With Western military might brought to bear against Qaddafi’s forces in Libya, a conflict that seemed destined to end in rebel defeat has largely been equalized. And while the United States moved this past week to formally recognize the Transitional National Council as the “as the legitimate governing authority” in Libya, further possible U.S./NATO support for the rebels loyal to the Council through the provision of arms remains contested amongst American politicians. The U.S. experience in arming the Mujahedeen against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, specifically, remains widely referenced to caution against such move.
Congressman Kucinich remarked that “[w]e’ve been in this situation in Afghanistan. One day we help people and the next day they shoot at us. If we are not cautious about military intervention, the blowback is sure to happen in Libya.” On the same topic, Representative Nadler advised that we “[l]ook at what we did in Afghanistan. We armed anti-Soviet forces, and we got the Taliban.” Chairman Rogers of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence made similar allusions, writing, “[w]e don't have to look very far back in history to find examples of the unintended consequences of passing out advanced weapons to a group of fighters we didn't know as well as we should have.”
But should U.S. experience in arming the Mujahedeen serve to inform the situation in Libya that continues to confront policymakers? A lesson from research in cognitive and social psychology suggests that it may not. Frequent reference to U.S. support for the Mujahedeen may be less an outcome of careful historical analysis and more the result of basic intuitive judgmental processes that serve to simplify analysis of complex subject matter but risk introducing biases into the resulting conclusions. Specifically, the representativeness and availability heuristics may well be affecting debate.
Psychologists use the term representativeness to describe bias that occurs when the probability or frequency of some event is judged based on similarities with some other familiar event that does not reflect the actual probability of the event under consideration. An experiment conducted by Harvard professor Max Bazerman demonstrates such tendency. Participants to the study, having been provided with a description of a fictitious MBA graduate from a top-tier university by the name of Mark who is “very interested in the arts and at one time considered a career as a musician,” assigned, on average, a greater likelihood to Mark gaining employment “in the management of the arts” than “with a management consulting firm,” apparently because the former seems to relate more closely to Mark than the latter. Yet, it is simply less probable that Mark or any other similar individual would gain employment in arts management than in management consultancy given the availability of jobs in each field. That is, respondents tended to take little or no account of relevant base rates when assessing the likelihood of Mark gaining employment in within the given occupations and instead allowed their judgments to be swayed by individuating information. Considered differently, there are simply more arts enthusiasts with MBAs in management consultancy than there are in arts management.
And this propensity appears to have influenced many of our politicians’ manner of thinking about the Libya conflict. In various ways, the situation in Libya mirrors that of Afghanistan roughly thirty years ago. As in Afghanistan, the United States has interests in but is not a primary party to the conflict, and under-armed and generally ill-trained Muslim insurgents supported by the United States seek to combat a better equipped government military force. Such similarities can tempt us into thinking that Afghanistan’s course in history foretells Libya’s destiny were its rebels also armed.
Yet, U.S. support for insurgent Muslim fighters is not restricted to the Soviet Afghan War. While issues of categorization and government classification of covert operations make pinpointing the precise number of instances in which the United States has supported such movements difficult, since the end of the Second World War, the United States has supported at least a dozen. These actions have included arming Iraqi Sunni Kurds struggling against Saddam Hussein’s regime and, later, Sunni Muslims who formed the country’s Awakening Councils, permitting Iranian arms shipments to Bosnian Muslims in the mid-1990s, and supplying the Northern Alliance with munitions. Without judging the appropriateness of these and similar policies, none resulted in the creation of Taliban-like rule under which jihadists trained freely and plotted attacks against U.S. interests. Viewed according to simple statistics, history simply does not support the notion that extremist organizations tend to be borne out of cases of U.S. support to insurgent Muslim fighters.
But why do politicians appear to think specifically and consistently of the Soviet Afghan conflict when the United States has involved itself in other similar environments, including those referenced above? Here, the availability heuristic proves informative. The availability heuristic refers to the tendency to judge the probability or frequency of an event according to the ease with which a related event springs to mind. While such tendency is at times useful for assessing probability, it can also be affected by factors unrelated to probability, leading, in such circumstances, to predictable biases. Differential media coverage, for instance, which has the effect of making certain types of deaths easier to recall than others, has been shown in studies to cause people to tend to believe mistakenly that homicides occur more frequently than suicides.
Such tendency also appears to account for American politicians’ repeated references to the Soviet Afghan War. Politicians have good reason to think specifically of the U.S. experience in Afghanistan when considering the possibility of arming Libya’s rebels: the terrorist attacks of September 11th focused attention on Afghanistan and the United States’ history there. Recognition that members of Al-Qaeda were amongst the recipients of arms provided during the United States’ covert campaign to drive Soviet forces from Afghanistan does not settle well. The United States’ ongoing struggle in Afghanistan (not to mention the release of the major-motion picture “Charlie Wilson's War” in 2007 and Osama Bin Laden’s recent assassination) serves to ensure that such experience remains vivid.
Yet, when the Libya conflict is considered more carefully, the likelihood of such outcome appears far less certain. Unlike in Afghanistan where Mujahedeen comprised a variety of foreign radical Muslims had travelled to Afghanistan for the specific opportunity to wage Jihad against the Soviet forces, Libya’s rebels consist almost entirely of Libyan nationals with backgrounds in a variety of vocational fields. Their demands for freedom from tyranny and the Libyan Interim National Council’s expressed commitment “to building a free and democratic society and ensuring that supremacy of international humanitarian law and human rights declarations” stand in stark contrast to the Salafist fatwas issued to inspire and direct the Mujahedeen during the Soviet Afghan War. Nor is clear that, in the wake of the September 11th attacks, the United States, Libya’s neighbors, and other concerned states would allow the conditions to emerge under which Libya might go the way of Afghanistan.
The combined effect of both biases appears to exaggerate the probability that a Salafist model of post-Qaddafi rule emerges in Libya should the United States or NATO arm the rebels. None of this is to suggest that a policy of arming Libya’s rebels is a sound one. Instead, I hope that in highlighting the way in which intuitive cognitive tendencies can lead to biased thinking on the matter, this article serves to reframe debate in a manner that best serves U.S. interests.
 "US recognises Libyan rebel TNC as legitimate authority." British Broadcasting Corporation 15 Jul 2011: Web. 15 Jul 2011. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-14164517>.
 "Washington may arm Al-Qaeda-linked Libyan rebels." RT 31 Mar 2011: Web. 15 Jul 2011. <http://rt.com/news/al-qaeda-libya-american-arms/>.
 Paybarah, Azi. "Obama’s Action in Libya Raises Questions with Nadler, Weiner." New York Observer 22 Mar 2011: Web. 15 Jul 2011. <http://www.observer.com/2011/politics/obamas-action-libya-raises-questions-nadler-weiner>.
 Hornick, Ed. "Arming Libyan rebels: Should U.S. do it?." CNN 31 Mar 2011: Web. 15 Jul 2011. <http://articles.cnn.com/2011-03-31/politics/arming.libya.rebels.analysts_1_rebel-stronghold-gadhafi-regime-moammar-gadhafi?_s=PM:POLITICS>.
 For a more in-depth treatment of heuristic biases see, for instance, Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases by Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky.
 Bazerman, Max H. Judgment in Managerial Decision Making. 3rd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994. Print.
 The Libyan Interim National Council. Vision of a democratic Libya. Benghazi: 2011. Web. 15 Jul 2011. <http://www.ntclibya.org/english/libya/>.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University or any other U.S. Government entity.