiking the Hindu Kush, alternately fighting and tea-drinking with the various bands that make up Iraq and Afghanistan's warring factions. In Lean's film, it was Ottoman gold that inspired some of Lawrence's Arab allies. Nowadays, it's more likely to be the shrinking US dollar, shrink-wrapped in bricks of $100 bills.
When I read that the Pentagon's budget is now to include CERP ("Commander's Emergency Response Program") money to woo the Taliban over to "our side," that image of Lawrence's mercenaries looms up. The $1.3 billion allotted to CERP in Afghanistan may be a drop in the bucket, but as with all such things, has there been much thought given to what happens when the former baddies stop getting money?
Read Shane Bauer's great expose in the September Mother Jones, "The Sheikh Down," for a look at what your money buys in Iraq, where CERP payments created the "Awakening Councils" out of former enemies among the Sunni population. It's an entertaining read, except the part about the shaking down of the American taxpayer, who gets to pay for "reconstruction" projects at many times their justified price, all in the name of keeping the peace. Getting a piece, for the sheikhs profiled, is more like it.
But what happens when the money stops? Surely even Pentagon planners can harbor hopes of a rosy future of declining budget lines when the CERP program "sunsets," to use a term from accounting-speak? But will the Sunni fighters in Iraq and the ex-Taliban pocketing the payments understand it when the CERP paymasters say "Thanks guys, but our funding has zeroed-out." Their guns and bombs, bought and paid for by American largess - who will they point them at now?
How about allegations that Italian payments to the Taliban for peace in their sector, when stopped and not communicated to French forces that inherited their zone, subsequently brought the Taliban's wrath on the unsuspecting French? According to the Times of London, even the US Embassy in Rome protested to the Italian government about such practices. But now the same thing is in the Pentagon budget?
Tom Engelhardt's "Tomgram" put it squarely: "Will Today's US-Armed Ally Be Tomorrow's Enemy?" We've been there before, in the self-same Afghanistan:
Let me suggest just one lesson that seems to be on no one else's mind at a moment when a key "option" being offered in Washington -- especially by Democrats not eager to see tens of thousands more U.S. troops heading Afghanistan-wards -- is to arm and "train" ever more thousands of Afghans into a vast army and police security force for a government that hardly exists. Based on the last three decades in the region, don't you think that we should pause and consider who exactly we may be arming and who exactly we may be supporting, and whether, given those 30 years of history, we have the slightest idea what we're doing?
Americans with amnesia should go out and rent Charlie Wilson's War, a slick rendition of how we "bought" the Mujahideen those thirty years ago, who then became the Taliban, who then started getting CERP payments...