WITH THE United States facing a terrifying set of challenges in Pakistan and Afghanistan, this is an opportune moment to look back at how the United States itself helped create the crisis. It is an all-too-familiar tale of the behemoth lashing out in ways that seem emotionally satisfying and even successful at first, but that in the end decisively weaken its own security.
The tale begins in 1979, when Americans were caught in a sense of defeat and malaise. They were still recovering from the shock of losing the Vietnam War, only to absorb another one with the stunning overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the seizure of American diplomats in Tehran.
On Christmas Eve, however, something happened that seemed to open a new horizon for the United States. Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan and installed a pro-Moscow regime. Here, suddenly, was a chance for the United States to fight a war against the Red Army.
In order to forge an Afghan force that would wage this war, the United States needed camps in Pakistan. Pakistan was ruled by General Zia al-Huq, who had proclaimed two transcendent goals: imposing a “true Islamic order” in his country and building a nuclear bomb. He had also just hanged the elected leader he deposed, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. This was the man the United States would have to embrace if it wanted Pakistan to support the anti-Soviet rebellion it hoped to foment in Afghanistan. It eagerly did so.
The United States also accepted Zia’s demand that all aid sent to Afghan warlords be channeled through his intelligence agency, the ISI, and that the ISI be given the exclusive right to decide which warlords to support. It chose seven, all of them in varying degrees fundamentalist and anti-Western.
The ISI also came up with the idea of recruiting Islamic militants from other countries to come to Pakistan and join the anti-Soviet force. Its director, Hamid Gul, later said his agency recruited 50,000 of these militants from 28 countries. One was Osama bin Laden. Most of the others – brought to the region as part of a US-sponsored project, then armed and trained with US funds – shared bin Laden’s radical anti-Americanism and fundamentalist religious beliefs.
During the 1980s, the CIA waged its most expensive and largest-scale campaign ever, pouring a staggering $6 billion into its anti-Soviet guerrilla force. Saudi Arabia, at Washington’s request, contributed another $4 billion. Finally, in 1989, the insurgency succeeded and the Red Army withdrew from Afghanistan in defeat. One million Afghans died in the decade-long war. Five million fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries. Many found food and shelter at religious schools sponsored by Saudi Arabia, where they were taught the radical Wahhabi brand of Islam. Those schools were the cradle of the Taliban.
After the last Soviet unit withdrew from Afghanistan, the overseer of the CIA project there, Milt Bearden, sent a two-word message to his superiors at Langley: “WE WON.” For a while, that seemed true. In 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had helped conceive the project, dismissed those who worried about its long-term effects.
“That secret operation was an excellent idea,” he said. “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
Those “stirred-up Muslims” are now the enemy that the US faces in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They threaten America’s national security far more profoundly than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan ever did.
Jimmy Carter approved the idea of sponsoring anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan poured billions of dollars into it. George H. W. Bush turned his back on Afghanistan, allowing it to degenerate into the chaos from which the Taliban emerged. Bill Clinton refused to confront the looming threat with anything more than an ineffective cruise missile raid on one of bin Laden’s camps. George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan, succeeded in toppling the Taliban regime, and then, rather than staying engaged, immediately turned his attention to Iraq. Their policies showed the short-sightedness that has for more than a century been a hallmark of American foreign policy.
These American policies, more than any other factor, created the daunting crisis President Barack Obama now faces.
Stephen Kinzer is a longtime foreign correspondent and author of “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq.”