Stephen Chan: We’re going to be talking about something that has a lot of romance to it, but at the same time was the harbinger of a terrible turn in historical events that went on to reconfigure—some would say disfigure—the latter part of the 20th century, into the 21st century. And this is what happened in Afghanistan.
Our tale begins in Afghanistan with the Soviet invasion in 1979. This came out of a blue sky, military speak for there were no clouds, there were no warnings. But suddenly the Soviets invaded the country in support of a Soviet-inclined government. But a government which aroused huge resentments and resistance on the part of many many people in Afghanistan.
The United States was very very swift to capitalize on this and sent a very great deal of military support through Saudi Arabia, using both US and Saudi funds, to finance what were called the Mujahideen (the tribal resistance) against the Soviet occupation. And this played very much into the hands of the secret arrangement that had been arrived at within Saudi Arabia itself after the siege of Mecca in 1979. It was as if the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the same year was a godsend, a literal godsend, to the rulers of Saudi Arabia and to the pact that they had made with the conservative clerical leaders.
The compromise arrangement after the siege was purported to have meant that the export of Islamic revolution was going to be possible, the financing of international Islamic revolution was going to be possible, and that the Saudi authorities would turn a blind eye to it. They would not become officially involved, but senior members of Saudi society certainly could become involved.
And one of those who immediately became involved in the very same year, 1979, was Osama bin Laden. He made his very first visit to Afghanistan in that year, fought on the side of the Mujahideen, and poured a lot of his own money into the resistance against the Soviets. He didn’t stay in Afghanistan at that point in time. He went off to foment revolution in other parts of the world, particularly in Sudan, and gained a very great deal of experience in how he wanted to conduct a new form of asymmetric warfare. Along the way he established what was called the Al-Qaeda front. This was meant to be a fortress, a foundation for international revolution of an Islamic nature.
Events took him back to Afghanistan. And this was because of ferment within Afghanistan itself after the defeat of the Soviets. They withdrew in 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall meant a retraction of Soviet influence around the world—it meant not only reform within what is now Russia but a pulling in of the horns of Russian expansionism. They pulled out of Afghanistan, never having been able to defeat the Mujahideen. But the Mujahideen themselves had by this stage become corrupt. Flush with arms and money from both the Saudis, and from the United States channeled through Pakistan, they became a lawless force, and they exercised this lawlessness upon the local population.
Mullah Omar, a village cleric in Kandahar, someone who’d been wounded four times and lost an eye in the battles against the Soviets, was exercising his vocation as a village priest when he was called upon by distraught parents to try to rescue their two daughters who had been kidnapped by a rapacious warlord leader. And Mullah Omar, inspired by a dream in which a woman asked him to help, launched an attack. A very very lightly armed, almost suicide attack against the barracks of the warlord. Overcame the warlord’s armed forces. And hung the warlord. It was an attack against all odds. The chances of success were so minimal that when the was successful, Mullah Omar became a legend.
The people he had helping him launch the attack on the warlord’s barracks were talebs, theology students, thus the advent of the Taliban. The Taliban rose up as a force—a cleansing force—against corruption. And all of a sudden, Afghanistan was very very shortly in their hands. They launched an attack against the capital city Kabul. By this stage, they were receiving help from Osama bin laden. And Osama bin Laden, who had now returned to Afghanistan, brought with him the money and the equipment for a successful assault on the capital city itself. Notwithstanding the fact that the capital city at that point in time was in the hands of a warlord with actual progressive attitudes, particularly towards women, he was actually seen as another member of a corrupt fraternity, and he was defeated and driven out.
The Taliban were a domestic reforming group. They wanted to cleanse society. They were revolutionary in the sense they wanted to have an Islamic order rather than a secular state. But they had no international policy. It was the fusion at this point in time of the Taliban with Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda which led to an international policy, which led in turn to the assault on New York, the 9/11 attacks. That was in 2001, and the American response immediately was an attack upon Afghanistan itself.
This was almost a deliberate policy on the part of Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda. They wanted to provoke the United States into a war against Islam—not just one Islamic country but against many Islamic countries so that the spread of military action against other Islamically-inclined states, or states with Islamic populations in the wake of Afghanistan, was almost a godsend to the plans of Al-Qaeda. The result was that, as they planned, to have local resistance forces springing up against enemy invasion—Western invasion. That this would expand from country to country, and that recruits would come from many countries to fight against the Western invaders.
In time there would be a conversion to an ideology that was sympathetic to Al-Qaeda, that would become global. And this would be a global jihad that could then be mobilized against the United States, which in the same moment of history would also succumb to its own economic contradictions and be unable to resist an onslaught of an asymmetric sort on all fronts. It was almost as if Osama and his lieutenants and those in Al-Qaeda were reading a future that has been in many ways enacted, and which is still being enacted, albeit with the decline of Al-Qaeda in today’s international politics. But it’s supplanting by forces even more radical and even more sinister and determined.
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