This article first appeared in the February 15, 1999,
issue of The Nation. Dilip Hiro is the author of
Sharing the Promised Land: A Tale of
Israelis and Palestinians.
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 in 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. Even more than other repressive states, 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. They provide 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) realize that in spawning Islamic militancy with the primary aim of defeating the Soviet Union they were taking the risk of 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 to do this was to give aid to 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 anti-leftist 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 counterinsurgency campaign.
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 enroll 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. 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 neighboring Iran seemed to escape both Brzezinski and his successors.
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 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 homelands 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 in 1932.
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 country.
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, 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 19 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 defense ministry in Riyadh.
What is the basis of the US military presence in Saudi Arabia? When on August 6, 1990, King Fahd invited US troops to his kingdom, it was to bolster Saudi defenses 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.
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 defense 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 Shi-ite 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 defense experts--such as a 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 72 hours to marshal its full military might to reverse the coup. For many years the Saudi defense 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 during 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 buildup 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), a communique was issued that was laced with the kind of language used earlier against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
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."
This was open season on Americans to all those who agreed with the IIF's stance. Following the Washington-London airstrikes 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 handwringing. 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.