Here's another chapter from my 2002 book Boomerang! Or, How Our Covert Wars Have Created Enemies Across the Middle East and Brought Terror to America. Since Afghan policy has been in the news of late, I thought this might be timely (previously posted chapters include Egypt, Pakistan and Libya). This is the chapter as originally written; my editor then requested I add a lengthy rebuttal to a magazine article belittling the idea that energy policy could have anything to do with our intervention in that part of the world. Perhaps I'll post that separately later on....
The root of the terror inflicted on Afghanistan can be traced back to its very identity as a nation: its borders represent a clumsy imposition of colonial administration by the British Empire. Like those of so many other colonial remnants, its arbitrary boundaries are a recipe for tribal and ethnic conflict. About a dozen major ethnolinguistic groups have been forced under the umbrella called Afghanistan. Some are of Persian descent, like the Tajiks in the northeast and the Pashtuns in the southeast, who also spread across northwestern Pakistan. In the northwest are Turkic tribes, like the Uzbeks bordering Uzbekistan and the Turkmens of neighboring Turkmenistan. Then there are the Baluchs in the southwest, who are part of the theoretical country known as Baluchistan, which would also take up chunks of eastern Iran and western Pakistan if it were allowed to exist. Diversity can be a strength to any nation, but such advantage doesn’t accrue when mandated by the whim of an empire – nor when communities are intentionally divided by borders.
Not all empires are created equal, and US support for the fanatical Islamic guerrillas known as the mujahedin was, ostensibly, a benevolent response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. How could the world’s greatest democracy have stood by and not thwarted Soviet imperial ambitions? It’s a compelling appeal to principle. But one fact gets in the way of our lofty image of the US as crusader for freedom: our intervention predated the Soviets’ move and was designed with two objectives in mind: provoke the Soviets to invade, and squelch a popular move toward socialism.
What propelled the US to suppress the very values we claim to promote throughout the world? Our sometime allies in Pakistan began funding mujahedin rebels in 1975, hoping to destabilize the secular Afghan regime of Daoud Khan, who had overthrown the monarchy in 1973 (King Zahir had likewise replaced Daoud’s earlier government in 1963). Daoud suppressed the rebellion, with the help of the neighboring Shah of Iran, who had his own troubles with Islamic fundamentalists. But weakening the Muslim factions inadvertently helped to strengthen Afghan socialists. After crushing the Muslims, Daoud sought to purge the left as well, but they took over in a popular coup in 1978. Afghanistan, as one of the poorest countries on the planet, was fertile ground for a Marxist appeal.
This caught the attention of the United States, who saw the new government of Noor Mohammed Taraki as a domino to be pushed back in the wake of our setbacks in Vietnam. When the Shah of Iran was overthrown in early 1979, the balance of power in the region became severely unbalanced. A 1979 State Department memo strips away any pretense of being a force for freedom in the region: “The United States’ larger interest would be served by the demise of the Taraki-Amin regime, despite whatever setbacks this might mean for future social and economic reforms in Afghanistan” (emphasis added). US efforts marked the beginning of Afghanistan’s descent into hell.
Taraki had embarked on a program of land reform, including suppression of opium cultivation by fundamentalists, who had used the revenues to fund further insurrections. The mujahedin were also outraged by the new government’s emphasis on women’s rights. Far from being alarmed by this threat to human rights and stability, US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski saw the fury of the Islamic rebels as “an opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.” Brzezinski advised President Carter that the new Afghan regime was part of the Soviet plan to dominate South Asia. This despite the fact that the State Department had found no Soviet complicity in the 1978 coup, and that the Russians were in fact advising Taraki to slow down the pace of reforms in the interest of stability. Nonetheless, Brzezinski advised Carter to authorize aid to the mujahedin, noting, correctly as it turned out, that “this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.”
Brzezinski’s advice, and the orders of a President who would subsequently retire to teach Sunday school, were designed to and succeeded in setting in motion a war. A war that created five and a half million refugees, half a million injured, and left a million dead. About half of Afghanistan’s pre-war population of 12-15 million were maimed, made homeless, or killed; more than half the villages were destroyed. The country has been at war ever since.
Brzezinski is unrepentant and crystal clear about U.S. priorities. “Regret what?” he asked an interviewer years later. “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?”
US funding of renewed the Islamic insurgencies, combined with funding by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, created problems for Taraki, who traveled to Moscow in September 1979 for advice. On his return he was arrested and executed by his deputy, Hafizullah Amin. Amin, who was meeting regularly with US embassy officials, had been educated in the US. US officials, meanwhile, were in turn meeting with the Pakistani-backed Islamic rebels. The Soviets, not surprisingly, viewed US interventions in the area as part of Washington's plan to dominate South Asia. Alarmed by the possibility of a fundamentalist regime on their borders, the USSR invaded in December 1979 and set up the puppet government of Babrak Kamal.
Afghanistan’s fate as the latest pawn in the Cold War was sealed. If the underlying intent of US actions had been to nurture freedom and democracy in the country, a natural step would have been to aid Afghan moderates; at that point there were still constitutional reformers and secular nationalists who had not yet been purged by Islamists and Marxists. There was even a pacifist movement in the Pashtun areas, led by Abdul Gaffar Khan, the "Islamic Gandhi." No dice: the plan to “bleed” the Soviets was paramount. Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency was used as middleman to recruit the most fanatical Islamic warriors (of the seven Islamic groups backed by the CIA, nearly half of all funds went to the nastiest, headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a bloodthirsty medieval theocrat). The hope was to destabilize not only the regime in Kabul, but also the predominantly Muslim border republics of the USSR. The recruiting met with great success: 35,000 Muslims from all over the world came to join the jihad against the atheistic Soviets.
One of the volunteers was a young Saudi millionaire named Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was recruited by the CIA in Istanbul in 1979. A civil engineer, he was initially responsible for logistics, but soon became the main financial intermediary for US and Saudi funding. Working closely with the Agency and his friend Prince Turki, the Saudi intelligence chief, he helped to recruit other radical Muslims throughout the Arab world, and proved to be a talented fundraiser for the cause. Bin Laden also worked closely with the fanatical warlord Hekmatyar, the CIA's favorite, in raising funds through opium trafficking. While distributing resources to the seven Islamic resistance groups, bin Laden also developed close ties with some of the fundamentalist Afghans who later formed the Taliban, helping to set up a network of schools along the Pakistani border to train young Muslim boys for the jihad.
The Soviets matched the rebels’ fury with near-genocidal intensity, and seemed to be winning the war until 1986, when CIA Director William Casey authorized the sale of US-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels. The mujahedin, who had already shot down a civilian airliner in 1984, began inflicting greater losses on the Soviets. The USSR withdrew its troops in 1989, after losing nearly 15,000 soldiers. The day after the last Soviet troops departed, Mikhail Gorbachev proposed a cease-fire, to be followed by UN-supervised elections. The Soviet-backed Afghan leader, Najibullah, offered to step down prior to elections, or to form a coalition government with moderate Islamists to prevent the rise of extremists. But the US and its Islamic proxies would have none of it, preferring instead to press on to total victory.
So Afghanistan’s agony didn’t end with the Soviet withdrawal. Having accomplished its aim of bleeding the USSR, the US turned its back while Pakistan and Saudi Arabia continued to back the most radical Islamic factions, and the country descended into endless civil war. The mujahedin took Kabul in 1992, but fighting continued as the guerrilla leader Hekmatyar reduced what was left of Kabul to rubble in a series of rocket attacks. Some fifty thousand more Afghan civilians were killed during this period. Hekmatyar took over in 1994, but was himself attacked by the Taliban - an extremist Islamic sect influenced by Wahhabism, the state religion of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies.
The Clinton Administration made US foreign policies clear again when it supported the flow of military and financial aid from the Saudis and Pakistanis to the Taliban from 1994-96. Despite Taliban fanaticism, the US initially welcomed their takeover of Afghanistan in 1996. Again the interests were monetary: the US hoped the Taliban could impose enough stability on Afghanistan to allow construction of a natural gas pipeline from the energy-rich countries to the north. The costs to the civilian population were high: the Taliban installed a ruthless theocracy, with religious police beating suspects in the streets for even minor offenses. Women were not permitted to attend school or take jobs, and could not appear in public unless shrouded from head to toe. Meanwhile fighting continued with northern tribes armed by Russia, India and Iran. Relations with Washington deteriorated after Osama bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1997 and began attacking US targets, a matter to be discussed below later. Sanctions were imposed on Kabul in 1999.
But hopes for the pipeline continued. John Maresca of Unocal testified before Congress in 1998, noting that construction could of course not begin until a more satisfactory government took power in Kabul. Still, he explained that the route from the energy reserves of the Caspian Sea, running through Afghanistan down to the Pakistani coast, was “the best option with the fewest technical difficulties. It is the shortest route to the sea and has relatively favorable terrain for a pipeline.” Maresca added, “there is considerable international and regional interest in this pipeline.”
Once the Bush Administration took office in 2001, a warming trend in US-Taliban relations began anew. Secretary of State Colin Powell was said to have disapproved of the thaw but was overruled by CIA interests in the administration. Kabul sent envoys to meet with old allies from the Reagan/Bush years at CIA headquarters. Afghanistan’s unofficial US ambassador Laili Helms, niece-in-law of former CIA Director Richard Helms, arranged the meetings. Following these meetings, The US tilted against the anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance still fighting on the Turkmen and Tajik borders. Increased food aid went to help the Afghans, struggling with a four-year drought, and Bush administration officials also sent $43 million in drug war funds, lauding the Taliban’s efforts to suppress opium exports. At least $125 million went from Washington to Kabul in 2001, making the US the largest source of funds to what George W. Bush later called the regime of “evildoers.”
All that good feeling ended on September 11, of course, because as it turns out the mujahedin had been doing a lot more than simply fighting amongst themselves after the Russians left. Just as Brzezinski and Casey had hoped, they had brought their jihad to the southern republics of the Soviet Union, even after there was no more Soviet Union left to destabilize. Rebellions in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan continue to simmer more than a dozen years later (see chapter 14). Islamic forces linked to bin Laden and the Taliban have also helped pin down the Russians in Chechnya, the Chinese in Xinjiang, and the Indians in Kashmir. Bin Laden’s jihad has also served US interests in the Balkans, fighting on the side of NATO-backed Muslim forces in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.
At the same time, bin Laden and other former mujahedin have actively worked against US interests by attacking client regimes in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-born bin Laden returned to his homeland in 1990, disillusioned with Afghan infighting. He founded a charitable organization for Arab veterans of the Afghan war and survivors of those killed. When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s secular regime invaded the Emirate of Kuwait, bin Laden offered to help set up a new Islamic army to assist his fellow Wahhabis. Instead, to his eternal outrage, the Saudi royal family brought in half a million American troops.
Even worse, to the Islamic radicals, was that after the end of the Gulf War, some US troops remained on Saudi soil, home to some of Islam’s holiest sites. Alarmed by his calls for the overthrow of the royal family, the Saudis revoked bin Laden’s citizenship and expelled him in 1994 – though many influential Saudis continued to support him (see chapter 11). Disgusted by the corruption of the US client states and their acquiescence in Israel’s occupation of other holy sites in Jerusalem, bin Laden and other ex-mujahedin declared a jihad against America. Alliances between the various Islamic paramilitary groups and with states in the region are difficult to sort out, but bin Laden and groups alleged to be “linked” to him are suspected in a number of attacks against US installations. These include a car bombing in Riyadh, the destruction of the Khobar Towers housing US troops in Saudi Arabia, bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and the suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.
But as the second Bush administration tilted towards the Taliban, bringing bin Laden to justice seemed to be less of a priority than rekindling the dormant pipeline deals. The CIA, eager to work with old mujahedin pals from the drug smuggling and arms trafficking days, argued that the threat from bin Laden was "overblown." So further meetings followed the Taliban envoys' trip to Washington, but the negotiations did not go well. The US demanded that transit rights be grated to Western companies, that the mullahs share power with deposed King Zahir Shah, and that bin Laden be handed over. There were factions of the Taliban willing to extradite bin Laden to an international court, provided they were shown evidence against him. The US refused this utterly reasonable request, both before and after 9/11, on the grounds that such information would compromise security sources.
For their part, the Taliban were insulted at being ordered to share power with a monarch deposed in 1973, who they believed to be corrupt. As for the pipeline, they had a better offer from an Argentine firm, which offered to build terminals and other infrastructure in Afghanistan instead of just bypassing it on the way to the Pakistani coast. Apparently the US felt the Taliban should be satisfied with the cash influx from the pipeline transit rights. If not, the alternative was spelled out: "Either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold or we will bury you under a carpet of bombs." Pakistani diplomat Niaz Naik was told in mid-July 2001, at a UN conference on Afghanistan, that the US was planning military action against the Taliban to begin no later than October. While the Taliban had refused to attend, the Pakistanis duly passed this war threat along to them. By this point reports on the planned military action had also appeared in the periodicals India Reacts and Jane's International Security. Military plans for an attack on Afghanistan reached President Bush's desk on September 9, 2001.
So while none of the 9/11 suicide attackers came from Afghanistan, the Afghan people paid the price – for living on a strategic piece of turf, if nothing else. After 22 years of war, war was waged again with renewed intensity. After a punishing drought and the resulting famine, international aid agencies reluctantly withdrew in advance of the pending US attack, putting millions of lives at risk. While the US made war on the Taliban and tilted back to the Northern Alliance, civilians died by the thousands in allied bombing raids or in squalid refugee camps. While the Taliban were deposed and al-Qaida dispersed, their leaders remained free. The Afghan people were freer than under the Taliban, but were still ruled by brutal warlords with appalling human rights records – many of whom had shelled Kabul into ruins a decade earlier. And the rekindled civil war had no end in sight.
As head of the interim government in Kabul, the US installed Hamid Karzai, who had previously worked as a consultant for none other than Unocal. (The US also sent another Unocal consultant, Zalmay Khalilzad, as the President's special envoy). Not surprisingly, the Karzai regime revived the pipeline deal so strenuously desired by Washington, signing an agreement with Pakistan and Turkmenistan in May 2002.
To support Karzai, the US continues to make war on uncooperative warlords, including the resurgent Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Afghan civilians continue to be caught in the crossfire; one soldier told his hometown paper, "We were told there were no friendly forces. If there was anybody there, they were the enemy. We were told specifically that if there were women and children to kill them." In July 2002 the US waged a two-hour assault on a wedding party after mistaking celebratory gunfire for anti-aircraft attacks. Scores were killed, mostly women and children. And in case you think the Afghans have suffered everything but a plague of locusts, think again: the locusts arrived in April 2002. Right after the earthquake.
By providing thousands of fanatics with weapons and cash beyond their wildest dreams, then giving them ample reason to hate America, our Afghan policies have demonstrably harmed our national security. Our current sojourn in Afghanistan is likely to do the same, providing plenty of new recruits for the terrorist forces. Even the British, our closest allies, felt compelled to protest the "blundering" of our "march-in-shooting" raids in Pashtun territory, which, they said, "will just backfire and increase sympathy for al-Qaida."
In pursuit of cheap energy and taxpayer-subsidized profits for a few oil companies, our nation is likely to be engaged in Afghanistan for many years to come. But Afghanistan isn't even the real prize; as we shall see, its main strategic value is that it provides transport routes from the energy-rich countries surrounding the Caspian Sea – notably Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.