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U.S.-Jihadist Relations (Part 1): Creating the Mujahedin in Afghanistan

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The intensifying war in Iraq has surprised the world. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist group, has taken over a large part of Iraq's territory and is still advancing toward other areas. Western and Middle Eastern governments are concerned about ISIS. How can we understand such developments?

The sectarian war in Syria that has been raging since 2011, which began as a civil war between democratic groups and the government, has given rise to alliances that many consider strange and, before the start of the war, unthinkable. In particular, Western support for the Syrian rebels, the great majority of whom are known to be extremist Islamist forces, Chechen terrorists, and radicals from all over the world (some are even from Western societies) -- the same types of forces against which the United States has supposedly been waging the "global war on terrorism" -- has been called hypocritical, odd, and immoral. But in fact, unlike what the uninformed public might think, the West has been totally consistent in cultivating such forces and using them to advance its interests. This becomes clear when one reviews the history of the rise of political Islam in Afghanistan and follows it to the present state of affairs.

The fact is that the Middle East has been transformed into a region of many failed or almost-failed states. Such a state of affairs is a direct consequence of the policies of the West in that region and the nature of the political systems that rule the Middle East. The most important root causes of what is happening in the Middle East are the dictatorial regimes of the region, the West's support for many of them due to the vast oil reserves of the Middle East and other strategic considerations, the economic inequality between the elite and the poor, and occupation of the Palestinians' land by Israel.

As long as these issues are not addressed, they will lead to more war, even if the region experiences a period of peace and stability. In a world in which even the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people have been disrupted, resorting to fundamentalism as well as violence might be a way of escaping humiliation and seeking "peace."

This post is the first in a five-part series on the relationship between the United States and its allies and Islamist jihadist groups. Much of the history described in this series is scattered in books and articles, but the goal of this series is putting together all that we know about this relationship. As shown in this series, after reviewing this history, a consistent picture emerges in which, as already alluded to, either the West has supported such extremist groups in order to advance its agenda or actions by the West have given rise to the birth of such groups.

As veteran journalist Robert Dreyfuss documents in his excellent book Devil's Game, this has been going on for decades, going back to at least the beginning of the 20th century. He writes:

For half a century the United States and many of its allies saw what I call the "Islamic right" as convenient partners in the Cold War. ... In the decades before 9/11, hard-core activists and organizations among Muslim fundamentalists on the far right were often viewed as allies for two reasons, because they were seen a fierce anti-communists and because they opposed secular nationalists such as Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and Iran's Mohammad Mossadegh. ...

Would the Islamic right have existed without U.S. support? Of course. But there is no question that the virulence of the movement that we now confront -- and which confronts many of the countries in the region, too, from Algeria to India and beyond -- would have been significantly less had the United States made other choices during the Cold War.

Before the crisis in Syria, nowhere was the alliance between the United States and its Western allies and the radical Islamist forces more illuminating than in Afghanistan. That alliance began in the summer of 1979, before the Soviet Union invaded that country.

Waging Jihad to Counter the Soviet Union

In his fine book Ghost Wars, Steve Coll, a former Washington Post journalist and the current dean of Colombia University's School of Journalism, describes in great detail the close relationships between the CIA, the Saudi royal family, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and the Afghan Mujahedin. Coll states that they were "blood brothers" from November 1979, when U.S. intervention in Afghanistan entered its practical stage, leading to the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, to February 1989, when the Soviets left that country.

The initial efforts of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan were devoted to provoking the Soviet Union, which had a close relationship with the Afghan government. In his book Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope, Chalmers Johnson (1931-2010), a professor emeritus at the University of California in San Diego, a veteran of the Korean War, and a consultant to the CIA, wrote:

It should by now be generally accepted that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979 was deliberately provoked by the United States. In his memoir published in 1996, the former CIA director [and Defense Secretary in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations] Robert Gates made it clear that the American intelligence services began to aid the mujahidin guerrillas not after the Soviet invasion, but six months before it. In an interview [in 1998] with Le Nouvel Observateur, President Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, proudly confirmed Gates's assertion. "According to the official version of history," Brzezinski said,

CIA aid to the mujahidin began during 1980, that's to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. But the reality, kept secret until now, is completely different: on 3 July 1979 President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And on the same day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained that in my opinion this aid would lead to a Soviet military intervention.

Asked whether he in any way regretted these actions, Brzezinski replied: "Regret what? The secret operation was an excellent idea. It drew the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? On the day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, saying, in essence: 'We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.'"

The Nouvel Observateur's reporter then asked Brzezinski, "And neither do you regret having supported Islamic fundamentalism, which has given arms and advice to future terrorists?"

Brzezinski responded, "What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?"

Johnson continues:

Even though the demise of the Soviet Union owes more to Mikhail Gorbachev than to Afghanistan's partisans, Brzezinski certainly helped produce "agitated Muslims," and the consequences have been obvious. Carter, Brzezinski and their successors in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, including Gates, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Wolfowitz, Armitage and Powell, all bear some responsibility for the 1.8 million Afghan casualties, 2.6 million refugees and 10 million unexploded land-mines that followed from their decisions.

To President Carter and Brzezinski, the end justified the means. The end goal was the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to achieve it, Islamist fundamentalists had to be used. Osama bin Laden and people like him were dispatched to Afghanistan to fight the "godless" communists. It was during this time that the Quran's surah on jihad attracted attention. It was then that Brzezinski went to Pakistan and told the jihadist forces:

We know of [your] deep belief in God, and we are confident that [your] struggle will succeed. That land over there [Afghanistan] is yours. You will go back to it one day, because your fight will prevail and you'll have your homes and your mosques back again, because your cause is right and God is on your side.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Congress that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are the results of the seeds that the United States sowed in the past and is now harvesting. She said:

We also have a history of kind of moving in and out of Pakistan. I mean, let's remember here: The people we are fighting today we funded 20 years ago. And we did it because we were locked in this struggle with the Soviet Union. They invaded Afghanistan, and we did not want to see them control central Asia, and we went to work, and it was President Reagan, in partnership with the Congress, led by Democrats, who said, "You know what? Sounds like a pretty good idea! Let's deal with the ISI and the Pakistani military, and let's go recruit these Mujahedin! That's great! Let's get some to come from Saudi Arabia and other places, importing their Wahhabi brand of Islam, so that we can go beat the Soviet Union!" And guess what? They retreated, they lost billions of dollars, and it led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. So there's a very strong argument, which is: It wasn't a bad investment to end the Soviet Union, but let's be careful what we sow, because we will harvest. So we then left Pakistan. We said, "OK, fine. You deal with the Stingers that we've left all over your country. You deal with the mines that are along the border. And by the way, we don't want to have anything to do with you. In fact, we're sanctioning you." So we stopped dealing with the Pakistani military, and with ISI, and we now are making up for a lot of lost time.

At that time it was the United States that, together with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan, dispatched the jihadists to Afghanistan. Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia played a key role in those operations, with Saudi Arabia providing the key financial, military and human support for them. The kingdom encouraged its citizens to go to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet army. One such citizen was Osama bin Laden. Saudi Arabia agreed to match, dollar for dollar, any funds that the CIA could raise for the operations.

The U.S. provided Pakistan with $3.2 billion, and Saudi Arabia bought weapons from everywhere, including international black markets, and sent them to Afghanistan through Pakistan's ISI.

Part 2 will describe how the U.S. used the Islamist fighters to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

This post was translated by Ali N. Babaei.