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05/17/2013

New battlegrounds, old proxy wars

Afghan mine
Cold war legacy: an Afghan victim of a landmine. (Emilio Moranetti/AP)

The New York Times is reporting that the Russians have sent “ship killers” to their Syrian allies.

These are anti-ship cruise missiles kitted out with advanced radar which allow the Syrian military to counter international forces who may try to impose a naval embargo or supply the opposition by sea, the paper reported.

Will it increase pressure on America to help get more weapons into rebel hands? US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are keen to see this happen.

The proxy war between two rival super powers is like an old video set on a continuous loop. Replace the Syrians with the Afghans. 

The Russians sent between $36 billion and $48 billion in weapons and equipment to Afghanistan in the 1980s to prop up the communists. It was matched by the US – in 1989 alone, America and Saudi Arabia gave $1.3 billion to the mujahideen.

The policy was called positive symmetry: as long as the Russians were backing their guys, the Americans and Saudis would support their own fighters. 

Afghanistan has never had a weapons factory. The Kalashnikov, most associated with the Afghans, is Russian. It was extraordinary and disastrous infusion of arms in a country of less than 25 million people where most lived a near medieval existence.

Afghanistan become one, big armed camp. The flow of cash and arms allowed factions to pursue their feuds. Poppy cultivation grew as poor farmers looked for new sources of income to feed their families because irrigation systems were destroyed by bombs and rockets.  The country unravelled. 

This is not just a history lesson. 

The Afghans are still struggling with the enormous consequences of irresponsible American and Russian policy and it is a fundamental reason why the country is a failed state trying to impose the rule of law. Never mind ill-informed opinions about the warlike Afghans. Never before in their history settled disputes with such deadly weapons as are available today. Every man with a gun is his own law. The mines laid out during the old Cold War are still killing and maiming civilians.

To arm or not arm is the question preoccupying the international discussion on Syria. The West is anxious not to repeat one mistake of its Afghan policy: weapons falling into the hands of religious fanatics. But is anyone giving a thought to what floods of weaponry can do to Syrian society?

The Afghans can tell a tale or two. 

Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at the Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour 

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