First, the Bad News, Then... The Bad News

As our world continues to spin out of control, two horrible events in the last two weeks had special resonance for me: the spreading anthrax terror, and the death of my old Afghan comrade, Abdul Haq.

First, anthrax. In late 1990, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, I was in Baghdad covering the impending Gulf war. In a futile effort to prevent threatened U.S. air attacks, Saddam Hussein rounded up foreigners and held them hostage in Baghdad hotels. This brutish act - which provoked outrage around the world - was a typical example of the Muslim world's uncanny knack for negative, self-defeating public relations.

Among the hostages, I discovered three British scientists who had been employed at Iraq's top secret Salman Pak chemical and biowarfare plant. Two of the Britons confided to me they had been working to develop a weaponized form of anthrax for Saddam's army.

At the time, no one yet knew that Iraq was trying to use anthrax as a weapon. My dispatches from Baghdad were the first indication that Iraq had progressed beyond the crude, World War I-style chemical weapons they had used in their war with Iran. The Iraqis threatened to hang me as a spy.

What made this news so fascinating was: 1) the British scientists told me they were part of a large technical team secretly organized and seconded to Iraq in the mid-1980s by the British government and Secret Intelligence Service, MI6; 2) the feed stocks for all of the germ weapons being developed by Iraq came from an American laboratory in Maryland. Iraq received full approval from the U.S. government to buy anthrax, plague, botulism and other pathogens.

Here is a prime case of what spooks call "blowback."

Why did Britain and the U.S. covertly help Iraq to develop biological weapons? When an Islamic revolution overthrew the U.S.-backed shah of Iran in 1979, the U.S. and Britain determined to overthrow the new regime in Tehran, which was seen as a threat to their Mideast oil interests. Washington and London urged Saddam to invade Iran in 1980 and march on Tehran. U.S. and British money, arms and military assistance flowed secretly to Baghdad.

But by 1983, Iraq was on the defensive and near to losing the war. Iran, with nearly four times Iraq's population, was fighting back ferociously, swamping Iraqi defences with human wave attacks. In desperation, Iraq, with U.S. and British help, began a crash development program to produce chemical and biological weapons to break Iran's attacks and offset its numerical superiority. Iraq's chemical arsenal savaged Iran's infantry and helped Iraq win the war by 1988. Over 500,000 soldiers died in the conflict.


In the Anglo-American view, chemical and biological weapons were fine - so long as they were used to kill or maim Iranian Muslims who opposed western interests. Such monstrous weapons, it seems, are only associated with terrorism when used against westerners. My view: what goes around, comes around.

Second, Abdul Haq. A leading mujahedin leader during the great jihad, or holy struggle, of the 1980s against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Haq was a burly, colourful, intense man - one of the most charismatic Pashtun leaders and a CIA favourite.

I was with Abdul Haq and his men both in Peshawar and inside Afghanistan. Haq, and his brother, Hadji Kadir, gave me the hospitality of their home and their badly needed protection during the important battle for Jalalabad.

When the Afghan Communist regime offered $50,000 to Afridi tribesmen around the Khyber Pass to capture me, two truckloads of Haq's warriors ensured I was not kidnapped and sent to be tortured and executed in Kabul.

After Sept. 11, the CIA resumed contacts with its old ally Abdul Haq that were broken off in 1989. When it became clear in recent weeks that the Russian-created Northern Alliance would be unable to take over Afghanistan from the Pashtun Taliban, the CIA sought an anti-Taliban Pashtun leader, and naturally called the renowned Abdul Haq.

Two weeks ago, the CIA sent Haq and a handful of supporters into Afghanistan with bags of dollars to bribe Pashtun tribal leaders away from the Taliban. Haq, who was headstrong and impulsive, foolishly went along with this hasty, poorly concocted scheme.

Like the CIA's unbroken record of bloody fiascos in Iraq, this amateurish venture also failed disastrously. Forewarned by sympathizers in Peshawar, the Taliban surrounded Haq's party. Haq, who had lost a foot to a Soviet mine, tried to flee on horseback. The CIA bungled an attempt to rescue him, though two of its agents who had been with with Haq managed to escape on U.S. helicopters. My old friend was captured and summarily executed by the Taliban as a warning to any potential defectors.

The life of one of the heroes of the great jihad against Soviet oppression was thus thrown away in a botched, amateur mission in an unnecessary war. Another CIA "expendable asset" had been expended.

Ten days before his fatal mission, Abdul Haq urged the U.S. not to bomb Afghanistan, warning doing so would only rally Afghans to the Taliban, inflict massive new suffering on an already tortured nation and plunge Afghanistan into disintegration and chaos.

No one in war-fevered Washington listened to Abdul Haq.

© 2023 Eric Margolis