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US policy blunders that spawn terror

November 05, 2001

LONDON: While waging its war against the Taliban, the United States is actively promoting the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance as the major - if not sole - alternative. But the record of the eight-year-old Alliance is an unpalatable one.

Washington has blundered often in its Afghanistan policy since 1979. Its decision in 1980 to back Islamic fundamentalist Afghans, ignoring the secular, nationalist groups opposing the Soviet-backed leftist regime in Kabul, produced the Afghan Mujahideen - and its progeny, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Though the title Northern Alliance today applies principally to the ethnic Tajik-dominated political formation in a small north-eastern enclave of Afghanistan, it was originally coined by Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek and leader of the National Islamic Movement.

After consolidating his control of six north-western provinces of Afghanistan (out of 31), he began calling himself ’President of the Northern Alliance’ in 1993. Dostum, 47, is a chameleon-like character. He started out as a Communist union chief at a gas field constructed by Soviet technicians. Following the Soviet military involvement in Afghanistan from December 1979, he was told to establish an ethnic Uzbek militia. By the mid-1980s, it was 20,000 strong.

After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, he actively helped leftist leader Mohammad Najibullah retain power. But in March 1992 he switched sides and went over to the seven-party Afghan Mujahideen Alliance. Najibullah fell the next month.

Dostum served briefly in the Mujahideen government headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik. Soon he broke away to become President of the Northern Alliance, with his capital in Mazar-e Sharif. He enriched himself and set up an airline, Balkh Air, which did not last. In August 1998, the Taliban defeated him, and he took refuge in Turkey.

In March 2001 he returned to Afghanistan and nominally joined the Northern Alliance, which by then had become almost totally Tajik. Given the record of flip-flops, his statement that if the Taliban were overthrown, he would accept President Rabbani’s orders must be treated with great scepticism.

When Soviet troops went into Afghanistan in late 1979, there were several secular and nationalist Afghan groups opposed to the Moscow-backed Commu-nists, who had seized power in a military coup 20 months earlier. Washington had the option of bolstering them and encouraging them to ally with the three hardline Muslim factions, two of them monarchist.

Instead, it beefed up the three radical Muslim groups there. Moderate Islamic leaders saw no option but to ally with hardliners, which led to the formation of the radical-dominated Islamic Alliance of Afghan Mujahideen in 1983.

The main architect of this US policy was Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter. A virulent anti-Communist of Polish origin, he saw his chance in Moscow’s Afghan intervention to rival his predecessor Henry Kissinger as a heavyweight strategic thinker.

It was not enough to push Soviet tanks out of Afghanistan, he reasoned. It was also an opportunity to export a composite ideology of nationalism and Islam to the Soviet Union’s Muslim-majority Central Asian republics in order to destroy the entire Soviet order.

With this in mind, a US-Saudi-Pakistani alliance set about financing, training and arming Afghan and non-Afghan Mujahideen, an enterprise that lasted almost a decade. But though the Soviets left and the American involvement ended, the programme of training and financing assorted Mujahideen to fight holy wars in different parts of the world continued.

It culminated on Sept 11 when three flying bombs destroyed the World Trade Centre in New York and damaged the Pentagon in Washington DC. Washington is not alone in foisting such short-sighted policies. Israel made a similar mistake in regard to the Palestine Liberation Organisation - a secular nationalist body.

With the PLO emerging as the dominant force in the occupied Palestinian territories in the mid-1970s, Israel decided to encourage the growth of an organization known as the Islamic Centre, based in the Gaza Strip. Brigadier-General Yitzhak Segev, then military governor of Gaza, told the New York Times how, during 1979-84, he financed the Islamic movement as a counter-weight to the PLO and Communists: “The Israeli government gave me a budget, and the military government gives (money) to the mosques.”

The mosques to which Segev channelled government cash were the ones run by the Islamic Centre. In 1980, when Muslim radicals burnt down the Red Crescent Society building in Gaza city, a body funded indirectly by the PLO, the Israeli army looked the other way. The Israeli army and intelligence complicity was later confirmed by Moshe Arens, Israel’s defence minister in 1983-84.

“There was no doubt that during a certain period the Israeli governments perceived it (Muslim radicalism) as a healthy phenomenon that could counter the PLO,” he wrote in his memoirs.

When the first Palestinian intifada erupted in December 1987, the leaders of the Islamic Centre established Hamas, the acronym of Harkat Al Muqawama Al Islami, Movement of Islamic Resistance. Hamas in turn set up a military wing, naming it after Izz al Din Qassam, a leader of the Arab intifada of 1936-39 against the British mandate in Palestine. Hamas has since proved to be unrelenting opponents of the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian Territories - more so than the PLO.

Now things have come full circle. The rather unreliable Gen Dostum is being encouraged by the US to recapture Mazar-e Sharif. And the ‘war against terrorism’ is spawning a revival of activity in Egypt by al Gamaat as well as the more extreme Al Jihad Al Islami, which is allied to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. —Gemini News