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UNHOLY WARS Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism; By John K. Cooley Pluto Press: 276 pp., $29.95

January 16, 2000|KARL E. MEYER | Karl E. Meyer, a former editorialist for The New York Times, is coauthor with Shareen Blair Brysac of "Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia."

Masochists hungry for gloomy news as we enter a new millennium can hearken to Norway's foreign minister, Knut Vollebaek, outgoing chairman of the 54-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He predicts that Central Asia, a huge saucer of steppe and desert bounded by Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran, faces conflicts "even worse than the Balkans."

Nearly everything awful you can imagine--terrorism, murderous civil and religious wars, gross human rights abuses, ecological disasters and nuclear blackmail--seems possible, much of it either inspired by or emanating from Afghanistan, now the haven of choice for Islamist xenophobes, especially America haters.

But why Afghanistan? Americans, after all, cheered and armed the Afghan resistance after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to rescue a tottering communist regime in Kabul. The CIA orchestrated massive arms shipments via Pakistan, including state-of-the-art Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Three administrations promoted a bipartisan policy that endured through a decade of war. Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush hailed the moujahedeen as "freedom fighters," and no one doubts that Afghan intrepidity turned the tide.

In 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev, bowing to reality, agreed to a complete Soviet withdrawal, the first in the Cold War. CIA officers uncorked the champagne in the agency's campus-like quarters at Langley, Va., as the last Soviet soldier crossed the Friendship Bridge to Uzbekistan in February 1989.

From that moment, however, nothing went right for the victors. The freedom fighters brawled among themselves and failed in their first major offensive. When they finally managed in 1992 to dislodge the abandoned communist regime in Kabul, they shelled one another, devastating their own capital and pillaging its treasures. Desperate farmers beset by anarchy turned as never before to their one sure cash crop--poppies. Output soared, and Afghanistan today produces three times more opium than the rest of the world together. Warlords of every description, battening on the drug traffic, aided by a dozen foreign patrons, carved the country into fractious enclaves, dispelling hopes that up to 5 million refugees, mostly in Pakistan, might finally return home.

No wonder that at first Afghans turned gratefully in 1994-95 to a new movement, the Taliban (meaning "students" or, in some renderings, "the Seekers"). These soldiers of Allah--young, incorruptible and burning with primordial piety--stormed Kabul in 1996. Flouting the rules of asylum, they entered the United Nations compound and seized Najibullah, the fallen communist leader. Taliban executioners castrated and decapitated the despised former president, then hoisted his carcass in the Kabul bazaar. Decrees followed that mandated beards for men and banished women from schools, employment or even streets unless escorted. Out went television and other impious innovations contrary to the Koran as rigidly interpreted by Taliban's hermetic leader, Muhammad Umar, who refuses even to meet non-Muslims.

As the Taliban went on to conquer all but the northern fringe of Afghanistan, it became apparent that the Seekers had an export agenda. According to the staid and sober quarterly, Foreign Affairs, some 35,000 Muslim militants from 40 Islamic countries took part in the Afghan jihad, or holy war. Purist Kabul became the cynosure for this Islamic legion as it fanned homeward across a great arc, from the Russian Caucasus and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia southward to India's troubled Kashmir, providing a threat, often shamelessly exaggerated, to justify war and repression.

As detailed in John K. Cooley's "Unholy Wars," the Afghan-inspired militants have also reached out to restive Muslims in western China and into the hovels of Egypt and Algeria. Across the sea in New York, revolutionary zealots truck-bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. Caught and convicted, the bombers proved to be disciples of a blind Egyptian prayer-leader, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a recent and honored visitor to Afghan training camps in Peshawar, whose United States visa had been cleared by the CIA.

This was surely not the outcome that William Casey, Ronald Reagan's spymaster, had in mind. Cooley's important and timely book examines "a strange love-affair that went disastrously wrong," the alliance between America and "some of the most conservative and fanatical followers of Islam." To my knowledge, it is the first on this theme. Possibly the author, a well-regarded Middle East correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and more recently for ABC News, tries to explain too much, and certainly his text is marred by errors that a good copy editor would have caught--for example, misidentifying former U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R-N.H.) as Hubert Humphrey.

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