The Soviet-Afghan war (December 24, 1979 – February 15, 1989) was a key element in the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The conflict was fomented by their cold war enemy the United States who secretly donated billions to the Islamic factions known as the Mujahideen, directly through the Central Intelligence Agency and their relationship with Pakistan’s secret service, the ISI.
What precipitated the initial Soviet intervention was a growing civil war between the traditional rural living Muslims and the Communist leaning government in Kabul – lead by Nur Mohammed Taraki’s People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). Mutiny within the government itself undermined state control and prompted the USSR to send in the military in order to secure its economic interests. While the December operation quickly took control of key city infrastructure, the Russians were unprepared mentally, strategically and even technologically for the guerrilla warfare style Jihad (struggle) that would take place in the mountains and countryside. This resulted in around one million civilian deaths due to the inability to efficiently pinpoint resistance fighters. There were also mass Russian troop deaths as the conflict dragged out.
While the war was not on the horrifying scale of Vietnam, there are definite parallels to be drawn in terms of troop malaise and the complete failure of the invader’s mission. By their withdrawal in 1989, the 115,000 strong red army had lost over 55,000 to death or injury, and the Soviet Empire itself would soon collapse under international pressure.
The war left behind a vacuum of power, which various factions including the Taliban would fill by 1996. It also gave rise to groups carrying out violent religious-based terrorism, later labeled Al Qaeda. A central figure in this was Osama Bin Laden, who provided funds to non-native Muslim mercenaries during the conflict and allegedly operated as a liaison between the American CIA and the Mujahideen.
Following the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks in New York, the US put the blame solely on Al Qaeda. Though the Taliban showed intent to cooperate, the Western war machine invaded regardless and soon set their sights on the Taliban themselves.
The Soviet Afghan War and its fallout is important to study for a number of reasons. Not only did it mark the end of the overt Cold War and lay the groundwork for the war on terror, but it also provides a historical framework for understanding the West’s subsequent operations in the Balkans and later in Libya and Syria, where similar covert backing of Islamic factions has taken place and the same negative consequences are emerging.
The moral basis for war has long been debated. If it’s not to right a perceived injustice or to bring freedom to an oppressed people, war is usually for land and resources – otherwise known as stealing. If a war is in fact fought for the goal of bringing peace and freedom (something we won’t know unless we hook politicians up to lie detectors), who has the right to make that decision and at the detriment of who else?
The Soviet Afghan war was not the first or the last military occupation of Afghanistan. An alliance between Russia and Iran (then Persia) following the Russo-Persian wars, saw the empire back an Iranian invasion of the country in 1837 – a continuation of previous turf wars. Wanting to maintain their own influence in the region, Britain exerted its political weight through their cutthroat trading monopoly, the East India company. While this prompted Persian withdrawal, it began the “Great Game” between Russia and Britain, with Afghanistan often caught in a tug of war.
As the Russian empire expanded, Britain became increasingly worried that this could eventually infringe on their interests in India and Central Asia. The Afghans were careful to keep Russia at arms length, denying official diplomatic representation, but Britain fought to further disrupt the relationship by occupying the baron and mountainous land for 3 years from 1839.
Then in 1878 during Russia’s war with Turkey, Britain again invaded Afghanistan to remove their influence. This time they forced the Afghans to sign the Gandamak agreement, essentially making them a subordinate to Britain’s Indian colony. Britain withdrew in 1881 with the exclusive right to regulate Afghan foreign policy, and in 1893 they definitively mapped Afghanistan’s border with India.
In 1907 a treaty was signed by the superpowers declaring Afghan sovereignty, although Britain would remain a controlling hand in foreign policy until 1919, when relations soured after they removed an Afghan military presence from the borders of India. The controlling and aggressive actions of Britain had eventually backfired and pushed Afghans in to a closer relationship with Russia. In 1921 a Soviet-Afghan treaty began decades of aid and support from Moscow.
What this brief overview of Afghan relations reveals is that the overriding purpose of the various wars in Afghanistan was not to bring freedom to its people. Afghanistan was, and still is simply an economic and strategic asset for the world’s superpowers to tussle over. It’s inconsequential which ideology, religion or government each side backs, as long as their horse wins the race. Today the West fights the Islamic militants in Afghanistan; during the Soviet-Afghan war they supported them.
So what’s really at stake in Afghanistan?
When President Jimmy Carter informed the nation that Russia had invaded Afghanistan in 1979 he unabashedly made corporate America’s interests one of the focal points of his speech. “We must recognize the strategic importance of Afghanistan…a Soviet occupied Afghanistan is a stepping stone to possible control over much of the world’s oil supplies.”
What the average US citizen probably didn’t know at that time was that Carter had already signed a directive to give “aid” to the Islamic Fundamentalists, stoking the fires of civil war and increasing the likelihood of Russia invading, which of course they did. The “non-aligned sovereign nation of Afghanistan,” made up of “fiercely independent Muslim people,” as Carter describes, were already aligned to the United States and fighting a proxy war on their behalf against the Communist leaning government and atheist city dwellers. The US simply wanted to secure their own piece of the pie by exploiting the traditional rural Muslims against the Soviet Satellite in Kabul.
And what a pie it was. With the birth of Pakistan in the late 40s after British withdrawal from India, Russia became the dominant empire in the region. By the 50s aid and loan programs, millions in arms deals, and the trade of cotton and petroleum were commonplace between Russia and her satellites and Afghanistan. It became a transport hub for the Central Asia Oil and Gas trade, and boasted its own gas reserves, which the Soviets pipelined to Uzbekistan. Afghanistan is also rich in mineral deposits such as iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium (also used in nuclear fusion weapons). In recent years these spoils have been revalued at around one trillion dollars. The capitalist US were on the outside looking in at this sweet asset, which the Soviets were industrializing and reaping the benefits from.
The Soviets Invade Afghanistan
The Soviet influence over Afghanistan is unsurprisingly placed within the cold war paradigm and is therefore seen as an overtly aggressive act by Western history. However the relationship was a long and relatively organic process, centering around industrialization. The Soviets were there, they had money and could aid growth. Britain had weakened their relationship decades earlier and the US were not proactive in fostering their own partnership. Growing Islamic movements in Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia were also unified in their hatred of America’s other meddling in the region. This would later be epitomized by the Iran hostage crisis and the US embassy burning in Islamabad, by Islamic factions of University students, who wrongly implicated the US in the takeover of the Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The first come first served partnership between Afghanistan and Russia could have just as easily been on the Capitalist foot if circumstances were different. The real issue was that Russia seemed to be getting the upper-hand.
Yet while the Soviets brought the technological advancements, schooling, equality and infrastructure that Afghanistan had long needed, the educated and progressive began to wear the stamp of Communism proudly on their sleeve, causing a split in society that would have devastating consequences. It’s one thing to help the country modernize, it’s another to put the state above Allah.
Soviet influence had emerged from the continuation of the 1919 arms deals between Russia and Afghanistan that aided the fight against the British, who wanted Afghan forces away from the Indian border. In 1925, Soviet troops fostered the partnership by occupying the small disputed Island of Amu Darya between the borders in Central Asia. It would be used to irrigate cotton.
Arms deals and military assistance continued through the 70s, and it would be the top ranked military who were some of the first vocal Socialists. After all they were Soviet educated and trained, and saw the success of other Soviet-aligned countries.
The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) founded in January 1965, was the nation’s first Soviet-leaning party. The Union of Muslim Youth which was founded in 1968 made the countering of Communist ideology one of their main goals. They saw the corruption of Muslims within the education system and fought to keep Muslim faith the country’s top priority. However with powerful sectors of society, such as the military and intellectuals leaning towards a revolutionary doctrine of no monarchy, equality and modernization, Afghanistan was forced to evolve beyond what it could peacefully sustain. Naturally the Soviets initially welcomed a revolution that brought the country’s leadership in line with their empire, but in the process it spurred the opposition in to a counter-revolution that couldn’t be stomped out by force.
The 1973 Coup
The initial coup of 1973 that overthrew the monarchy was lead by Mohammed Daoud Khan, a leading Afghan politician who was Prime Minster from 1953 to 1963. He continued the growing relationship with the Soviet Union and enacted a number of modernization plans that increased the rights of women and improved the nation’s economy. Though King Zahir was Daoud’s cousin and brother in-law, this didn’t stop the revolutionary momentum, and in July 1973 Daoud carried out a coup – albeit bloodless – and declared Afghanistan a Republic, with himself as President. Under his leadership a new constitution was crafted and the military went through a further process of modernization with Soviet assistance.
Daoud however was not a Soviet puppet or Communist ideologue and publicly distanced himself from the radical elements within his own ranks. He became concerned that Afghanistan’s Soviet relationship had become a dependency rather than mutually beneficial and that this was causing tensions between the Afghan people. In turn this stance caused disagreements between the Communist factions that backed the original coup.
Daoud soon began to forge relationships elsewhere, with Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia, Iran and even the West. Afghanistan signed a co-operative military treaty with Egypt in 1977, which reduced Soviet military influence. Over a couple of years the coup began to look much less beneficial for Moscow.
The Saur Revolution
Though there is no solid evidence that Moscow were actively directing the revolutionary movement in Afghanistan – like Daoud, Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev spoke of how it was important that they remain officially non-aligned to ease tensions – they didn’t really need direct involvement, because the seeds had been planted. Daoud’s successor Nur Mohammed Taraki, of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), was educated at Kabul University and epitomized the revolutionary mindset of the intelligentsia at that time. He didn’t need dictating to from the Kremlin, because he already believed that Daoud was failing and that Afghanistan needed to further it’s socialist policies and partnership with the Soviets.
The assassination of leading revolutionary Mir Akbar Khyber remains a point of contention. The PDPA put the blame on Daoud’s regime – an aggressive turn against the revolution. Daoud himself put the blame on the Islamic extremists, a feasible outcome of the ongoing tensions. Regardless of who carried out the assassination, the result was a baying revolutionary movement that had their eyes set on power.
Compounding the hatred against him by the Communists, Daoud erroneously met them head on and arrested several PDPA leaders. It was from his house arrest that revolutionary Hafizullah Amin passed out plans for a coup against Daoud.
It began on April 27, 1978, with Soviet trained troops and revolutionaries battling those loyal to the Afghan government. The following day Daoud and most of his family were assassinated in the presidential palace, and on May 1st Nur Mohammed Taraki assumed a role that would encompass President and Prime Minister, with the country renamed the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.
Despite this successful coup the Saur Revolution was far from plain sailing. The revolutionary factions were able to find common ground in their removal of the perceived turncoat Daoud, but that’s where their unity stopped. The two largest PDPA groups were ideologically split, with Taraki’s Khalq, envisaging a seize-all Leninist state, and Babrak Karmal’s Parcham group aiming for a more democratic framework. On top of this the Islamists were growing their own counter-movement against the non-believers in power.
Reforms such as women’s rights, schooling for girls, and socialist land grabs simply did not work for the rural fundamentalists and their ancient culture. Peasants didn’t want to claim the land from their Mullahs, as this was the system of Allah. Thus in a twist of irony the workers were not revolting against their masters, but against the revolutionaries themselves. The Soviets were facing a brewing civil war that would threaten the stability of both Afghanistan and their neighboring republics.
Taraki is assassinated
On March 15, 1979, a large revolt against the Taraki’s government in the town of Herat caused great concern, not least for Moscow. The civil war lead to 5,000 civilian deaths within days, as the Muslim Fundamentalists and government forces clashed.
Despite pleads from Taraki for assistance the Soviets initially stuck to their policy of non overt interference, fearing it would only exacerbate the situation. Politburo member, Alexei Kosygin explained: “We carefully studied all aspects of this action and came to the conclusion that if our troops were introduced, the situation in your country would not only not improve, but would worsen. One cannot deny that our troops would have to fight not only with foreign aggressors, but also with a certain number of your people. And people do not forgive such things.”
In a sly bait and switch, more government forces entered the conflict zone on the 20th, but draped themselves in green flags and Qurans, prompting the Islamists to believe there had been mass defections to their side. Instead, once the forces reclaimed key positions a brutal aerial bombardment crushed the insurgents, to the tune of up to 25,000 deaths. Regardless of future Soviet intervention there was no turning back the tide of civil war.
Meanwhile relations between Taraki and his right hand man Hafizullah Amin went downhill, with both trying to wrestle power away from each other. Both became paranoid and both received warnings that the other was going to assassinate them. On one occasion the Soviet embassy had to step in and warn Amin of a plot to kill him. Curiously however not long after, Soviet ambassador Puzanov managed to persuade Amin to go to the Presidential palace for peace talks. When he arrived he was ambushed, but escaped death and had Taraki arrested by loyal followers from the Army. Amin seized power and Moscow washed their hands of the incident, allowing Amin to assassinate Taraki on December 12th.
Amin is assassinated
Amin’s rise to power put no demonstrable damper on the violence and the KGB were increasingly concerned by his actions. He had been killing his political rivals within government and sought to secure power by utilizing relationships outside of Moscow, with China and Pakistan. Amin even had secret meetings with US officials, suggesting he may have been turned by the CIA.
The situation simply became too volatile and paranoid, and the decision was made to send in the Soviet 40th Army to restore order. The official mission was described as the “Rendering of international aid to the friendly Afghan people and establishing advantageous conditions to prevent possible actions by the governments of neighboring countries against Afghanistan.”
On December 27, 1979, the Soviets rolled in and took key government, population and communication points in Kabul. They killed Amin in his palace and installed Babrak Karmal, of the rival Parcham faction as President.
Stages of War
The Soviet Afghan war can be separated into several stages. The invasion stage from 79 to early 1980, witnessed the securing of key infrastructure and the development of garrisons and bases. DRA forces were integrated with the Soviets and worked joint missions.
Stage 2 (March 1980 – April 1985), involved wide-scale combat against the Mujahideen. The Soviets attempted a brute force approach, prompting the enemy to adopt operations from the mountains and hit and run guerrilla tactics.
Stage 3 (April 1985 – January 1987), saw the Soviets pull back the reigns after their conventional warfare proved ineffectual. Instead they would support Afghan government forces with aviation and artillery units, and focus on intelligence driven ambushes and arms interceptions.
The final stage of the war saw a switch to diplomatic efforts. The Soviets pushed Afghanistan’s “National Reconciliation Program” and financed President Mohammad Najibullah to bring forth peace talks and a cease-fire. Through this time period the Soviets would only fight in a defense context and were preparing for full military withdrawal, which took place in February.
CIA Operation Cyclone
By the late 70s America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had morphed into an international attack dog with little room for ethics or morals. The controversial “jackals” were hot off scandals in Cuba and Latin America, where their covert ops had far surpassed the national security mandate. Vietnam and the Watergate scandal were also still fresh in everybody’s minds. In this context it should come as no surprise that the agency’s most expensive mission to date, would be to meddle in the brewing civil war of a resource-hub nation. Just as the Brits had learned before them, Afghanistan was a valuable chess piece in the growing corporate-American empire.
For the longest time US involvement in the war was coated in fluffy rhetoric about protecting Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion. While this may jive with the cold war paradigm written by its victors, it would be naïve to think America were any less brutal, deceptive or power-hungry than Russia. This “Team America” narrative not only ignores the strategic and economic motives for the proxy conflict, but some of the key players involved have since admitted that covert operations began before the Soviet invasion, suggesting that this was just another immoral international scandal masked in cold war propaganda.
US plans to support the Muslims are recorded as early as March 1979, some 9 months before the Soviets officially began military operations. The Carter Administration sought to “reverse the current Soviet trend and presence…and to demonstrate to the Pakistanis our interests and concern about Soviet involvement, and to demonstrate to the Pakistanis, Saudis, and others our resolve to stop extension of Soviet influence in the Third World.”
In the fall American diplomats met with Afghan President Amin several times, sparking fears in Moscow that he was really a CIA plant. He’d left Afghanistan in 1957 to study at Columbia University in New York City, where he became associated with the Asia Foundation, known for its CIA ties. Though the US have denied they had any influence over Amin, the Soviets disposed of him following the invasion.
It was revealed by former CIA Director Robert Gates that in the July, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski authorized the CIA to spend $500,000 on propaganda and psychological operations inside Afghanistan to sway public opinion away from the Soviets. Radio equipment and medical supplies were given to the Mujahideen, as well as cash which could not have been effectively funneled for any particular purpose. In other words weapons were almost certainly involved.
“According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise,” explained Brzezinski to Le Nouvel Observateur in 1998.
“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.”
So rather than intervening after a Soviet invasion to protect their interests or to support the innocent Muslims in the face of an unfair attack, Brzezinski and co “knowingly increased the probability” of a Soviet invasion, in order to give the US an excuse to expand its own empire.
Brzezinski’s cynical visits to Pakistan – where he motivated Muslim militants with speeches about God being on their side – are therefore even more sinister, because he was knowingly using them as a sacrificial lamb in a broader agenda.
“That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, in substance: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire… What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”
On Brzezinski’s chessboard the ancient people of Afghanistan were nothing more than “stirred-up Moslems”, and ironically it would only be a few years later that the War on Terror would be launched, in part to clear up the mess left behind by Operation Cyclone – an equally ironic codename.
Terrorists and Freedom Fighters
Before the flipping of the label following 9/11, the Afghan based Muslims and mercenaries from neighboring countries were warmly labeled freedom fighters. Some were granted easy access flights into the United States for training and refuge, and during Reagan’s presidency he invited them to the White House for a photo-op, calling them “the moral equivalents of America’s Founding Fathers.” In 1982 he even dedicated the Space Shuttle Columbia to Afghanistan’s “resistance fighters”.
Although many thousands of Mujahideen passed through the conflict, four leading names with close ties to the CIA and Pakistan ISI were Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Ahmad Shah Massoud, Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, and the infamous Osama Bin Laden – all Sunni Muslims.
Massoud was an Afghan native who was active in the anti-communist rebellion from the beginning. He became the insurgence leader upon the Soviet invasion and was the CIA’s go to man during Operation Cyclone. At the peak of their relationship he received up to $200,000 a month from the US taxpayer and other undisclosed sources of CIA money.
Azzam was a highly influential Palestinian cleric, who used his influence to raise funds from the wider Islamic community and to encourage Jihadis from neighboring countries to join their brothers in Afghanistan. He is considered a mentor of Osama Bin Laden and the conduit for bringing him into the conflict. Bin Laden and Azzam were the founders of a covert charity named the Maktab al-Khidamat or Afghan Services Bureau, which had over 30 branches in the US and raised millions for the cause. This went on under the watchful eye of the CIA, ISI and Saudi intelligence.
Bin Laden was a Saudi spiritual leader and wealthy financier with ties to the Saudi Royals, who started life with an impressive slush-fund stemming from his family’s construction fortune and investments.
He partnered with Azzam in recruiting “Afghan Arabs” (outsiders) to join the Mujahideen, and used his family’s and own wealth to help fund these mercenaries.
Though official US history claims they never dealt with the “Afghan Arabs” – only the natives, Bin Laden forged strong relations with the Pakistani authorities and was by default one step removed from the CIA in the chain of aid. This is just standard plausible-deniability within the intelligence world – getting others to do the dirty work off the record. In reality it would be extremely naïve to believe the CIA had any workable method of preventing their money, weapons and support from falling into the wrong hands, and there’s nothing to say they were bothered even when it did. This was a joint US/Pakistan/Saudi operation and there’s no escaping that fact. According to his brother Salem, Bin Laden was very much considered “the liaison between the US, the Saudi government, and the Afghan rebels.”
The antics of Mujahideen commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar epitomize the careless aid policy of the West. Despite hijacking medical supplies, backing out of agreed missions, fighting the other factions, and taking part in the heroin trade, Hekmatyar received the most funding out of all the rebels and was allowed to visit British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street for his commitment.
By the end of the war billions of dollars had made its way to the various freedom fighters in one form or another, including direct suitcased cash payments from CIA agents, arms laundered through Germany and other parts of Europe, military training programs and pamphlets, and even school text book propaganda that taught children math through anti-soviet and military illustrations to spur on the next generation of terrorists.
One of the more controversial programs involved supplying Stinger antiaircraft missiles to the Mujahideen, many of which are unaccounted for or in the hands of America’s enemies today. It is believed one such request for missiles came from Osama Bin Laden, although it is not clear if he specifically received any.
It was during this support for the Mujahideen that many of what were later rebranded “terrorists training camps” along the border regions of Pakistan were created.
Al Qaeda, 9/11 and Blowback
The subject of the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks is vast and at times baffling. For many Americans it came completely out of the blue, but in the context of the Soviet-Afghan War things begin to make a little more sense. The plot was said to have been hatched out of the extremist camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan left behind after the Soviet war, with oversight from Osama Bin Laden.
15 of the 19 alleged hijackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia and received fast-tracked visas into the US through the system that remained following Operation Cyclone – when the Mujahideen were jet-setted around the world by the CIA. A BBC Newsnight piece explained:
Newsnight has uncovered a long history of shadowy connections between the State Department, the CIA and the Saudis. The former head of the American visa bureau in Jeddah is Michael Springman.
In Saudi Arabia I was repeatedly ordered by high level State Dept officials to issue visas to unqualified applicants. These were, essentially, people who had no ties either to Saudi Arabia or to their own country. I complained bitterly at the time there. I returned to the US, I complained to the State Dept here, to the General Accounting Office, to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and to the Inspector General’s office. I was met with silence.
What I was protesting was, in reality, an effort to bring recruits, rounded up by Osama Bin Laden, to the US for terrorist training by the CIA. They would then be returned to Afghanistan to fight against the then-Soviets.
Springman would later explain that 15 of the alleged 9/11 hijackers came through the same consulate to get US Visas, which were rubber-stamped despite glaring red flags.
“Only one of the 15 provided an actual address – and that was only because his first application was refused. The rest listed such not-so-specific locations as “California,” “New York,” “Hotel D.C.,” and “Hotel.” One terrorist amazingly listed his U.S. destination as simply “No.” But he still got a visa.”
If the official 9/11 story is taken at face value, US foreign policy is inextricably linked to what happened.
It took a long while for US officials to publicly accept their history in Afghanistan – during the George Bush years ignorance was championed and history was unpatriotic. Today the likes of Hillary Clinton spell out the theory of blowback quite clearly.
“We had helped create the problem we’re now fighting. Because when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan we had this brilliant idea that we were going to come to Pakistan and create a force of Mujahideen, equip them with Stinger missiles and everything else, to go after the Soviets. And we were successful, the Soviets left Afghanistan and we said ‘great goodbye’ leaving these trained people who were fanatical in Afghanistan and Pakistan, leaving them well armed, creating a mess frankly…now you look back the people we’re fighting today, we were supporting in the fight against the Soviets.”
This however is only a superficial explanation, not least because she ignores the fact that the US were already aiding the Mujahideen before the Soviet invasion, and many of the government’s actions prior to 9/11 (such as Visa access) significantly helped the attacks along.
The use of the term Al Qaeda following 9/11 has allowed the US government to mask its historical role in Afghanistan – of working directly alongside the likes of Ahmad Shah Massoud, Bin Laden and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – and has also given them justification for all sorts of military intervention in the Middle-East and Africa. This was accomplished by presenting Bin Laden as the leader of a vast single entity terrorist organization that operated outside of the Soviet-Afghan context. At best this is an oversimplification by the soundbite news media, at worst it’s a piece of propaganda used to absolve any kind of responsibility for the mess the US left behind.
The term itself is translated as “The Base” and the use of the term evolved out of Operation Cyclone, likely referring to some kind of base of operations for the Mujahideen.
Following the 7/7 bombings in London, Labour MP Robin Cook who resigned over Iraq, went a step further and claimed in an article for the Guardian that Al Qaeda didn’t just refer to some kind of physical base, but rather the CIA database containing the names and details of those involved in Operation Cyclone. He said it “was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians.”
This is expanded upon by former French military agent, Pierre-Henry Bunel. While working to translate faxes and letters for French intelligence, he claimed to discover that “Al Qaida” was the name of a database used by UN recognized group the “Islamic Conference”, which represents 57 countries including those in the Middle-East. Because this database linked countries like Afghanistan and Saudi-Arabia, the Mujahideen and Taliban could use the network to send each other messages.
“In the early 1980s the Islamic Bank for Development, which is located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, like the Permanent Secretariat of the Islamic Conference Organization, bought a new computerized system to cope with its accounting and communication requirements. At the time the system was more sophisticated than necessary for their actual needs.
“It was decided to use a part of the system’s memory to host the Islamic Conference’s database. It was possible for the countries attending to access the database by telephone: an Intranet, in modern language. The governments of the member-countries as well as some of their embassies in the world were connected to that network.
“[According to a Pakistani major] the database was divided into two parts, the information file where the participants in the meetings could pick up and send information they needed, and the decision file where the decisions made during the previous sessions were recorded and stored. In Arabic, the files were called, ‘Q eidat il-Maaloomaat’ and ‘Q eidat i-Taaleemaat.’ Those two files were kept in one file called in Arabic ‘Q eidat ilmu’ti’aat’ which is the exact translation of the English word database. But the Arabs commonly used the short word Al Qaida which is the Arabic word for “base.” The military air base of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is called ‘q eidat ‘riyadh al ‘askariya.’ Q eida means “a base” and “Al Qaida” means “the base.”
“In the mid-1980s, Al Qaida was a database located in computer and dedicated to the communications of the Islamic Conference’s secretariat.
“In the early 1990s, I was a military intelligence officer in the Headquarters of the French Rapid Action Force. Because of my skills in Arabic my job was also to translate a lot of faxes and letters seized or intercepted by our intelligence services . . . We often got intercepted material sent by Islamic networks operating from the UK or from Belgium.
“These documents contained directions sent to Islamic armed groups in Algeria or in France. The messages quoted the sources of statements to be exploited in the redaction of the tracts or leaflets, or to be introduced in video or tapes to be sent to the media. The most commonly quoted sources were the United Nations, the non-aligned countries, the UNHCR and . . . Al Qaida.
“Al Qaida remained the data base of the Islamic Conference. Not all member countries of the Islamic Conference are ‘rogue states’ and many Islamic groups could pick up information from the databases. It was but natural for Osama Bin Laden to be connected to this network. He is a member of an important family in the banking and business world.
“Because of the presence of ‘rogue states,’ it became easy for terrorist groups to use the email of the database. Hence, the email of Al Qaida was used, with some interface system, providing secrecy, for the families of the mujaheddin to keep links with their children undergoing training in Afghanistan, or in Libya or in the Beqaa valley, Lebanon. Or in action anywhere in the battlefields where the extremists sponsored by all the ‘rogue states’ used to fight. And the ‘rogue states’ included Saudi Arabia. When Osama bin Laden was an American agent in Afghanistan, the Al Qaida Intranet was a good communication system through coded or covert messages.
This suggests that the term Al Qaeda as prescribed to Bin Laden evolved out of intelligence circles as an informal piece of jargon. It only got an offical stamp after it was used in a New York court room in January 2001, during the trial of 4 men accused of the 1998 US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. The government also wanted to convict Bin Laden in his absence, because of tacit evidence of his role as a financier and to perhaps reign in some of the mess they left over from the Soviet-Afghan war. To do this they’d have to adopt the strict framework that was used to convict heads of the Mafia when they weren’t directly linked to individual crimes. In other words they had to massage evidence that there was a criminal organization behind the bombings that Bin Laden was a leader of, and they gave it the name Al Qaeda.
This is explored it Adam Curtis’ acclaimed Power of Nightmares documentary for the BBC.
The man who would tell them what they wanted to hear was former Bin Laden associate turned CIA informer Jamal al-Fadl, who had previously embezzled $100,000 from him according to the 911 Commission Report, and had every reason to throw him under the bus. For a nice amount of taxpayers’ money he helped create the Al Qaeda myth that would be used a few months later by the media in speculation about 9/11.
A mindful analysis of history shows us that Al Qaeda as an organization, with a leader, chain of command, international sleeper cells, a headquarters and unified set of aims – is a myth. There were many loosely connected factions involved in Afghanistan and neighboring countries, based on ethnicity, tribal history, different sects of Islam, or simply where the money flowed. While Bin Laden had a handful of close associates, he was in no way the leader of a unified extremist army. He was not a barker of orders or a mastermind of plots. He didn’t even use the term Al Qaeda until it was projected on to him in 2001. From 9/11 onwards, any and every Islamic extremist element in the Middle-East and across the world became the work of “Al Qaeda”, even if there was no tangible link. Al Qaeda essentially replaced the term terrorism and brought with it a lot of unsubstantiated baggage.
In reality following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan Bin Laden remained what he’d always been, a financier and self-professed spiritual teacher. He was somebody that the remaining militants could approach to secure backing for Jihad in neighboring countries, or for ongoing squabbles within Afghan borders. In that respect he was one of many facilitators that played a role post war. In fact others were far more organized, powerful and responsible for more killing than Bin Laden.
Ahmad Shah Massoud continued to receive CIA money for some years in return for keeping communist influence out of the government. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar also continued to operate his faction, which would clash with Massoud on numerous occasions despite their convergent paymasters.
The Taliban also rose to prominence after the war and they too would clash with Massoud and other factions.
They received funds from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and eventually the US, who rewarded them for slowing down the opium trade and opening up business negotiations with US corporations.
In late 1998 a senior delegation from the Taleban came to Texas for talks with Unocal, who wanted to construct a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan.
Combined these groups killed thousands of people, and the US didn’t know (or care) who their friends were, who their enemies were, who they were backing and thus the consequences of doing so. The black market ensured everyone got what they needed anyway.
The one incident used to separate Bin Laden from the pack was the 1998 US Embassy bombings, but he was never really directly implicated. PBS reported at the time: “No real evidence was presented at trial as to the actual extent of bin Laden’s financial network. He is one of many sons in a very wealthy family, which is originally from Yemen and in charge of most of the construction projects in Saudi Arabia. But testimony provided contradictory evidence about the extent of bin Laden’s current wealth. There was also no direct evidence presented at trial that bin Laden himself ordered the bombings, although the prosecution did establish the links between bin Laden and the four men on trial.”
In fact these bombings are the only terrorist attack that the FBI have ever sought Bin Laden’s arrest for, and Seal Team Six allegedly and conveniently shot him dead in 2011 instead of bringing him in for trial and interrogation. As bizarre as it sounds, officially Bin Laden was never wanted by the FBI for 9/11 – in a judicial sense – because there was no basis to convict him. His heralded confession tape has been exposed as nothing more than a crude mistranslation by the Pentagon, who deliberately added words of guilt where they saw fit.
Professor Gernot Rotter, scholar of Islamic and Arabic Studies explained on German TV: “Regardless of the question if bin Laden personally was actively involved in the organization of the attacks or not: This tape is of such poor quality that many passages are unintelligible. And those that are intelligible have often been taken out of context, so that you can’t use that as evidence…The American translators who listened to the tape and transcribed it obviously added things that they wanted to hear in many places. Things that can’t be heard – never mind how often you listen to it.”
The US Invade Afghanistan
The invasion of Afghanistan following 9/11 was planned well before the attacks. The BBC reported at the time:
Niaz Naik, a former Pakistani Foreign Secretary, was told by senior American officials in mid-July that military action against Afghanistan would go ahead by the middle of October.
Mr Naik said US officials told him of the plan at a UN-sponsored international contact group on Afghanistan which took place in Berlin.
Mr Naik told the BBC that at the meeting the US representatives told him that unless Bin Laden was handed over swiftly America would take military action to kill or capture both Bin Laden and the Taleban leader, Mullah Omar.
The wider objective, according to Mr Naik, would be to topple the Taleban regime and install a transitional government of moderate Afghans in its place – possibly under the leadership of the former Afghan King Zahir Shah.
President Bush was expected to sign detailed plans for a worldwide war against al-Qaida two days before Sept. 11 but did not have the chance before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, U.S. and foreign sources told NBC News.
The document, a formal National Security Presidential Directive, amounted to a “game plan to remove al-Qaida from the face of the earth,” one of the sources told NBC News’ Jim Miklaszewski.
The plan dealt with all aspects of a war against al-Qaida, ranging from diplomatic initiatives to military operations in Afghanistan, the sources said on condition of anonymity.
In many respects, the directive, as described to NBC News, outlined essentially the same war plan that the White House, the CIA and the Pentagon put into action after the Sept. 11 attacks. The administration most likely was able to respond so quickly to the attacks because it simply had to pull the plans “off the shelf,” Miklaszewski said.
The Bin Laden and Al Qaeda caricature was simply a convenient scapegoat used as justification for yet another imperialist war of aggression in the region, which was in a mess the US themselves helped to create and supported only a few years previously with aid and business deals.
At no point did the Bush or Blair governments present evidence that Bin Laden was responsible for 9/11, or even that he was still in Afghanistan at the time. They also ignored Taliban pledges of cooperation. The Guardian quoted the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef: “We are prepared to try him if America provides solid evidence of Osama bin Laden’s involvement in attacks in New York and Washington.” Asked whether the Taliban would allow a trial of Bin Laden in another country, he said: “We are willing to talk about that, but the first is that we must be given the evidence.”
The Afghans were forcibly told to hand over Bin Laden by Bush, despite Bush not having proven that they had him or that he was guilty. This was “non-negotiable,” he announced.
The invasion took place and naturally he wasn’t there … instead the Taliban themselves and their bewildered followers became the enemy, because it was resources and influence in the region America wanted, not to bring justice to the Al Qaeda myth, or to liberate the Afghan people.
The US and their allies are still unable to explain why such a war of aggression had to be fought in a country, that as a state had no responsibility for the the alleged crimes of a few Saudi extremists, who may or may not have even been there at the time, and whose general population still do not even know 9/11 took place. An ICOS study in 2010 suggested 92 percent of Afghans had never even heard of the 9/11 attacks.
It would be like France invading Australia because somebody who once resided in Australia may have (but probably didn’t) commit a crime in France, a crime that never even made news broadcasts in Australia.
If we add on the fact that the US helped create the so called terrorist camps the criminals allegedly hatched their plans from, and fast-tracked them into the US to begin with, the scenario becomes completely absurd!
America has to take a long hard look at itself for being a significant cause of 9/11, regardless of any plausible conspiracy theories out there.
The official story itself is a weak and ever changing theory. For example over the years the blame has slowly been shifted away from Bin Laden and on to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, though not before he was water-boarded a million times and confessed to being behind literally everything imaginable.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the man who pleaded with America to sort things out diplomatically, spent 4 years suffering torture in the notorious Guantanamo Bay black site, before being released without charge in 2005.
The Muslim Rebel Formula
The same careless formula used by the United States in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War has been repeated right up to the present day, despite the facade of a war on Terror, whatever that really means.
When the 90s rolled around NATO found itself bombing the Balkans into a refugee crisis after they decided to meddle in the conflict between Milosovic’s Serbs and the Muslim Albanians. The Kosovo Liberation Army, Harkat ul-Ansar, and other militant Muslim groups became the new Mujahideen, and the Islamic communities of Britain emerged as radicalized recruiting grounds under the watchful eye of the Secret Service.
MP Michael Meacher who like Robin Cook was initally forced out of the Labour party in 2003 for opposing the Iraq war, summarized in the Guardian:
“that about 200 Pakistani Muslims living in the UK went to Pakistan, trained in HUA camps and joined the HUA’s contingent in Bosnia. Most significantly, this was ‘with the full knowledge and complicity of the British and American intelligence agencies’.”
He continued: “the US wanted to raise another jihadi corps, again using proxies, to help Bosnian Muslims fight to weaken the Serb government’s hold on Yugoslavia.”
Groups like Al-Muhajiroun that operated throughout the 90s and in to the 2000s in the UK were left well alone by the authorities, despite their hate-filled rhetoric and ties to overseas terrorism. Their leader Omar Bakri explained that “I used to encourage people to go to Bosnia to help their Muslim brothers and sisters, when the law in the UK permitted that type of intervention,” and that “MI5 has interrogated us many times,” but he assumed they had “something called public immunity.”
Bakri’s successor Anjem Choudary brought out his followers in August 2013 to clash with the “Hands Off Syria” campaign in London, a public protest to prevent a British supported strike on Syria. Ironically the British based extremists once again found themselves on the side of the imperialist warmongers in Parliament, who were pushing for weapons to be supplied to the Syrian rebels against the Assad regime. Why? Because those rebels are made up of black-flag carrying Sunni Muslim extremists. History has a strange way of repeating itself.
The interventionists have cried about how Assad must be toppled, but does replacing him with an even more ruthless and backward regime make sense? Will Western troops have to be sent in after the fact to in reign “Al Qaeda?”. Where does all this leave the moderate Syrian people?
The toppling of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya is an even more pertinent example of the West carelessly backing extremist Islam when it suits their agenda. In 1996 the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group – one of the many factions that emerged following the Soviet Afghan War – were allegedly funded by MI6 in a failed assassination attempt on Gaddafi. After 9/11 they were designated as a terrorist organization and the West welcomed Gaddafi’s tough stance against Muslim Terrorism.
Fast forward to 2011 and the faction was fomenting a civil war in Libya, which the West then supported from the air. With Gaddafi savagely murdered, and the country’s infrastructure obliterated by NATO, the black flag waving extremists rolled in to take power, and have been trying to enforce Sharia Law ever since, while ethnically cleansing areas of black people.
Instead of standing up and taking responsibility for this mess, the West washed their hands of it all and said it was now up to the Libyan people to move forward.
What happens if the Rebels win in Syria through Western backing? There certainly isn’t going to be any political reform, insomuch that there will be politics at all. Sunni extremists fighting a warped Jihad, do not believe in democracy! They didn’t believe in communism either.
“Stirred up Moslems” was and still is an understatement.
Ghost Wars author Steve Coll discusses the CIA in Afghanistan:
Keelan Balderson is the editor of WideShut.co.uk, and producer of documentaries 7/7 What Did They Know? and Perfect Storm: The England Riots. Keeping a critical eye on Government, Corporate Power, and the causes of Terrorism, he aims to broaden the Western world view.