In the Reagan 1980s, I often attended the annual gatherings of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. Several days of meetings featuring speeches by the most influential (domestic) thinkers on the right were capped off by a formal dinner that was often attended by President and Mrs. Reagan.
Among the 1,000 or so attendees in an ornate ballroom were a few tables of men who stood out because of their native dress. They were all male, wore turbans, and had beards. Despite their discordant appearance, when they were recognized from the dais, they were greeted with thunderous applause.
They were introduced as Afghan freedom fighters, representing the front lines in their war against the Soviets in the midst of our Cold War. And those of us gathering in the glow of the Gipper wanted desperately for them to succeed against communism.
Since 2001, I've often wondered if the rise of militant Islam has its origins in the U.S. support of the mujahideen, who opposed the Soviets after their 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
Well, Bruce Riedel doesn't buy it. In his new book, What We Won: America's Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-89, the man who served more than 30 years at the CIA, has advised four U.S. presidents on South Asia and the Middle East, and in 2009 was tapped by President Obama to be the chair of a strategic review of American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan seeks to set the record straight.
"To suggest that there is some inevitable link between President Carter's and President Reagan's backing for the mujahideen and 9/11 is tortured and incorrect logic," he writes. "It also shows a lack of understanding of the U.S. role in the Afghan war."
I recently asked Riedel to square his belief that the United States didn't spawn al-Qaeda with his book's assertion that what is now known as the global jihad movement began as an "unintended consequence" of the U.S. role in the Afghan war.
"The war in Afghanistan in the 1980s attracted thousands of Muslims from hostile worlds to come to Pakistan and Afghanistan and join the war with the mujahideen against the Soviet Union," he told me. "They saw the Soviet Union with its communist/atheist ideology as the greatest threat in the world to the Muslim world at that time. The war in that sense began the process of militarizing and radicalizing a substantial part of the Muslim world."
Riedel tells the story of Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian who went to Pakistan in 1980 and literally wrote the book about global jihad, Defending Muslim Lands. In that sense, the ideology of the global jihad was born in the Afghan war, but, Riedel says, to then say that the CIA helped create al-Qaeda, or that the United States set the stage for al-Qaeda, is "just bad history."
But what of the U.S. aid for what Riedel calls the "volunteers," including Osama bin Laden? I wondered.
"These were somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 Muslims from countries outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan who came to the region in the 1980s to help the mujahideen," Riedel said. "Now many, many of them never actually fired a shot in combat. The mujahideen looked at most of these people and said, 'These guys really don't know what they're doing. They're kids, they have no experience, they don't know the terrain, they don't know the language,' and they ended up working in refugee camps and hospitals in Pakistan. The big exception to that rule, of course, was Osama bin Laden, and not because he was a fighter, but because bin Laden was, first of all, wealthy and, secondly, an engineer.
He adds: "In the course of the 1980s, bin Laden became the combat engineer of the Afghan mujahideen and helped build some of their very elaborate supply dumps inside Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States had no contact with these people. Remember the United States' position in this war. We were the quartermaster. Our job was to give money and arms to the Pakistanis and then they took it from there. We didn't have contact with the mujahideen in the battlefield and we didn't have contact with the foreign volunteers."
Riedel views as simplistic any effort to look back and make judgments on events that have since occurred, especially with such repercussions as 9/11 and now the acts of ISIS.
"If you're looking for the person who brought Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan, it wasn't Jimmy Carter and it wasn't his director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner," Riedel said. "It was Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, the head of the Soviet Union and the head of the KGB, the people who came up with the idea to invade Afghanistan and then engaged in an almost genocidal war against the Afghan people."
So would the United States be a safer place today had the Soviets succeeded in Afghanistan?
"I don't think so, because I think if you go back and look at the Soviet Union, it really was a global threat to the American system, to democracy, to freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of speech," Riedel said. "The Soviet Union aspired, with less and less success over time, to world domination. By the 1980s, it had acquired a great many enemies, but it was still a very dangerous force. I think we're much better off without the Soviet Union aspiring to global domination, even though now we have a Russian Federation which is up to no good, as we all know, in the Ukraine."
The U.S. shortcoming, says Riedel, was in its disengagement after the Soviet failure.
"The American government simply failed to pay much attention to what was going on there," he said. "We didn't need to put boots on the ground in the 1990s. All we needed to do was pay a little bit more attention to the politics of what was going on and we might have been able to prevent the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s, which in the end became the hosts for al-Qaeda."