Laden comes home to roost
CIA ties are only the beginning of a woeful story
YORK, Aug. 24, 1998 — At
the CIA, it happens often enough to have a code name: Blowback. Simply
defined, this is the term that describes an agent, an operative or an
operation that has turned on its creators. Osama bin Laden, our new public
enemy Number 1, is the personification of blowback. And the fact that he is
viewed as a hero by millions in the Islamic world proves again the old adage:
Reap what you sow
BEFORE YOU CLICK on my face and call me naive, let me concede
some points. Yes, the West needed Josef Stalin to defeat Hitler. Yes, there
were times during the Cold War when supporting one villain (Cambodia’s Lon
Nol, for instance) would have been better than the alternative (Pol Pot). So
yes, there are times when any nation must hold its nose and shake hands with
the devil for the long-term good of the planet.
But just as surely, there are times when
the United States, faced with such moral dilemmas, should have resisted the
temptation to act. Arming a multi-national coalition of Islamic extremists in
Afghanistan during the 1980s - well after the destruction of the Marine
barracks in Beirut or the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 - was one of those
BIN LADEN’S BEGINNINGS
As anyone who has bothered to read this far certainly knows by now, bin
Laden is the heir to Saudi construction fortune who, at least since the early
1990s, has used that money to finance countless attacks on U.S. interests and
those of its Arab allies around the world.
As his unclassified CIA biography states,
bin Laden left Saudi Arabia to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan after
Moscow’s invasion in 1979. By 1984, he was running a front organization
known as Maktab al-Khidamar - the MAK - which funneled money, arms and
fighters from the outside world into the Afghan war.
What the CIA bio conveniently fails to
specify (in its unclassified form, at least) is that the MAK was nurtured by
Pakistan’s state security services, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency,
or ISI, the CIA’s primary conduit for conducting the covert war against
By no means was Osama bin Laden the leader of
Afghanistan’s mujahedeen. His money gave him undue prominence in the
Afghan struggle, but the vast majority of those who fought and died for
Afghanistan’s freedom - like the Taliban regime that now holds sway
over most of that tortured nation - were Afghan nationals.
Yet the CIA, concerned about the
factionalism of Afghanistan made famous by Rudyard Kipling, found that
Arab zealots who flocked to aid the Afghans were easier to “read”
than the rivalry-ridden natives. While the Arab volunteers might well
prove troublesome later, the agency reasoned, they at least were
one-dimensionally anti-Soviet for now. So bin Laden, along with a small
group of Islamic militants from Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria and
Palestinian refugee camps all over the Middle East, became the
“reliable” partners of the CIA in its war against Moscow.
WHAT’S ‘INTELLIGENT’ ABOUT THIS?
Though he has come to represent all
that went wrong with the CIA’s reckless strategy there, by the end of
the Afghan war in 1989, bin Laden was still viewed by the agency as
something of a dilettante - a rich Saudi boy gone to war and welcomed
home by the Saudi monarchy he so hated as something of a hero.
In fact, while he returned to his
family’s construction business, bin Laden had split from the
relatively conventional MAK in 1988 and established a new group, al-Qaida,
that included many of the more extreme MAK members he had met in
Most of these Afghan vets, or Afghanis, as the
Arabs who fought there became known, turned up later behind violent
Islamic movements around the world. Among them: the GIA in Algeria,
thought responsible for the massacres of tens of thousands of civilians;
Egypt’s Gamat Ismalia, which has massacred western tourists repeatedly
in recent years; Saudi Arabia Shiite militants, responsible for the Khobar
Towers and Riyadh bombings of 1996.
Indeed, to this day, those involved
in the decision to give the Afghan rebels access to a fortune in covert
funding and top-level combat weaponry continue to defend that move in the
context of the Cold War. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a senior Republican on the
Senate Intelligence Committee making those decisions, told my colleague
Robert Windrem that he would make the same call again today even knowing
what bin Laden would do subsequently. “It was worth it,” he said.
“Those were very important, pivotal
matters that played an important role in the downfall of the Soviet
Union,” he said.
HINDSIGHT OR TUNNEL VISION
It should be pointed out that the
evidence of bin Laden’s connection to these activities is mostly
classified, though its hard to imagine the CIA rushing to take credit for
a Frankenstein’s monster like this.
It is also worth acknowledging that
it is easier now to oppose the CIA’s Afghan adventures than it was when
Hatch and company made them in the mid-1980s. After all, in 1998 we now
know that far larger elements than Afghanistan were corroding the
communist party’s grip on power in Moscow.
Even Hatch can’t be blamed
completely. The CIA, ever mindful of the need to justify its
“mission,” had conclusive evidence by the mid-1980s of the deepening
crisis of infrastructure within the Soviet Union. The CIA, as its deputy
director Robert Gates acknowledged under congressional questioning in
1992, had decided to keep that evidence from President Reagan and his top
advisors and instead continued to grossly exaggerate Soviet military and
technological capabilities in its annual “Soviet Military Power”
report right up to 1990.
Given that context, a decision was
made to provide America’s potential enemies with the arms, money - and
most importantly - the knowledge of how to run a war of attrition violent
and well-organized enough to humble a superpower.
That decision is coming home to roost
Original Source: MSNBC
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