The article below was written in 2001 and first appeared in issue # 1 (Spring 2001) of MidEast Solidarity, the Middle East bulletin of the revolution magazine group. Although 13 years old, it remains highly relevant, largely because the Western powers are engaged in an ever-expanding and seemingly never-ending war in the Middle East and Afghanistan against forces which they and their actions are largely responsible for creating
by Paul Hopkinson
Between 1978 and 1992, the United States spent at least $US3 billion (some sources estimate as high as 20 billion) on creating, funding, training and arming the mujaheddin ‘freedom fighters’ in Afghanistan. Every US dollar spent was matched by Saudi Arabia, as the US government and the Saudi oligarchy had an agreement to co-fund the establishment of the mujaheddin. A section of these ‘freedom fighters’ now make up the Taliban government , and the training camps created by these funds are the ones used by Osama bin Laden.
Wealthy conservative reaction
The mujaheddin started as a conservative reaction of wealthy semi-feudal landlords and the Muslim religious establishment (often one in the same), to the progressive policies of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The PDPA was committed to radical land reform that favoured the peasants, trade union rights, education for all (including women) and the separation of church and state. To carry out these policies, the PDPA advocated closer ties with the Soviet Union. Fearing the spread of Soviet influence and the example the PDPA might set for people suffering under the repressive regimes of America’s other Islamic allies, the US offered to support those opposing the PDPA government.
An internal power struggle in the PDPA that toppled the leader of the government in December 1979 saw Soviet soldiers enter Afghanistan to prevent the government’s collapse. The Soviet Union did not want to see the PDPA government fail, for it feared this could destabilise the southern Soviet Republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The entrance of the Soviet forces was used to legitimise the mujaheddin struggle as one of national liberation.
Osama bin Laden, like many of the mujaheddin fighters and supporters, was drawn from fundamentalist Islamic groups outside of Afghanistan. Born in Saudi Arabia, he was one of twenty sons of a billionaire construction magnate. He arrived in Afghanistan in 1980 to join the ‘jihad’ against the Soviets and became one of the three people who ran Maktab al Khidamar (MAK, Office of Services). The MAK was the organisation that distributed recruits, money and equipment to the mujaheddin factions from Pakistan.
In 1989 bin Laden gained overall control of the MAK. The friendships and associations made in the Office of Services gave birth to the Al Qaeda (The Base) network, which is alleged to have carried out the September 11 attacks.*
The MAK was set up, financed and directed by Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI), which was the first recipient of the vast bulk of the US and Saudi funding. While the United States needed to use ISI operatives, as it had no creditable Islamic agents of its own, it always had control of the operations.
In 1978, president Jimmy Carter started to support the mujaheddin to a level where they could harass the Soviet forces; by 1984 president Ronald Reagan wanted to help the mujaheddin to defeat the ‘evil empire’ (the Soviet Union). US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director William Casey made a secret trip to Pakistan in 1984 to plan a strategy for the war against the Soviet forces. During this trip he visited three secret training camps near the Afghan border, and watched the mujaheddin fire heavy weapons and make bombs with plastic explosives and detonators supplied by the US.
Mohammed Yousaf, a Pakistani general who attended the strategy meeting Casey held during this trip, has told of how Casey startled his Pakistani hosts by his wish to escalate the war and take it into enemey territory. Yousaf, who supervised the covert war for the ISI between 1983 and 1987, has since published a detailed account of his role and that of the CIA in what was entitled ‘The Bear Trap’ (the attempt to draw the Soviets into an unwinnable war).
Casey’s visit was a prelude to a secret Reagan administration decision in March 1985, reflected in National Security Decision Directive 166, to sharply escalate US covert operations in Afghanistan. By 1987 this new policy had arms supplies rise to 65,000 tons a year and what Yousaf called a “ceaseless stream” of CIA and Pentagon specialists arriving in Pakistan to oversee and advise on operations.
In 1986 Casey committed CIA support to an ISI proposal to recruit from around the world for the Afghan jihad. Between 1982 and 1992 at least 100,000 Islamic militants flocked to Pakistan, many to attend fundamentalist schools without necessarily taking part in the jihad, but at least 40,000 joined the fighting.
Recruiting in US
John Cooley, a journalist and the author of Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism, has revealed that young Muslims were even recruited in the United States for the mujaheddin, and trained at Camp Peary in Virginia. Many of these foreign recruits for the mujaheddin joined bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network after the downfall of the PDPA in Afghanistan.
In November 1998, the British Independent reported that Ali Mohammed, one of the people charged with the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was a former member of the US army’s elite Green Berets. It reported that he had trained Bin Laden’s operatives in 1989 and that these operatives were recruited from the Kifah Refugee Centre in Brooklyn, New York. The operatives were then given paramilitary training in the New York area and shipped to Afghanistan.
The CIA backing of the mujaheddin saw the drugs trade boom and within two years Afghanistan was the world’s biggest producer of opium. As in Southeast Asia during the 1960s-70s the profits provided extra funding for the CIA-backed warlords (in this case mujaheddin warlords), helping to enrich many of them personally as well as helping finance their war with the Soviets and each other.
In 1995, the former director of the CIA’s operation in Afghanistan was unrepentant about the explosion in the flow of drugs: “our main mission was to do as much damage as possible to the Soviets. . .” The US recently paid the Taliban – now its sworn enemy – $US43 billion to destroy some opium fields as part of its war on drugs.
Who pays the price?
The full cost of America’s covert funding of the mujaheddin may never be known but the billions of taxpayer dollars spent could have been used to greatly improve the lives of American workers (health care, school funding etc). The cost of the American government’s ‘war on terrorism’, which some estimate to exceed $US100 billion could greatly improve the lives of all the people in the Third World (20 billion dollars US to provide clean water, 30 billion to provide classrooms for all Third World children).
Again, the full cost of the US ‘war on terrorism’ will never be known as hidden deals and covert funding of unknown groups and operations go unchecked. Already Musharraf and his Pakistani regime have received $US600 million in debt rescheduling and the sanctions imposed on them for nuclear testing have been lifted.
The human cost of this new war is also unknown but with up to 5 million Afghans facing starvation and the full force of the American war machine at work it is going to be far too high.
Appearing in a box with the article on Bin Laden was the following:
Below are extracts from a 1998 interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, president Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor. It appeared in the French paper Le Nouvel Observateur, January 15-21, 1998, p76. The translation is by William Blum, author of Killing Hope and Rogue State.
Question: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs From the Shadows that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan six months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser to president Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?
Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujaheddin began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise. Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.
Q: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?
B: It isn’t quite like that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.
Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regreat anything today?
B: Regret what? The 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 day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.” Indeed, for almost ten years, Moscow had to carry on a war unwinnable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.
Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?
B: 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?
* This article was written very shortly after the attacks, when it was not yet certain that Al Qaeda had carried them out.