In the flood of analysis about the origins of the September 11 attack and previous terrorist assaults on the United States, American support for the Mujaheddin against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan is often cited as a contributor to the spread of Islamist terror and the birth of al Qaeda. This is the theme of veteran journalist and Middle East expert John Cooley’s history of radical Islamist movements from Algeria to the Philippines and veterans of the 1978-88 Afghanistan war who joined their ranks. First published in 1999, the third and present edition of Unholy Wars has been updated and contains an Epilogue written after September 11, 2001. Edward Said’s preface praises Cooley for documenting how the Afghan war bred new cadres of Islamist militants and for explaining the impact of “U.S. manipulation, support, and then abandonment” of the Mujaheddin.
Cooley traces American support for Islamist movements to the early days of the Cold War, when Washington viewed Islam as an ally against communist expansion into the Muslim world. The high point of this strategic relationship, which Cooley describes in fascinating detail, was the massive American effort to support the Mujaheddin war against the Soviets. Working closely with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Washington provided weapons, money and training to the Afghan militants, and encouraged foreign Muslims to join their cause. But when the Soviets were defeated, Cooley argues, things went “disastrously wrong” as foreign veterans of the Afghan battles and training camps would later became shock troops in a new terrorist holy war against the United States and their own governments. Indeed, Cooley asserts that there is a “direct chain of related events” linking American support for the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan to the tragedy of September 11.
How solid is Cooley’s thesis that traces the rise of Islamist terrorism to U.S. support for the first Afghan war, or as he puts it in other words, that Soviet and American intervention in Afghanistan “uncorked the genie” of radical Islam and terror?
For years it has been well-known and widely reported that the outflow of foreign volunteers from the Afghan war, inspired by their victory against the Soviets or trained and indoctrinated in Afghan terrorist camps, returned to lead or support radical Islamist groups in their own countries or elsewhere. And by the mid 1990s, Washington also understood that the violent aftermath of the war in Afghanistan had led to the rise of the Taliban and the creation of a safe haven for Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda commanders. Cooley suggests that Washington officials were oblivious to this phenomenon until it was too late – or chose to downplay it to spare the CIA from criticism. But, in fact, by the mid-1990s, the U.S. intelligence community was focusing intensely on Bin Laden, the training camps in Afghanistan, and other ex-Afghan-Mujahid who were known to have become important players in the toxic growth of non-state Islamist terrorism.
Nevertheless, Cooley’s theory that there was a “direct chain” between U.S. support for the first Afghan war and September 11 overstates the causality of that war and America’s support for it. The rise of radical, anti-American Islamist movements and terrorism are a product of far wider historical forces than U.S. involvement in the first Afghan war. A more accurate analysis would focus on America’s virtual abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat, other omissions of American policy in South Asia and the Middle East after the end of the Cold War, and, no less important, political and economic failure in the Arab and Muslim world.
Indeed, a more complete post mortem might argue that U.S. support for the Mujaheddin was more than vindicated by the downfall of the Soviet Union, an epochal event that was hastened by Moscow’s debacle in Afghanistan, and that it was American policy thereafter, among other factors, that contributed to the rise of Islamist terrorism.
If Washington had capitalized on the Afghan victory with diplomatic and economic support for a free, stable Afghanistan, engaged more fully with Pakistan on its many problems rather than sanctioning it, and invested in diplomacy in Kashmir, perhaps there would have been no Taliban and a more benign subcontinent in the 1990s. If the United States had committed itself to sustained diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after the productive but short-lived Bush-Baker initiative after the Gulf War, and had paid more attention to fostering political and economic change in the Arab world, where we focused primarily on oil and bases, and had engaged more constructively with the Muslim world elsewhere, the fires of radical Islam might burn less fiercely today.
Finally, if Arab and Muslim governments themselves had been more committed to democratization and economic development, there would be fewer angry, alienated young people from those regions who are susceptible to the siren song of fanatical Islam and the message of militant propagandists and recruiters like Bin Laden.
To be fair to Cooley, he did not set out to write a comprehensive study of the roots of terrorism and the September 11 disaster. But, in his search for a unifying theme to tie together his description of Islamist terrorism and the Islamist radicals’ clash with the United States in all its complex, diversity, he overemphasizes the causal legacy of the first Afghanistan war.
The virtues of Unholy Wars are its description, in considerable detail, of how veterans of the Afghan war have contributed to worldwide Islamist terrorism and of activities of these groups in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Caucasus, China and the Philippines over the past two decades. The book is a valuable, compact compilation of this phenomenon. The chapters on Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are the best. The treatment of radical Islam in the southern Philippines seems overwrought, and the book suffers from occasional factual inaccuracies, a narrative that sometimes wanders back and forth in time and place, and uneven editing.
In Cooley’s Epilogue, he repeats, with the benefit of hindsight, criticism of American officials, the CIA and other intelligence agencies that appear throughout the book, for failure to notice many “red flags” in the world of militant Islam that might have foreshadowed the September 11 attack. (Cooley’s frequent swipes at the CIA are sometimes gratuitous, for all of that agency’s problems.) But he closes with some useful policy prescriptions for avoiding errors of the past, combating terrorism and creating a more benign environment in the Arab and Muslim world:
- a much intensified campaign, working with the United Nations and the international community, for strengthening domestic and international law to track down and punish terrorists;
- constructive engagement with states like Iran, Libya and Syria, now shunned by the United States as “state-sponsors” of terrorism, for counterterrorism cooperation;
- an ambitious “Marshall Plan” of assistance to countries where terrible poverty, illness and environmental degradation breed violence and terrorism;
- greater American attention to violations of human rights in the Arab and Muslim world;
- a full-court press by the United States to find a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the creation of a Palestinian state that would help bring security to Israel, the Palestinians and the people of the entire region.
The theme in Unholy Wars of unforeseen consequences from America’s involvement in the first Afghan war suggests two important lessons for the United States today. First, after helping the Afghans defeat the Soviet Union in the first war but failing to follow through with policies to promote peace and stability in that shattered country, we cannot afford to repeat this mistake in our renewed efforts in Afghanistan. Second, before unleashing a military campaign of armed preemption and “regime change” against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, we need to think through much more carefully the aftermath of a war there and the immense challenges it will pose.