The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Who Is Responsible for the Taliban?
by Michael Rubin
Mar 1, 2002
The roots of the Afghan civil war and the country’s subsequent transformation into a safe-haven for the world’s most destructive terror network began in the decades prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
As the United States prepared for war against Afghanistan, some academics or journalists argued that Usama bin Ladin’s al-Qa’ida group and Afghanistan’s Taliban government were really creations of American policy run amok. A pervasive myth exists that the United States was complicit for allegedly training Usama bin Ladin and the Taliban. For example, Jeffrey Sommers, a professor in Georgia, has repeatedly claimed that the Taliban had turned on “their previous benefactor.” David Gibbs, a political science professor at the University of Arizona, made similar claims. Robert Fisk, widely-read Middle East correspondent for The Independent, wrote of “CIA camps in which the Americans once trained Mr. bin Ladin’s fellow guerrillas.”(1) Associated Press writer Mort Rosenblum declared that “Usama bin Ladin was the type of Soviet-hating freedom fighter that U.S. officials applauded when the world looked a little different.”(2)
In fact, neither bin Ladin nor Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Umar were direct products of the CIA. The roots of the Afghan civil war and the country’s subsequent transformation into a safe-haven for the world’s most destructive terror network is a far more complex story, one that begins in the decades prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
THE CURSE OF AFGHAN DIVERSITY
Afghanistan’s shifting alliances and factions are intertwined with its diversity, though ethnic, linguistic, or tribal variation alone does not entirely explain these internecine struggles. Afghanistan in its modern form was shaped by the nineteenth-century competition between the British, Russian, and Persian empires for supremacy in the region. The 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention that formally ended this “Great Game” finalized Afghanistan’s role as a buffer between the Russian Empire’s holdings in Central Asia, and the British Empire’s holdings in India.
The resulting Kingdom of Afghanistan was and remains ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse. Today, Pushtuns are the largest ethnic group within the country, but they represent only 38 percent of the population. An almost equal number of Pushtuns live across the border in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. Ethnic Tajiks comprise one-quarter of the population. The Hazaras, who generally inhabit the center of the country, represent another 19 percent. Other groups — such as the Aimaks, Turkmen, Baluch, Uzbek, and others comprise the rest.(3)
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
In hindsight, and especially after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, it is easy to criticize Washington’s shortsightedness. But American policymakers had a very stark choice in the 1980s: Either the United States could support an Afghan opposition, or they could simply cede Afghanistan to Soviet domination, an option that might result in an extension of Soviet influence into Pakistan.
Contrary to the beliefs of many critics of American foreign policy, the United States is not able to dictate its desires even to foreign clients. Washington needed Pakistan’s cooperation, but Pakistan was very mindful of its own interests. Chief among these, especially following the secession of Bangladesh in 1971, was minimizing the nationalist threat to Pakistani integrity. Islamabad considered Afghanistan, especially with successive Afghan government’s Pushtunistan claims, to pose a direct challenge to Pakistani national security. Accordingly, Islamabad only allowed religiously based rather than nationalist opposition groups to operate on Pakistani territory. If American policymakers wanted to oppose Soviet imperialism in Afghanistan, then they simply would have to accede to Pakistani interests.
The United States is not without fault, however. Following the Soviet Union’s collapse, Washington could have more effectively pressured Pakistan to tone down the support for Islamic fundamentalism, especially after the rise of the Taliban. Instead, Washington ceded her responsibility and gave Pakistan a sphere of influence in Afghanistan unlimited by any other foreign pressure.
1.Robert Fisk, “Think-Tank Wrap-Up,” United Press International, September 15, 2001; “Public Enemy No. 1, a title he always wanted,” The Independent, August 22, 1998.
2. Mort Rosenblum, “Bin Ladin once thought of as ‘freedom fighter’ for United States.” Chattanooga Times/Chattanooga Free Press, September 20, 2001. Even some foreign dignitaries have sought to promote the myth. In a December 7, 2001, interview with the pro-Syrian Lebanese daily al-Safir, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak commented, “…When the so-called Mujahideen went to Afghanistan, they became more extreme, and began to disseminate extremist ideas. People like Omar Abd Al-Rahman and bin Laden were American heroes.”
3. “Afghanistan,” The World Factbook 2001 (Washington: Central Intelligence Agency, 2001) http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/index.html . (After more than two decades of war, any statistics regarding Afghan demographics must be considered only approximations.)
5. Vartan Gregorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880-1946, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969), pp.29-32.
6. Louis Dupree, Afghanistan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980,) p.477.
7. Dupree, p.507.
8. Dupree, pp.510-511.
9. Dupree, pp.485-494.
10. Barnett Rubin, Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995,) p.82.
11. Dupree, pp.538-539.
12. Dupree, p.546.
13. “George Washington Ayub,” The New Republic, October 30, 1961, p.7.
14. Amin Saikal, “The Regional Politics of the Afghan Crisis,” in: Amin Saikal and William Maley, eds., The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989,) p.54.
15. Barnett Rubin, pp.63-64.
16. T.H. Rigby, “The Afghan Conflict and Soviet Domestic Politics,” in: Amin Saikal and William Maley, eds. The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989,) p.72.
17. Barnett Rubin, p.100.
18. Najmuddin A. Shaikh, “A New Afghan Government: Pakistan’s Interest,” Jang, (Internet edition) December 1, 2001. . For specifics about the Hikmatyar-ISI connection, see: Vaughn Forrest, Chief of Staff. “Memo to Task Force Members,” Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare. House Republican Research Committee. U.S. House of Representatives, March 1, 1990.
19. Barnett Rubin, pp.100-101.
20. Barnett Rubin, p.99.
21. Alan J. Kuperman, “The Stinger missile and U.S. intervention in Afghanistan,” Political Science Quarterly, No. 2, Vol. 114, June 1999.
22. Barnett Rubin, pp.180-181.
23. Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Islam, Oil, and the New Great Ga e in Central Asia. (London and New York: I.B. Tauris and Company, 2000,) p.18.
24. Milton Bearden, “Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2001.
26. George Schulz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993,) p.692.
27. Kuperman, “The Stinger missile and U.S. intervention in Afghanistan”
28. Steve Coll. “Anatomy of a Victory: CIA’s Covert Afghan War; $2 Billion Program Reversed Tide for Rebels,” The Washington Post, July 19, 1992, p.A1.
29. Kuperman, “The Stinger missile and U.S. intervention in Afghanistan”
30. Interview with former CIA operative, November 1998.
31. Kuperman, “The Stinger missile and U.S. intervention in Afghanistan,”
32. Barnett Rubin, p.197.
33. Pamela Constable, “Pakistani Agency Seeks to Allay U.S. on Terrorism,” The Washington Post, February 15, 2000, p.A17.
34. Barnett Rubin, pp.181,198-199.
35. Kuperman, “The Stinger missile and U.S. intervention in Afghanistan”
36. Amin Saikal. “The Regional Politics of the Afghan Crisis,” p.59.
37. Barnett Rubin, p.182.
38. Barnett Rubin, p.183.
39. Mort Rosenblum, “bin Ladin once thought of as ‘freedom fighter’ for United States,” Chattanooga Times/Chattanooga Free Press, September 20, 2001.
40. Bearden, “Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2001.
41. Commander Akhtarjhan, “Raid on 15 Division Garrison,” In: Ali Ahmad Jalali and Lester W. Grau, eds. The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War. (Quantico, Virginia: The United States Marine Corps Studies and Analysis Division, 1995,)p.396.
42. Rubin, 223-224; Rashid, p.85.
43. Rashid, p.130.
44. See: John Burns. “New Afghan Force Takes Hold, Turning to Peace,” The New York Times, February 16, 1995, p.A3.
45. Afghanistan: Crisis of Impunity, Human Rights Watch, July, 2001, Vol. 13, No. 3, p.15.
46. Rashid, p.19.
47. Rashid, p.22.
48. Rashid, p.25-26.
49. Afghanistan: Crisis of Impunity, Human Rights Watch, July, 2001, Vol.13, No. 3, p.15.
50. See chronology in Rashid, p.226-235.
51. Rashid, p.29.
52. Rashid, p.28.
53. Michael Rubin and Daniel Benjamin, “The Taliban and Terrorism: Report from Afghanistan,” Policywatch, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, No. 450, April 6, 2000.
54. For Pakistani denials of support for the Taliban, see: Pamela Constable. “Pakistani Agency Seeks to Allay U.S. on Terrorism,” The Washington Post, February 15, 2000, p.A17.
55. Afghanistan: Crisis of Impunity, Human Rights Watch, July, 2001, Vol.13, No. 3, p.23.
56. Robert Kaplan, “The Lawless Frontier; tribal relations, radical political movements and social conflicts in Afghanistan-Pakistan border,” The Atlantic Monthly, September 1, 2000.
57. Amit Baruah. “Pak. Ripe for Taliban-style revolution,” The Hindu, February 24, 2000.
58. Afghanistan: Crisis of Impunity, Human Rights Watch, July, 2001, Vol. 13, No. 3, p.29.
59. Gregory Copley, “Pakistan Under Musharraf,” Defense and Foreign Affairs’ Strategic Policy, January 2000.
60. Rashid, p.89.
61. Gregory Copley, “Pakistan Under Musharraf,” Defense and Foreign Affairs’ Strategic Policy, January, 2000.
62. Reuel Marc Gerecht, “Pakistan’s Taliban Problem; And America’s Pakistan Problem,” The Weekly Standard, Vol. 7, No. 8, 2001, p.24.
63. Barry Shlachter, “Inside Islamic seminaries, where the Taliban was born,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 25, 2001. The views of the Pakistani madrasa students were equally anti-Western before the September 11 attacks. See: Robert Kaplan, “The Lawless Frontier; tribal relations, radical political movements and social conflicts in Afghanistan-Pakistan border,” The Atlantic Monthly, September 1, 2000.
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