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Claiborne in the early 1980's with mujahedeen fighters on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The press and unintended consequences in Afghanistan

COMMENTARY | September 23, 2010

A veteran correspondent looks back on the Afghanistan-USSR war and glorified press coverage of the mujahedeen, the forerunners of the Taliban. Some were extremely anti-Western even then. Would history be different had there been more balanced reporting?

By William Claiborne 


Sometimes when I read about atrocities committed by the Taliban in Afghanistan my mind flies back to the early 1980s, when, as The Washington Post’s South Asia bureau chief based in New Delhi, I used to make periodic visits to Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province to interview Afghan mujahedeen fighters and their political leaders in an attempt to learn how their battle against vastly superior Soviet Army forces was faring.


During that time, between 1982 and 1985, the Central Intelligence Agency was reported to be providing $250 million a year in covert military aid to the anti-communist insurgents. By the time the Soviet Union finally gave up its decade-long war in 1989 the total grew to an estimated $3 billion, making it the biggest and longest covert military campaign in U.S. history.


In the early 1980s there were seven principal mujahedeen groups based in and around the western Pakistan provincial capital of Peshawar that were being used by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency to distribute CIA-funded weapons to the rebels. We foreign correspondents tended to divide them into two groups, the “fundis,” or fundamentalist Islamic political parties, and the “moderates,” who were more secular and less extreme sounding.


These parties also fielded fighters in the war, and occasionally I would visit their staging bases along the Afghan border and listen to their accounts of battle, which usually were colorfully laced in the traditional Pathan, or Pashtun, manner with embellishments of valor and daring. Their reports, sometimes exaggerated, were always fresh.


In October, 1984, one rebel fighter named That Gul described to me how within the course of exactly one week he had left his Baluchistan border village of Teri Mangal, engaged Soviet troops in firefights near Kabul, and then rode two days on horseback back to Teri Mangal, where I met him. The village, only 60 miles from Kandahar, had been bombed three days earlier by Soviet MIG fighters, with 32 resistance fighters killed. Gul’s heel had been blown off but he already was talking about going back across the border to kill more infidels.


Recently I delved into some of my stories on the Washington Post’s online archives to refresh my memory and mixed in were reminders of resistance leaders I had visited. For some, the sight of their names was enough to trigger thoughts of a very troubling aspect of the 1979-1989 Afghan War: unintended consequences resulting from national policy decisions.


What if I had known then that some of the mujahedeen leaders I interviewed would help Osama bin-Laden escape from the caves of Tora Bora and hide in Pakistan, would become powerful figures in the Taliban, would direct suicide bombings of U.S. soldiers and Afghan civilians and be labeled “global terrorists” by the U.S. State Department and become targeted for assassination by hellfire missiles from U.S. drone aircraft?


Would I have become quite as enamored of them?  Would any of us in the U.S. media have written so many stories that, in retrospect, glorified the most radical of the mujahedeen leaders and, as a result, probably aided their efforts to obtain ever larger amounts of covert U.S. funding for their jihad?


Those were the days of what we would later come to know as “Charlie Wilson’s war,” and I sometimes wonder if the flamboyant U.S. Congressman would have been able to squeeze as much covert funding out of the CIA and the Defense Department as he did if the media had been a little less star-struck by the colorful mujahedeen leaders and their military commanders and fighters, and had explored the possibility of unintended consequences a little more.


It’s a rhetorical question, of course. The consequences of the U.S. government doing nothing might have prolonged the agony of Afghanistan under a brutal Soviet occupation that in the end left more than a million civilians dead. When President Jimmy Carter called the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan "the most serious threat to peace since the Second World War" how could we not, in good conscience, have supported the rebel forces on the basis of vague suspicions that fundamentalist mujahedeen leaders who talked about  “infidels” and “jihads” might one day nearly 20 years down the road become America’s most frightening enemy in the wake of the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001.


But, still, as I re-read some of these stories today they look very much like cheerleading for the mujahedeen, and I wonder if all of us in the American media couldn’t have been a bit more selective with our praise. Some of them, after all, were stridently anti-western even then. The answer to that question, I think, lies at least partly in our lack of access to reliable and objective information about how the war was being conducted. We sought information where we could find it, even if there was a danger that the mujahedeen leaders could be spinning us.


Many of the day-to-day stories about the war in Afghanistan being published at that time were based on government press briefings conducted simultaneously every Tuesday by American Embassy officials in Islamabad and New Delhi, some of whom candidly admitted to never having been to Afghanistan and who frequently stumbled over the pronunciation of the names of towns while reading from diplomatic cables written by the U.S. Mission in Kabul. Under the briefing ground rules, we weren’t even allowed to mention the U.S. embassies by name, and we sourced the information only to “western diplomats.”


Occasionally, reporters who were young and fit enough to do so would courageously hike into the inhospitable eastern Afghanistan mountains with rebel units. Those reporters, who included The Washington Post’s Bill Branigin and James Rupert, provided vivid insights into the kind of war being fought by the mujahedeen, and the tactics they used in battling superior forces. But there also was a need for stories with a wider, strategic perspective of the kind that the resistance political leaders in Peshawar and the senior commanders in the mujahedeen staging camps in Waziristan and Baluchistan were able to provide. That is why we kept going back to them.


Two of the “fundi” mujahedeen leaders we regarded as essential go-to sources in Pakistan in the early 1980s were Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the then 36-year-old founder and commander of the hardline Hezb-e-Islami (party of Islam), and Mohammed Yunus Khalis, then 64, who had broken with Hekmatyar and formed his own group, which he called Hezb-e-Islami Khalis. Additionally, Yunis Khalis had a 33-year-old protégé named Jalaluddin Haqqani who later would form his own splinter insurgent group, the Haqqani Network.

I remember Hekmatyar, who received more covert U.S. funding than any insurgent leader, as being an intense, humorless man with a full beard, glowering eyes and an attitude that seemed surprisingly anti-American for someone so totally dependent on U.S. aid.  He reminded me of some of the fundamentalist mullahs I covered during the 1978-79 Islamic revolution in Iran.


I’m not certain that I got as much substantial strategic or tactical information out of Hekmatyar, shown at left in a BBC photo, as I wanted.  My stories seem to suggest he was more interested in accusing other rebel groups, particularly the moderate ones, of selling CIA-provided weapons on the lucrative arms market in Pakistan. (Here [in PDF] is an article I wrote at the time on insurgents fighting over CIA money and weapons.)


In 1983, because of internecine fighting in Peshawar between insurgent militias, the Pakistani government tried to force the rebels to move their headquarters out of the city, which at times resembled Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war. Hekmatyar, especially, had a reputation for attacking rival mujahedeen factions in an effort to weaken them in the competition for U.S. aid, and also with the longer-range objective of filling the power vacuum that would ensue in post-Soviet Afghanistan.


After the Soviet Army withdrew, Afghanistan erupted into the 1992-1996 Afghan Civil War, during which warring mujahedeen factions destroyed most of Kabul and killed thousands of people. Hekmatyar, who had served as prime minister of unstable Afghan governments in 1993 and 1996, was blamed for much of the destruction and death.


After the Taliban took control of Kabul in September, 1996, Hekmatyar fled into exile in Iran. He returned after the 9/11 attacks and reformed his group, now called Hezb-e-Islami Gulbaddin (HIG). By 2003 he had been designated as a “global terrorist” by the U.S. government, which also asked a U.N. terrorism committee to designate him as an associate of Osama bin Laden.


Numerous bombings of Afghan Army and U.S.-led coalition forces have been attributed to Hekmatyar, who has not tried to disguise his support of al-Qaeda. He has boasted to CNN and the BBC that he helped bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenant, Muhammad al-Zawarhi, escape from Bora Bora. According to the Centre for Research on Globalization, former Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of forces in Afghanistan, identified the Taliban, the Jalaluddin Haqqani Network and Hekmatyar’s Hezb-Islami Gulbaddin, in that order, as the most dangerous insurgent groups in Afghanistan.


Haqqani, according to an account in Steve Coll’s book, “The Bin Ladens,” helped and protected Osama bin Laden as he was building his own jihadist militia in the 1980s. In 1996-97 Haqqani was a high-level Taliban military commander north of Kabul, where he was accused of ethnic cleansing operations against local Tajiks.


Yunis Khalis, who is said to have received the third largest share of covert U.S. military aid, also was a friend of bin Laden from the anti-Soviet jihad, and he also helped the al-Qaeda leader escape from Tora Bora. Khalis introduced bin Laden to the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Muhammad Omar, who had fought with Khalis against the Soviets and who would later become his protégé, according to Mary Anne Weaver in her 2005 New York Times Magazine piece, “Lost at Tora Bora.” Khalis reportedly died in July, 2006.


Of the three parties in the “Moderate Alliance” of mujahedeen groups in Peshawar, by far the most popular with Afghan refugees (and foreign correspondents) was Sayyid Ahmed Gailani, leader of the National Islamic Front. Gailani was personalable, friendly, and helpful to reporters, and far more secular and liberal than any of the other mujahedeen leaders. Pakistan’s ISI, apparently after judging Gailani’s militia as ineffective, allocated it only about 10 per cent of weapons procured by the CIA. In October 2001, Gailani headed a group of Afghan leaders, the Assembly for Peace and National Unity of Afghanistan, which attempted to win over moderate elements in the Taliban.  I sometimes wonder whether history might not have been different had the bulk of covert U.S. military assistance gone to the moderate resistance groups instead of the radical Islamists.


The best-known moderate resistance leader was Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary “Lion of Panjshir” who, following the rise of the Taliban in 1996, commanded the Northern Alliance against the Taliban forces. Unlike a lot of the mujahedeen commanders, Massoud was not often seen in Peshawar during the war. He was busy in Panjshir inflicting so many defeats on the Soviet occupiers that they offered him a ceasefire, which he cleverly used to expand his political and military base beyond his home province.


On Sept. 9, 2001, two days before the fateful terror attacks in America that he had publicly predicted earlier, Massoud was assassinated by Tunisian agents said to be working for al-Qaeda. Previously, Massoud had survived assassination attempts by al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Pakistani ISI, the Soviet KGB and Gulbaddin Hekmatyar (in 1975, when he was 22 years old).


In hindsight, it seems that the CIA put its money on the wrong horses. The mujahedeen leaders who got most of the covert military aid are the radical Islamists who eventually aligned themselves with al-Qaeda and the Taliban against the United States. Perhaps it was the more secular moderates, who in the end turned against the radicals, who should have been backed.


If they had been, we might not be talking about unintended consequences today.




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