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Terror 'blowback' burns CIA
America's spies paid and trained their nation's worst enemies, reveals Andrew Marshall in Washington
Sunday, 1 November 1998
THE CENTRAL Intelligence Agency has its own argot for describing the hallucinatory world within which its employees move. None of its esoteric terms are more euphemistic than "blowback", the term coined to describe operations which end up rebounding against their creators.
But as the Americans slowly unravel the international network surrounding Osama bin Laden, the man they blame for the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, "blowback" is exactly what they are finding.
Last week, it was revealed that one of those under arrest is a former Egyptian soldier named Ali Mohamed, who is alleged to have provided training and assistance to Mr bin Laden's operatives. Yet Mr Mohamed, it is clear from his record, was working for the US government at the time he provided the training: he was a Green Beret, part of America's Special Forces.
Mr Mohamed's arrest seems to be part of a pattern, as the US slowly moves towards the realisation that many of those now arrayed against it with Mr bin Laden were once its allies in the war in Afghanistan. The two sides turned against each other as the war in Afghanistan unwound, and America, not Russia, came to be seen as the enemy.
The US poured cash into Afghanistan throughout the 1980s in an effort to defeat - or at least tie down - the Russians. Its principal ally was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a ferociously anti-communist and militant Islamist leader. The US and Saudi Arabia both sent about $500m (pounds 300m) annually between 1986 and 1989 to fund the mujahedin, and other rich individuals from the Gulf - including Mr bin Laden - spent an extra $20m every month. The US funded the construction of the camps at Khost which it attacked two months ago in response to the embassy bombs.
It had already been known that in those days, the US and Mr bin Laden were on the same side, but it now appears that America may actually have aided Mr bin Laden's organisation and even trained some of those who it now contends are "terrorists". Mr Ali may be the missing link.
It had already been known that in 1989, Mr Ali came to the New York area to train mujahedin on their way to Afghanistan. Those visits have put him in the spotlight once before: among those he trained was El Sayyid Nosair, who was jailed in 1995 for killing Rabbi Meir Kahane, leader of the Jewish Defence League, and, along with several others, with plotting to blow up several New York landmarks. At his trial, Mr Nosair claimed that the reason he had military manuals was that he was being trained by the US, not because he was intent on terrorism. It is uncertain whether Mr Mohamed came to New York on official business, but for some of the trips, he was a serving US Special Forces' sergeant.
Mr Mohamed met the men at the Al-Kifah Refugee Centre in Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue, a place of pivotal importance to Operation Cyclone, the American effort to support the mujahedin. The Al-Kifah Centre and the associated Afghan Refugee Services Inc were raising funds and, crucially, providing recruits for the struggle, with active American assistance.
The other end of the pipeline was in Peshawar, where the Services Office co-ordinated the transit of people, equipment and cash to the mujahedin, and to Mr Hekmatyar in particular. The Services Office was run by Abdulla Azzam, a colleague of, and influence on, Osama bin Laden, and was part of Mr bin Laden's effort to back the mujahedin. Both the Services office and Al-Kifah were also linked to Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian religious leader later jailed for the planned New York bombings.
The US took a benign view of this at the time. The operation was, after all, assisting in the fight against Communism. As Mr Mohamed's presence showed, those associated with the US military were providing assistance to Al-Kifah. The recruits received brief paramilitary training and weapons instruction in the New York area, according to evidence in earlier trials, before being sent to fight with Mr Hekmatyar. Even Sheikh Abdel-Rahman had, apparently, entered the US with the full knowledge of the CIA in 1990.
But by the mid-1990s, America's view of Al-Kifah had changed. It discovered that several of those charged with the World Trade Centre bombing and the New York landmarks bombings were former Afghan veterans, recruited through the Brooklyn-based organisation. Many of those the US had trained and recruited for a war were still fighting: but now it was against America. A confidential CIA internal survey concluded that it was "partly culpable" for the World Trade Centre bomb, according to reports at the time. There had been blowback.
How and why did the people behind Al-Kifah turn against America? The US cut off funding in 1991 to Mr Hekmatyar, both because the Russians had withdrawn from Afghanistan and because it had at last started to realise that backing Islamic fundamentalism was perhaps not the brightest idea the CIA had ever hatched. America had also gone to war against Iraq in 1991, and stationed troops in Saudi Arabia, outraging Mr bin Laden and other devout Muslims.
There also seems to have been a huge disagreement over Bosnia. In December 1992, a US army official met one of the Afghan veterans from Al-Kifah and offered help with a covert operation to support the Muslims in Bosnia, funded with Saudi money, according to one of those jailed for assisting with the New York bombings. But that effort quickly disintegrated, leaving a great deal of bad feeling.
There are probably only three people outside the US government who ever knew exactly what role the Al-Kifah refugee centre really played, and how far the US helped to build up Mr bin Laden's organisation. One was Mr Azzam, the charismatic Palestinian who ran the Peshawar operation. He was killed by a car bomb in 1989. The second was Mustafa Shalabi, who ran Al-Kifah. He was murdered in 1991. The third is Osama bin Laden, and he is not telling.
And the US government is certainly not about to explain whether it helped create what it now refers to as Public Enemy Number One.
January 30, 2002
Hoover Digest » 2002 no. 1 » terrorism
The “Blowback” Myth : How Bad History Could Make Bad Policy
by Thomas H. Henriksen
The dangers of learning the wrong lessons from history. By Hoover fellow Thomas H. Henriksen.
Even before President George W. Bush approved covert support for the factions opposing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a spate of pundits warned us about engineering another "blowback" phenomenon, in which we become engulfed by the unintended consequences of our actions. Time and again, we heard accounts of how American support for Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s blew back on us after Afghanistan harbored Osama bin Laden, the chief perpetrator of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. As subsequent events showed, this was bad history with a potential for bad policy at a time when more American lives—civilian and military—were on the line.
Like other accepted historical myths—Paul Kennedy’s American "imperial overstretch," CIA knowledge of a contra–drug dealers connection, or the "accidental presidency" of George W. Bush—the Afghanistan blowback myth has taken on a life of its own. A putative CIA term, blowback has insinuated itself into a variety of pundits’ pontifications.
At the start of the bombing, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis declared that misdirected "quick strikes" by U.S. aircraft on targets in Afghanistan would likely kill many civilians. According to the Lewis version of cause and effect, this would produce "an opposite and totally disproportionate reaction." Without offering proof, or noting that Allied bombing in World War II contributed to the weakening of Axis forces, Lewis postulates that "Afghanistan is a prime example" of his rendition of the law of unanticipated results. Lewis, like others, jumped from the U.S. arming of anti-Soviet forces to the conclusion that Afghanistan "ended up in the hands of anti-Western Islamic extremists."
America’s misstep in Afghanistan took place, in part, after the collapse of the pro-Soviet government in April 1992. Rather than aiding a war-ravaged frontline state in the Cold War, Washington did nothing.
Lewis and others are just recycling and popularizing the arguments made by Chalmers Johnson in his recent book Blowback: The Consequences of American Empire. A proponent of the late 1980s humbug about the superiority of Japan’s model of "guided capitalism," Johnson has now taken up the banner du jour of a backlash to U.S. global hegemony. He portrays bin Laden as "a former protégé of the United States," with no mention that the Saudi terrorist brought his own financial resources and political agenda to the anti-Soviet struggle. To Johnson, America’s imperial structure, made up of military and economic power, invites a spate of inevitable, if unspecified, paybacks.
If Johnson paints with a broad brush, attributing a host of global wrongs to U.S. policy, journalist John K. Cooley focuses on Afghanistan as the genesis of political Islam’s anti-Americanism in his recent book Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism. Cooley holds an unconcealed anti-CIA bias as he reduces the debate on the U.S. role in Afghanistan to a new—lower—level by seeing it through a monocausal lens, one in which the CIA caused all of Afghanistan’s travails, from civil war to terrorism to the export of drugs beyond its borders. Never mind that instability has plagued the country since the early 1970s, that the U.S. intervention was in response to the Soviet invasion, and that Kabul had emerged as a hippie drug mecca as far back as the 1960s.
Then there were the slew of rejuvenated "peace activists," such as Noam Chomsky, left over from the Vietnam War protests. In a recent Znet interview, Chomsky referred to bin Laden as a "graduate" of the "terrorist network set up by the CIA and its associates 20 years ago to fight a Holy War against the Russians." Coming out of the hate-America woodwork for the first time since the Gulf War, these activists predictably protested any effort on the part of the Bush administration to support the ouster of the Taliban by the Afghan people. The mounting evidence of the Taliban’s support of the horrific assault on the United States did nothing to extinguish the misplaced belief held by many in this quarter that thousands of innocent people—Americans and others—deserved their fate because of a blowback legacy.
Just the Facts, Please
Here are the facts. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 with, ultimately, more than 100,000 troops to prop up the faltering pro-Moscow regime of Hafizullah Amin, who was executed shortly thereafter. In his place, the Soviet occupation forces installed Babrak Karmal. Reacting as they have for centuries to foreign incursions, the Afghans resisted. First President Carter, then, more decisively, Ronald Reagan moved to support the Afghan resistance, which was joined by Arab volunteers from throughout the Middle East. This support grew to include training, equipping, and arming the mujahideen forces in the early 1980s. Later, Washington transferred the shoulder-fired, ground-to-air Stinger missiles that lessened Moscow’s aerial dominance and contributed to the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The invasion and resistance became a pivotal episode in the eventual breakdown of the calcified and corrupt Soviet Union.
Far from "creating" an anti-Soviet movement, the United States—along with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and China—logistically assisted it, much the same way it underwrote resistance to communism by Poland’s Solidarity trade movement and by the contra guerrillas in Central America, none of which later boomeranged on the United States. Similarly, following the attacks of September 11, the George W. Bush administration found itself pondering the extent to which it should support the Pashtun tribal groups located in the south and the Northern Alliance, a loose grouping of ethnic and political opponents to the Taliban regime. At the time, the Taliban held about 90 percent of the country.
Not helping the enemy of our enemy made for ill-advised policy when the United States failed to back the anti–Saddam Hussein opposition in the wake of the Gulf War—despite our encouraging its rising. Minimal assistance at that critical juncture might have rid the world of a cruel tyrant who now sponsors terrorism, destabilizes the Middle East, and strives to assemble weapons of mass destruction. History offers other illustrations. Few today, for example, would question the wisdom of U.S. aid to the Soviet Union during World War II, despite the fact that the liberal democracies of the day largely considered Moscow an international pariah.
Where Afghanistan is concerned, a grander question remains: What if the United States had not aided the Muslim-led anti-Soviet movement? Standing on the sidelines while Moscow brutalized a pastoral people would have diminished America’s prestige and undercut our Middle East policies. By not bolstering the Afghan people, we would have tacitly sided with communism and Soviet aggression. Moreover, the Soviet Union would have escaped a devastating wound.
America’s misstep in Afghanistan took place, in part, after the collapse of the pro-Soviet Najibullah government (which had replaced Babrak) in April 1992. Rather than aiding a war-ravaged frontline state in the Cold War, Washington did nothing. In contrast, after World War II, the United States helped friend and foe alike rebuild because it was in our national interest to do so. The same mix of humanitarianism and strategy made for billions of dollars in aid to Eastern Europe and Russia after the Berlin Wall came down. But in the case of Afghanistan, Washington neither furnished assistance nor embarked on credible diplomatic efforts with neighboring states to stem the flow of weapons then pouring in to arm the many Afghan factions. That left Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran free to support client Afghan fighters.
Since at least the War of the Roses, we have known that demobilized soldiers are trouble-bent. In that celebrated internecine baronial blood feud, returning English knights from the Hundred Years’ War in France, rather than watch their armor rust and their combat skills atrophy, fueled the dynastic rivalry between two aristocratic families and their henchmen for the English crown. In Afghanistan, Washington turned its back on some 45,000 combatants, who were left to their own devices upon the Soviet withdrawal. These idle warriors were swept up into a civil war, from which the Taliban ultimately emerged the temporary victor.
Washington alone, however, is not responsible for the terror nest that is Afghanistan today. Moscow’s intervention ignited the tragic downward spiral in that country. Yet the chain of events leading to the emergence of Osama bin Laden is far too complex to attribute to a single spark of causation. Not the establishment of Israel, the Gulf War, or even the current cause célèbre—the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia—can singly explain the rise of militant Islam. It is but one offshoot of the far wider force of contemporary Arab nationalism.
Like nationalistic impulses elsewhere, the Arab manifestation quickened in the nineteenth century. Before World War I, it was directed against Ottoman rule in the Levant and later against British and French colonialism. Now, America—and its perceived enclave, Israel—is one focal point. The image of the Muslim world’s rejection of modernization, secularism, and globalization is offset by a more complex picture in which large numbers of people in the Middle East aspire to a higher standard of living and genuine democracy.
This brings us back to the U.S. leveraging of surrogates in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere. Aiding forces, such as the Northern Alliance, within a country to combat an evil regime spares U.S. casualties; contributes to a force with internal legitimacy; broadens the antiregime coalition; and, finally, may well lay the foundation for a more enlightened society.
To be sure, backing indigenous insurgents can have its pitfalls, but failing to build support with a regime’s opponents is often worse. Washington’s preoccupation with Afghanistan and its neighbors will be prolonged. It is time to correct the record so as to construct a policy on facts, not on distorted history.
Thomas H. Henriksen is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His current research focuses on American foreign policy, international political affairs, and insurgencies. He specializes in the study of U.S. diplomatic and military courses of action toward terrorist havens, such as Afghanistan, and the so-called rogue states, including North Korea and Iran. His latest book is American Power after the Berlin Wall and recently released monograph is Afghanistan, Counterinsurgency, and the Indirect Approach.
Published on The Nation (http://www.thenation.com)
'Blowback,' the Prequel
Eric Alterman | October 25, 2001
The story of what historians call the second cold war often begins with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, which shocked Americans into their own overreaction in Central America and Africa, as well as into arming the mujahedeen resistance. Today, it is a truth universally acknowledged in the punditocracy that while the United States may have played an indirect role in the creation of the Taliban and perhaps even the bin Laden terrorist network through our support for the radical Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan, we did so only in response to that act of Soviet aggression. As Tim Russert explained on Meet the Press, "We had little choice." Speaking on CNN, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Peter Tomsen speaks of our "successful policy with the ordnance we sent to the mujahedeen to defeat the Soviets." Writing on "The 'Blowback' Myth" in The Weekly Standard, one Thomas Henriksen of the Hoover Institution rehearses the Soviet invasion and then notes, "First President Carter, then, more decisively, Ronald Reagan moved to support the Afghan resistance."
The truth is that the United States began a program of covert aid to the Afghan guerrillas six months before the Soviets invaded.
First revealed by former Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates in his 1996 memoir From the Shadows, the $500 million in nonlethal aid was designed to counter the billions the Soviets were pouring into the puppet regime they had installed in Kabul. Some on the American side were willing--perhaps even eager--to lure the Soviets into a Vietnam-like entanglement. Others viewed the program as a way of destabilizing the puppet government and countering the Soviets, whose undeniable aggression in the area was helping to reheat the cold war to a dangerous boil.
According to Gates's recounting, a key meeting took place on March 30, 1979. Under Secretary of Defense Walter Slocumbe wondered aloud whether "there was value in keeping the Afghan insurgency going, 'sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire.'" Arnold Horelick, CIA Soviet expert, warned that this was just what we could expect. In a 1998 conversation with Le Nouvel Observateur, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted, "We didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would."
Yet Carter, who signed the finding authorizing the covert program on July 3, 1979, today explains that it was definitely "not my intention" to inspire a Soviet invasion. Cyrus Vance, who was then Secretary of State, is not well enough to be interviewed, but his close aide Marshall Shulman insists that the State Department worked hard to dissuade the Soviets from invading and would never have undertaken a program to encourage it, though he says he was unaware of the covert program at the time. Indeed, Vance hardly seems to be represented at all in Gates's recounting, although Brzezinski doubts that Carter would have approved the aid unless Vance "approved, however unenthusiastically."
No one I interviewed--those who did not mind the idea of a Soviet invasion, and those who sought to avoid it--argues that Carter himself wished to provoke one. Gates, who was then an aide to Brzezinski, says the President did not think "strategically" in that fashion. "He was simply reacting to everything the Soviets were doing in that part of the world and felt it required some kind of response. This was it." Brzezinski, similarly, says he did not sell the plan to Carter on these terms. The President understood, he explained on the phone, that "the Soviets had engineered a Communist coup and they were providing direct assistance in Kabul. We were facing a serious crisis in Iran, and the entire Persian Gulf was at stake. In that context, giving some money to the mujahedeen seemed justified." Why Carter actually approved the aid remains unclear, however. Carter, it should be added, does not seem to remember much about the initial finding. Otherwise, he would not have asked his aide to fax me the pages from his memoir Keeping Faith, which ignores it entirely, and like the rest of the pre-Gates memoirs of the period, professes great shock and horror regarding the onset of the Soviet tanks.
The news of the covert program has provoked considerable confusion among those who seek to blame the United States for the September 11 massacre. Proponents of an overly schematic "blowback" scenario, including at least one vocal supporter of the Soviet "rape" of Afghanistan, have seized Brzezinski's comments to claim that Osama bin Laden is merely one of America's "chickens coming home to roost." This is both simplistic and obscene. Blowback exists in absolutely every aspect of life, because nothing comes without unintended consequences. Does it make sense to blame the destruction of the World Trade Center on a $500 million nonlethal aid program that took place more than twenty years ago? We cannot even know for certain why the Soviets decided on their invasion.
Nor can we ever know for certain whether the US officials wished to inspire one. Memories deceive, records get destroyed and even original documents can be written to be deliberately misleading, as were the period's official memoirs--save, ironically, that of Gates, the former spymaster. The covert action was undoubtedly approved by those involved for a host of reasons, some of which may be contradictory. Helping the Afghans resist Soviet domination was not exactly a controversial policy in 1979, though no one at the time could even dream that it might lead to the evil empire's eventual disintegration.
Brzezinski argues that even given the 20/20 hindsight after September 11, the covert aid remains justified. He shares the common view that America's most significant mistake was to abandon the nation to its unhappy fate following the Soviet withdrawal. Our terrorist problem, he insists, would be much worse with the Soviets still around to support their terrorist minions among the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Libyans, the Iraqis, etc.
Certainly this is much too kind to the Reagan-era military aid to Taliban-like elements. But a more accurate historical record can only lead to more intelligent debate about the future.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
The CIA's Intervention in Afghanistan
President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser
Posted at globalresearch.ca 15 October 2001
Question: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs ["From the Shadows"], that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan 6 months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser 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 Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 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.
Q: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?
B: It isn't quite that. We didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.
Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn't believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don't regret anything today?
B: Regret what? 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. 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.
Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?
B: 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?
Q: Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.
B: Nonsense! It is said that the West had a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid. There isn't a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries.
Translated from the French by Bill Blum