The nature of the operation also determines the type of guns you'll want to send. In Afghanistan, the U.S. aid program was a covert operation, "even though the whole world seemed to know," Bearden said. The CIA, therefore, chose to supply the rebels with Soviet-designed AK-47s purchased from China and Egypt in order to maintain plausible deniability. But Warsaw Pact weapons also had a tactical advantage, since they were interoperable with the weapons already in the field: If the mujahideen captured a Soviet ammunition cache, they could just load the bullets into their own U.S.-provided rifles.
While this is also presumably also true for the rebels fighting Assad's Russian- and Iranian-backed military, Bearden suggests that providing the rebels with "Made in the USA" guns might be one way to control how they're used.
"Since this is not a covert thing, and we're not trying to conceal the U.S. hand in it, you can limit the mobility of the weapons you provide if you were to not use Warsaw Pact equipment," he said. "If you had a specific group you wanted to arm and not have that bleed into the other groups, you could give them U.S. equipment. The ammunition would not be interchangeable with the stuff that's on the battlefield right now. You can then control what happens by monitoring or turning on or off the supply of ammunition to those systems."
But beyond tactics, Bearden says the biggest lesson of Afghanistan is to begin planning for how to handle the aftermath -- before you start sending guns. He believes this could have saved both countries years of grief.
"We needed to say, 'You just lost a million people dead, and million and a half wounded, you have 5 million people driven out into exile in Pakistan and Iran and maybe a million and a half internally displaced persons and a totally destroyed country. We're going to help you!'" Bearden said. "There were seven separate parties, and when we walked away they did what was natural -- [they] began to fight for a very small pie. We now have had to come back in there primarily because of that and have had to spend close to $1 trillion. I have no idea what it would have cost us in 1989, but I guarantee it wouldn't be approaching $1 trillion."
Bearden also believes U.S. politicians should be under no illusions about who will ultimately be held responsible for the outcome in Syria: "Don't say, 'Oh, it's a coalition with the British and the French.' No, it's us. We had a coalition supporting the Afghans against the Soviets. We had the U.K.; we had the Saudis; we had the Chinese for God's sakes! But when it was over, we owned it. And we walked away."