Repeating History in Afghanistan





Mr. Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation. His first novel, Deep Background, a political thriller, was published recently by St. Martin's Press.

As I write, I am trying to hold my breath. My office is across the street from the Senate Hart Office Building. Through yellowing leaves, I can see the corner of the building that was closed after an letter containing anthrax spores was opened by a staffer for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. From the roof of Hart, bright white puffs of steam pop out of vents, and in a reverie of paranoia I envision hardy anthrax bacteria lofting over Capitol Hill and bouncing against my window.

A former director of the Soviet bioweapons program told the Financial Times that he invented a variation of anthrax that could travel several miles. Yet experts quoted in The New York Times say that if the spores were expelled by the building's exhaust system, the concentration of the bacteria would be too low to cause infection. Which Times should I heed? Let's go with New York. But who wants to work a football field away from anthrax? And why has the index finger of my left hand been itching since yesterday? At this point, law enforcement authorities cannot say whether the anthrax attacks are the work of the September 11 plotters. Perhaps the mayhem of that day inspired and unleashed others. I find it convenient to believe it is Osama bin Laden or his associates who are going postal, for of late I've been wondering how the politicians, policy advocates, and intelligence personnel who championed and supported the fundamentalist-dominated Afghanistan resistance in the 1980s are reacting to the recent turmoil and horror. Do they have reason to experience dark, nagging stabs of regrets?

As many of us know by now, bin Laden received his start in the destroy-a-superpower game by raising funds and recruiting volunteers for the mujaheddin, the faction-ridden force that waged a guerilla war in Afghanistan against Soviet invaders. The CIA poured hundreds of millions of dollars into this effort, as did Saudi Arabia, and the Pakistani intelligence service disseminated the weapons and money supplied by Uncle Sam. So do the American godmothers of the mujaheddin now lose sleep over having bolstered the resistance in which bin Laden first developed a following and in which some of his present crew learned their chops?

A few weeks back, I was at a conference on terrorism, and in the hallway I spotted Charles Cogan, a former senior CIA official who oversaw the Afghanistan project. What do you say, I asked him, to the criticism that the CIA helped create the bin Laden monster? Very curtly, he replied,"We had nothing to do with him, we never had any direct contact with him. It's a canard." Before I could query him further, Cogan uneasily shuffled away.

That is the CIA line these days. Osama bin Laden? He was never one of ours. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Milton Bearden, CIA station chief in Pakistan in the 1980s, says the same:"Despite what has been often written, the CIA never recruited, trained or otherwise used the Arab volunteers who arrived in Pakistan.... As fundraisers, however, Arabs from the Persian Gulf played a positive, often critical role in the background of the war.... Among the more prominent of these Arab fundraisers was one Osama bin Laden." (Bearden acknowledged that in 1987 bin Laden did participate in key battles and"the military legend of Osama bin Laden was born.")

Michael Pillsbury, a congressional aide in the 1980s, was one of the fiercest champions of the mujaheddin. Largely because of his efforts, the Reagan administration decided to send Stinger surface-to-air missiles to the resistance. He now says,"I think it is factually false that the U.S. in any way backed Osama and his group of Arabs. I was there. I know who we backed. No reliable official source has ever confirmed that the U.S. program included Osama and his Arabs. They were quite distinct, and at a separate location from the Afghan fundamentalists.... It has been sad for me to see this falsehood spread on several TV magazine shows."

There is no evidence that contradicts these assertions, no proof the CIA actually shook hands with bin Laden. But the story's not that simple. The CIA supported the mujaheddin with money and guns. So did bin Laden -- with no objection from the CIA. Did some of bin Laden's"Arab Afghans" receive a share of U.S. weapons and money doled out by Pakistani intelligence? Probably. And in his memoirs, former CIA director Robert Gates notes that the Agency did attempt to increase the number of Arabs flocking to Afghanistan to wage jihad with the Muslim fundamentalists. Bin Laden's Al Qaeda and his Taliban friends, as organizations, may not be not direct descendants of the mujaheddin, but that does not mean the United States and the CIA are off the hook.

Washington (and Langley) began providing covert assistance to the mujaheddin in 1979, during the Carter Administration. This secret war was too tempting to resist, for here was a way to hurt the Soviets and perhaps draw Moscow into its own Vietnam. In the Reagan years, Washington allowed Pakistani intelligence to call the shots in terms of which resistance groups -- there were seven major factions -- would benefit most from U.S. largesse. Not all those Americans who called for arming the mujaheddin saw the Afghan fighters as pawns in a Cold War struggle. Some argued these Afghans were freedom-fighters combatting a totalitarian and brutal invader and as such deserved the backing of freedom-lovers in America.

There was a problem with that idealistic view: key blocs of the resistance were not fans of freedom, especially freedom for women. Pakistan's favorite resistance element was led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose political party called for women to be veiled in public and for"open public resistance to un-Islamic ideas and practices."

Andrew Eiva, who ran a small Washington-based group lobbying for assistance for the resistance, had an enlightening conversation with Hekmatyar in the early 1980s. Eiva recalls:"He told me that he faced two enemies. 'One comes at us from the north with troops and tanks. This I can defeat,' he said. 'The other comes at us from the west with pornography, divorce, abortion and movies. This I am more worried about.'" There were mujaheddin groups with more moderate attitudes. But for years, the United States, via Pakistan, armed and strengthened forces that considered America as the next enemy. (There were also periodic charges that elements of the resistance were involved in drug trafficking, engaged in human rights violations, and sold U.S.-supplied arms, like the Stinger missiles, to other nations or groups.)

Flash forward to 1989. The Soviets pull out of Afghanistan. For the next three years the ever-fractious resistance fights on against the communist government that remains in Kabul. What did the United States do? It disengages. A few members of Congress propose a reconstruction fund for war-shattered Afghanistan, but this notion goes nowhere. The Reaganites never got behind the idea, and, now, the Bush I Administration doesn't care. Soviets gone -- end of the Afghanistan story for Washington's covert warriors. In 1992, the mujaheddin take Kabul, but bloody civil war ensues among the resistance. For over two years, the forces of Prime Minister Hekmatyar clash with those of President Burhanuddin Rabbani. The civilian death toll is estimated at 15,000 to 25,000. Once again, Washington pays little attention.

In response to the disorder, the Taliban movement -- made up mostly of 20,000 students who studied in ultra-religious schools in Pakistan -- forms and moves on the government. In 1995, the Taliban seizes control. In fact, many Afghans are relieved to see a semblance of order restored, and Pakistan is backing the more-fundamentalist-than-the-fundamentalists Taliban. In place is a regime that will provide bin Laden -- a hero of a war encouraged and financed by the CIA -- with a sanctuary where he can devise attacks on American civilians.

No direct contact with bin Laden? There's much more to it than that. In a 1998 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Jimmy Carter's national security adviser and a key force behind the initiation of U.S. assistance to the resistance, was asked if had any regrets pertaining to the Afghanistan operation. He replied,"Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it?" The interviewer continued:"And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?" Brzezinski countered,"What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?" (The interview has been translated and distributed via email recently by author William Blum.)

Relatives of those killed on September 11 might have a different take on the importance of"some stirred-up Moslems." A few days ago, I called Brzezinski, and he told me he still has no regrets. He maintained that the Carter Administration funded the moderates, not the fundamentalists. The true problem, he asserted, was that the Soviet Union, then supporting terrorists around the world,"pulverized" Afghanistan society through the 1980s, and that set the stage for the ugly infighting of the 1990s and the subsequent rise of the Taliban. How can you assume, he asked, that there would be no terrorism today, had there been no U.S.-supported resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan? Perhaps if the Soviets had not been confronted and drained in Afghanistan, he suggested, the Soviet Union might have lived on a little longer and might have, in that time, fostered other sorts of terrorism.

Perhaps. Historical what-ifs are impossible to prove. But Brzezinski is quick to note that the policymakers who succeeded him in subsequent administrations screwed up by bugging out once the Soviets had departed:"That was immoral." In other words, they messed up the project he began. Here, then, is the lesson for Brzezinski and the CIA and the other muj-backers (past and present): be careful when you start (or underwrite) a secret war, for the consequences of such action can extend far beyond your intentions. Who can say where bin Laden -- and the 6,000 killed on September 11 -- would be today, had the United States not assisted the muj and had not bolted (as it usually does at the end of a secret war)? No one. But we do know what did occur in Afghanistan, and we do know -- sort of -- where bin Laden and the dead are today.

All this ought to be pondered as the United States once again becomes entangled in Afghanistan. A British report estimates it could take ten years and cost billions of dollars to rebuild Afghanistan. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw declares,"We have to be prepared for a lengthy commitment.... We are not going to turn our backs on them again." I am not sure I would take that bet. Also at issue is whether to support the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban resistance, in the way the United States backed the original mujaheddin. In his Foreign Affairs piece, ex-CIA man Bearden cautioned the Bush White House not to aid the new Afghan resistance, arguing such assistance would probably lead to"general civil war that would continue until the United States simply gave up." Who says irony is dead, post-September 11?

Back to anthrax. There must be some amount of the bacteria floating near my office. In all likelihood, a minimal, harmless, undetectable quantity, a stray bacterium here or there. Nothing to worry about, right? If it does turn out to be anthrax from Afghanistan (with hate), I assume that, too, will not cause the covert warriors to rethink how they handled matters there in the 1980s and 1990s.

This piece was originally published by TomPaine.com.


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