The Cost of an Afghan
by Dilip Hiro, February 15, 1999
Originally Published in The
Ten years ago, on February 15, 1989, as the last
of the 115,000 Soviet soldiers crossed over from Afghanistan into
Soviet Tajikistan, there was quiet celebration in Washington as
well as Riyadh and Islamabad. Officials in these capitals visualized
Moscow's retreat as the first, crucial step in the re-emergence
of an independent Afghanistan ready to ally with the United States.
The US-Saudi-Pakistani alliance had played the central role in
training, arming and financing the Afghan mujahedeen to expel
the Soviets from Afghanistan.
With the Soviet withdrawal accomplished--a severe
blow to Moscow in the cold war--Washington put Afghanistan on
the back burner. But the collapse of the Soviet Union in December
1991 gave a second wind to the mujahedeen movement, which acquired
a momentum of its own. Its seizure of power in Kabul in April
1992, following the fall of the leftist regime of Muhammad Najibullah,
paved the way for the rise of the Taliban Islamic movement two
years later and its capture of Kabul in September 1996.
Today the Taliban controls 90 percent of Afghanistan
and rules the country according to its interpretation of the Sharia,
Islamic law--an interpretation that even the mullahs of Iran find
repulsive. Unique in the world, the Taliban regime deprives women
of education and jobs. It has allowed the training camps near
the Pakistani border--originally established by the CIA and Pakistan's
Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI)--to be reopened
to give guerrilla training to fundamentalist volunteers from Xinjiang,
China; Bosnia; Algeria; and elsewhere to further their Islamist
agenda through armed actions in their respective countries. The
Taliban has rebuffed Washington's demands that it hand over Osama
bin Laden, a Saudi veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan
and a fugitive extremist accused of masterminding the US Embassy
bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam last August, which killed
257 people, including twelve Americans. The US government has
offered a $5 million reward for his capture.
Did the founders of US policy in Afghanistan during
the Carter Administration (1977-1981) realized that in spawning
Islamic militancy with the primary aim of defeating the Soviet
Union they were risking sowing the seeds of a phenomenon that
was likely to acquire a life of its own, spread throughout the
Muslim world and threaten US interests?
Perhaps not, but it was not as if they had no choice.
When Moscow intervened militarily in Afghanistan in December 1979,
there were several secular and nationalist Afghan groups opposed
to the Moscow-backed Communists, who had seized power twenty months
earlier in a military coup. Washington had the option of bolstering
these groups and encouraging them to form an alliance with three
traditionalist Islamic factions, two of them monarchist. Instead,
Washington beefed up the three fundamentalist organizations then
in existence. This left moderate Islamic leaders no choice but
to ally with hard-liners and form the radical-dominated Islamic
Alliance of Afghan Mujahedeen (IAAM) in 1983.
The main architect of US Policy was Zbigniew Brzezinski,
President Carter's National Security Advisor. A virulent anti-Communist
of Polish origin, he saw his chance in Moscow's Afghanistan intervention
to rival Henry Kissinger as a heavyweight strategic thinker. It
was not enough to expel the Soviet tanks, he reasoned. This was
a great opportunity to export a composite ideology of nationalism
and Islam to the Muslim-majority Central Asian states and Soviet
republics with a view to destroying the Soviet order.
Brzezinski also fell in easily with the domestic
considerations of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator
of Pakistan. After having overthrown the elected prime minister,
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1977, Zia was keen to create a popular
base for his regime by inducting Islam into politics. One way
of doing this was to give aid to the exiled Afghan fundamentalist
leaders in Pakistan.
As for Saudi Arabia, the remaining member of the
troika, it had long been a bulwark of anti-Communism, its rulers
lavish in their funding of antileftist forces around the globe--be
it in Angola, Mozambique, Portugal or Italy. The fact that the
population of Afghanistan was 99 percent Muslim was an additional
incentive to Riyadh.
The US-Saudi-Pakistani alliance's financing, training
and arming of the mujahedeen--recruited from among the 3 million
Afghan refugees in Pakistan--was coordinated and supervised by
the CIA. The day-to-day management rested with Pakistan's ISI.
All donations in weapons and cash to the campaign by various sources--chiefly
Washington and Riyadh--were handled by the CIA. These amounted
to about $40 billion, with the bulk coming from the United States
and Saudi Arabia, which contributed equally.
The volunteers underwent military training and
political education. Both were imparted by the ISI. In the political
classes the mujahedeen were given a strong dose of nationalism
and Islam. The fact that the Soviets were foreign and atheistic
made them doubly despicable. The intention was to fire up militant
Muslims to fight Soviet imperialism. Armed with CIA-supplied Stinger
missiles in the later stages of the jihad, the mujahedeen made
a hash of Soviet helicopter gunships, a critical tool of the USSR's
From the start the ranks of the Afghan mujahedeen
were complemented by non-Afghan volunteers eager to join the anti-Soviet
jihad. The very first to do so was Osama bin Laden, then a young
civil engineering graduate from an affluent family of construction
contractors in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. He devised a scheme encouraging
non-Afghan Muslims to enrol in the jihad. The 30,000 who did so
in the eighties consisted of an almost equal number of Arabs and
non-Arabs. Bin Laden, who attracted 4,000 volunteers from Saudi
Arabia, became the nominal leader of the Afghan-Arabs. He developed
cordial relations with the heads of the more radical constituents
of the IAAM, including Mullah Mohammed Omar of the Hizb-e-Islami
(Khalis group), who was later to emerge as the Taliban's supreme
leader. Besides participating in guerrilla actions, bin Laden
constructed roads in mujahedeen-controlled areas and refurbished
caves as storage places for arms and ammunition. Working closely
with the CIA, he also collected funds for the anti-Soviet jihad
from affluent Saudi citizens.
On the wider propaganda front, Brzezinski's successors
continued his intensive radio campaign (through Radio Liberty
and Radio Free Europe) to arouse and heighten Islamic consciousness
and ethnic nationalism in Central Asia in order to undermine the
Moscow-directed Soviet system. The glaring contradiction of the
US policy of bolstering Islamic zealots in Afghanistan while opposing
them in neighbouring Iran seemed to escape both Brzezinski and
In the end, the Soviet Union collapsed, but for
reasons that had nothing to do with the interreligious or interethnic
tensions among its citizens, which the US policy-makers had tried
to engender in Muslim-majority Central Asia and Azerbaijian.
Following the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan,
the Afghan-Arabs, including bin Laden, began drifting back to
their homes in the Arab world. Their heightened political consciousness
made them realize that countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt were
just as much client regimes of the United States as the Najibullah
regime had been of Moscow. In their home countries they built
a formidable constituency--popularly known as "Afghanis"--who
combined strong ideological convictions with the guerrilla skills
they had acquired in Pakistan and Afghanistan under CIA supervision.
Having defeated Soviet imperialism in Afghanistan, they felt,
naively, that they could do the same to US imperialism in say,
Saudi Arabia, with its strong links to Washington since its inception
During the 1990 Kuwait crisis, the stationing of
more than 540,000 non-Muslim US troops on the soil of Saudi Arabia--considered
sacred as the realm containing Mecca and Medina, the birth and
death places of the Prophet Muhammad--angered many pious Saudis,
especially the ulema (religious scholars). They argued that under
the Sharia it is forbidden for foreign forces to be based in Saudi
Arabia under their own flag. Their discontent rose when, having
liberated Kuwait in March 1991, the Pentagon failed to carry out
full withdrawal from the kingdom.
Among those who protested vocally was bin Laden,
who established a formal committee that advocated religious-political
reform. In 1993 King Fahd created a Consultative Council, all
of whose members were appointed by him and served in a merely
advisory capacity; this step failed to pacify bin Laden. During
the Yemeni civil war of April-July 1994, when Riyadh backed the
Marxist former South Yemeni leaders against the government in
Sana, bin Laden condemned the official policy. The authorities
stripped him of his Saudi citizenship and expelled him from the
But bin Laden's banishment (to Sudan) did not deter
other Islamic radicals from pursuing their agenda. In November
1995 they detonated a bomb at a Saudi National Guard base in Riyadh,
killing five US service personnel stationed there. Of the four
Saudis arrested as suspects, three turned out to be "Afghanis."
They were found guilty and executed.
However, what put the US military presence in Saudi
Arabia in the limelight was the truck bombing on June 25, 1996,
outside the Al Khobar complex near the Dhahran air base. The explosion
killed nineteen American servicemen and injured more than 400.
This occurred a few weeks after bin Laden had arrived in Afghanistan
from Sudan, which he was forced to leave when its government came
under pressure from Washington and Riyadh.
Bin Laden then called for a jihad against the Americans
in Saudi Arabia. "The presence of American crusader forces
in Muslim Gulf states...is the greatest danger and [poses] the
most serious harm, threatening the world's largest oil reserves,"
he said. "Pushing out this American occupying enemy is the
most important duty after the duty of belief in God."
After the Al Khobar bombing the Saudi authorities
grudgingly admitted the presence of some 5,000 American troops
on Saudi soil. They were part of the force in charge of 170 US
fighters, bombers and tank-killers parked in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait,
and Bahrain. Well-informed Saudi watchers, however, put the number
of American servicemen in the kingdom at 15,000-20,000, including
several thousand in civilian dress, based in Dhahran, Jedda and
the defence ministry in Riyadh.
What is the basis of the US military presence in
Saudi Arabia, and what are its aims? When on August 6, 1990, King
Fahd invited US troops to his kingdom, it was to bolster Saudi
defences against the threat of an Iraqi invasion following Baghdad's
occupation of Kuwait. Once the US-led coalition had expelled the
Iraqis from Kuwait, this mission was accomplished. So there was
no more need for foreign troops, nor was there any official explanation
for their presence.
The unofficial explanation is that the purpose
of the US warplanes stationed in Saudi Arabia is to enforce the
no-fly zone in southern Iraq. This rationale is flawed in at least
three respects. First, since Washington has publicly acknowledged
defence agreements with Kuwait and Bahrain, why not limit the
stationing of warplanes to those countries and exclude Saudi Arabia
because of its special religious significance to Muslims worldwide?
Second, the southern no-fly zone was not imposed until August
1992, seventeen months after the end of the Gulf War, ostensibly
to prevent Saddam Hussein's regime from persecuting the Shiite
population of southern Iraq--so this could not have been the reason
American aircraft were stationed there before that time. Finally,
with one or two aircraft carriers of the US Fifth Fleet, headquartered
in Bahrain, permanently plying the Persian Gulf, is there really
a need to station US warplanes on Saudi soil--and thus provide
fuel to the likes of bin Laden, who claims that the kingdom is
"occupied" by US troops in the same way Afghanistan
was by Soviet soldiers?
This leads one to take seriously the explanation
offered by those defence experts--such as former Middle East specialist
at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies--who
claim inside knowledge of joint Washington-Riyadh strategy devised
and implemented after the armed uprising in Mecca in November
1979. In case there's an antiroyalist coup, they say, the United
States would need seventy-two hours to marshal its full military
might to reverse the coup. For many years the Saudi defence ministry
has been purchasing sophisticated weapons systems, chiefly from
the United States. But the Pentagon was reportedly alarmed by
the account of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of the US-led
coalition in the Gulf War, that suggested the Saudi military,
especially the air force, was incapable of operating the sophisticated
weaponry it possessed. Thus the presence of US military officials
at key Saudi military facilities is considered indispensable in
order to insure swift coordination and secure communications in
case of an emergency.
It was against this background that bin Laden and
his acolytes articulated the thesis that their country was occupied.
Since then the events in the Persian Gulf, centered around relations
between Iraq and the United States, have strengthened the views
of Islamic militants. In the midst of the deepening Baghdad-Washington
crisis of February 1998, which resulted in the build-up of a US
armada in the Gulf, they published an assessment that applied
to the entire Middle East.
On February 23,1998, under the aegis of the International
Islamic Front (IIF), Shaikh bin Laden, Aiman al Zawhiri (of jihad
al Islami, Egypt), Abu Yasser Ahmad Taha (of Gamaat al Islamiya,
Egypt), Shaikh Mir Hamzah (of Jamiat al Ulema, Pakistan) and Fazl
ul Rahman (of Harkat al jihad, Bangladesh) issued a communiqué
laced with the kind of language used earlier against the Soviet
Union in Afghanistan.
"For more than seven years the United States
has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places,
the Arabian peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its
rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbours, and
turning its bases in the peninsula into a spearhead through which
to fight the neighbouring Muslim peoples," it stated.
"Second, despite the great devastation inflicted
on the Iraqi people by the Crusader-Zionist alliance, the Americans
are once against trying to repeat the horrific massacres...Third,
if the Americans' aims behind these wars are religious and economic,
the aim is also to serve the Jews' petty state and divert attention
from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there."
Then came the fatwa (religious decree): "The
ruling to kill the Americans and their allies--civilians and military--is
an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country
in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the Al-Aqsa
Mosque [in Jerusalem] and the Holy Mosque [in Mecca] from their
grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands
of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim [again].
This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God, 'And fight
the pagans all together as they fight you all together,' and 'fight
them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail
justice and faith in God.'" This was open season on Americans
to all those who agreed with the IIF's stance. Following the Washington-London
air strikes against Iraq in mid-December, bin Laden called on
Muslims worldwide to "confront, fight and kill" Americans
and Britons for "their support for their leaders' decision
to attack Iraq." Earlier, spurning the US demands to hand
bin Laden over to Washington, the Taliban government had proposed
that the evidence against him be passed on to it so that he could
be tried in Afghanistan under Islamic law. The United States refused
to cooperate. So in late November, the Taliban supreme judge declared
bin Laden innocent.
A decade after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan,
the mood among US and Saudi decision makers has turned from quiet
satisfaction to perplexed hand wringing. In the words of Richard
Murphy, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East and
South Asia during the two Reagan administrations, "We did
spawn a monster in Afghanistan." The "monster"
of violent Islamic fundamentalism has now grown tentacles that
extend from western China to Algeria to the east coast of America,
and its reach is not likely to diminish without a great deal of
the United States' money, time and patience, along with the full
cooperation of foreign governments.