Politics & Policy

Oh, No: Not Another ‘CIA Solution’ for Afghanistan

We're still reeling from the last one.

It has been over 20 years since the American-sponsored Afghan mujahideen stunned the world by forcing the invading Red Army to withdraw, a major falling domino in the Soviet collapse. Now Jack Devine, a former top CIA official who was instrumental in that effort, argues that, in today’s war, there will be no U.S. victory in Afghanistan.

If he is proven right, it will not be for the reasons that he posits. In truth, the lack of a strategy for winning the broader war against Islamists guarantees that the battle can’t be won in any individual theater. Imagine trying to win World War II in France while ignoring the rest of Europe, North Africa, and the Far East. Even if we indulge the pretense that Afghanistan is a one-off, Devine’s suggested “CIA solution” to our Afghan conundrum — i.e., pulling out combat forces and putting the agency in charge of an Eighties-style approach — makes about as much sense as solving the financial meltdown by putting ol’ fuel and fire, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, in charge. We ought to say, “Been there, done that.”

It would be an overstatement bordering on slander to say the CIA caused the catastrophe we are dealing with today. The cause of Islamist terror is Islamist ideology. But the agency made things considerably worse: The overwrought allegation that the CIA “created al-Qaeda” did not get started out of nowhere.

Even before we knew much about Osama bin Laden and his network, I had to deal — as a prosecutor in the early Nineties — with whispers that Omar Abdel Rahman, the “blind sheikh” who built the jihadist cell that eventually bombed the World Trade Center, was a covert CIA operative. The speculation was understandable. Abdel Rahman was a strong recruiter and fundraiser for the mujahideen. Combine that with the intelligence community’s astonishing ineptitude in allowing him to enter the U.S. repeatedly (and finally to settle here), and there is plenty of grist for suspicion. But Abdel Rahman was no American spy. Not only did the CIA deny any relationship with him (credibly, as later investigations showed), the blind sheikh also never claimed such a relationship, even when it might have helped him fight off a prosecution that landed him in jail for the rest of his life.

The real reason it seems plausible that the likes of Abdel Rahman and bin Laden could have had CIA ties is that today’s violent Islamist movement came to life as a global phenomenon due in large part to the agency’s lavish investment in Afghanistan. The CIA can continue to pretend otherwise until hell freezes over, but  the unrelenting fact is: We weren’t careful enough about whom we were helping.


State Department cant still underscores our burning desire to “support the Afghans fighting for their country’s freedom.” In the Eighties, however, our government was preoccupied with the Soviets: We sought to mire the U.S.S.R. in as draining a guerrilla war as possible while maintaining some deniability of our involvement. As Steve Coll recounts in Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, it was only days after the Soviets’ 1979 invasion that national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told Pres. Jimmy Carter, “Our ultimate goal is the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. . . . Even if this is not attainable, we should make Soviet involvement as costly as possible.”

Beyond those goals, our government didn’t care about much else, including such unintended consequences as the anti-American juggernaut American largesse helped unleash. The CIA structured U.S. assistance, and allowed other international financing efforts to be structured, in such a way as to turn a blind eye to where billions upon billions in funding and materiél went.

All these years later, ignoring abundant evidence of intimacy between the most anti-American Afghan factions and the anti-American terror network that sprang from the jihad, the intelligence community persists in disavowing any contribution to the emergence of Islamist terror as a global phenomenon. Thus does the CIA mulishly maintain that its support went only to the Afghans who, we are to believe, abhorred the legions of Arab jihadists who flooded their country to fight alongside them — notwithstanding the Afghans’ nurturing of the jihadist movement and the safe haven they willingly gave al-Qaeda for years.


Perhaps the best example of the fanciful CIA storyline is offered by Marc Sageman, who, like Devine, dealt with the mujahideen as a CIA officer. In Understanding Terror Networks, a book widely touted in government circles, Sageman asserts, “I am not aware of any major Afghan participant in the global Salafi jihad except for Wali Kahn Amin Shah.” “Global Salafi jihad” is Sagemen’s term for al-Qaeda’s terror campaign — to be distinguished from the CIA’s Afghan jihad.

Shah is an inconvenient Afghan, because he was convicted in al-Qaeda’s mid-Nineties plot to bomb American airliners in flight over the Pacific. But Dr. Sageman, a psychiatrist, posits that the CIA ought to get a mulligan because Shah was a close personal friend of bin Laden. That is, Shah’s participation in al-Qaeda’s rampage, his bridging of the chasm of enmity that supposedly divides Afghans and Arabs, was an accident of friendship, not an incident of shared ideology. Odd that Dr. Sageman could spend so much time on Afghanistan without ever hearing of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Twice the prime minister of Afghanistan, and once a heavyweight in the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, Hekmatyar is closely aligned with the Taliban, bin Laden, and the blind sheikh. In the Eighties, he was also a recipient of bottomless CIA funding.

The term Salafi refers to the first Muslim generations. Salafism is the Islamist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks a universal caliphate modeled on the principles of Islam’s founders. Sageman’s emphasis on Salafism is no accident. Since it is the ideology of today’s Sunni jihadists, who are predominantly Arab, Sageman portrays it as repellant to the moderate Sufi version of Islam that, according to U.S. government dogma, is monolithically preferred by Afghans. You’re not supposed to ask questions like, What about Hekmatyar? What about the Taliban? What about the new Afghanistan’s insistence on writing the centrality of sharia (the Muslim legal system) into its constitution? What about that Christian convert for whom the Karzai government sought the death penalty over his apostasy from Islam?

Instead, you’re supposed to accept that Afghans and Arab jihadists are so theologically and temperamentally incompatible it is impossible that, by funding and arming Afghans, the CIA might have improved the lot of those awful Salafist al-Qaeda types. And then you’re supposed to turn the CIA loose so that, with its rich insights about Afghanistan, it can fix the country all over again. Dr. Sageman still finds it “all the more surprising [that] al-Qaeda kept training camps in Afghanistan for more than a decade.” Why, yes . . . and who do you suppose let them do that? Real life can be full of surprises if we insist on rationalizing rather than observing it. But can our national security keep tolerating such surprises?

In recent years, the government, finally, has officially acknowledged that the CIA’s cut-out in Afghanistan was Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI). We prosecutors were forbidden to admit as much at the blind shiekh’s 1995 trial, even though U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan contras was probably a better-kept secret. The stipulation read to the jury — after 18 months of sealed litigation — conceded only that the United States had provided economic and military support to the mujahideen “through a third-country intermediary”; it did not identify our abettor. Years later, with the intelligence community feeling intense heat over its dismal pre-9/11 performance, the CIA could no longer afford to be so stingy. The 9/11 Commission thus disclosed that the “United States supplied billions of dollars worth of secret assistance to rebel groups in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet occupation. This assistance was funneled through Pakistan: the [ISI] helped train the rebels and dis­tribute the arms.”


Moreover, with not only the intelligence community but our nation under international criticism for having reared the terror network that has now matured into a worldwide threat, the State Department got into the act. In 2005, it issued a press release categorically denying that the U.S. had “created Osama bin Laden.” But this denial — reasserted in May 2009 — answers the wrong question. It’s not whether we “created” bin Laden; it’s whether we materially helped him and his network grow and evolve into what they became.

State tried to do the impossible: hold the CIA blameless but explain what actually happened. It dutifully reprised the story about how Afghans and Arabs despised one another, such that helping the former in no way facilitated the latter. Its impressive array of expert witnesses on this point included Dr. Sageman and Milt Bearden, who, like Devine, had helped run the CIA’s Afghan operation. In offering Bearden’s summation, State relied on an excerpt from Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden, by CNN’s terrorism analyst, Peter Bergen:

CIA official Milt Bearden, who ran the Agency’s Afghan operation in the late 1980s, says, “The CIA did not recruit Arabs,” as there was no need to do so. There were hundreds of thousands of Afghans all too willing to fight, and the Arabs who did come for jihad were “very disruptive”#….#The Afghans thought they were a pain in the ass.

Yes, we’ve heard: They couldn’t stand being in the same jihad together. Again, though, the question is not whether the CIA recruited Arabs. In fact, to listen to Dr. Sageman, even al-Qaeda doesn’t recruit Arabs. As terrorism analyst Lorenzo Vidino observes in Al Qaeda in Europe — The New Battleground of International Jihad:

The studies on recruitment for jihad undertaken by Marc Sageman, a former CIA official and an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, have revealed that al-Qaeda carries out no top-down recruitment; instead, spontaneously formed clusters of young radicals naturally team up with recruiters, who select those who have the skills and dedication that can be useful to the cause. “It’s actually very much like applying to Harvard,” says Sageman, pointing out that al-Qaeda’s problem is selection, not recruitment.

Exactly: The issue is not recruitment, but whether the CIA endowed the jihadist Harvard. Was the agency like today’s university donors who contribute huge sums but then disavow any responsibility for what’s being taught in the schools? Did the agency knowingly foster an atmosphere in which these spontaneously arriving clusters of Arab jihadists could easily – and quite foreseeably — find the opportunities, the trainers, and the means to become more effective, more networked terrorists? Did the agency do so knowing virulently anti-Western jihadists were finding each other? The answers to those questions are palpable.

Ironically, it is the State Department that gives up the ghost. In its angst to shift to Pakistan the blame for al-Qaeda’s rise, State inadvertently destroys the CIA’s fairy tale. Again, its expert source is Peter Bergen:

The United States wanted to be able to deny that the CIA was funding the Afghan war, so its support was funneled through Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI). ISI in turn made the decisions about which Afghan factions to arm and train, tending to favor the most Islamist and pro-Pakistan. The Afghan Arabs generally fought alongside those factions, which is how the charge arose that they were creatures of the CIA.

Put aside State’s remarkable candor in conceding that the CIA went through the ISI precisely in order to maintain deniability. This admission acknowledges that some of those purportedly peaceful Sufi Afghans turn out to have been . . . Islamists. In truth, the CIA well knew that there were Islamist-oriented Afghan factions, and that those factions were favored by the Pakistanis. Armed with this knowledge, the agency passed funding and arms to the Pakistanis, knowing a goodly share of it would go to anti-American Islamists, such as Hekmatyar, who had close ties to the Arabs. Hekmatyar, as Bergen relates, was (and is) an “Islamist zealot,” yet his Hizb party received fully 20 percent of the U.S. contribution — i.e., about about $600 million of the $3 billion total, and that’s without counting the considerable Saudi aid that came his way (the Saudis having matched U.S. aid dollar for dollar).

To be clear, it was not the CIA’s purpose to promote Islamism. Our government wanted to get assistance into the hands of the factions that would be most effective in combating the Soviets (though how effective Hekmatyar’s was in that regard is hotly disputed). It is just preposterous, though, to maintain that the fallout of this effort — the fueling of jihadism — did not happen. It happened in spades, and we did nothing meaningful to account for it.

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Devine says our current military operations in Afghanistan “are alarmingly similar to those of the Russians.” That ludicrous claim has been ably dismantled by AEI’s Gary Schmitt. I don’t share Schmitt’s enthusiasm for the American counterinsurgency strategy, but one needn’t love COIN to discern that its focus on promoting Afghan civil society is the antithesis of the Soviets’ scorched-earth approach. Still, just as disturbing as Devine’s misdiagnosis is his proposed cure. Once our military departs, he says, we should focus on the “productive relationships” that we may be able to establish with Afghan tribal leaders, including “Taliban factions,” in order to serve American interests.

Have we learned anything?

— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.


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