From almost the first days of the War on Terror, leftists and anti-American writers and speakers have blamed the U.S. and the CIA for “creating” Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network. They have argued that the U.S. support for the Afghani mujahedeen fighters, funneled through the CIA and Pakistani intelligence agencies, allowed Bin Laden to build his network and, in time, turn it against the U.S. Among intelligence experts, this phenomenon is called “blowback” – the occasional situation of an agent turning against his handlers and supporters. Although blowback could be a reasonable fear with creating an agent, it doesn’t apply here, in fact, most of the claims of leftist critics are completely unsupported by facts.
Lie Number One: The CIA recruited Osama Bin Laden, and thousands of Arabs, to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.
Truth: The CIA didn’t recruit anyone to fight in Afghanistan, not even Bin Laden.
After Soviet troops entered Afghanistan in December 1979, the native Afghan fundamentalist factions that opposed the Soviet puppet regime were galvanized. Not only did they have a war against the ruling government, they had an actual superpower to declare jihad, or holy war, against. The call for jihad resonated throughout the Islamic world, striking a chord among the most fervent and extreme Islamic factions throughout the Middle East. Among these fundamentalists was a young Arabian son of an extremely wealthy and well-connected family – Osama Bin Laden. Without any active participation from the CIA as many as 25,000 Arabs went to take part in the jihad. They went to join in the only legitimate holy war that was available to them at the time. As for Osama, he is reported to have told an interviewer from Arabic language Al-Quds al-Arabi, “I was enraged, and went there at once.”
Of course, there was really no need for any Arabs to be recruited for the struggle. Even if substantially more than the estimated 25,000 Arabs went to Afghanistan, the native Afghans involved in the jihad against the Soviet-backed regime numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The Arabs who came to join in were often reported by the natives to be more of a pain than a help. “They thought they were kings,” was what one Afghan told a reporter. The Arabs were more ignored by the Afghans than not. John Simpson, a BBC reporter, recounted that he had an encounter with Bin Laden. Bin Laden ordered the reporter’s Afghan driver to kill him, offering the driver five hundred dollars to do so – a very reasonable sum for an act which would have few consequences. The driver refused. Bin Laden was reported to have wept on his cot in frustration afterward.
Lie: The CIA trained Osama Bin Laden, and his supporters, in how to wage terror as a weapon of war.
Fact: The CIA trained absolutely no one in Afghanistan, or in neighboring Pakistan, neither in the tactics of terror or even in how to use the Stinger missiles provided to the Afghans.
The entire CIA effort in Afghanistan was more logistical than operational. Vince Cannistraro, the National Security Council staff director who headed up coordination of policy for Afghanistan in the mid-1980’s told author Peter Bergen that there were only six CIA employees in Pakistan at any given time – and none actually in Afghanistan – and that they were administrators rather than field officers. Bergen also reports that CIA officials only rarely met with leaders of the Afghan resistance, and never with the Arabs who came to the jihad. This is not to imply that U.S. officials never met with Afghan leaders. They did. There were plenty of photo opportunities to be had, and elected and high level bureaucrats often took advantage of them. But to believe that, say a Congressional staff member went to Afghanistan to train resistance warriors, much less terrorists would be pushing the bounds of possibility.
What the CIA did, in reality, was buy weapons, ammunition, and supplies, in vast quantities. The Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, distributed the weapons and supplies once the Americans delivered them. This was a fundamental rule of Pakistani policy according to Brigadier Mohammed Yousaf, who ran the ISI operation in Afghanistan between 1983 and 1989: No American was to come into contact with the mujahedeen and no American was to be involved in the distribution of arms or supplies once they arrived in Pakistan. So far as the Arabs who went to the jihad, such as Bin Laden, were concerned, there was even less contact between them and the Americans. The Arabs had their own sources of funding and support, and no need of the Americans at all.
What training was provided was provided by Pakistan and likely did include terror tactics. The Pakistani’s were no strangers to terrorist activities. They had been supporting terrorism, mainly in the Kashmir region of India, since the 1970’s. The Pakistani’s directed the bulk of American-financed support to the Afghan groups that were the most extremist, the most Islamist, the most violent. These groups were reported by the Pakistani’s to also be the most effective, although those claims are questionable. The group, which received the highest percentage of aid, as well as the most support from Arab sources, was the Hizb party, which was headed by a Muslim fanatic named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was a Pakistani agent from long before the jihad began.
There were more moderate Afghan commanders available, but they were not trusted so much by Pakistan, and therefore weren’t seen as reliable by the Americans. Perhaps the biggest mistake the U.S. made in the Afghan operation was in not taking greater account of who the Pakistani’s were paying with our tax dollars. However, the ISI was seen as being more familiar with the situation “on the ground” and was allowed to run the show. If the CIA had taken a stronger hand in determining the allocation of support, it was likely that the ISI would have stopped funneling any support to the Afghans.
Lie: The CIA helped Bin Laden build an underground camp at Khost, which was used to train terrorists.
Fact: An Afghan commander built the camp at Khost in 1982, with funding from Saudi Arabia. As stated above, there were few instances of any Americans going into Afghanistan. It would be too dangerous to hand the Soviets or their supporters a propaganda victory by allowing them to capture an American.
Even if Bin Laden had been involved in building the Khost camp, as he was involved in building other camps, he would not have needed CIA help to do so. Osama had no difficulty in using equipment from his family’s construction empire to build camps, tunnel complexes, etc., in Afghanistan.
Lie: The CIA helped Bin Laden all along, and continues to help him.
Fact: Bin Laden never had any relations with Americans or American officials. Al Qaeda sources told Peter Bergen that Bin Laden was predicting conflict with the Americans from the early 1980’s.
To seriously believe that Bin Laden would willingly have ever worked with the Americans, one would have to so completely discard common sense as to believe that Bert the Sesame Street character really was an Al Qaeda operative because he has been seen in Internet photos with Bin Laden.
After the Afghan jihad ended, Bin Laden went home to Saudi Arabia, where he predicted that the Saudi kingdom would soon have to face Saddam Hussein and proposed using Arab veterans of Afghanistan to protect the land of the Prophet. When American troops arrived to drive Iraq from Kuwait and support the de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia, Osama grew quite irate. Even today, one of the continuing demands from Al Qaeda is the immediate departure from Arabia of all American troops.
As is clear from the facts, the accusations by the Left of an American role in the creation of the Al Qaeda terror threat are, at least, greatly exaggerated. While the efforts of the U.S. in Afghanistan during the 1980’s were not without some errors, they did not lead to the fostering of the threat to world peace and order that Osama Bin Laden and his followers represent. Even without American involvement in the Afghan jihad, it is at least as likely that Bin Laden would have been involved and found his “calling” as the ringleader of present day international terrorism.
Even if the accusations from the Left were true, and the U.S. took some responsibility for the “creation” of Al Qaeda, one must look at what was gained. In Afghanistan, the United States became involved in order to, as Zbigniew Brzezinski put it, “to sow s**t in [the Soviet’s] backyard.” In supporting the Afghans against the Soviets and their puppet regime, we succeeded in draining the might of the Red Army and likely bringing a faster end to the Cold War and the liberation of not only Afghanistan but the freeing of more than a billion people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
One must always consider the source in any propaganda campaign such as the one represented by these charges. Here, the left-wing, Blame America First extremists would rather apologize for the individual responsible for killing thousands of Americans and blame the victims for those murders. Reality shows another explanation.