Karl E. Meyer, a former editorialist for The New York Times, is coauthor with Shareen Blair Brysac of "Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia."

Masochists hungry for gloomy news as we enter a new millennium can hearken to Norway's foreign minister, Knut Vollebaek, outgoing chairman of the 54-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He predicts that Central Asia, a huge saucer of steppe and desert bounded by Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran, faces conflicts "even worse than the Balkans."

Nearly everything awful you can imagine--terrorism, murderous civil and religious wars, gross human rights abuses, ecological disasters and nuclear blackmail--seems possible, much of it either inspired by or emanating from Afghanistan, now the haven of choice for Islamist xenophobes, especially America haters.

But why Afghanistan? Americans, after all, cheered and armed the Afghan resistance after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to rescue a tottering communist regime in Kabul. The CIA orchestrated massive arms shipments via Pakistan, including state-of-the-art Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Three administrations promoted a bipartisan policy that endured through a decade of war. Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush hailed the moujahedeen as "freedom fighters," and no one doubts that Afghan intrepidity turned the tide.

In 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev, bowing to reality, agreed to a complete Soviet withdrawal, the first in the Cold War. CIA officers uncorked the champagne in the agency's campus-like quarters at Langley, Va., as the last Soviet soldier crossed the Friendship Bridge to Uzbekistan in February 1989.

From that moment, however, nothing went right for the victors. The freedom fighters brawled among themselves and failed in their first major offensive. When they finally managed in 1992 to dislodge the abandoned communist regime in Kabul, they shelled one another, devastating their own capital and pillaging its treasures. Desperate farmers beset by anarchy turned as never before to their one sure cash crop--poppies. Output soared, and Afghanistan today produces three times more opium than the rest of the world together. Warlords of every description, battening on the drug traffic, aided by a dozen foreign patrons, carved the country into fractious enclaves, dispelling hopes that up to 5 million refugees, mostly in Pakistan, might finally return home.

No wonder that at first Afghans turned gratefully in 1994-95 to a new movement, the Taliban (meaning "students" or, in some renderings, "the Seekers"). These soldiers of Allah--young, incorruptible and burning with primordial piety--stormed Kabul in 1996. Flouting the rules of asylum, they entered the United Nations compound and seized Najibullah, the fallen communist leader. Taliban executioners castrated and decapitated the despised former president, then hoisted his carcass in the Kabul bazaar. Decrees followed that mandated beards for men and banished women from schools, employment or even streets unless escorted. Out went television and other impious innovations contrary to the Koran as rigidly interpreted by Taliban's hermetic leader, Muhammad Umar, who refuses even to meet non-Muslims.

As the Taliban went on to conquer all but the northern fringe of Afghanistan, it became apparent that the Seekers had an export agenda. According to the staid and sober quarterly, Foreign Affairs, some 35,000 Muslim militants from 40 Islamic countries took part in the Afghan jihad, or holy war. Purist Kabul became the cynosure for this Islamic legion as it fanned homeward across a great arc, from the Russian Caucasus and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia southward to India's troubled Kashmir, providing a threat, often shamelessly exaggerated, to justify war and repression.

As detailed in John K. Cooley's "Unholy Wars," the Afghan-inspired militants have also reached out to restive Muslims in western China and into the hovels of Egypt and Algeria. Across the sea in New York, revolutionary zealots truck-bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. Caught and convicted, the bombers proved to be disciples of a blind Egyptian prayer-leader, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a recent and honored visitor to Afghan training camps in Peshawar, whose United States visa had been cleared by the CIA.

This was surely not the outcome that William Casey, Ronald Reagan's spymaster, had in mind. Cooley's important and timely book examines "a strange love-affair that went disastrously wrong," the alliance between America and "some of the most conservative and fanatical followers of Islam." To my knowledge, it is the first on this theme. Possibly the author, a well-regarded Middle East correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and more recently for ABC News, tries to explain too much, and certainly his text is marred by errors that a good copy editor would have caught--for example, misidentifying former U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R-N.H.) as Hubert Humphrey.


No matter: "Unholy Wars" asks salient questions and draws on an impressive body of sources. Cooley begins by aptly recalling the romantic affinity for Islam among senior CIA officers like Archie Roosevelt, a grandson of T.R. An Arabic speaker steeped in the ethos of Kipling and the Great Game, Roosevelt believed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 gave Americans an overdue chance to confront the "unchanging Russian bear" with a "grin of our own" by embracing Islamist allies, the secret weapon for breaking up the Soviet empire.

The same idea possessed Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter. Hardly had the Russians invaded than Brzezinski won approval from a shaken Carter to provide covert aid to the Afghan resistance. As he phrased it to the president, "Now we can give the USSR its own Vietnam," or as the White House aide later more pithily asserted, here was a chance "to finally sow shit in their backyard." Moving quickly, Brzezinski persuaded Saudi Arabia to match American aid dollar for dollar, and then got President Anwar Sadat of Egypt's agreement to rush leftover stocks of Soviet arms to the Afghans.

Within weeks of the invasion, Brzezinski flew to Pakistan, met with its military supremo, President Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, and toured the Khyber Pass, where, in a memorable tableau vivant, he grabbed a Pakistani frontiersman's rifle and aimed it northward at Afghanistan.

In Islamabad, Brzezinski struck a deal with Zia that determined what followed. In Cooley's words, its key provision was that all arms for the resistance "must be provided through Pakistan and not directly from the CIA." On this matter, Zia was adamant: Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence was to receive and distribute all weapons. His terms were accepted in Washington without serious debate. With an election looming and with the Iranian hostage crisis dominating the news, Carter strove to avoid even a hint of waffling on Soviet aggression.

In effect, the United States let Islamabad dictate its Afghan policy. What was a disaster for Afghanistan came almost as a deliverance for Zia. Overnight, Pakistan became a cosseted strategic ally of the United States, Britain, France and the rest of the West.

Quarrels over Pakistan's nuclear ambitions were set aside. As a front-line state in a holy war, Pakistan in time received billions in aid from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf sheikdoms--even as it turned to godless Red China for still more help. As an understood bonus, Pakistan's army deducted its tithe as arms, and economic aid flowed north to Afghan fighters.

More crucially, Zia only allowed religiously oriented resistance groups to operate in Pakistan. He barred contacts between Afghan commanders and the Afghan royal family or secular parties promoting self-determination for tribal peoples living along the frontier. His aim, openly expressed, was to install an Islamist regime in Kabul that would then carry the jihad into the predominantly Muslim republics of Soviet Central Asia.

Consistent with this strategy, the Pakistan intelligence lavished its weapons on Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the most fanatic and anti-American of the seven commanders of the main resistance groups. His rivals and critics had a way of dying violently, most sadly in the case of Professor S.B. Majrooh, an esteemed poet and philosopher who was killed by gunmen after he published a survey of Afghan refugees reporting that 70% supported the former king as a future national leader. Alone among the seven leaders, Hekmatyar refused to shake hands with Ronald Reagan and supported Iraq during the Gulf War.

"Later," writes Cooley, "he became the leader, trainer and inspiration to the terrorists and guerrillas of the Afghan international." Yet incredibly, he was the principal beneficiary of CIA-delivered weapons.

In truth, all Afghan groups were entangled in the surreal intrigues of Pakistanipolitics. So surreal that when in 1988, President Zia was killed in an aircraft explosion (along with U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Arnold L. Raphael), leading suspects included Pakistan intelligence and the Pakistani military, the Russians and the KGB, every Afghan faction and the CIA. The explosion remains a mystery, and even today there seems a singular lack of curiosity about its cause.

And what, one asks, did Washington make of all this? Did the CIA approve of Zia's strategy (as Cooley suggests) or did it vainly oppose favoring Hekmatyar (as other writers intimate)? Curiously, and infuriatingly, nobody can say for sure. This is the downside of bipartisanship. There was never a real debate in Congress or the press about letting Zia dispense American largess. Nor was there serious discussion about Washington's failure to press harder for creating a transition regime in Kabul headed by the moderate and willing former Afghan king, Mohammad Zahir Shah.

Since both Democrats and Republicans shared complicity, neither has had any incentive to reopen the matter. Those who clamored the loudest for unconditional covert aid to the moujahedeen, including Stinger missiles--most especially Gordon Humphrey and former Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Texas)--have shown little curiosity or remorse about the rise of the Taliban. It is a triumph for what one might call the Buchanan foreign policy--not Pat, the turbulent columnist, but Daisy and Tom Buchanan in Fitzgerald's "Great Gatsby," the careless people who "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made."


Still, on this matter, official Washington mirrors Main Street. Concerning Afghanistan, Americans generally seem afflicted by denial. It is too complicated, too confusing, too depressing. It has inspired no bestsellers or Hollywood epics. Cooley's book, published a year ago, has received almost no attention in the press. This indifference has been the common fate of previous serious works on Afghanistan by the scholar Barnett Rubin, the diplomat Diego Cordovez, the journalists Selig Harrison and Kurt Lohbeck. Who wants to contemplate this mess?

With enviable sang-froid, Brzezinski offered this response to a French political weekly (as quoted by Cooley) when asked if he regretted favoring extremist Muslims or training future terrorists: "What was more important in world history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet empire? A few over-excited Islamists, or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?"

This cold-blooded realism has an earlier parallel in the annals of covert operations. In April 1917, the German general staff debated a crafty scheme to knock Russia out of World War I. A popular uprising that February had forced the abdication of Czar Nicholas, but the new provisional regime decided to continue fighting an unpopular war. Why not play the Bolshevik card? Germany for years had secretly cultivated radical Russian exiles who vowed to seek peace once they took power. So the German generals, noses held and eyes averted, let Lenin and 30 Bolsheviks pass through Germany on a sealed train bound for Russia--precipitating the October revolution that gave Germany seven months of peace and the world 70 years of Soviet communism.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World