Non-Subscriber Extract

Why? An attempt to explain the unexplainable

14 September 2001
Why? An attempt to explain the unexplainable

By Rahul Bedi,
Jane’s correspondent in New Delhi

The origins of last Tuesday’s attack on the United States arguably have their roots in the 1970s. At this time, during the height of the Cold War, a Washington shamed by defeat in Vietnam embarked on a deep, collaborative enterprise to contain the Soviet Union.

The genesis of the policy came to a head following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when President Jimmy Carter set up a team headed by National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to employ its ‘death by a thousands cuts’ policy on the tottering Soviet empire, especially the oil- and mineral-rich Central Asian Republics then ruled by Moscow.

A marriage of convenience

Thus began the US-love affair with Islamists in which short-term profit motivated all parties concerned, but the deadly ramifications of which are haunting the world today and the effects of which were brought home starkly to America earlier this week.

This ‘marriage of convenience’, consummated in an alliance with Islamic fundamentalists, particularly suited the Pakistani military junta of General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, which was looking for greater strategic depth and economic influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The flip side of the wily general’s agenda was that this alliance with the US would also strengthen Pakistan's military capabilities with respect to rival India with the induction of sophisticated US weaponry at throwaway prices. This was also the time when Pakistan made great strides in developing its covert nuclear capability through a combination of clandestine transactions, outright theft and forging closer military and nuclear relations with China, all connived at by Washington.

The US-led ‘proxy war’ model was based on the premise that Islamists made good anti-Communist allies. The plan was diabolically simple: to hire, train and control motivated Islamic mercenaries. The trainers were mainly from Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, who learnt their craft from American Green Beret commandos and Navy SEALS in various US training establishments. Mass training of Afghan mujahideen was subsequently conducted by the Pakistan Army under the supervision of the elite Special Services Group (SSG), specialists in covert action behind enemy lines and the ISI.

Pakistan’s current military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, spent seven years with the SSG and was also involved in training Afghan mujahideen. Provided he co-operates, he will prove a useful guide to the US in hunting down terrorists inside Afghanistan.

The entire anti-Soviet operation, headed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and held together on the ground by the ISI, was supported by generous donations from the US State Department, Western governments, Saudi Arabia and a handful of commando experts from the UK Special Air Service (SAS), while surveillance training, communication and first aid help came from France.

Israel provided weapons like rifles, tanks and even artillery pieces, captured during its many wars with the Arab states, while Sudan and Algeria contributed committed mujahideen and religious motivation. The entire operation was, inexplicably but amusingly, christened the Safari Club.

Fallout from the fighting

The fallout of this ‘holy war’, which ended with the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, brought in its wake a series of distinctly ‘unholy wars’ and ‘epidemics of violence’ in places like Kashmir in northern India. It also brought grave unrest to the Central Asian and other former Soviet Republics like Chechnya as well as to North Africa. Now, it has been brought to the US, and to the rest of the world.

Over the past decade Afghanistan has been steadily devastated by internecine battles in which the Pakistan-backed Taliban militia has emerged partially victorious. Nearly two million Afghans of the country's population of some four million became refugees in Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. The majority of those who were part of the jihad became unemployed, lacking food and shelter and, most importantly, patrons.

This, in turn, made them ideal recruits for exploitation by the ISI and Pakistan’s increasingly fundamentalist army. According to intelligence estimates over 10,000 Islamic mercenaries, trained in guerrilla warfare and armed with sophisticated weapons, are unemployed in Pakistan today, waiting to be transported to the next jihad.

Osama bin Laden was one of many US beneficiaries in its war against Moscow. He spent years in the mid-1980s travelling widely to raise funds and recruit thousands of Muslim youths to fight the Soviets.

The rise of Al-Qaeda

In 1988, with US knowledge, Bin Laden created Al Qaeda (The Base): a conglomerate of quasi-independent Islamic terrorist cells in countries spread across at least 26 countries, including Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Burma, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Indonesia, Kenya, Tanzania, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Syria, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Bosnia as well as the West Bank and Gaza. Western intelligence sources claim Al Quaeda even has a cell in Xinjiang in China, a country that ironically was another willing partner in the jihad against the Soviets. China wanted the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan for its own strategic ends and even trained and despatched Muslim Uighurs of the western Xinjiang region to fight alongside the Afghan mujahideen. China feared that the old Silk Route along the Karakoram Highway could, in time, come under Moscow's domination if the Soviets were not swiftly dislodged from Kabul.

Chinese strategy on this front, however, had a negative fallout for Beijing as the returning Uighur jihadis fuelled the already-simmering insurgency for an independent Muslim Eastern Turkestan in Xinjiang. This insurgency continues, though the Chinese have managed to significantly counter it through economic sops, effective sealing of borders and drowning dissidence using strong-arm methods, actions unquestioned by the outside world.

Washington turned a blind eye to Al-Qaeda, confident that it would not directly impinge on the US. By the time the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed in 1998, killing 224 people including 12 Americans, and the ill-fated World Trade Center was similarly attacked around the same time, it was too late for remedial measures. It was this reality that was brought home with such an unimaginable atrocity this week.

End of non-subscriber extract