'Blowback' in Afghanistan

Tuesday, January 1, 1991

Our Woman in Kabul
By Irris Makler
Bantam Books, 2003
356 pages, $32.95

REVIEW BY HARRY THROSSELL

A revealing aspect of Irris Makler's multi-layered book, Our Woman in Kabul, is her account of the US government's support for Osama bin Laden, and associated organisations, in their war against Russian troops in Afghanistan during the 1980s. This support not only had a direct bearing on the outcome of that war, but also on the subsequent civil war of the 1990s, in which the bin Laden-equipped Taliban fought against the Northern Alliance factions.

Makler is known to the Australian public for her work on ABC television, locally and in Moscow. Previously, she worked in London for BBC TV's Panorama program and for Independent TV. In Moscow, she left the ABC and went freelance.

A week after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, Makler set off for Afghanistan as it had become clear that the military might of the US was to be unleashed there in the hunt for bin Laden. Her survival was threatened, not only by gunfire and landmines, but also in daily battles for food, water and somewhere to sleep. Despite this, Makler was always accumulating facts, interviewing and communicating stories on time, in one of the harshest geographical and social environments in the world.

Bin Laden first arrived in Afghanistan in 1980 to join the jihad, the "holy war" against the Russians, who had intervened in Afghanistan to defend the left-wing government that had come to power in 1978. The US government was also involved in "its largest covert action program since World War II, funnelling more than US$3.2 billion in guns and money to the Mujaheddin", writes Makler. "It started in the summer of 1979, when Washington signed a secret directive to support the fledgling Mujaheddin movement, six months before the Soviet tanks rolled into Kabul."

United States' strategy

Zbigniew Brzezinski, US President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, said the aim was to "destabilise the Soviet Union by fostering the spread of Islamic militancy in Central Asia". At a turning point in this war, in 1985, US President Ronald Reagan doubled covert military aid to the Mujaheddin to $250 million a year, and took high-tech and military expertise to the Afghan battlefield. The CIA started supplying satellite reconnaissance data of Soviet targets, plans for military operations, intercepts of Soviet communications and, in 1986, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

While the CIA provided funds, weapons and supervision, direct contact was left to Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI. "By 1987, CIA and Pentagon specialists were constantly travelling to the new ISI headquarters at Rawalpindi", Makler notes. By 1988, the annual amount being pumped to the Mujaheddin reached $700 million; the US was even shipping Tennessee mules to carry weapons over the mountains.

The organisation in Pakistan distributing recruits, money and equipment to the Mujaheddin was Maktab al Khidamat (MAK), run by three people — including Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden brought construction equipment from Saudi Arabia and built road s and Mujaheddin training camps in collaboration with the ISI and the CIA. Between 1987 and 1988, bin Laden established al Qaeda (the Base), a tightly run holding company integrating the operations of his armed forces with other "legitimate" businesses.

In 1989, bin Laden took overall charge of MAK, which "was known throughout the 1990s, reported on in detail in American newspapers, but the wisdom of arming Islamic militants and the policy of spawning a huge increase in opium production was swept under the carpet".

US journalist John Cooley revealed in his article "Al Qaeda's

elusive money men" (Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2002) that Muslims were recruited within the US for the Mujaheddin and were trained at a CIA camp in Virginia. A report on the finance of terrorism by the New York Council on Foreign Relations "omits the aid the US gave to Afghan anti-Soviet fighters over decades", he wrote.

No regrets

Brzezinski had no regrets: "That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap. What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet Empire?"

When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989, the heavily armed Mujaheddin turned on each other, plunging Afghanistan into more years of bitter warfare. As Makler states: "When religious students from the south of the country, calling themselves the Taliban, stepped in offering peace and order, a grateful war-weary nation accepted. The tiny doctrinaire group conquered more than half the country without firing a shot."

The CIA scrambled for cover, claiming it had no direct dealings with bin Laden. To Makler it makes little difference: "Bin Laden was linked to ISI, and ISI was 'ours', taking CIA money and spending it for 'us' in Afghanistan."

Makler refers to "blowback" — Washington's support for an unsavoury leader because it suits their short-term ends, only to have him turn around and bite the US later, as also happened with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Was 9/11 "payback" for US policies in Central Asia in the 1980s? Was it simply bad luck that bin Laden based his al Qaeda network there? Did the US create its own Frankenstein's monster? "Surely this is blowback with a capital B?', declares Makler.

Makler says resentment towards the USA has continued in Afghanistan. "Afghans want to know why the US funded 10 years of war here, and then, having supplied enough arms for the Mujaheddin to keep fighting for the following decade, too, just upped and left. In her clinic at the refugee camp, Farahnaz Nazir looked up from tending malnourished babies and said, 'the September 11 attacks were terrible, simply terrible. But when the Communists were defeated, the US washed their hands of us, and left us to live with the fundamentalists. For years we have suffered under them, and now the US is suffering under them too'."

Women

Makler is very moved by the plight of the women in Afghanistan, who are expected to be neither seen nor heard, and by the starving children who have only known danger and deprivation, war and drought.

Makler also finds uplifting spirits. People like Farahnaz Nazir, and determined Italian surgeons Gino Strada and Marco Garatti, who work with the medical aid agency Emergency, which since 1994 has followed wars and treated more than 200,000 victims, whatever side they were on.

In Kabul, many civilians, including children, were victims of landmines — "not a weapon", Strada tells Makler, "[but] a form of terrorism against the civilian population". Strada feels that aid agencies should not pull out when it gets tough but stay put. "If I consider this hospital is not good enough for my daughter or my sister then this hospital is not good enough for Afghans. We have civilians here side by side with Mujaheddin and Taliban — if we learn how to communicate and how to look each other in the eye, in the end there will be no need for Kalashnikovs, or B-52s".

Strada is equally principled about sources of funds, rejecting $4 million from the Italian government when it joined the International Coalition Against Terror: "We cannot accept money to look after Afghans injured by bombs dropped by the same people who are donating the money".

Most Emergency's funds come from individual Italians.

In this uncertain world, Makler worked alongside foreign correspondents, mostly men, who automatically adopted and cared for each other, people with normal needs for companionship of differing degrees of intimacy during days, even hours, which could be their last. This created a flip side. "Danger is an aphrodisiac", Makler observes.

As journalism is "the first draft of history", the reader can be grateful that this important story is written with the good journalist's ability to tell a yarn while making sense of political complications. It's confronting, with its chronicle of human beings' extraordinary capacity for cruelty and destruction, while also providing on-the-spot, eyewitness accounts for the more academic historian.

This reader finished Our Woman in Kabul full of admiration for Irris Makler's courage.

[Harry Throssell was an academic at Queensland University in the 1960s and 1970s, before becoming a journalist. He is author of the Levellers Essays (visit <http://www.geocities.com/youngmick/levellers/>). He is a long-time member of Amnesty International and the reconciliation movement.]

From Green Left Weekly, June 4, 2003.

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