US Covert Action: a Brief Inglorious History

Washington wisely withdraws support from Angola's Savimbi and UNITA

THE Clinton administration has at last buried one of the great American covert operations of the post-war period. It has turned its back on Jonas Savimbi, head of UNITA, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, and recognized the so-called Marxist government against which it helped Mr. Savimbi wage war. But here, as elsewhere, Washington faces unintended consequences.

Covert operations by the United States began with the cold war, to oppose a Soviet Union suddenly transformed from ally to enemy that used every trick of hidden warfare to expand its influence. The end justified the means, but the price was high. Sicily should already have taught that lesson.

When the Allies planned to invade Sicily in 1943, they had not a single spy on the ground. The US Navy contacted Mafia boss Lucky Luciano, then in a New York prison. He and his gangsters gladly helped, for Mussolini had cracked down hard on the Sicilian Mafia. When the first troops landed, US intelligence had lists of contacts, mainly Mafiosi. When the Allied military government started constructing a democratic society, the Mafia, in positions of influence, rebuilt. From the black market it went on to c orrupt Italian politics and take a leading role in the world drug trade.

After the war, covert action was aimed chiefly against the Soviet Union. In 1953, the US secretly ousted Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq of Iran, who hated the British and had nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. If anything, Mr. Mossadeq was a reactionary nationalist, but in accepting the communist Tudeh Party's support he aroused the suspicions of the Eisenhower administration. The CIA coup, textbook swift, restored the young Shah to power. Successive US presidents valued the Shah as a pillar o f stability, blind to the fact that his megalomania alienated his people and opened the way for Ayatollah Khomeini, whose mullahs rule Iran today.

A more elaborate plot overthrew President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954. Washington denounced him as a communist on the flimsiest grounds. Feeling the pressure, he accepted Moscow's offer of some Czech weapons. More to the point, he had launched a land-reform program that largely expropriated the huge United Fruit Company (with the offer of compensation). The CIA organized a small invasion force. Arbenz fled, and United Fruit got its land back. However, since then Guatemala has lived a nightmare of harsh military rule, death squads, and bloody punitive expeditions against the Indian peasants. Nothing like it exists today in Latin America.

Operation Zapata, which died in the Bay of Pigs in 1961, was also meant to overthrow a government. The 1,400 Cuban exiles in Brigade 2506 fought like lions, but the CIA's planning was absurdly amateurish, and direct US help was denied. The defeat consolidated Fidel Castro's rule at a time when internal opposition against him was growing. He gained international stature and value to the Kremlin. He sent 50,000 troops to Africa and helped push Soviet weapons and supplies to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and t he rebels in El Salvador. Even today he poses as the Cuban David against the Yankee Goliath that has tried at least eight times to murder him.

Billions of dollars went to the mujahideen of Afghanistan, who defeated the Soviet army in seven years of bitter war. Washington sent them money and weapons through Pakistan's inter-service intelligence. The largest share, by far, went to the most radical Islamic fundamentalist group, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Today, he is fighting other guerrilla groups, devastating Kabul, to seize full power and establish an Islamic regime. The US is trying to recover leftover Stinger missiles. Pakistan is expelling Arab volunteers who learned guerrilla war from the mujahideen and are now looking for service against "enemies of Islam" elsewhere.

As for Angola, "Marxism" in Africa has been only a label used by one-party systems to command obedience and get help from Moscow. It has now disappeared from Africa, as it would have in any case. But American administrations have supported any hustler who called himself anti-communist. Savimbi was an unsavory party in a struggle for power; he refused to accept defeat in a free election. In backing his UNITA, Washington found itself in bed with the apartheid right of South Africa, which simply wanted the war to continue, and with President Mobutu Sese Seko of neighboring Zaire who provided the supply line. Mr. Mobutu, one of the richest men on earth, has raised extortion to unbelievable heights, beggaring a rich country in whose capital people starve. Mobutu along with Savimbi, who is armed to the teeth with American and South African weapons, remain to bedevil Africa. "Solving" a political problem by nonpolitical action is an illusion. If Washington has learned this lesson it is not a day too soon.

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