Reaping What We Have Sown
by David Morris
Originally published in Alternet, May 4, 2004
Who is behind global Islamic terrorism? A new book by Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, makes a persuasive case that the guilty party is the United States. For Mamdani, director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University, the seeds of 2004 were planted in 1979. To be more precise, in July 1979, when Jimmy Carter, smarting from US setbacks in Vietnam, Iran and Nicaragua, decided to fight back against the expansion of global communism by providing secret aid to opponents of the new pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan.
The Cold War was at its height. As National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinksi later recalled, he warned Carter that U.S. financial intervention “was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.” He was right. In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. And that set in motion a series of events that haunts us to this day.
Carter renewed financial assistance to Pakistan that had been cut off because of that country’s dismal human rights record and its accelerated nuclear weapons program. Under Ronald Reagan, Pakistan became the third largest recipient of US aid, after Israel and Egypt.
The CIA and Pakistan’s equivalent, the ISI, became working partners in an enterprise whose objective was to make Afghanistan Russia’s Vietnam. Among the more influential and aggressive advocates of this objective was Reagan’s assistant secretary of defense, Richard Perle.
The CIA’s role was to acquire weapons and specialists in guerrilla warfare from different countries and deliver them, along with intelligence and surveillance information on Afghanistan to the ISI. The ISI transported weapons to the border, supervised the training of Afghan fighters inside Pakistan and coordinated their operations inside Afghanistan.
To fight the Russians we did not fuel Afghan nationalism. Pakistan feared that such nationalism would be led by the 40 percent of Afghanistan that is Pashtun and could inspire uprisings by members of that ethnic group in Pakistan. Instead, the United States established recruitment centers all over the Islamic world: Sudan, Indonesia, Chechnya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kosovo, Algeria, Iraq.
We created an “infrastructure of terror” that used Islamic symbols to tap into Islamic networks and communities. In effect, we aided and abetted an Islamic jihad. The Afghan war, Mamdani observes, “was so ideologized that it was seen less and less as a national-liberation struggle and more and more as an international religious crusade: a jihad.”
The word “jihad” is now used so frequently in the west that most people believe that calls to religious wars are common in Islam. Mamdani notes that this is untrue. Indeed only four times in 1100 years has a religious jihad been used to mobilize Arabs. The last one occurred in 1891 when Muhammad Ahmed led an uprising against British-Turko-Egyptian colonialism in Sudan.
The U.S. encouraged a new jihad against Soviet atheism. We indoctrinated the Islamic recruits with a hatred of the Soviets and, along with the Pakistani government, taught them how to terrorize and urged them to do so.
One way was through the education system operated by the Mujahideen. In these centers, many of the textbooks were paid for by the U.S. and written by US-chosen contractors. Even math and science texts contained political messages. One-fourth grade text asked students to solve the following arithmetic question, “The speed of a Kalashnikov bullet is 800 meters per second. If a Russian is at a distance of 3200 meters from a muhahid, and that mujahid aims at the Russian’s head, calculate how many seconds it will take for the bullet to strike the Russian in the forehead.”
“The CIA looked for a Saudi prince to lead this crusade but was unable to find one”, Mamdani notes. “It settled for the next best, the son of an illustrious family closely connected to the Saudi royal house”, Osama bin Laden.
Osama bin Laden first traveled to Peshawar in 1980. In 1986 he was a major contractor on the construction of the Khost tunnel complex deep under the mountains along the Pakistan border. Housed within that complex were a major arms depot, a training facility and a medical center for the mujahideen. A little more than a decade after bin Laden’s crew completed construction Bill Clinton used Tomahawk cruise missiles against it. Today troops continue to fight the remnants of the Taliban there.
In 1989, the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan. A few months later, the Soviet Union itself collapsed. The Cold War was over. But a new war was about to begin. At the end of 1989, in the town of Khost, Osama bin Laden announced the creation of a new organization, al-Qaeda, “the Base”.
“How did the right-wing Islamism, an ideological tendency with small and scattered numbers before the Afghan War, come to occupy the global center stage after 9/11?” asks Mamdani. “The answer lies in the Afghan jihad, which gave it not only the organization, the numbers, the skills, the reach and the confidence but also a coherent objective.”
Mahfoud Bennoune, an Algerian sociologist is more explicit, “Your government participated in creating a monster…16,000 Arabs were trained in Afghanistan, made into a veritable killing machine.”
Twelve years after the end of the Cold War an L.A. Times investigative reporter concluded that the key participants in every major terrorist attack in New York, France, Saudi Arabia and other countries were veterans of Afghan War.
We were reaping what we had sowed.
Today some of the principal architects of the Afghan jihad are back in power. Led by Richard Perle and others, they persuaded President Bush that the only way to destroy the Islamic killing machine we had created was to establish a foothold in the heart of the Islamic world. Iraq offered us that chance. On March 20, 2003, almost 25 years after we confronted the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, we seized that opportunity. Some 15 months later more than 600 Americans have died. We’ve spent more than $200 billion. Trains in Spain, nightclubs in Indonesia, offices in Saudi Arabia are being blown up. Greece is girding for a terrorist attack during this summer’s Olympics. U.S. political conventions may take place under military protection.
The Soviet losses in Afghanistan helped speed the end of the Cold War. But the strategy we used to defeat the Soviets also created the bridge to a new global war, one that we are finding may be a great deal hotter and more destructive than the old one.
David Morris is vice-president of the Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (www.ilsr.org).