Part 1, Chapter 4
To watch the courageous Afghan freedom fighters battle modern arsenals with hand-held weapons is an inspiration to those who love freedom.
—President Ronald Reagan[i]
What is most important for world history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? Some Islamic hotheads or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?
Every religion, including Islam, has its crazed fanatics. Few in numbers and small in strength, they can properly be assigned to the “loony” section. This was true for Islam as well until 1979, the year of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Indeed, there may well have been no 9/11 but for this game-changer.
Charlie did it.
—Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq[iv]
In 1979, U.S. Representative Charlie Wilson was a big-talking, big-drinking Texan whose primary accomplishment in four terms in Congress was getting himself reelected three times. Within a year he was a key player in Operation Cyclone, a CIA operation aimed at arming and financing Afghan mujahideen fighters in their guerilla fight against the Soviet Union. For a decade, operatives were able to provide financial—and later military—assistance to militant Islamic groups of tribal Afghans. Wilson was instrumental in securing appropriations for the operation, which wasn’t quite officially legal, at least at first. The story of how a larger-than-life character like Wilson, who probably couldn’t even find Afghanistan on a map in 1979, could become so important is told in the 2003 book Charlie Wilson’s War (made into a Hollywood movie in 2007).
In the movie, the whole episode is presented primarily as a comedy. No one expects a good-natured blowhard like Wilson to become an important mover of world events. He is an underdog, much like the mujahideen he helped to funnel several billion dollars to. But at the end of the movie, things suddenly become serious. The CIA operative Wilson has been teaming up with comes to tell him things aren’t going swimmingly in Afghanistan now that the Soviets are gone. There are religious hotheads and crazies pouring in to the country. The former holy warriors are now turning on each other in civil war—and they’re still well armed with American weapons. We hear the sound of jet airliners approaching from the distance as Wilson shrugs off the warning. America has moved on even if the mujahideen have not.
The real Charlie Wilson was not nearly so blasé about his former allies. In a 2009 interview with a Texas newspaper, Wilson was highly skeptical about Afghanistan and the permanent removal of the “awful” Taliban:
Generally, I’m a pretty optimistic person, and I’m not very optimistic
about this … I feel like I would not be surprised if in two years
we’ve taken a lot of casualties and spent a lot of money and don’t
have much to show for it.[v]
As for those years in the early 90s, when Afghanistan was falling into the hands of the Taliban, Wilson admitted, “I feel guilty about it.”[vi] Just a few months after the interview, Charlie Wilson was dead. The Afghanistan quagmire continues.
Now more than four years out from Wilson’s prediction, the story in Afghanistan is much the same. It’s worth asking what this retired politician could see in 2009 that America’s foreign policy experts and advisors did not. It’s worth asking what America is doing in Afghanistan in the first place.
THE HUNT FOR BIN LADEN
Shortly after 9/11 American intelligence identified al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden as the prime movers behind the attack. President Bush issued a demand to the Taliban, then the ostensible (if mostly unrecognized) government of Afghanistan, to deliver up al-Qaeda’s leaders or face the consequences.
Ironically, these demands were made to—and about—former allies. Bin Laden and the men who would later become the Taliban had worked for a long time with American and Pakistani intelligence agencies (the CIA and ISI, respectively) as part of a proxy war of attrition against the Soviet Union. The CIA was well aware of the radically religious character of the proto-Taliban fighters, but still preferred them to Afghan nationals because they believed their motivations easier to read. For the sake of defeating the USSR, the CIA regarded bin Laden and the Islamic militants who had flocked to Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet invasion as reliable partners.[vii]
When the U.S. came to the Taliban with its demand for bin Laden in 2001, they were speaking to religious zealots nourished for more than a decade by Saudi money, Pakistani training, and American military hardware. As far as the Americans were concerned, these zealots had helped us topple the “evil empire” more than a decade before. But in the eyes of the zealots, America was just another evil empire, to be used and deceived—as Muhammad taught his followers to do with unbelievers—then turned on and destroyed at the first opportunity. As for bin Laden, the zealots saw him as a hero of the Soviet war engaged in righteous jihad with the foolish Americans who had once indirectly supported him. They rejected U.S. demands. When the Americans subsequently invaded Afghanistan the official reason was simple: to destroy al-Qaeda and bring Osama bin Laden to justice.
After ten years, thousands of Americans killed or injured, and more than two trillion dollars spent, bin Laden was finally found and killed—but not in Afghanistan. Instead, this skinny, middle-aged man taking drugs for erectile dysfunction was resting comfortably in Pakistan. The “most wanted man in the world” had his own compound, complete with servants, near the Abbottabad military base—essentially the West Point of Pakistan—near the capital of a country we consider a key ally in the so-called War on Terror.
With the elimination of bin Laden we are left with questions that still lack good answers. If bin Laden was hiding out in Pakistan, why are we in Afghanistan? As part of the initial invasion, American forces overthrew the Taliban because of their role in harboring bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization. Who is the Taliban? Where did they come from? What is their connection to al-Qaeda?
The sad fact of the Afghanistan invasion and all the death and suffering and waste that has resulted from it is that the Taliban is, in part, our responsibility—along with two supposed allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The Afghan people had nothing to do with 9/11, but they have suffered greatly for it. The biggest losers in our war there have been the main participants: the United States and the Afghans themselves. For over a decade we have been both bombing and trying to rebuild a country that was destroyed not by bombs but by Islam.
THE ISLAM BOMB
Before there was Muhammad or Islam, the region which now includes Afghanistan and Pakistan was occupied by what we now refer to as Gandhara civilization. In one popular modern misconception, Afghanistan is thought of as a country that never left the Stone Age. In fact, the Gandhara civilization enjoyed a thriving culture before Homer composed his Iliad in Greece.
When Alexander and his Greek phalanxes marched through Persia toward India in 326 BC, it was the Gandhara civilization that they passed through. His historians described the capital, Taxila, as “wealthy, prosperous, and well-governed.”[viii] The region was known as a spiritual center, the birthplace of the Zoroastrian religion. When Buddhist influence later came to Afghanistan, it produced an incredible array of religious art and architecture, with hundreds of monasteries and stupas (Buddhist temples) dotting the landscape. Even today, prominent museums around the world have displays of unique sculptures known as “Gandhara Art” which were produced by members of this civilization.
One of the most remarkable figures in Gandhara civilization was a scholar named Panini. Born in the 4th century BC in a region which now lies on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Panini was an incredibly advanced Sanskrit scholar who produced a stunningly precise work of linguistic analysis which introduced ideas still in use by linguists today. Ferdinand de Saussure, widely considered the father of modern linguistics, himself cited Panini as one of the major influences on his linguistic theories.[ix] The ancient scholar’s pioneering work as even been incorporated in computer science as an element in the design of programming languages.[x]
When Arab Muslims first appeared in the region in the 7th century AD, Afghanistan and the surrounding areas were part of an ancient, multi-religious civilization. Buddhist art and architecture was everywhere. The mountains and fields were full of Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Christians, Jews, and pagans of various sorts. Afghanistan was a land of saints and scholars. The religious leaders in the Gandhara civilization practiced such things as celibacy, compassion, and service to mankind. Compare that with their modern Taliban counterparts and their particular brand of religious zealotry.
In the 11th century, the area now known as Afghanistan was completely Islamized. The various competing religions were stamped out. Since that time, the country’s fortunes have been largely tied to the fortunes of global Islam. While the medieval Caliphate was in its ascendency, Afghanistan remained a cultural center; when that declined, so did the country. In some ways, it has never fully recovered.
THE BEGINNINGS OF MODERN AFGHANISTAN
The roots of modern Afghanistan begin with the British removal from the region and the long reign of King Mohammed Zadir Shah. King Zahir Shah ruled from 1933 to 1973, a period still remembered affectionately by many elderly Afghans today. During his reign, the country was essentially managed as a collection of semi-harmonious fiefdoms. The king pursued a policy of gradual modernization, turning away from literal, tribal Islamism to joining the 20th century. For example, according to the constitution established in 1964, women were given the right to vote.
But Afghanistan’s geography meant its destiny would be otherwise. Placed at a nexus point between what was (in the 1950s) the southern USSR, the rich oil fields of Iran, China, and Pakistan, Afghanistan naturally attracted the interest of the major powers during the cold war. In 1953, Vice President Richard Nixon made a visit to Afghanistan, followed later by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1959. President Kennedy hosted King Zahir Shah in Washington, D.C. in 1963, further showing America’s interest in Afghanistan.[xi]
Although he met with American leaders, King Zahir Shah had already made an arms agreement with the Soviet Union. This agreement did not meet with approval among some of the king’s people. Conservative Muslims in particular were openly hostile toward the Soviet atheists and regarded Soviet-Marxist influence in Kabul as disgraceful. For a time, the king was able to use the competing interests of the cold war powers to his advantage. Both the US and the USSR tried to curry favor with him by funding elaborate infrastructure projects in Afghanistan.
Communist influence in Afghanistan needs to be understood in a South Asian, rather than an American, context. In Afghanistan, the communists were not so interested in secret police and central economic planning. Instead, their primary interest was in modernizing the country, which in many places remained tribal, feudal, and Islamic. De facto slavery was still practiced in some regions. To be a communist in 1960s Afghanistan meant that you opposed backward, uneducated religious nuts who still engaged in honor killings, ritual oppression of women and slaves, and all manner of murder, theft, and rape. Those who supported increasing the level of civilization in the country were often communists or other Leftists, while those who opposed this tended to be conservative Islamists. This pattern also existed across the Middle East at the time (and is why many of these countries remain monarchical).
In keeping with its foreign policy throughout the cold war, the United States viewed communist influence in Afghanistan with concern. Oil-rich Iran was right next door. When King Zahir Shah finally threw in with the communists, both the Americans and the Afghan Islamists reacted with hostility. In 1973, the king’s cousin and brother-in-law, Prime Minister Mohammad Daoud Khan, overthrew him in a bloodless coup. Khan pressed hard against the communist-aligned political party, deposing its leader in 1978. The communists responded by assassinating Daoud Khan (and most of his family) and seizing control of the country. The Saur Revolution was on.
A communist junta called the PDPA took power with an eye toward modernizing the country. By edicts they redistributed land, absolved feudal and tribal customs, established equality between men and women, and abolished slavery. Many changes imposed by the PDPA were symbolic, such as shifting the national flag from traditional Islamic green to Soviet red. Some were cruel, such as imprisoning or murdering religious leaders and members of the traditional Afghan elite. Others were well-intentioned, such as a prohibition on usury (which eventually provoked an agricultural crisis).
The sudden changes to Afghan society provoked anger and rebellion. But the forces which arose in opposition to the Saur Revolution were not democratic or capitalist—they were Islamic. Insurrection against the PDPA was primarily the work of Afghan tribes with a deep attachment to what most Americans would likely regard as brutal, outdated religious customs.
The Soviet Union took a strong interest in the survival of the Afghan junta. For one thing, they were fellow communists. For another, the Soviet states on the border of Afghanistan were also full of religious Muslims. With the USSR already suffering from a crumbling infrastructure, the last thing they needed was riled-up religious resistance on its borders and potentially sympathetic rebels within its borders. At the end of 1979 they sent the first of many troops (estimates suggest around 120,000 at the peak) to Afghanistan to quell the anti-communist rebellion. Despite the large number of men and materiel, however, the Soviets soon found themselves in a quagmire.
THE BRZEZINSKI DOCTRINE
In the late 70s, one of the most influential foreign policy minds in the Carter White House belonged to Zbigniew Brzezinski. Originally from Poland, Brzezinski had a deep-seated antagonism toward the Soviet empire which in turn informed what became known as “The Carter Doctrine.” Soviet influence in Afghanistan posed a threat to the free movement of Middle East oil and therefore, according to the Carter Doctrine, was a threat to vital American interests.[xii] The method Brzezinski (and others) took to deal with this threat continues to bear bitter fruit for the United States today.
As Brzezinski acknowledged in a later interview, prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Americans were secretly enticing them to go:
On 3 July 1979 … Carter signed the first directive for the secret
support of the opposition against the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul.
And on the same day I wrote a note, in which I explained to the
president that this support would in my opinion lead to a military
intervention by the Soviets … We didn’t push the Russians to
intervene but we knowingly increased the probability that they
would do it … This secret operation was an excellent idea. It
lured the Russians into the Afghan trap … I wrote president
Carter, in essence: “We now have the opportunity to provide the
USSR with their Viet Nam war.”[xiii]
In response to the Soviets, the United States embarked on a campaign that encouraged religious radicalization across the region. The Soviet states along Afghanistan’s northern border (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan) were majority Muslim; The US set them Qur’ans.[xiv] The Afghan opponents of the Soviets were Muslims; the US and its allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan sent them money and weapons. The so-called mujahideen, the “holy warriors” of Afghanistan, were a policy weapon used by America against its global competitor, the Soviet Union. This is what the Carter Doctrine and Brzezinski’s advice meant in practice.
Once the Soviets took the bait and crossed the border, support for the mujahideen intensified. In addition to money, Arab revolutionaries flocked to Afghanistan to aid the rebels in what was billed as a romantic jihad against atheist invaders. To the native Afghans, these revolutionaries were heroic figures—they came from wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia and spoke the language of Islam and the Prophet (Afghans are mostly Pashtun and Asiatic peoples who do not speak Arabic). These “Afghan Arabs” enjoyed enormous status in the country. As we saw in the previous chapter, Osama bin Laden was one of the most famous of these, and he didn’t even have to fire a shot. The ranks of the mujahideen were also filled via the efforts of Pakistan’s largest clandestine organization, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). The ISI was supported in its efforts to train and supply rebel soldiers by the CIA and members of the U.S. Congress.[xv]
Under President Ronald Reagan, support for the mujahideen began to include an impressive arsenal of weaponry, including highly accurate Stinger missiles. With this kind of firepower at their disposal, the mujahideen began to carry out major offenses against the hated Soviets. By 1988 the Soviets had had enough and agreed to an UN-sponsored peace deal. That year, having lost about 15,000 men and squandered billions of rubles, Soviet troops began to withdraw.
Americans lost interest in Afghanistan, but the mujahideen did not. In the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, various factions arose among the victorious “holy warriors” competing for control of a nation now devastated by nearly a decade of war. One thing was already clear, however: whoever ended up controlling the country would not be any kind of secularist. The only organized forces left in the country were the ones Americans, Saudis, and Pakistanis had built up, and they were all deeply conservative Muslims.
THE RISE OF THE TALIBAN AND AL-QAEDA
Although the Taliban and al-Qaeda are not interchangeable, there is considerable overlap between the two groups. Both groups coalesced in the years after Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in direct response to the power vacuum created. Both groups arose from the mujahideen forces that battled the Soviets. The difference is that the Taliban is a radical political party which seeks to (and for a few years did) control Afghanistan, while Al-Qaeda is an international Islamic organization formed by Osama bin Laden. The sphere of influence of the Taliban includes Afghanistan and regions of Pakistan along the border. Al-Qaeda’s influence is global, with acolytes recruited from Muslim communities across the world. Bin Laden’s first recruits, of course, were former Afghan Arab revolutionaries. Once the Soviets were gone, he gave them a new cause. America’s former allies would soon reveal themselves to be our worst enemies.
Since Saudi Arabia financed so much of the mujahideen fighting, it should come as no surprise that many Afghan clerics, mullahs, and ex-fighters became interested in a form of Islam similar to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism.[xvi] Briefly put, Wahhabism is an Islamic sect which believes that only the Salafis, the chosen Muslims, are destined for heaven. The approach to Islamic theology and practice is very literal, with a strong emphasis on living and acting as Muhammad did in the 7th century. With an entire country ravaged by war, there was no shortage of young men willing to listen to religious promises of future glory.
A former mujahideen fighter named Mullah Omar became the Taliban’s leader. Omar quickly saw that the puppet government established in Kabul in the early 90s was weak.[xvii] He waged an inflammatory propaganda campaign against them, convincing the country only the strong arm of the Taliban was capable of ruling. In 1994, the Taliban took control of Kandahar in the south and made it their stronghold. Since this region is the most fertile for growing opium poppies, the Taliban quickly engaged in the drug trade to raise money.[xviii] Like a gangster organization, these “religious” leaders leveraged opium and heroin profits into political and military control. By 1996, they had become the governing body of Afghanistan.[xix] The former home of peaceful scholars like Panini was now under the control of drug-dealing rapist thugs who styled themselves as holy warriors.
The Taliban’s hold on power remained unrecognized by the world community. In the five years between their assumption of power and the September 11 attacks, only three countries recognized the Taliban: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates.[xx]
Whatever the world community thought, the Taliban were masters inside the borders of Afghanistan. Adhering to a literal approach to Islam, they established a “Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice” which carried out public executions, stonings, and blanket bans on television, music, and dancing.[xxi] Women were banned from attending school or taking jobs outside the home—a reversal of the efforts King Zahri Shah had tried to put in place during his 1933 to 1973 reign. Non-Islamic elements of Afghan history and culture were violently purged, with the most notable example being the explosive demolition of two large, 1,700-year-old Buddha statues carved into the cliff walls of Bamiyan City.[xxii] Honor killings, beheadings, and vicious beatings of women simply for wearing the wrong kind of clothing became standard practice.
THE ROLE OF PAKISTAN
U.S. funding is far from the sole or even primary reason for the Taliban’s rise to power. Instead, the role of Pakistan and its ISI agency in the development of what became the Taliban is crucial. Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden were both trained by the ISI for the fight against the Soviets. Omar was plucked, along with thousands of other Afghans, from the enormous Afghan refugee camps that sprung up in northern Pakistan after the Soviet invasion.
Pakistani support of the Taliban continued even after the group proved itself hostile to American interests. Throughout the 1990s, Pakistani military officials provided covert advice to the Taliban in their fight against the Northern Alliance (the only real ally the West had in Afghanistan). Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew the country’s previous government in a 1999 coup, swore his government ceased all support to the Taliban after 9/11, but that secret support continued. In 2011, bin Laden was found within Pakistan’s borders.
AL-QAEDA, AFGHANISTAN, AND THE FIRST IRAQ WAR
Osama bin Laden spent much of the 90s recruiting soldiers for al-Qaeda, using Afghanistan as a gathering-spot even as the Taliban steadily gained control over the countryside. American interest at this time was on the oil-rich nations to the west. A long, bloody war between Iran and Iraq claimed at least half a million lives. Although officially a stalemate, Iran was seem as victorious because its economy remained intact whereas Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was essentially broken.[xxiii] When the Sunni Muslim states who financed Saddam’s war against Shiite Iran called in their war loans, Saddam did what any despot with no money and a large military would do—he attacked one of his neighboring creditors.
Iraqi forces quickly took control of tiny, oil-rich Kuwait and its ports in the Persian Gulf. Given the large amount of oil that travels through the Gulf, America took an immediate military interest. Saudi Arabia allowed the American military and its allies to use its country as a staging ground for over half a million troops. The superior firepower and discipline of the allied forces soon crushed Saddam’s invasion force, sending his army back to Iraq crippled and embarrassed.
In Afghanistan, the pan-Arab revolutionaries watched these events unfold with mounting anger. Saddam was loathed as a secular despot, but allowing the holy land of Saudi Arabia to be used by infidel soldiers—by “crusaders”—was too much. Bin Laden found many eager recruits among Islamic fundamentalists across the world after this. While America patted itself on the back for liberating Kuwait, al-Qaeda silently grew in size and power.
Throughout the 90s al-Qaeda developed a reputation across the globe for its role in planning and executing terror attacks. In 1998, as discussed in the previous chapter, it bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The Clinton administration responded by bombing a handful of al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. The Sudanese bombing backfired when the target was later determined to be a civilian factory.
On September 9, 2001, al-Qaeda conducted an audacious attack on its long-time Afghan nemesis the Northern Alliance, killing its charismatic leader under cover of a television interview. Two days afterwards, 19 operatives carried out the most infamous and devastating attack in al-Qaeda’s history. The majority of the operatives were not Afghanis or Iraqis—they were Saudi Arabian nationals. When America invaded Afghanistan a month later, we were fighting our former allies.
How is that working out for us?
[i] Reagan, “Message on the Observance of Afghanistan Day.”
[ii] In Martineau, trans., “Les Revelations d’un Ancien Conseilleur de Carter.” [Ed. Brzezinski was a top foreign policy advisor to Presidents Carter and Obama.]
[iii] Quoted in Washingtonsblog, “Sleeping With the Devil.”
[iv] Quoted in Crile, “Charlie did it.” [Ed. Ul-Haq was head of Pakistan’s ISI during the period when Wilson and the CIA provided funding to mujahideen forces.]
[v] Quoted in Herman, “Charlie Wilson pessimistic about future of Afghanistan.”
[vii] Moran, “Bin Laden comes home to roost.”
[viii] Encyclopedia Britannica, “Taxila.”
[ix] See Cardona, “Book review: Paninis Grammatik,” 464-5.
[x] Kadavny, “Position value and Linguistic Recursion.”
[xi] Katzman, Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and US Policy, 2.
[xii] Cambanis, “The Carter Doctrine.”
[xiii] In Martineau, trans. “Les Revelations d’un Ancient Conseilleur de Carter.”
[xiv] Cambanis, “The Carter Doctrine.”
[xv] Leopold, “The real Charlie Wilson.”
[xvi] Al-Ahmed, “Saudi Time Bomb?”
[xvii] Coll, “Looking for Mullah Omar.”
[xviii] Starkey, “Drugs for guns.”
[xix] Burns, “How Afghans’ stern rulers took hold.”
[xx] Beehner, “Musharraf’s Taliban Problem.”
[xxi] Karon, “TIME.com Primer: The Taliban and Afghanistan.”
[xxii] Rashid, “After 1,700 years, Buddhas fall to Taliban dynamite.”
[xxiii] Hardy, “The Iran-Iraq war: 25 years on.”