Saturday, August 28, 2004


How the CIA Recruited Islamists

How the CIA Recruited

The Monitor (Kampala)
August 22, 2004
Posted to the web August 23, 2004

This third instalment in our four-part serialisation of Prof. Mahmood Mamdani's book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, looks at how America organised political Islam to fight off the Soviet Union: -

Afghanistan: The High Point in the Cold War

In an article he wrote in Dawn, the Pakistani political thinker and activist Eqbal Ahmad draws our attention to an American television image from 1985. On the White House lawn, President Ronald Reagan is introducing, with great fanfare, a group of Afghan men, all leaders of the mujahideen, to the media: "These gentlemen are the moral equivalents of America's founding fathers." This was the moment when America tried to harness extreme versions of political Islam in the struggle against the Soviet Union.

The half decade that followed defeat in Vietnam witnessed other setbacks in U.S. foreign policy. This trend was illustrated dramatically in 1979 when popular revolutions swept away two U.S.-backed dictatorships, one in Nicaragua, and the other in Iran. At the end of the same year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Who would have guessed that the Soviet Union would collapse only a decade later, leaving the United States as the sole, triumphant superpower? If 9/11 cut short the celebration of that victory, it also posed the question: At what price was the Cold War won? To answer this question requires focusing on the Reagan presidency, for it was Ronald Reagan who claimed that the defeat of U.S.-backed dictatorships in the Third World was evidence that the Soviet Union was "on a roll," and it was Reagan who demanded that all possible resources be marshalled to "roll back" the Soviet Union, "by all means necessary." Afghanistan, more than any other location, was the high point of the Cold War.

The Afghan War made the counterrevolutionary operation in Nicaragua pale by comparison, both in the extent of resources mustered and in the gravity of its after-effects. There were 100,000 Soviet ground troops in Afghanistan at the height of the war. Afghanistan presented the United States with an opportunity to hand the Soviet Union its own Vietnam. Reagan formulated this into a strategic objective, thereby approaching the Afghan War from a perspective more global than regional. As it stretched through the near decade of the Reagan presidency, the Afghan War turned into the bloodiest regional conflict in the world. This largest CIA paramilitary operation since Vietnam also turned out to be the longest war in Soviet history.

The revolutions of 1979 had a profound influence on the conduct of the Afghan War. The Iranian Revolution led to a restructuring of relations between the United States and political Islam. Prior to it, America saw the world in rather simple terms: on one side was the Soviet Union and militant Third World nationalism, which America regarded as a Soviet tool; on the other side was political Islam, which America considered an unqualified ally in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Thus, the United States supported the Sarekat-i-Islam against Sukarno in Indonesia, the Jamaat-i-Islami against Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan, and the Society of Muslim Brothers against Nasser in Egypt. The expectation that political Islam would provide a local buffer against secular nationalism was also broadly shared by U.S. allies within the region, from Israel to conservative Arab regimes. Until events proved the foolhardiness of the project, Israel hoped to encourage an Islamist political movement in the Occupied territories and play it off against the secular nationalism of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Israeli intelligence allowed Hamas to operate unhindered during the first intifada - letting it open a university and bank accounts and even possibly helping it with funding - only to confront a stronger Hamas as the organizer of the second intifada. In Egypt, Anwar Sadat appeared as a liberator of political Islam after the death of Nasser. Between 1971 and 1975, Sadat released Islamists who had been languishing in jail and gave them, first, the freedom to publicise their views and, later, the freedom to organise. I cite these instances not to tarnish and discredit the movements concerned because they were supported by American or Israeli intelligence, but to show how the unintended consequences of misinformed, cynical, and opportunistic actions can boomerang on their perpetrators.

The impact of the Iranian Revolution was dramatised by the humiliating saga of the American embassy hostages. The first student occupation of the embassy occurred shortly after Khomeini's return to Iran on February 14, 1979, but Khomeini and Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan moved quickly to expel the occupiers. Eight months later, circumstances changed radically: when the U.S. government welcomed the deposed shah to New York for medical treatment, Khomeini responded with criticism of the United States as "the Great Satan." Within a month, some three thousand Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took ninety hostages. This time, Khomeini and the government responded differently. After the release of women and black Marine guards, the remaining fifty-two American diplomats were held for 444 days.

The Iranian Revolution introduced a new political development on the world scene: here was an Islamist regime that was not only Islamist and anti-Communist but at the same time fervently nationalist, determined to act independently of all foreign influences, particularly the United States. The more this became clear, the more official America expanded its search for friends in the neighborhood.

Soon, secular but brutal regimes like that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq were recruited as American allies. While the second embassy occupation was in progress, the forces of Saddam Hussein invaded southwest Iran on September 20, 1980 - with open encouragement from the United States. The Iraqi war against Iran saw the first post-Vietnam use of chemical weapons in war, and America was the source of both the weapons and the training needed to use them.

The revolution in Iran taught the United States to distinguish between two faces of political Islam: the revolutionary and the elitist. The revolutionary side saw the organisation of Islamic social movements and mass participation as crucial to ushering in an independent Islamist state. In contrast, the elitist side distrusted popular participation; its notion of an Islamist state was one that would contain popular participation, not encourage it. Before the Iranian revolution complicated the picture by sharpening the difference between these sides in Iran, the United States had operated with a simple formula, one that identified the revolutionary face of political Islam with Iran and the She's sect in Islam, and the elitist face with majority-Sunni pro-American regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The Nicaraguan Revolution was the source of a different kind of lesson: how to organise and pursue a counterrevolutionary war by means both overt and covert. This first significant attempt to roll back a nationalist pro-Soviet Third World government taught the Reagan administration how to harness support from diverse quarters toward a single objective. Two lessons from the contra experience were particularly useful: the first was a benign attitude toward the drug trade as a source of cash to carry out a clandestine war; and the second was the need to involve the entire neighbourhood - Christian-right ministries, the network of secular conservative political lobbies, and paramilitary mercenary outfits - in the war effort.

Secret American aid to opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul had begun before the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. CIA and State Department documents seized during the embassy takeover in Tehran reveal that the United States had begun quietly meeting Afghan-rebel representatives in Pakistan in April 1979, eight months before Soviet military intervention. This was confirmed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security advisor, in a later interview with the Paris-based Le Nouvel Observateur (January 15-21, 1998):

Q: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs [From the Shadows] that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahidin in Afghanistan 6 months before the Soviet intervention. In this period, you were the national security advisor to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?

Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahidin began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, December 24 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion, this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

The passage from the Carter to the Reagan presidency also exacerbated the shift in U.S. foreign policy from containment to rollback. In Afghanistan, as in Nicaragua, the Carter administration had preferred a two-track approach, combining the carrot and the stick, approving moderate levels of covert support for anti-Communist allies, whether governments or groups, alongside a search for a negotiated settlement. Containment, in this sense, was guided by the search for coexistence. In contrast, the Reagan administration had absolutely no interest in arriving at negotiated settlements. Rather than coexistence, the point of the Reagan policy was payback: everything must be done to turn the Afghan War into the Soviet Union's Vietnam. The single objective was to bleed the Soviet Union white. The CIA was determined that nothing comes in the way of the "real task" in Afghanistan: "killing Russians." Among the more influential "bleeders" in Washington was Reagan's assistant secretary of defence, Richard Perle. He would later have a second coming as a prominent hawk on the George W. Bush team after 9/11.

If the Reagan administration was predisposed to groups with hard-line ideological opposition to the Soviet Union and no interest in a compromise settlement, successive Pakistani governments had a pathological distrust of Afghan nationalism. This became clear when his cousin and former prime minister, Mohammad Daud deposed the Afghan king, Zahir Shah, in a bloodless coup, in July 1973. Dud put together a republican alliance of sections of the military and a wing of the Communist Party named after its newspaper, Percham (banner).

The new nationalist government took up the popular cause of Pashtunistan, which demanded a homeland for the Pashtun people. Not only were roughly half of Afghanistan's population ethnic Pashtuns, millions of Pashtuns also lived in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), on the other side of an artificial border drawn by the British at the height of their colonial empire in India. Fearful of Afghan nationalism, Pakistani governments were open to supporting antinationalist forces in Afghanistan, and Zia ul-Haq's was no exception.

The ideological opposition to nationalism, including to Daud's authoritarian version, came mainly from Communists and Islamists, mostly university students and professors who were strongly international in their outlook. Increasing popular opposition to Daud's rule led to a second military coup known as the Saur Revolution that brought both factions of the Communist Party, Percham and Khalq (also named after its newspaper), into government. With this revolution of April 17, 1978, Communist "internationalism" became officially respectable, and Islamist "internationalism" was labelled subversive. Moderate and extremist Islamist radicals fled Kabul University for refuge in Pakistan, where they were welcomed.

The 1978 Communist coup also created a decisive shift in U.S. relations with Pakistan. The Carter administration had cut aid to Pakistan in 1977, a response to both its dismal human-rights record at home - dramatised by the army's judicial murder of an elected prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto - and the global implications of its accelerated nuclear programme. The coup and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan changed all this: "literally days after the Soviet invasion, Carter was on the telephone with Zia offering him hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military aid in exchange for cooperation in helping rebels." Zia held out for more, and the Carter-Zia partnership remained lukewarm. The real warming came with the Reagan administration, which offered Pakistan "a huge, six-year economic and military aid package which elevated Pakistan to the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid" - after Israel and Egypt.

During the Reagan presidency, there was sustained cooperation between the CIA and Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), and neither party had much interest in a negotiated settlement. Both intelligence agencies came to share a dual objective: militarily, to provide maximum firepower to the mujahideen and, politically, to recruit the most radically anti-Communist Islamists to counter Soviet forces.

The combined result was to flood the region not only with all kinds of weapons but also with the most radical Islamist recruits. They flocked to ISI-run training camps in Pakistan, where they were "ideologically charged with the spark of holy war and trained in guerrilla tactics, sabotage and bombings." The Islamist recruits came from all over the world, not only Muslim-majority countries such as Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Indonesia, but also such Muslim-minority countries as the United States and Britain. There is the well-known example of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, dubbed by Lawrence Wright, writing in The New Yorker, the "gatekeeper of the Jihad" in the mid-eighties.

"A Palestinian theologian who had a doctorate in Islamic law from Al-Azhar University," Sheikh Azzam "went on to teach at King Abdul Aziz University, in Jidda, where one of his students was Osama bin Laden." Azzam travelled the globe under CIA patronage. He appeared on Saudi television and at rallies in the United States. A CIA asset who appeared as the embodiment of the holy warrior and "toured the length and breadth of the United States in the early and mid-1980s recruiting for holy war, ostensibly only in Afghanistan," Azzam was also one of the founders of Hamas. Azzam's message was clear:

participation in the jihad is not just a political obligation but also a religious duty. The point of the jihad is not only to kill the enemy, the Russian, but also to invite "martyrdom." In a 1988 recruitment video examined by Wright, Azzam says: "I reached Afghanistan and could not believe my eyes. I travelled to acquaint people with jihad for years... We were trying to satisfy the thirst for martyrdom. We are still in love with this." Azzam's formula for the holy war was simple: "Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences, and no dialogues." It neatly echoed the combined CIA-ISI objective.

The CIA, in collaboration with the ISI of Pakistan, worked out the blueprint for the Afghan jihad. For the actual conduct of the war, the CIA acquired weapons and specialists in guerrilla warfare from different countries and delivered them, along with intelligence and surveillance information on Afghanistan, to the ISI. The ISI was responsible for transport of weapons to the border, supervised the training of Afghan fighters inside Pakistan, and coordinated their operations inside Afghanistan. While ISI was the main regional proxy in the operation, the second line included the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with the intelligence services of Britain, China, the Philippines, and even Israel also involved. The basic lesson of Indochina, southern Africa, and Central America was applied with great care: this was to be an operation in which the CIA would be at more than arm's length. It would be a proxy war run through third and fourth parties.

As different tasks were subcontracted to different agencies, the blueprint of the war unfolded in a compartmentalised fashion. The point was to ensure the direct involvement of as few Americans as possible; fewer still were in direct contact with the mujahideen or their field commanders. While subcontracting removed American presence from the ground, and thus the possibility of any direct damage to American personnel, its unintended consequence was to give substantial freedom to the subcontractors to bypass central command and deal directly with agencies such as the CIA or DEA. The result was a lack of coherence in overall American policy.

Beyond the front-line proxy states and their intelligence agencies, increasingly the intermediaries were private institutions, both religious and secular. The overall effect was progressively to privatise the war on an international basis. From this dynamic emerged the forces that carried out the operation we know as 9/11.

Had the anti-Soviet crusade been organised in a national framework, the CIA would have looked for mainly Afghani recruits to wage it. But with the war recast as an international jihad, the CIA looked for volunteers from Muslim populations all over the globe.

Outside of Pakistan, the Arab countries were the main source of volunteers, who became known as Afghan-Arabs. The non-Afghani recruits were known by hyphenated identities, as Afghan-Algerians, Afghan-Indonesians, and so on. A network of recruitment centres was set up, linking key points in the Arab world - Egypt and Saudi Arabia - with Pakistan.

Eventually, they spread as far as Sudan to the south, Indonesia to the east, and Chechnya to the north, and Kosovo to the west. Sensitive to the critique from within the religious right that they had failed to support the Palestinian struggle meaningfully, members of the Saudi establishment encouraged local dissidents to join the Afghan jihad, and the Egyptian government looked the other way as local Islamists made their way to Afghanistan.

A third major Arab source of recruitment was Algeria. Martin Stone writes "the Pakistani embassy in Algeria alone issued 2,800 visas to Algerian volunteers during the 1980s." The numbers recruited and trained were impressive by any reckoning: the estimate of foreign radicals "directly influenced by the Afghan jihad" is upwards of one hundred thousand. The Afghan-Arabs constituted an elite force and received the most sophisticated training. Fighters in the Peshawar-based Muslim "international brigade" received the relatively high salary of around $1,500 per month.

The CIA looked for a Saudi prince to lead this crusade but was unable to find one. It settled for the next best, the son of an illustrious family closely connected to the Saudi royal house. We need to remember that Osama bin Laden did not come from a backwater family steeped in premodernity but from a cosmopolitan family. The bin Laden family endows programmes at universities such as Harvard and Yale. Bin Laden was recruited, with U.S. approval at the highest level, by Prince Turki al-Faisal, then head of Saudi intelligence.

According to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, Osama bin Laden first travelled to Peshawar in 1980 and met mujahideen leaders there, and for the next two years he returned frequently with Saudi donations for the cause. In 1982, he decided to settle in Peshawar.

In 1986, bin Ladin worked as the major contractor to build a large ClA-funded project: the Khost tunnel complex deep under the mountains close to the Pakistani border. The Khost complex housed a major arms depot, a training facility, and a medical centre for the mujahideen. It is the Khost complex that President Clinton decided in 1998 to bomb with Tomahawk cruise missiles. It is also in the Khost complex - the famed mountain caves - that the United States later fought al-Qaeda remnants in its own Afghan War.

Though Osama bin Laden had been a student of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, the first Afghan-Arab gatekeeper of the jihad in the mid-eighties, a break between Azzam and bin Laden came toward the end of the Afghan jihad. The parting of the ways was the result of a disagreement in 1989 over the future of the jihad: bin Laden "envisioned an all-Arab legion, which eventually could be used to wage jihad in Saudi Arabia and Egypt," whereas Azzam "strongly opposed making war against fellow-Muslims." Soon after, Azzam and two of his sons were blown up by a car bomb as they were driving to a mosque in Peshawar.

A meeting was held toward the end of 1989 in the town of Khost to decide on the future of the jihad. One of the ten at the meeting was a Sudanese fighter named Jamal al-Fadl. He testified in a New York courtroom in one of the trials connected with the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in East Africa that a new organisation was created in that meeting to wage jihad beyond the borders of Afghanistan. That organisation was al-Qaeda, "the Base." Bin Laden thus emerged as the organiser and patron of the most prominent privatised arm of the American jihad.

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