The US and Afghan Tragedy

One of
the first difficult foreign policy decisions of the Obama
administration will be what the United States should do about
Afghanistan. Escalating the war, as National Security Advisor Jim Jones
has been encouraging, will likely make matters worse. At the same time,
simply abandoning the country - as the United States did after the
overthrow of Afghanistan's Communist government soon after the Soviet
withdrawal 20 years ago - would lead to another set of serious problems.

In making what administration officials themselves have acknowledged
will be profoundly difficult choices, it will be important to
understand how Afghanistan - and, by extension, the United States - has
found itself in this difficult situation of a weak and corrupt central
government, a resurgent Taliban, and increasing violence and chaos in
the countryside.

Many Americans are profoundly ignorant of history, even regarding
distant countries where the United States finds itself at war. One need
not know much about Afghanistan's rich and ancient history, however, to
learn some important lessons regarding the tragic failures of U.S.
policy toward that country during the past three decades.

The Soviet Union invaded in December 1979, after the Afghan people
rose up against two successive communist regimes that seized power in
violent coup d'etats in 1978 and 1979. The devastating aerial bombing
and counterinsurgency operations led to more than six million Afghans
fleeing into exile, most of them settling into refugee camps in
neighboring Pakistan. The United States, with the assistance of
Pakistan's Islamist military dictatorship, found their allies in some
of the more hard-line resistance movements, at the expense of some very
rational enlightened Afghans from different fields and aspect of life.

The United States sent more than $8 billion to Pakistani military
dictator Zia al-Huq, who dramatically increased the size of the
Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) to help support Afghan mujahedeen in
their battle against the Soviets and their puppet government. Their
goal, according to the late Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto,
was "to radicalize the influence of religious factions within
Afghanistan." The ISI helped channel this American money, and billions
more from oil-rich American allies, from the Gulf region to extremists
within the Afghan resistance movement.

Extremist Education

The Reagan administration sensed the most hard-line elements of the
resistance were less likely to reach negotiated settlements, but the
goal was to cripple the Soviet Union, not free the Afghan people.
Recognizing the historically strong role of Islam in Afghan society,
they tried to exploit it to advance U.S. policy goals. Religious
studies along militaristic lines were given more importance than
conventional education in the school system for Afghan refugees in
Pakistan. The number of religious schools (madrassas) educating Afghans
rose from 2,500 in 1980 at the start of Afghan resistance to over
39,000. The United States encouraged the Saudis to recruit Wahhabist
ideologues to come join the resistance and teach in refugee institutes.

While willing to contribute billions to the war effort, the United
States was far less generous in providing refugees with funding for
education and other basic needs, which was essentially outsourced to
the Saudis and the ISI. Outside of some Western non-governmental
organizations like the International Rescue Committee, secular
education was all but unavailable for the millions of Afghan refugees
living in Pakistan. None of these projects could match the impact the
generous funding for religious education and scholarships to Islamic
schools in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. As a result, the only education
that became available was religious indoctrination, primarily of the
hard-line Wahhabi tradition. The generous funding of religious
institutions during wartime made it the main attraction of free
education, clothing, and boarding for poor refugee children. Out of
these madrassas came the talibs (students), who later became the Taliban.

This was no accident. It seemed that such policies were intentionally
initiated that way to drag young Afghans towards extremism and war, and
to be well prepared not only to fight a war of liberation, but to fight
the foes and rivals of foreigners at the expense of Afghan destruction
and blood. And the indoctrination and resulting radicalization of
Afghan youth that later formed the core of the Taliban wasn't simply
from outsourcing but was directly supported by the U.S. government as
well, such as through textbooks issued by the U.S. Agency for
International Development for refugee children between 1986 and 1992,
which were designed to encourage such militancy.

Often mathematics and other basic subjects were sacrificed
altogether in favor of full-time religious and indoctrination. Sardar
Ghulam Nabi, an elementary school teacher in a Peshawar refugee camp,
stated that he was discouraged by the school administration to teach
Afghan history to Afghan refugee children, since most of the
concentration and emphasis was placed on religious studies rather than
other subjects.

This focus on a rigid religious indoctrination at the expense of
other education is particularly ironic since, while the Afghans have
tended to be devout and rather conservative Muslims, they hadn't
previously been inclined to embrace the kind of fanatic
Wahhabi-influenced fundamentalism that dominated Islamic studies in the

It seemed during the Afghan wars that no one cared and valued Afghan
lives. Afghans became the subject of struggle between different rival
and competing ideologies. The foreign backers of Afghanistan didn't
care about the impact and consequences of their policies for the future
of Afghanistan. Milt Bearden, the former CIA station chief in
Islamabad, Pakistan during the Afghan-Soviet war, commented that "the United States was fighting the Soviets to the last Afghan." According to Sonali Kolhatkar, in her book Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence(Seven Stories Press, 2006),
some in the United States saw the Soviet invasion as a "gift." Zbigniew
Brzezinski, former President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor,
even claimed that the United States helped provoke the Soviet invasion
by arming the mujahideen beforehand, noting
how "we did not push the Russians to intervene but we knowingly
increased the probability that they would." Once they did, he wrote to
Carter, "We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam

Professor Hassan Kakar, a renowned Afghan historian formerly of
Kabul University now exiled in California after spending time in a
Afghan prison during the communist era, notes in his book
how the competition between the Afghan left and right had been
previously confined to a verbal debate, comparable to those taking
place in intellectual and other politicized circles in other developing
countries during the late Cold War period. With the invasion of Soviet
troops and the U.S. backing of the mujahideen, however, it took the
shape of direct armed conflict. The conflict evolved into open
confrontation backed by the two Cold War rivals and other regional
powers. Afghanistan was split and divided into different ideological
groups, resulting in bloodshed, killing, destruction, suffering, and
hatred among Afghans.

A whole generation of Afghan children grew up knowing nothing of
life but bombings that destroyed their homes, killed their loved ones,
and drove them to seek refuge over the borders. As a result, they
became easy prey to those willing to raise them to hate and to fight.
These children, caught in the midst of competing extremist ideologies
from all sides, learned to kill each other and destroy their country
for the interests of others.

Most Afghans with clear vision and strategic insight were
deliberately marginalized by outside supporters of the Afghan
radicalization process. Members of the Afghan intelligentsia who
maintained their Afghan character in face of foreign ideologies and
were therefore difficult to manipulate were threatened, eliminated, and
in some cases forced into exile. One was Professor Sayed Bahauddin
Majrooh, a renowned Afghan writer, poet, and visionary. Another was
Aziz-ur-Rahman Ulfat, the author of Political Games, a book
that criticized the politics of the U.S.-backed Afghan resistance
movements based in Pakistan. Both were among the many who were
assassinated as part of the effort silence voices of reason and logic.

The Hezb-e-Islami faction, a relatively small group among the
resistance to the Soviets and their Afghan allies, received at least
80% of U.S. aid. According to Professor Barnett Rubin's testimony
before the U.S. House of Representatives, the militia - led by the
notorious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - conducted a "reign of terror against
insufficiently Islamic intellectuals" in the refugee camps of Pakistan.
Despite all this, Rubin further noted how "both the ISI and CIA
considered him a useful tool for shaping the future of Central Asia."

Assassinations of Afghan intellectuals deprived Afghan refugees of
enlightened visionaries who would have represented the balanced Afghan
character of religious faith, cultural traditions, and modern
education. What these early victims of extremist violence had in common
was opposition to the radicalization and hijacking of the Afghan
struggle for purposes other than Afghan self-determination. The Afghan
resistance to the Soviets was a nationalist uprising that included
intellectuals, students, farmers, bureaucrats, and shopkeepers as well
as people from all the country's diverse ethnic groups. Their purpose
was the liberation of their country, not the subjugation and
radicalization of their society by bloodthirsty fanatics. Some Afghan
field commanders with clear conscience and strategic insight also took
a different approach than radical Afghan leaders supported by Pakistan
and Saudi Arabia who - with U.S. acquiescence - sought to replace
hard-line communist puppets with hard-line Islamist puppets.

Abdul Haq

Among these was the legendary Afghan resistance leader Abdul Haq
(Full disclosure: Haq was the uncle of Khushal Arsala, one of this
article's co-authors). He realized that the Afghans' legitimate
struggle for their independence and self-determination was being
intentionally dragged towards fanatical indoctrination for the
interests of others. In a letter to TheNew York Times he wrote:

We started our struggle with the full support and determination of
our people and will continue regardless of the wishes or commands of
others. We don't want to be an American or Soviet puppet...I would like
you to be with us as a friend, not as somebody pulling the strings. The
struggle of our nation is for the establishment of a system that
assures human rights, social justice and peace. This system does not
threaten any nation.

Haq openly criticized the United States and its allies' support for
extremists among the resistance through the Pakistani government,
warning U.S. officials of the dire consequences of such support for the
radicalization of Afghan society through the support for extremists. In
a 1994 interview with the Times,
he warned that terrorists from all over the world were finding shelter
in his increasingly chaotic country and that Afghanistan "is turning
into poison and not only for us but for all others in the world. Maybe
one day the Americans will have to send hundreds of thousands of troops
to deal with it." Noting that Afghanistan had been a graveyard for both
the British and Russians, he expressed concerns that soon American
soldiers could be flying home in body bags due to Washington's support
for extremists during the Afghan-Soviet War during the 1980s and then
abandoning the country following the Communist government's overthrow
in 1992.

Preference for Extremists

In a 2006 interview
on the PBS documentary "The Return of the Taliban," U.S. Special Envoy
to the Afghan Resistance Peter Tomsen observed how the leadership of
the Pakistani army

wanted to favor Gulbuddin Hekmatyar with seventy percent of the
American weapons coming into the country, but the ISI and army
leadership's game plan was to put Hekmatyar top down in Kabul, even
though he was viewed by the great majority of Afghans - it probably
exceeded 90 percent - of being a Pakistani puppet, as unacceptable as
the Soviet puppets that were sitting in Kabul during the communist
period. However, that was what the [Pakistani] generals wanted to
create: a strategic Islamic [ally] with a pro-Pakistani Afghan in
charge in Kabul.

Hekmatyar was extremely useful to Pakistan not only because he was
rabidly anticommunist, but also because - unlike most other mujahideen
leaders less favored by Washington - he wasn't an Afghan nationalist,
and was willing to support the agenda of hard-line Pakistani military
and intelligence leaders. Pakistan's support for radical Muslim
domination has been in part for keeping the long-running territorial
dispute with Afghanistan over Pashtun areas suppressed. Islamist
radicals like Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and later the Taliban
mullahs tended to de-emphasize state borders in favor of uniting with
the Muslim Umma (community of believers) wherever it may be - in
Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, the Middle East, or Central Asia.

Many State Department officials were wary of U.S. support for
Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly
was quoted as saying that Hekmatyar "is a person who has vehemently
attacked the United States on a number of issues.... I think he is a
person with whom we do not need to have or should not have much trust."
However, even when the State Department - over CIA objections -
succeeded in cutting back on U.S. support for Hezb-e-Islami, U.S. ally
Saudi Arabia would then increase its aid and, with CIA assistance,
recruited thousands of Arab volunteers to join the fight, including a
young Saudi businessman named Osama bin Laden.

The renowned journalist Ahmed Rashid stated in his book the Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia that

CIA chief William Casey committed CIA support to a long-standing ISI
initiative to recruit radical Muslims from around the world to come to
Pakistan and fight with the Afghan Mujahideen. The ISI had encouraged
this since 1982 and by now all the other players had their reasons for
supporting the idea. President Zia aimed to cement Islamic unity, turn
Pakistan into the leader of the Muslim world and foster an Islamic
opposition in Central Asia. Washington wanted to demonstrate that the
entire Muslim world was fighting the Soviets Union alongside the
Afghans and their American benefactors. And the Saudis saw an
opportunity both to promote Wahabbism and get rid of its disgruntled
radicals...which would eventually turn their hatred against the Soviets
on their own regimes and the Americans.

After having their country largely destroyed and its social fabric
torn apart as pawns in a Cold War rivalry, the Soviets were finally
forced out in 1989 and the communist regime was overthrown two years

While Hizb-e-Islami and other U.S. and Pakistani-backed groups
weren't truly representative of the Afghan people, they had become the
best-armed as a result of their foreign support. Wanting power for
themselves, they soon turned the capital city of Kabul into rubble as
the remaining infrastructure surviving from the Soviet-Afghan war was
destroyed by a senseless civil war.

Afghanistan became a failed state. In the three years following the
fall of the Communist regime, at least 25,000 civilians were killed in
Kabul by indiscriminate shelling by Hezb-e-Islami and other factions.
There was no proper functioning government. Educational institutions,
from elementary schools to university buildings, weren't spared in the
violence. Most of the teachers and students again joined refugees in
the neighboring countries. The chaos and suffering created conditions
such that when the Pakistani-backed Taliban emerged promising stability
and order, they were welcomed in many parts of the country.

Once in power, the Taliban - made up of students from the same
refugee religious institutions promoted and encouraged by the United
States and its allies - shrouded Afghan society in the darkness of
totalitarianism and illiteracy. They didn't value modern scientific
education. They barred girls from school. With the help of Arab
recruits originally brought in with support of the United States to
fight the Soviets, they destroyed Afghan cultural heritage and
attempted to transform Afghanistan into a puritanical theocracy.
Fanatics and criminals from all over the world found safe-haven in
Afghanistan, thanks to the blunders made by U.S. policymakers who
created, promoted, and encouraged fanaticism against the Soviet Union.

In October 2001, in an interview with Newsweek, Abdul Haq said:

Why are the Arabs here? The U.S. brought the Arabs to Pakistan and
Afghanistan [during the Soviet war]. Washington gave them money, gave
them training, and created 10 or 15 different fighting groups. The U.S.
and Pakistan worked together. The minute the pro-Communist regime
collapsed, the Americans walked away and didn't even clean up their
shit. They brought this problem to Afghanistan.

One week after this interview, Abdul Haq - an opponent of the 2001
U.S. intervention and one of the few Afghans capable of uniting his
country under a nationalist banner - was captured by the Taliban and
later executed. U.S. forces in the area ignored pleas for assistance to
rescue him and his comrades while they were being pursued and in the
period soon after their capture.

Afghans are still paying the price for the Taliban's continued
destruction in Afghanistan from their bases in Pakistan. Taliban
remnants are killing and threatening school staff members and burning
down educational facilities. Their heinous crimes mean that the young
minds needed to drag the country out from current miserable situation
are being deprived of their desperately needed education. And, despite
strong evidence of ongoing support for the Taliban by elements of the
ISI and the Pakistani military, the Bush administration continued to
send billions of dollars worth of arms and other support for the
Musharraf dictatorship in Pakistan.

Implications for Today

The consequences of U.S. policy towards Afghanistan through the
1980s and 1990s played a major role in the Taliban's rise and
al-Qaeda's subsequent sanctuary. The September 11 attacks brought the
United States directly into battle in Afghanistan for the first time,
and U.S. troops are to this day fighting the forces of former Taliban
and Hezb-e-Islami allies.

The United States made many errors during the more than eight years
of fighting, but one of most dangerous was repeating the tragic mistake
of placing short-term alliances ahead of the Afghanistan's long-term
stability. During the 1980s, the United States was so focused on
defeating the Soviets and the Afghan communists that an alliance was
made with Islamist extremists, who ended up contributing to the
country's destruction. In this decade, the United States has been so
focused on defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda it's made alliances with
an assortment of drug lords, opium magnates, militia leaders, and other
violent and corrupting elements which have contributed to the country's
devastation still further.

There's no easy answer to Afghanistan's ongoing tragic situation.
Nor is the question of the most appropriate role the United States can
now play after contributing so much to this tragedy.

What's important, however, is recognizing that Afghanistan's fate
belongs to the people of Afghanistan. Indeed, any further efforts by
the United States to play one faction off against the other for
temporary political gain won't only add to that country's suffering but
- as we became tragically aware on a September morning eight years ago
- could some day bring the violence home to American shores.

© 2023 Foreign Policy In Focus