A Brief History of US Support for Jihadists in Afghanistan

By William Van Wagenen

When al-Qaeda militants flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11th, 2001, Islam burst into the consciousness of many Americans for the first time. In response, the United States initiated two wars against Muslim nations, allegedly in an effort to eliminate al-Qaeda, and to end terrorism more broadly.

It is a surprise to many to learn then, that the United States has actually supported militant groups espousing the same ideology as al-Qaeda in several circumstances. Indeed, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), along with help from the Saudi and Pakistani intelligence agencies, provided billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Wahhabi-inspired militants in Afghanistan during the 1980’s in an effort to fight a proxy war against the Soviet Union. Many of these Wahhabi inspired militants went on to establish al-Qaeda. Thus, the United States played a prominent role in creating the very terrorist threat we profess to be fighting.

Yet more strange is that despite years of fighting against al-Qaeda in a variety of countries since 2001, US planners once again provided billions of dollars in financial and military support to Wahhabi-inspired militants, this time in Libya and Syria, in an effort to once again start a “Jihad.” This was done in an effort to exploit the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 to help US planners overthrow the Libyan and Syrian governments. I provide a brief overview of US support for Wahhabi-inspired militants in Afghanistan below and of US support for these groups in Libya and Syria here.

That some Muslims carry out terror attacks both in the Middle East and in Western countries, has little to do with Islam itself, and much more to do with the fact that US intelligence, with the help if its partners, has long funded and armed Muslim extremists whose fringe version of Islam is no more authentic nor popular among Muslims than is the Ku Klux Klan’s white supremacist version of Christianity.

US Support for Jihadists in Afghanistan

US support for Wahhabism began in earnest in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, when the US and Saudi Arabia began funding and arming Wahhabi militants, some of whom went on to found Al-Qaeda. These militants, typically referred to as “mujahedeen” or “Jihadists,” consisted of both Afghans as well as Arabs from across the Middle East, including many from Saudi Arabia itself. The US used these groups to fight a proxy war against its then geo-strategic and ideological enemy, the Soviet Union (USSR).

Such an approach to fighting the Soviets during the Cold War was preferred, as any direct US military confrontation with the Soviet Union was impossible as it could have triggered a massive conflict, if not a mutually destructive nuclear exchange between both countries.

Instead, the competition between the US and Soviet Union played out in a variety of proxy wars, coups, rebellions, insurgencies and counter-insurgencies in a number of Latin American, Asian and African countries, where the US played a prominent role, though typically operating only covertly and behind-the scenes. Prominent examples include US support for the brutal Junta in El Salvador, the terrorist campaign against the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, the US-backed overthrow of the left-leaning democratic governments in Guatemala, Chile, and Iran, as well as the US-supported mass killings of suspected communists by the Indonesian government.

Starting in 1979, the US secretly supported Jihadist attempts to overthrow the Afghan government, which was at that time a client state of the Soviet Union. US planners hoped that if the Afghan government faced a Jihadist insurgency, this would bait the Soviet Army into invading and occupying Afghanistan in an effort to prop up its Afghan allies. This would in turn force the Soviets to fight a long and costly counter-insurgency campaign, thereby weakening the Soviet Union itself over time.

When the Soviet Army did finally invade Afghanistan in December 1979, US planners publicly opposed the Soviet invasion. In private, however, they welcomed it. US planners had begun aiding Afghan Jihadist militants six months prior to the invasion itself, in an effort to “induce a Soviet military intervention,” according to Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor in the Carter Administration and architect of US policy at that time.

To accomplish this, the CIA turned to its close allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for help. Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Ambassador to the US and close friend of the Bush family, played a prominent role in cementing US-Saudi cooperation. Bandar facilitated a meeting between CIA Director William Casey, and the then Saudi King, Fahd, in which the Saudis committed to matching “America dollar for dollar supporting the mujahedeen.”

The Reagan Administration also turned to Prince Bandar to help secure funding for the Contras, the US-created insurgent group fighting the Sandinista Government in Nicaragua during the 1980’s. The administration could not do this on its own due to restraints in Congress which prohibited the US from funding the Contras directly.

The US and Saudi Arabia, with help from Pakistani intelligence, set up training camps for Jihadist militants in Pakistan, and supplied them with advisors, weapons and cash to fight the Soviets. In his book, “Ghost Wars,” Washington Post journalist Steve Coll writes that US planners “looked forward to a new era of direct infusions of advanced US military technology into Afghanistan, intensified training of Islamist guerrillas in explosives and sabotage techniques, and targeted attacks on Soviet military officers designed to demoralize the Soviet high command. Among other consequences these changes pushed the CIA, along with its clients in the Afghan resistance and in Pakistani intelligence, closer to the gray fields of assassination and terrorism.”1

Aid to the Jihadists was not limited to cash and weapons. To help facilitate the indoctrination of a generation of young Afghan school children in the need to fight the Soviets, the Saudis established thousands of madrassas, or religious schools in Pakistan for Afghan refugee children, creating a pool of future Jihadist fighters. Coll notes that “In 1971 there had been only nine hundred madrassas in all of Pakistan. By the summer of 1988 there were about eight thousand official religious schools and an estimated twenty-five thousand un-registered ones, many of them clustered along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier and funded by wealthy patrons from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.”2

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) supplied several million dollars’ worth of textbooks for use in these schools, written by scholars at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, which were “filled with violent images and militant Islamic teachings.”

President Ronald Reagan declared that the Jihadists should be considered freedom fighters: “To watch the courageous Afghan freedom fighters battle modern arsenals with simple hand-held weapons is an inspiration to those who love freedom. Their courage teaches us a great lesson — that there are things in this world worth defending.”

The Western press took a cue from the Reagan Administration when describing these Jihadist militants. Professor David Gibbs of the University of Arizona notes that, “The Islamic guerillas who fought against the Soviets were widely portrayed in the Western media in highly favorable terms, while their more unsavory qualities- their intolerance of dissent, propensity for violence, involvement in narcotics trafficking, retrogressive attitudes toward women-were generally eschewed, if not altogether disregarded.”

Osama Bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaeda, was also among the Jihadists in Afghanistan receiving praise in the Western press at that time, as he worked closely with the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal in the effort to oust the Soviets.

Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, founder of the Hizb-i-Islami militia, was among the most prominent Jihadist leaders, receiving some $600 million in aid from the United States. While a student at Kabul University, Hekmatyar was rumored to throw acid in the faces of female students not wearing a head covering,3 and to skin captured Soviet soldiers alive after he became a rebel commander.

Of Hekymatyar, Steve Coll writes that “he gathered around him the most radical, anti-Western, transnational Islamists fighting in the jihad – including bin Laden and other Arabs who arrived as volunteers,” and that “he took it upon himself to decide who was a true believer and who was an apostate.” According to Coll, “CIA officers in the Near East Division who were running the Afghan program also embraced Hekmatyar as their most dependable and effective ally,” and “the most efficient at killing Soviets.” A US Government official told Coll that “analytically, the best fighters – the best organized fighters – were the fundamentalists,” led by Hekmatyar.4

Hekmatyar claimed at the end of the war to oust the Soviets that “We have already had one and a half million martyrs . . . . We are ready to offer as many to establish a true Islamic republic.” Hekmatyar’s willingness to allow so many Afghans to die for the sake of realizing his dream of an Islamic state reveals the type of fanaticism that later Wahhabi inspired militants would later display in Iraq and Syria.

Though publicly declaring that the US wanted a diplomatic settlement to the conflict and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, it is now known that the strongest faction within US foreign policy circles actually wished for the Soviets to remain in Afghanistan for as long as possible so that US-backed Jihadist forces could “bleed” the Soviet Army further. Army Chief of Staff General Edward C Meyer described how CIA Director William Casey “would say that he wanted them [the Soviets] out, but he actually wanted them to send more and more Russians down there and take casualties.”

When the Soviets did finally decide to withdraw, the country fell into civil war as the major Jihadist factions began fighting among themselves for control of the country. Jihadist leaders became warlords and committed terrible atrocities against the local population. The war against the Soviets and subsequent civil war devastated Afghanistan, and led to the rise of the brutal Taliban government which the US would fight years later, in 2001.

Brzezinski, one of the major architects of US policy in Afghanistan, explained in 1998 that supporting the Jihadists was “an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap” and gave the US the “opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.For Brzezinski, the price of supporting Islamic Fundamentalist groups was worth it. He argued, “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”

So while US planners were able to say “we did it” and celebrate their victory against the Soviet Union, Afghans suffered horrendously both during the decade of Soviet occupation and during the almost two decades of civil war which followed.

The ground was also laid for future terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda against the West. Pakistani journalist Ahmad Rashid notes a further consequence of the US backed war against the Soviets: “When the US walked away from Afghanistan in 1989, it left behind a seasoned group of Jihadists, whose brand of radical Islam had found an enormously rich supporter in Osama bin Laden.” Bin Laden turned against the US and Saudi royal family years later when the Saudi King allowed US troops to enter the kingdom and use it as a base for the assault on Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991. A splinter group of Al Qaeda would later fight US troops in Iraq under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi after the 2003 US invasion. Though Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, his organization lived on, allowing his successors to declare the “Caliphate” and establish the “Islamic State” in 2014.

Decades later, this period of US action was summed up concisely by then Senator Hillary Clinton: “Let’s remember here, the people we are fighting today, we funded 20 years ago. . . . . It was President Reagan, in partnership with congress, led by Democrats who said, ‘You know what, sounds like a pretty good idea . . . let’s go recruit these Mujahedeen, and 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.’ Guess what, they retreated, they lost billions of dollars, and it led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. So there is a strong argument, which is, it wasn’t a bad investment to end the Soviet Union, but let’s be careful what we sow.”

Sadly, when Clinton became Secretary of State during the Obama administration, she quickly ignored her own advice, as she oversaw the funding and arming of Jihadists in both Libya and Syria. When popular demonstrations in both countries broke out in 2011 as part of the broader Arab Spring, US planners quickly returned to the old Afghan playbook in an attempt to overthrow the Qaddafi and Assad regimes. US efforts to once again foment “Jihad,” this time in Libya and Syria (which I detail here), helped to further promote both Wahhabism and terrorism in those respective countries.US planners made this choice knowing full well the destruction and misery such a policy imposed on Afghans, who have lived with the horrors of war for over three decades.

That the US has once again sought to exploit a fringe and extremist version of Islam for the sake of achieving its own foreign policy objectives, should not lead us to conclude that Islam itself is the source of the terrorism and violence now decimating the Middle East, and which occasionally spills over into terror attacks on Western targets such as those occurring in Paris and San Bernardino in the past year. These attacks are not happening because Muslims are praying five times a day, attending Mosque, or reading the Quran. Instead, they are happening because US intelligence, along with their Saudi and Qatari partners, are providing billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to extremist groups whose activities can barely be distinguished from those of criminal gangs, whose members are all too happy to kill and murder for the sake of power and gain.

1 “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001,” by Steve Coll. Penguin Books, 2004, page 126.

2 Ibid, page 180.

3 Ibid, page 113.

4 Ibid, page 120.

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