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AFGHANISTAN: LEGACY OF FEAR

U.S. Missed Cues on New Crop of Radicals

Shortsightedness in backing rebels against Soviets has come back to haunt America, which now finds itself a prime target of terrorists who learned their trade from Afghan warriors.

August 04, 1996|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In what American officials now admit was a foreign policy failure, the United States "missed" the formation of a generation of Islamic extremists--many of whom have since gone on to foment death and violent dissent from Morocco to the Philippines--during the decade-long U.S. intervention in Afghanistan.

Both the intelligence and diplomatic communities knew that thousands of Arabs and other non-Afghans were slipping into and out of the Afghans' war against Soviet occupation with the help of Saudi money and Pakistani connivance.

But in a classic case of singular, shortsighted focus, Washington virtually ignored the trend, said a range of current and retired U.S. officials.

"We missed it. And there are probably a lot of us who are sorry now that we didn't pay more attention. We might have been able to prevent a lot of grief," a former central figure in U.S. policymaking said.

The non-Afghans--whose acts later turned out to be among the most lethal, lasting byproducts of the Afghan War--were never the subject of a single U.S. intelligence report, task force study, white paper, diplomatic warning or State Department analysis in the Carter, Reagan or Bush administrations for several reasons:

* The presence of non-Afghans initially was noncontroversial. "We never looked at the Arab elements as bad. Our philosophy was 'the more the merrier.' After all, they were the ones willing to do the dying," said a former ranking specialist who spent several years involved in U.S.-Afghan operations. Indeed, at the time, the role of the non-Afghans was compared to that of American and European volunteers who joined the socialists to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Anyone willing to join the cause--the U.S. viewed it as beating back aggression by the Soviet Union, which President Reagan dubbed the "Evil Empire"--was welcome.

* U.S. intelligence was narrowly focused on America's Afghan mandate: to act, chiefly, as quartermaster and gunrunner. "Operation Cyclone" was defined in a secret, single-sentence presidential "finding" by the Carter administration calling for the CIA to provide lethal and nonlethal aid to the Afghans to resist Soviet occupation. It remained the basis of U.S. intervention through three presidencies. "The United States had the strategic aim of inflicting defeat," a former high-level official said. "We took the means of waging war and put them in the hands of those capable of doing it. That meant the American role was largely procurement and liaison almost totally focused on providing arms."

* The non-Afghans ultimately were peripheral to the war's outcome. "By and large, the Arabs did not distinguish themselves as fighters during the Afghan War. In most cases, they were no more than a footnote," said the ranking specialist. Many were merely "armchair moujahedeen," said a former U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan. Up to half of the roughly 12,500 who trained probably never saw a battle, much less fought, analysts said. Thousands ended up in Pakistan with various private aid groups or disappeared into the murky world of guns and wartime chaos.

Non-Afghans who did fight were often criticized by moujahedeen commanders as hotheads. They were tolerated mainly as a means to gain access to more patronage and foreign money. "A lot of Afghan commanders did not like to have Arabs around. They thought [they] were nuts and did not want to have anything to do with them," said a former U.S. diplomat who served in Peshawar, Pakistan.

* Despite conventional wisdom, U.S. contact with the non-Afghans was negligible, in part because of their hostility toward the United States. "To most of the non-Afghans, we were anathema," the diplomat said. As a result, not one of more than two dozen U.S. officials--experts on the Afghan situation who were interviewed--recalled hearing of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a mentor to the Arab fighters in Afghanistan who was convicted last year of plotting to bomb several New York landmarks; nor could the officials recall any of the other names that were to emerge after the war.

*

The U.S. presence in Afghanistan was small. There were no more than 100 full-time U.S. diplomats and intelligence operatives there, in Pakistan and in Washington involved in the war at any one time, said the high-level official who worked in Washington. "The CIA prided itself on conducting a major operation with little American involvement," said a former U.S. diplomat who worked in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and in Washington.

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