Ten years ago, on February 15, 1989, as the last of the 115,000 Soviet soldiers crossed over from Afghanistan into Soviet Tajikistan, there was quiet celebration in Washington as well as Riyadh and Islamabad. Officials in these capitals visualized Moscow’s retreat as the first, crucial step in the re-emergence of an independent Afghanistan ready to ally with the United States. The US-Saudi-Pakistani alliance had played the central role in training, arming and financing the Afghan mujahedeen to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan.
With the Soviet withdrawal accomplished–a severe blow to Moscow in the cold war–Washington put Afghanistan on the back burner. But the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 gave a second wind to the mujahedeen movement, which acquired a momentum of its own. Its seizure of power in Kabul in April 1992, following the fall of the leftist regime of Muhammad Najibullah, paved the way for the rise of the Taliban Islamic movement two years later and its capture of Kabul in September 1996.
Today the Taliban controls 90 percent of Afghanistan and rules the country according to its interpretation of the Sharia, Islamic law–an interpretation that even the mullahs of Iran find repulsive. Unique in the world, the Taliban regime deprives women of education and jobs. It has allowed the training camps near the Pakistani border–originally established by the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI)–to be reopened to give guerrilla training to fundamentalist volunteers from Xinjiang, China; Bosnia; Algeria; and elsewhere to further their Islamist agenda through armed actions in their respective countries. The Taliban has rebuffed Washington’s demands that it hand over Osama bin Laden, a Saudi veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and a fugitive extremist accused of masterminding the US Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam last August, which killed 257 people, including twelve Americans. The US government has offered a $5 million reward for his capture.
Did the founders of US policy in Afghanistan during the Carter Administration (1977-1981) realized that in spawning Islamic militancy with the primary aim of defeating the Soviet Union they were risking sowing the seeds of a phenomenon that was likely to acquire a life of its own, spread throughout the Muslim world and threaten US interests?
Perhaps not, but it was not as if they had no choice. When Moscow intervened militarily in Afghanistan in December 1979, there were several secular and nationalist Afghan groups opposed to the Moscow-backed Communists, who had seized power twenty months earlier in a military coup. Washington had the option of bolstering these groups and encouraging them to form an alliance with three traditionalist Islamic factions, two of them monarchist. Instead, Washington beefed up the three fundamentalist organizations then in existence. This left moderate Islamic leaders no choice but to ally with hard-liners and form the radical-dominated Islamic Alliance of Afghan Mujahedeen (IAAM) in 1983.