If we want to fathom how countries like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan could possibly support terrorists, we might peek into a mirror.
Jonas Savimbi, the Angolan rebel who was killed 10 days ago, murdered and tortured countless civilians over the years; the Angolan civil war that he sustained may be responsible for more than 500,000 deaths since 1975. But he was our warlord, not the other side’s, and so we were as blind to his brutality as the Saudis and Pakistanis are to the sins of their terrorists.
As we engage in a new struggle today — against terrorism, not Communism — it’s worth grappling with the lessons of our mistakes in Angola, so that we do not repeat them in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is embarrassing to look back to see how we hailed Mr. Savimbi during the cold war. Jeane Kirkpatrick toasted him as ”one of the few authentic heroes of our time.” President Reagan described him as Angola’s Abraham Lincoln. Oh?
Mr. Savimbi personally beat to death a rival’s wife and children. He also shelled civilians, sowed land mines and then bombed a Red Cross-run factory making artificial legs for victims of mines.
”We have to call him Africa’s classical terrorist,” said Makau Mutua, a professor of law and Africa specialist. ”In the history of the continent, I think he’s unique because of the degree of suffering he caused without showing any remorse.”
We were oblivious to Mr. Savimbi’s faults because we were locked in a cold-war rivalry in which ideology trumped all else. And in any case, the Angolan government was wretched and brutal as well as pink.
Mark Huband, the author of a book about the cold-war legacy in Africa, says about American involvement in countries like Angola, Zaire and Liberia: ”In all cases, the results have been disastrous, creating decades of region-wide conflicts.”
As I see it, there are three key lessons to learn from our mistakes:
Lesson No. 1: Be wary of warlords who parrot back our own lines.
Mr. Savimbi was a chameleon who started off as a pro-Soviet Marxist, became a Maoist to get Chinese support, then proclaimed himself an anti-Communist to get American support in the cold war, and after the collapse of Communism declared himself a supporter of free markets. He was expert at saying what we wanted to hear, but in retrospect it’s clear that he never believed in anything but power.
It’s a useful caution these days, as foreign leaders jostle to whisper sweet nothings about terrorism in our ear. The Philippines has cleverly wangled $100 million from us by exaggerating the links between a gang of kidnappers and Al Qaeda. In the Horn of Africa, every faction insists that its enemies are tied to Al Qaeda and must be destroyed.
Likewise, every commander in Afghanistan these days seems to regard himself as a secular humanist. […]
Lesson No. 2: Support democracy as a whole, not simply elections.
Angola held elections in 1992, and there’s general agreement that they were held hurriedly — before rival armies could be tamed, before democratic institutions could be nurtured, before enough observers could be found — and so they solved nothing and perhaps made problems worse.
As Afghanistan moves ahead, it’s worth remembering that elections are not a panacea. What is needed is not just a plebiscite but a process, ranging from demobilization of combatants to freedom of speech, that creates democracy and stability.
Lesson No. 3: Land mines often last longer than our alliances.
The Bush administration is now conducting a review to determine its policy on antipersonnel mines. The policy makers might visit Angola, where thousands of maimed children will be one of the longest-lasting legacies of our support for Mr. Savimbi.
Now that he is gone, Angola has another chance. And so do we. We should be twisting arms to try to bring about peace in Angola.
And in the new battlegrounds, like Afghanistan and perhaps Iraq, let’s be doubly careful about picking our next Lincoln. [….]