COMMENTARY | September 16, 2011 By neglecting to mention the key U.S. role in supporting militant jihadists in their war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the press missed an opportunity to raise questions about blowback — and about whether our actions in Afghanistan today will once again produce negative future consequences.
Part of a Nieman Watchdog series, ‘Reporting the Endgame’
By John Hanrahan
The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as other mainstream print and broadcast media, devoted lots of ink and airtime to stories commemorating the September 11, 2001, attacks on America. We looked over the Times’ and Post’s accounts carefully with the thought that they probably were as good as any the press had to offer. What we found was that they were almost totally lacking in context and a sense of history that go to the root of this nation’s interminable war in Afghanistan.
The Times published a 40-page special section (titled “The Reckoning”) on the 9/11 attacks, while The Post concentrated on nine individuals’ stories in a 16-page special section (“Nine Lives Ten Years Later: Recovering from the Attack on Washington”). In that outpouring of thousands of words, both newspapers failed to address some of the basic who-what-when-where-why-and-how (and context) tenets of journalism: Nowhere in those 56 pages is there a hint of the possible motives for the 9/11 attacks, or any mention of why the United States within a month after 9/11 went to war in Afghanistan and then 18 months later invaded Iraq – and why we are still there.
Neither newspaper had even a mention of the secret, multi-billion-dollar U.S. support for the Islamic mujahideen’s successful war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, an event with direct links to 9/11 and its aftermath. This clandestine backing for the rebels intensified after the Soviets invaded that country in December 1979 to support the pro-Soviet Marxist regime that had come to power in a coup but faced attack from anti-communist rebels. Likewise, there was nothing about how the Central Intelligence Agency provided those Islamic fighters with jihad-filled propaganda against the Soviets, training, and weapons – most importantly, in 1986, some 2,000-2,500 hand-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
This history has implications for the war the United States is waging in Afghanistan today. Many Americans would be surprised to learn that some of the same “freedom fighters” to whom the Central Intelligence Agency provided billions of dollars worth of Stinger missiles and other weapons in the 1980s are the same “terrorists” who today are fighting U.S. forces – such as we saw in the Sept. 13th attack on the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul, purportedly carried out by the Haqqani Network, one of the CIA’s favored clients in the 1980s.
This might cause some Americans to wonder: If we couldn’t know the consequences of our actions in cozying up to extremists back in the 1980s, then how can we presume today to determine what is best for Afghanistan’s future? The Obama administration, our military leaders and our ambassador assure us of dubious “progress” in Afghanistan, but we should learn the “blowback” lessons from those earlier days and bear in mind that our actions there today – night raids, drone attacks, support for a corrupt government, internment without charges of a couple thousand Afghans in Bagram prison, etc. – can again produce negative future consequences for both the beleaguered Afghan people and the United States.
Through our seemingly endless and increasingly clandestine military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc., we are on course to experience blowback-without-end.
The two newspapers failed to discuss how this covert assistance – “Charlie Wilson’s War”– helped create the conditions that the popular 2007 movie about the Texas congressman’s exploits and secret appropriations in support of the rebels doesn’t mention: Namely, that the U.S.-aided mujahideen’s ouster of the Soviets in 1989 ultimately led to civil war and the ultra-orthodox Islamic Taliban coming to power in 1996, an event that also enabled anti-Soviet fighter Osama bin Laden and his fledgling al Qaeda to set up a base from which to plan the 9/11 attacks.
“The U.S. covert war in Afghanistan [in the 1980s] was the largest CIA effort since Vietnam, perhaps even bigger,” Afghanistan experts and journalistic husband-and-wife-team Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould told Nieman Watchdog recently. This jarring history is seldom cited in current-day press accounts as a factor in creating the very morass in which the United States finds itself today. Even before the Soviet invasion, Fitzgerald and Gould noted, “The U.S. used psychological warfare techniques to spook the Soviets on their southern border, backed warlords and drug dealers like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar from the early 1970s on, and turned their backs on the largest heroin smuggling operation in history.”
Fitzgerald and Gould, in two recent authoritative books (Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story, and Crossing Zero: The AfPak War at the Turning Point of American Empire), shed light on how the current U.S. war in Afghanistan had its historical origins in the secret plans and actions of Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski in the final two years of the Carter administration, and how the Reagan administration and CIA Director William Casey expanded these actions to give the Soviets their own, earlier version of quagmire in Vietnam.
After all western reporters were expelled by the Afghan government and the Soviets in early 1980, Fitzgerald and Gould said, the major U.S. news outlets provided limited coverage of the war and the U.S.’s clandestine role in it. When the news media did focus on it, they generally bought into the “official narrative” that the war was “a Ramboesque struggle of holy warriors against the evil empire” and presented stories in a manner “to encourage war and to downplay peaceful settlement.”
Given the skimpy and skewed press coverage at the time and in more recent years, one could wager that most Americans, especially those who were not adults during the 1980s, are completely unaware that this is our country’s second war in Afghanistan in the last three decades or, looked at another way, a continuation of that devastated country’s 30-plus-year-war.
The Washington Post’s special section on 9/11 was even more narrowly focused than the Times’s special section. The Times at least made a stab at articles that went beyond the moving profiles of victims, victims’ families and survivors of 9/11 that both newspapers presented in abundance. For example, the Times had articles on the Arab Spring and on “Civil Liberties Today” (which – as did a soothing Post editorial the same day – pushed the dubious line that, really, government abuses of civil liberties aren’t so bad today compared to the World War I “Red scare” and the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798). On the plus side was Scott Shane’s piece, “Al Qaeda’s Outsize Shadow,” which discussed the U.S. overreaction to terrorism over the last 10 years and which pointed out, in putting the issue in perspective, that between 1970 and 1978, “72 people died in terrorist attacks on American soil – five times the number to die in jihadist attacks since 9/11.”
Before it slips completely down the memory hole that our history with Afghanistan didn’t suddenly begin on that tragic September 11th a decade ago, let’s recall a few of the seamier aspects of how the United States in the 1980s used Afghanistan as a Cold War pawn in a proxy war against the Soviets.
Last year, Fitzgerald and Gould, along with Khalil Nouri and Michael Hughes, published a report (“Restoring Afghanistan’s Tribal Balance”) for the New World Strategies Coalition. The NWSC calls itself “a think-tank founded by Afghan expatriates who possess deep tribal connections,” working in partnership with other leading Afghan scholars, experts and non-governmental organizations. The October 2010 report described the U.S. covert support of the mujahideen thusly:
“…during the ‘jihad’ against the Soviets, the Judeo-Christian West teamed up with violent Islamic radicals of the worst sort, against the Soviets, because they shared a common hatred for the godless communists. The same people American leaders once called ‘freedom fighters’ throughout the 80’s are now [in the current war] violent extremist jihadist terrorists who commit immoral acts and heinous human rights violations that all Americans should find deplorable. Of course, before 9/11 when these ‘terrorists’ were fighting against the Soviets, they were ‘our terrorists’ and such human rights violations and war crimes hardly ever made the press. Today, people aren’t really supposed to remember nor point out this interesting historical irony, especially within the media.”
“It is now no secret that the CIA, via Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), funded and supported violent Islamic jihadists called the mujahideen in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, providing them with billions to procure weapons and recruit and train more jihadists,” the NWSC report continued. After the defeated Soviets completed their withdrawal in early 1990, “these mujahideen ‘freedom fighters’ became the very warlords that divided and terrified Afghanistan as it spiraled into civil war, moral decay and chaos, which led to conditions ripe for the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.”
As the late academic Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback and other best-selling books on American militarism, wrote about Afghanistan in Dismantling the Empire: “Brutal, incompetent, secret operations of the Central Intelligence Agency, frequently manipulated by the military intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, caused the catastrophic devastation of this poor country.”
With rare exceptions, throughout the 1980s, according to Gould and Fitzgerald, “Without any serious reflection on the consequences of funding and training extremists for the purpose of defeating the Soviet Union, the American media not only missed the deeper story, but ignored numerous instances where the Afghan story had been corrupted for political purposes.”
The aforementioned warlord and drug dealer Gulbuddin Hekmatyar offers a perfect example of a lack of timely press vigilance and the unanticipated result of the U.S. backing for the mujahideen in the 1980s. Alfred McCoy, author of “The Politics of Heroin,” wrote that Hekmatyar – despite his reputation for being violently anti-American, for throwing acid at women who went unveiled during his student days and later for murdering rival resistance leaders – was “the leading recipient of U.S. arms shipments,” funneled through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) during the covert war against the Soviets. During that period in which he netted the lion’s share of an estimated $3 billion worth of U.S. weapons largesse (as well as the bulk of the Saudi intelligence services’ billions in support for the rebels), Hekmatyar received only “positive reports” in the American press despite “his heroin dealing and human rights abuses.”
In fact, Hekmatyar, as Fitzgerald and Gould wrote in Invisible History, was viewed “as a hero to congressman Charlie Wilson,” the architect of the secret U.S. funding for the mujahideen, who shrugged off any criticisms of Hekmatyar as somehow motivated by tribal jealousies. Although the press had not examined Hekmatyar’s reputation throughout the 1980s war, the New York Times reported on “the sinister nature of Mr. Hekmatyar“in 1990, a year after the Soviet withdrawal.” The Washington Post weighed in with a bigger story on Hekmatyar’s operation of “a chain of heroin laboratories inside Pakistan under the protection of the ISI,” as McCoy put it.
In the civil war after the Soviets left and northern forces had captured Kabul, Hekmatyar’s artillery forces reportedly bombarded the capital, killing some 50,000 people. Although he was initially supported by the ISI against the northern forces, the Pakistani intelligence agency later turned its support to the Taliban, which took over Kabul in September 1996 even as fighting with the Northern Alliance continued for the next five years.
McCoy, the J.R.W. Small professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted the CIA’s “indirect complicity” in Hekmatyar’s and other mujahideen drug operations rather than “direct culpability,” writing: “In most cases, the CIA’s role involved various forms of complicity, tolerance or studied ignorance about the trade, not any direct culpability in the actual trafficking … [t]he CIA did not handle heroin, but it did provide its drug-lord allies with transport, arms, and political protection.”
In the mid-1970s, before the Soviet invasion and the CIA’s covert war, the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands “had zero heroin production,” McCoy wrote in March 2010. But the war served as “the catalyst that transformed the …[area] into the world’s largest heroin producing region” as Afghan guerrillas began collecting a poppy tax from farmers and brought the opium across the border to sell to hundreds of Pakistani heroin labs “operating under the ISI’s protection.”
Between 1981 and 1990, he wrote, this mujahideen-fueled opium boom saw production grow from 250 tons to 2,000 tons, and as early as 1981 Afghanistan and Pakistan were reportedly providing 60 per cent of the heroin that entered the United States. The “benign neglect” policy by the CIA “helped make Afghanistan today the world’s number one narco-state,” with a depleted farming sector where once existed a “diverse agricultural ecosystem – with herding, orchards and over 60 food crops.”
Additionally, when the United States ended its support for the Mujahideen in in 1992, it left behind “a thoroughly ravaged country with over one million dead, five million refugees, 10-20 million landmines still in place, an infrastructure in ruins, an economy in tatters, and well-armed tribal warlords prepared to fight among themselves for control of the capital.”
In the current war, Hekmatyar continues to lead a major insurgent group, Hizb-e-Islami, that controls areas in the north and east of Afghanistan. According to Fitzgerald and Gould, it was the events of 9/11 that “finally turned the American military against Hekmayatar,” and he became “one of the first targets of American missile attacks” when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. But the United States may not be done yet with Hekmatyar as a possible future partner. As Gould and Fitzgerald wrote in Crossing Zero, his Hesb-i-Islami supported Hamid Karzai in the August 2009 Afghan presidential election. Four months earlier, they noted, the late Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, “was reported to have met with a Hekmatyar emissary in the hope of luring him into a relationship with the Afghan government.” The authors characterized this as part of a “campaign to rehabilitate Hekmatyar as an Afghan messiah…despite his demonic reputation.”
As a key component of the anti-Soviet effort, the CIA provided some 2,000-2,500 Stinger missiles to the Afghan rebels. The missiles, wrote Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, “proved to be deadly for Russian aircraft” and “tipped the balance in favor of the mujahideen.” As Steve Coll wrote in Ghost Wars, many of these missiles during he 1980s “had gone to commanders associated with anti-American radical Islamist leaders. A few missiles had already been acquired by Iran.”
Fearing lethal blowback from weapons left behind when the United States ceased support for the mujahideen, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the early 1990s authorized a secret program to spend tens of millions of dollars “to buy back as many Stingers as it could from anyone who possessed them…. In 1996 the CIA estimated that about six hundred Stingers were still at large,” Coll wrote in his book. Coll, a former Washington Post managing editor who previously was a South Asia correspondent, is now president of the New America Foundation, a nonprofit public policy institute, and is a contributor to The New Yorker.
Brzezinski, in the days following the December 1979 Soviet invasion, outlined what Coll described in his book as “a CIA-led American campaign in Afghanistan whose broad outlines would stand for a decade to come.” In a memorandum to President Carter, Brzezinski called for a secret policy of providing U.S. arms, money and technical advice to the mujahideen. The memo said the United States government “must both reassure Pakistan and encourage it to help the rebels,” and for this give Pakistan “more guarantees…more arms aid, and, alas a decision that our security policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our [nuclear] nonproliferation policy.”
Here was the seed for more blowback: In the current Afghanistan/Pakistan war the United States remains convinced that elements of the ISI continue to assist Afghan rebels against invaders – only now it is the United States, not the Soviet Union, that is targeted. And previous CIA support for extremists seems to haunt U.S. forces daily in Afghanistan.
For example, Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, charged that the coordinated Sept. 13th attacks on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul were carried out by the Haqqani Network – led for years by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin Haqqani – which benefited from CIA support in the 1980s war. The Haqqani Network is said to be aligned with the Taliban, Pakistan’s ISI and al Qaeda, while operating independently. The Haqqanis have been blamed for some of the worst insurgent attacks in Afghanistan, including the July 2008 attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed 41 people and an October 2009 car-bomb attack outside the Indian embassy that killed 17 and wounded more than 60. Its leadership is reportedly in the Pakistan tribal areas of Waziristan, where they are alleged to have the protection of the ISI, which has “a fixation on Pakistan’s primary enemy – India,” as Fitzgerald and Gould wrote. For what it’s worth, the ISI in July 2008 vehemently denied it had ties to the Haqqani Network and other insurgents.
Haqqani, according to Steve Coll, was highly regarded by the CIA and ISI, who “came to rely on Haqqani for testing and experimentation with new weapons systems and tactics.” In fact, wrote Coll, “Haqqani was so favored with supplies that he was in a position to broker them and to help equip volunteers gathering in his region.” CIA officers in Islamabdad “regarded him as a proven commander who could put a lot of men under arms at short notice.” He had “the CIA’s full support.”
And to get back to Brzezinski’s memo and the proliferation issue: The Pakistanis, under the not-so-watchful U.S. eye, managed to develop nuclear weapons that U.S. officials today say they are concerned may fall into terrorists’ hands – and that they cite as a main reason why we need to keep up military pressures against insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One can only think back again to the 1980s when William Casey, Reagan’s CIA director, expanded support for the mujahideen and their reckless, occasional guerrilla raids into adjoining Muslim republics in the Soviet Union, thus creating what Fitzgerald and Gould called a “growing and dangerous institutional surreality of supporting extremist Muslim killers – so long as the Soviets were being targeted.”
And then there is the matter of the U.S. promoting “jihad” in those Cold War days. Consider an eye-opening and little-remembered Washington Post story that appeared six months after 9/11 – headlined “From U.S., the ABC’s of Jihad” – that provides some startling insights into those inflammatory U.S.-aided propaganda efforts against the Soviet occupiers. The efforts were designed to promote a holy war of the same ferocity the United States is facing today as the Taliban seeks to drive out the latest collection of foreign occupiers. It is in situations like this when you realize how true the cliches are – “law of unintended consequences,” “reap what you sow,” “make your own bed,” “chickens coming home to roost,” etc.
As reporters Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway reported in March 2002: “In the twilight of the Cold War, the United States spent millions of dollars to supply Afghan schoolchildren with textbooks filled with violent images and militant Islamic teachings, part of attempts to spur resistance to the Soviet occupation.”
The article reported that the books “were filled with talks of jihad and featured drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and [land]mines,” and later were even used by the Taliban when they came to power in 1996 during the bitter civil war – “though the radical movement scratched out human faces in keeping with its strict fundamentalist code.” The textbooks were developed in the early 1980s under a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) grant, which eventually totaled $51 million, to the University of Nebraska-Omaha and its Center for Afghanistan Studies. According to the article, USAID officials “acknowledged that at the time it also suited U.S. interests to stoke hatred of foreign invaders.”
If future conscientious high-school students were assigned to write a term paper about the war in Afghanistan and what 9/11 was all about, they wouldn’t have a clue if they turned to the Times or Post’s recent weekend sections. They might then take a look at the New York Times on-line “World” section where they could find a 3,000-word, encyclopedia-style description of Afghanistan’s recent history. The Times, after all, is still recognized as the nation’s most authoritative newspaper — even after its false and disastrous coverage of the run-up to the war in Iraq, in which it regularly parroted the Bush/Cheney administration line and earned the uncoveted appellation of “stenographers to the government.”
A teacher would be well-advised, though, to tell the students to proceed carefully in relying on this particular Times account, because the newspaper has once again presented a sanitized version of U.S. relations with Afghanistan over the last 30 years. It’s what gets left out of this Times account that is especially troubling: It contains only passing references to the United States’ involvement in the country’s 1980s war on the side of the mujahideen, phrased thusly: “The turmoil and extremism that have dominated its history since then can be traced to the 1979 invasion by the Soviet Union and the reaction both by Afghans and by their allies in the United States and Pakistan.” And in the only fact pertaining to what the United States did there, the account notes that after 1986 the Soviet Air Force was “rendered largely useless by advanced Stinger antiaircraft missiles supplied by the United States to the rebels.” All right, class: Beyond the provision of Stinger missiles, just what was this U.S. “reaction”? What was the United States doing in Afghanistan in the 1980s? And how does that relate to the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings a decade ago? The Times account hardly suffices to answer these questions.
To read this particular Times mini-history – which, after all, is that newspaper’s official summary version of what has been happening in Afghanistan for the last 30-plus years – you would not learn that the CIA back then worked hand-in-glove with Islamic extremists, many of whom subsequently became affiliated with the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Regarding this Times account, Fitzgerald and Gould commented to us: “An apt description of …[this] summary is willful ignorance.”
One can only speculate why much of the mainstream press, even at this late date, doesn’t want to deal with our 1980s history and the “why” of the 9/11 attacks. Perhaps it is because of a misplaced concern that it would suggest some sort of insensitivity to the victims and would provide legitimacy to what Osama bin Laden and other extremists have articulated as their motives for their attacks on U.S. targets – such as the 1990 sanctions imposed on Iraq that reportedly resulted in widespread poverty and malnutrition and the death of half-a-million children; the presence of U.S. military in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest sites; and injustices to the Palestinians and support of Israel by the United States. (The United States in 2003 did pull out most of its troops from Saudi Arabia, leaving behind only trainers.) But news isn’t supposed to make us comfortable, and we’re long past the point when former President Bush’s explanation – “They hate our freedoms” – will fly. Reporters explaining terrorists’ motives is not the same thing as agreeing with those motives or their actions. It’s called journalism.
History and context matter. They are vital to the public’s understanding of how past events influence current events, and offer lessons to enable us to make wiser decisions in the future and avoid the pitfalls and disasters of the past. Yet much of the ethnocentric U.S. news media almost always see history since 9/11 only through the prism of our own horrific, but limited, suffering – and not the suffering, displacement and death we have caused to hundreds of thousands of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in our global war on terrorism. Such an attitude was again on display in much of the mainstream media’s 10th anniversary coverage of 9/11. Is it too much to expect that in retrospectives of this nature the press at least make an effort to try to explain the stated motives for the attacks – and what Afghanistan had to do with them? In striving for history and context, we should pay heed to George Orwell’s chilling narrative in “1984”: “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
Gould and Fitzgerald also pointed out to Nieman Watchdog in a recent interview that, contrary to the impression prevalent today, Afghanistan had been a peaceful and stable country for some 40 years and had been moving in a more progressive fashion until it got swept up in the 1970s Cold War maneuverings of the United States and the Soviet Union. As the NWSC report noted, during that 40-year period Afghanistan “had been self-sufficient in food production, a vivid illustration of what life was like when Afghans were in control of their own fate.” Women had won the right to vote in the 1920s.
Now, “after more than 30 years of incessant war,” Afghanistan is “one of the most violent, corrupt and poverty-stricken places on earth.” The historical contrast is between an Afghanistan that had been free from outside interventions to a country “occupied and manipulated by foreign powers that have marginalized, weakened and corrupted centuries-old indigenous institutions and value systems.”
Gould told Nieman Watchdog that most of the major news media “have turned the whole practice of journalism inside out” by identifying with the political and military leaders and “turning into cheerleaders,” rather than serving as the watchdogs over government. By not framing an issue properly – by distorting or omitting facts – the press helps create a “false narrative” that distorts the policy debate and allows ill-conceived and dangerous government decisions to go unexamined until it is too late.
Fitzgerald and Gould also had sharp words for the “triumphalist narrative” of the 2007 movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” which, for many of those who viewed it, will become the official version of that earlier proxy war in Afghanistan. The movie presents flamboyant womanizer and heavy-drinking Wilson’s successful efforts to covertly fund the mujahideen against the Soviets, but fails to deal with the “blowback” issue of “our freedom fighters” morphing into “our terrorist enemies.”
The U.K.’s Guardian newspaper gave the film a “C” for entertainment value, and a “D” for historical accuracy. The reviewer noted: “The original draft of the screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, is said to have been harder-hitting and to have ended by explicitly linking American support for the mujahideen to 9/11. Reportedly, Tom Hanks found this too “political”. Instead of 9/11, then, Charlie Wilson’s War ends with Wilson failing to persuade Congress to invest positively in Afghanistan…”
Wilson, who died in 2010, said in a 2001 interview that he was proud of his efforts in Afghanistan to oust the Soviets, but was also concerned about blowback. “I always, always, whenever a [U.S.] plane goes down, I always fear it is one of our missiles,” he said, adding, regarding weapons falling into the wrong hands in wartime: “I feel guilty about it…I really do.” But, he added: “Those things happen…How are you going to defeat the Red Army without a gun? You can’t blame the Marines for teaching Lee Harvey Oswald how to shoot.”
|John Hanrahan is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for The Washington Post, The Washington Star, UPI, and other news organizations. He is now on special assignment for Nieman Watchdog. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org|