Georgie Anne Geyer

We Ignore History at Our Peril

WASHINGTON -- During the 1990s, when I was passing through Tunis while covering the Middle East, the country's foreign minister paused for a moment in his description of Tunisia's problems and spoke of how the Afghan war of the '80s had affected all of North Africa.

"We've been seeing," he said soberly, "the hundreds of young men from this part of the world pouring back across the north of Africa, angry and bitter after the Soviets finally left Afghanistan. Even though the Russians lost and the mujahedeen -- in effect, these young men -- won, they seem to have nothing to live for. We see them and we ask: 'What are they going to do next?'"

He did not detail how many of these young men, whether originally from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Algeria or Libya, had been supported by the Americans in the early phases of the war. These were "Charlie Wilson's warriors," named after the late congressman who got Congress to arm the Arab mujahedeen, especially with AK-47s that shot down Russian planes.

Nor did the foreign minister criticize Washington for simply going home and abandoning the men after the war ended with at least a million dead; but in reality, it was those lost and brutalized male souls who then formed the radical Islamic Taliban, which took over the country and whom we are now fighting in Afghanistan.

(At least Charlie Wilson did criticize leaving the mujahedeen in the ditch, while we washed our hands of the whole thing. With no Russians to fight and nothing to do, the mujahedeen soon turned to the most rabidly retrogressive form of Islam, stoning people to death in the squares of Kabul and Kandahar and turning violently against America. Wilson said it was a mistake to leave them like that.)

Yet, in the midst of this tragic story, we have to see what happened then in Algeria, which was hardly expected when we thought we were helping a few Afghan tribesmen against the Soviets.

Those young men the foreign minister spoke of, coming across North Africa much as the Prophet Muhammad's early troops had in the seventh century, Islamicizing all in their way, tended to settle in Algeria. It was the richest country, with oil and mineral wealth; it had fought and finally won a nasty anti-colonial war against Mother France; and it had huge empty spaces of barely penetrable desert where guerrilla troops could hide and wage attacks against small cities and villages.

When I was in Tunis, or Egypt, or Lebanon in the '90s, it did not take long for awful stories starring these guerrilla fighters from Afghanistan to seep out of Algiers. Even in a part of the world where torture and brutality have been perfected over the centuries, Algeria in the '90s excelled. The former Afghani fighters would go into the villages and brutally slay women and children. Entire villages were left with every person slain.

When the Islamic parties -- the front parties of these killers -- won an election, the military denied it and took over. That had made it worse. By the end, upward of 100,000-plus Algerians and others, most of them innocent civilians, had been killed.

But every time I returned to the U.S., filled with information on all of the Middle East, including Algeria, which I had never personally visited and thus had never written about, I searched for reportage on the massacres in Algeria without success. One had to go to a specialized journal to find any mention of Algeria at all. (At least the French have an historical memory, even though they were considerably angered when the Algerians drove them out many years ago.)

Then I realized that this situation was very much like -- indeed, uncannily similar to -- the non-coverage of Afghanistan after the Russians had gone in 1989 and the Taliban had taken over. Had we seen or known what was going on in Afghanistan in the '90s, when al-Qaida was brewing its witches' poison, we might have anticipated what seemed to come so suddenly upon us.

In both cases, they were countries that Americans had no natural or historical contact with. Their cultures were about as different from ours as they could be. Algeria's home-away-from-home was France, and Afghanistan was a huge amalgam of many tribal groups whose happiest years were under their native-born kings.

If you were a foreign editor on any big American newspaper, arguably the last place you would spend tens of thousands of dollars to send your correspondents to would be these two countries. And, with all due respect, they were not the countries foreign correspondents themselves would hardly plead to be sent to. Until ...

After 9/11, it quickly became clear that the attackers in al-Qaida had been hiding in Afghanistan -- so that was the country that we first attacked. But you could hardly blame the American reader if he said, "And where is THAT?" Then, last year when the historic and ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali was taken over by a mixture of Tuareg tribesmen from southern Algeria and the Afghanistan-war guerrillas who had fled south after Muammar Gadhafi was overthrown in Libya, there was another blank stare from the American public.

American students do not study geography, yet these are two big stories of our era that can be understood only through geography. American students do not embrace history, yet these are two historical tales that could mean life or death for many Americans in our time and beyond.

Some adults appear proud that they no longer read newspapers -- but if they do not make any effort to read foreign coverage, how do they expect their sons and daughters to survive in Mazar-el-Sharif, and Peshawar, and Oran and Bamako?

In short, if you don't think you have to read foreign news or newspapers in general, or understand what motivates peoples and cultures, I suggest you could help your country by figuring out why.

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