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Origins of al Qaeda

March 23rd, 2004 (10:24 pm)

current mood: pensive
current song: Nena - 99 Luftballoons

I've been reading Against All Enemies, by Richard Clarke; it's about counterterrorism efforts over the past 20 years. (Clarke worked on counterterrorism under Reagan, Bush the elder, Clinton, and Bush the younger; he worked in the White House from about 1993 to 2003.) The claim that really got public attention is:

I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism. He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop September 11.

But there's a whole lot of interesting stuff in the background, too. As you probably know, Osama bin Laden fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, as part of the US-supported mujahedin. Most people today seem to view this as ingratitude, or as just bad luck; Clarke makes it clear that, no, it is not a coincidence at all.

Clarke says he was the one that suggested providing surface-to-air missiles to the mujahedin in the 1980s, so that they could shoot down Soviet armored helicopters. He had to overcome some resistance from the CIA and the Pentagon; and there was never any question of US troops to entering Afghanistan. Instead, the US shipped Stinger missiles to Pakistan, and the Pakistanis trained the mujahedin. The Stingers were heat-seeking missiles, and the Soviets had some kind of countermeasure; but the mujahedin came up with a tactic to use two Stingers at once to confuse the countermeasures. They shot down hundreds of helicopters in just a few months, until the Soviets stopped using them. Without those helicopters to worry about, the mujahedin were able to drive the Soviets out.

So far so good. The Reagan administration had wanted to deal the Soviets a decisive blow, to block their invasion and show them that they couldn't just expect the US to let them have it their own way. That's what they got. But, because they didn't send any actual people into Afghanistan, they missed the chance to build contacts and gratitude among the mujahedin. Failing that, the mujahedin took the practical view: they knew the US didn't really care about freeing Afghanistan; we just wanted to stop the USSR.

As a result, the mujahedin learned a lesson that has come back to haunt us. The Stinger missiles were all they needed for victory. They had the soldiers, the courage, the tactics; they had just lacked superpower-grade weaponry. So, what the mujahedin learned is that, given decent weapons, an irregular force can defeat a superpower. When the US left troops in Saudi Arabia after Gulf War I (which bin Laden, and many others, considered a defilement of the sacred cities there), bin Laden remembered that lesson, and started gathering mujahedin veterans. They founded the Afghan Services Bureau; its public face was a sort of mujahedin VFW, but we now know it as al Qaeda.

Of course, it's not clear what else the US could have done. Stopping the Soviets in Afghanistan was instrumental in ending the Cold War; but sending in US troops would have risked a direct confrontation, which could have been instrumental in starting World War III. Clarke makes this point, too; he lists the mistakes that were made in our Afghanistan intervention, but admits that he still can't see what else could have been done.