Afghanistan Days, Kabul Nights

Afghanistan Days, Kabul Nights

Northampton, Mass.


Northampton, Mass.

I’m glad Peter Bergen [“Waltzing With Warlords,” Jan. 1] found things to approve of in my book Kabul in Winter. But I’m dumbfounded that he charges me with “sometimes” displaying “a tendency to see sinister conspiracies where they don’t exist”–because I give a brief account of the influence of US oil interests on our Afghanistan policy. Surely this is old news.

The prospect of US oilmen building a pipeline from the Caspian fields to Pakistan by way of Afghanistan (thus circumventing Iran) was one reason the Clinton Administration tried to do business with the Taliban. Twice in 1997 Taliban leaders traveled to Washington (and Texas) to discuss the pipeline with officials of the State Department and the US oil conglomerate Unocal. Unocal itself disclosed that it spent between $15 million and $20 million on the initial stages of the project, including the salaries of two consultants hired to negotiate the deal: Hamid Karzai, now President of Afghanistan, and Zalmay Khalilzad, then a Pentagon planner, later Ambassador to Afghanistan and currently Ambassador to Iraq. Khalilzad’s predecessor in Afghanistan, George W. Bush’s first ambassador there, was Robert Finn, well-known Caspian oil expert. These facts, well documented by others, apparently suggest a “sinister conspiracy”–Bergen’s term, not mine.

He doesn’t quit there. According to Bergen, I write that Washington withdrew support from the Taliban “only” because the Taliban could not provide “security” for the pipeline project. This is a misrepresentation. In fact, I discuss at length what Bergen calls “the real reasons” the United States turned against the Taliban: their harboring of Al Qaeda and their treatment of women–although US concern for Afghan women has always been more PR than policy.

Bergen asserts, “The one thing the Taliban did provide was security, which is why they had legitimacy and popularity when they first came to power.” This received wisdom applies to the Taliban’s reception in southern Afghanistan but not the north, where anti-Taliban forces went on fighting. In addition Bergen says there is still no pipeline across Afghanistan “because it just doesn’t make economic sense to build it.” There is no pipeline today because there is still no security, the United States and NATO having thus far failed, like the Taliban, to provide it.

That doesn’t mean dreams of oil are over. Plenty of people have pocketed plenty of money merely by making plans, and Afghan officials periodically announce that construction is imminent. Recently a US construction firm and a Russian manufacturer of oilfield equipment formed a “strategic alliance” to “help the Government of Afghanistan reopen and redevelop its oil and gas fields.” The press release went by e-mail to US contractors under the heading “Smart place to be sending your resumes/CVs” and opened with this advisory: “It’s private sector, so it’ll pay.” Is that a “sinister conspiracy” too, or oil business as usual in post-conflict “development” zones?

Bergen takes me to task for recycling “the trope” that in the 1980s, during the US proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the CIA spent about $800 million to train and fund foreign “Arab-Afghan” fighters. To refute it, Bergen says that Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars shows “there is no evidence” that the CIA “had any direct dealings with Osama bin Laden and his crew of foreign fighters.” I confess I’m unable to locate that conclusion in Coll’s pages, but it is beside the point. (Since the CIA is in the business of covering its tracks, it is naïve to think that “no evidence” of “direct dealings” means no dealings; Coll discusses any number of intermediaries, such as the Afghan commander Jallaladin Haqqanni, who “had the CIA’s full support.”) Bergen mistakenly implies that all Arab-Afghan fighters belonged to bin Laden’s “crew.” But recruiting and training foreign jihadis was the policy of Pakistan’s ISI long before bin Laden set up his own camp in 1986; and it was a policy CIA Director Bill Casey fully approved. Many of the estimated 35,000 Arab-Afghans of the 1980s were not Arabs but Uighurs, Uzbeks, Filipinos and other foreign jihadis (from forty-three countries) who joined and fought for various CIA- and Saudi-funded, ISI-directed, Afghan mujahedeen parties, as did bin Laden himself before he came into his own.



I was dismayed by the tone of Peter Bergen’s review of three books about contemporary Afghanistan by Western authors. He starts off with a salacious and pointless description of his visit to a Kabul brothel staffed by Chinese women “where $60 will buy you more stimulating forms of intercourse” than conversation. He states that a large part of the Taliban’s current strength comes from “a generally conservative population who worry about corrupting foreign influences”; perhaps, but might it not also come from people’s anger at a brutal foreign invasion and occupation?

Bergen laments the decline of optimism (from whom?) about “President” Hamid Karzai, who would be, and has been, more accurately described as the “mayor of Kabul”–and even that position is looking increasingly tenuous. The real power in those parts of Afghanistan not under Taliban control is, and has been from the start of the invasion, foreign military forces, principally the United States, for whom Karzai has never been anything more than a puppet. Remember his disastrous trip here not so long ago, and his humiliation by Bush?

Bergen refuses to consider the possibility that US motives for invading and occupying Afghanistan could have been anything but pristine, dismissing the idea that interest in a pipeline might have influenced US actions; he states without proof that the “real reasons” were Taliban mistreatment of women and the Taliban’s harboring of Al Qaeda. The latter reason is more plausible but fails to take into account the abundant evidence that neocons had been planning a move like this long before 9/11. Bergen also flatly denies that the CIA might have helped fund Osama bin Laden’s fighters during the Soviet occupation (actually, he only denies any direct contact).

The root of Bergen’s myopia comes from his belief that where the foreign occupation failed was in its attempt at “the wholesale export of Western democratic values and institutions into countries with very different social mores and political structures.” So, you see, Americans invaded Afghanistan, destroyed whatever there was left to destroy, killed unknown numbers of Afghans and continue to oppress them, all for the sake of Western democratic values, which those poor benighted Afghans are just too backward to appreciate.

Derek Davis


Washington, DC

Thanks to Ann Jones for her letter. I described her book as “evocatively” written, a “devastating critique” and “deeply reported.” There were two factual matters I took issue with. I don’t dispute that there was a widely reported effort by US energy interests to play footsy with the Taliban during the mid-1990s, when they first came to power. But I noted that Jones erroneously suggests that this effort fell through because the Taliban could not provide security. In reality the Taliban’s dismal human rights record and harboring of Al Qaeda sabotaged the project. As someone who spent time in Afghanistan during the civil war of the early 1990s before the rise of the Taliban, visited on two long trips while the Taliban were in power and has been back more than half a dozen times since they were ousted, I can attest that the one thing the Taliban did provide was security, the issue that continues to be a leading concern of ordinary Afghans.

I also took issue with Jones’s statement that during the 1980s war against the Soviets, “the CIA went on training those ‘Arab-Afghan’ Islamic jihadis in Pakistani camps at a cost of about $800 million.” There is simply no evidence for this. The laundry list of CIA screw-ups is well-known, but training the Arab Afghans, the most militant of whom went on to become the core of Al Qaeda, is not one of them.

The view that the CIA trained the “Arab Afghans”–Muslims from around the world drawn to the Afghan jihad against the Soviets–is a misunderstanding of how the war against the Soviets was funded by the agency. For reasons of “plausible deniability” the CIA handed around $3 billion during the 1980s to Pakistan’s ISI to fund the Afghan mujahedeen. Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf, who ran ISI’s Afghan operation between 1983 and ’87, explains in his book The Bear Trap how this arrangement worked:

“The foremost function of the CIA was to spend money. It was always galling to the Americans…that although they paid the piper they could not call the tune. The CIA supported the mujahideen by spending the taxpayers’ money, billions of dollars of it over the years, on buying arms, ammunition, and equipment. It was their secret arms procurement branch that was kept busy. It was, however, a cardinal rule of Pakistan’s policy that no Americans ever become involved with the distribution of funds or arms once they arrived in the country. No Americans ever trained or had direct contact with the mujahideen, and no American official ever went inside Afghanistan.”

In short, the CIA had very limited dealings with the Afghan mujahedeen, let alone with the Arab Afghans who attached themselves to the various mujahedeen factions. Meanwhile, the Arab Afghans had their own sources of funding and had no need of CIA money. Thanks to his connections to rich Saudis, the Saudi royal family and his own fortune, Osama bin Laden became the main financier of the Arab Afghans. Moreover, bin Laden was hostile to the United States because of its support of Israel. Palestinian journalist Jamal Ismail recalls meeting bin Laden in Pakistan in 1984: He “was not willing to drink any soft drinks from American companies, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Sprite, 7-Up…trying to boycott all American products because he believes that without Americans Israel cannot exist.”

Since 9/11 Al Qaeda insiders have responded to the erroneous assertions that the CIA backed the Arab Afghans. Al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in his autobiographical Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet writes, “The United States did not give one penny in aid to the [Arab] mujahideen. Is it possible that Osama bin Laden who…called for the boycott of US goods as a form of support for the Intifada in Palestine, is a US agent in Afghanistan?” In 2004 Al Qaeda ideologue Abu Mousab al Suri released The International Islamic Resistance Call, which explains, “It is a big lie that the Afghan Arabs were formed with the backing of the CIA…. Saudi intelligence agencies did have involvement with bin Laden, and elements of their apparatus did send assistance from Saudi Arabia.”

Similarly, in its final report the 9/11 Commission concluded: “Bin Ladin understood…the extent to which the continuation and eventual success of the jihad in Afghanistan depended on an increasingly complex, almost worldwide organization. This organization included a financial support network that came to be known as the “Golden Chain,” put together mainly by financiers in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states. Donations flowed through charities or other nongovernmental organizations. Bin Ladin and the “Afghan Arabs” drew largely on funds raised by this network…. Bin Ladin and his comrades had their own sources of support and training, and they received little or no assistance from the United States.”

Thanks also to Derek Davis for his letter. Recent polling data in Afghanistan released by ABC News and the BBC help explain Afghan attitudes to some of the issues he raises. The poll results are worth quoting at some length, as they show that despite the real difficulties Afghanistan faces, ordinary Afghans continue to have positive feelings about the US-led occupation and their own government and lives:

“Sixty eight percent approve of Karzai’s work–down from 83 percent last year, but still a level most national leaders would envy. Fifty-nine percent think the parliament is working for the benefit of the Afghan people–down from 77 percent, but still far better than Americans’ ratings of the U.S. Congress…. Big majorities continue to call the U.S.-led invasion a good thing for their country (88 percent), to express a favorable opinion of the United States (74 percent) and to prefer the current Afghan government to Taliban rule (88 percent). Indeed eight in 10 Afghans support the presence of U.S., British and other international forces on their soil; that compares with five percent support for Taliban fighters…. Fifty-five percent of Afghans still say the country’s going in the right direction, but that’s down sharply from 77 percent last year. Whatever the problems, 74 percent say their living conditions today are better now than they were under the Taliban. That rating, however, is 11 points lower now than it was a year ago.”


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