The Political Logic of Zionism

Setting the Record Straight on Operation Cyclone

Last month, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Twitter account posted
a short article on the FIM-92 Stinger, a surface-to-air missile system that
has become a metonym for American assistance to Afghan guerrillas between 1979
and 1989. Some users on the site were quick to flippantly reply
with “and then what happened?”, with one of the implications of course
being that this set off a chain of events that eventually bore the bitter fruit
of the September 11th terrorist attacks by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, as
well as the rise of their then-allies in Afghanistan, the Taliban. It has long
been argued by critics of U.S. foreign policy that before he became an Emmanuel
Goldstein-type figure, the very same bin Laden had in fact been a strategic
asset in the United States’ Cold War-era proxy conflicts with the U.S.S.R.,
in particular the US aid to the mujahideen, the primarily Islamic militant resistance
to the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, before he turned his sights
on his former benefactors, with some
going as far to state that the father of global jihadist violence was once on
the payroll of the CIA. In other words, a classical case of what is known in
intelligence circles as blowback.

Other commentators
were in turn quick to emphasize
the distinction between the admittedly variegated native-born Afghan mujahideen,
the foreign mujahideen that would later go on to form the basis of al-Qaeda,
and the ultra-conservative Taliban that would, beginning in the 1990s, become
a the dominating force in Afghan politics and continue to remain influential
up to and through the present day. It wasn’t, after all, Stinger missiles that
took down the World Trade Center. Much ink has been spilled debating and assessing
the consequences that American assistance to the mujahideen during the 1980s,
known as Operation Cyclone, has had on global politics. While both retroactive
defenders and critics of the program have made claims exaggerating respectively
the benefits and costs of Cyclone, an objective look at the evidence gives more
credence to the arguments of its detractors that Cyclone did far more harm than
good and serve as a lesson of the limits of American power, even if some of
the more dramatic claims remain spurious.

Afghanistan is not an Arab country

So how exactly did this all start in the first place? In December 1979, Soviet
troops entered Afghanistan, ostensibly at the request of a sympathetic Afghan
government seeking assistance in quelling internal unrest. Some
analysts have argued
that the United States in fact provoked the USSR into
entering Afghanistan, namely by indirectly via Pakistan funding and training
mujahideen to rebel against the Soviet-aligned Afghan government. Others,
however, have argued that early US support for the mujahideen had little if
any effect on the Soviet decision to intervene. Regardless, the entry of the
USSR into Afghanistan marked the beginning of what is now known as the Soviet-Afghan
War, between the USSR and the allied Afghan government, and anti-Soviet guerrillas
known as mujahideen and their foreign backers.

A now-declassified memorandum
to the President from National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski shortly
after the Soviet intervention alludes to the possibility that the conflict may
mirror the American quagmire in Vietnam and analogously result in military,
strategic, human, and moral losses for the USSR, but based on the material realities
at the time, that outcome was far from assured. It is suggested that the United
States, among other actions, should thus

A. It is essential that Afghanistani resistance continues. This means more
money as well as arms shipments to the rebels, and some technical advice;

B. To make the above possible we must both reassure Pakistan and encourage
it to help the rebels. This will require a review of our policy toward Pakistan,
more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a decision that our security
policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our nonproliferation policy;

D. We should concert with Islamic countries both in a propaganda campaign
and in a covert action campaign to help the rebels;

These were the origins of what would become known as Operation Cyclone, beginning
with less than a million dollars in 1979 and ballooning to hundreds of millions
of dollars each year under the Reagan Administration by the mid-80s. The program
was organized in conjunction with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence
(ISI) under Islamist dictator General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, and the Saudi Arabian
General Intelligence Directorate (GID) and its head Prince Turki bin Faisal
Al Saud, along with several other countries, as portrayed in the 2007 Charlie
Wilson’s War
starring Tom Hanks.

So who exactly were the mujahideen? The term itself refers to one who undertakes
jihad, the Islamic concept of struggle, which can take both violent
and nonviolent forms. In the years since September 11th, jihad has
become synonymous with religiously-motivated acts of violence perpetrated against
civilians, but this is a highly misleading and ahistorical understanding of
the idea, which has evolved over centuries in tandem with Islamic jurisprudence.
Without getting too deep into theology, the Afghan mujahideen took up arms to
resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, but they were far from monolithic
in their aims and methods. Among the various factions, it included moderates
like Ahmad Shah Massoud, known colloquially as the “Lion of Panjshir”,
a supporter of Islamic democracy and women’s rights and later an opponent of
the Taliban and al-Qaeda, having been assassinated by the group a mere two days
before 9/11, and who had earlier warned of al-Qaeda attacks upon the United
States; rival communist fighters, especially Maoists, backed by the People’s
Republic of China; Shi’a militants, in large part from Afghanistan’s Hazara
minority, backed by Iran; and of course this article’s central focus, Sunni
Islamists with a highly conservative interpretation of the Islamic faith, supported
by, among others, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

It must be emphasized here that all of the previous fighters were native
Afghans from Afghanistan
, not foreigners such as Osama bin Laden. This
is in contrast to a parallel, semi-private program1 coordinated
by the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to recruit foreign volunteers
from across the Islamic world to fight in the Afghan jihad, which in turn included
some of the future founders of al-Qaeda. Defenders of Cyclone will remind its
detractors of these two contrasting though similar efforts, as after all, Afghanistan
is not an Arab country, unlike the primary membership of the foreign mujahideen.
However, Cyclone’s supporters will have the public believe that the native and
foreign mujahideen were wholly separate enterprises, while in truth the relationship
was far more complicated.

The tangled webs we weave

As mentioned earlier, the Afghan mujahideen, beyond sharing the goal of seeking
to remove the USSR from Afghanistan, had little else in common. Just as it so
happened, the CIA, Saudi Arabia, and the Pakistani ISI had settled upon primarily
funding an alliance of militant groups that came to be known as the Seven Dwarves,
having received its moniker from the seventh group, Ittihad-e-Islami, led by
the Saudi-backed Abdul Rasul Sayyaf2.
This coalition included the likes of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, his militia
Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, and his allies who espoused a highly austere, authoritarian,
and socially conservative version of Islam inspired in large part by Saudi Wahhabism.
Hekmatyar and other Islamic fundamentalist mujahideen, while nominally committed
to resisting the Soviet occupation, in fact spent a great deal of their American
funding and arms fighting rival mujahideen, and in the process killing large
numbers of civilians3,
activities he would continue into the turbulent years of Afghan politics of
the 1990s. Another Islamic fundamentalist mujahid who would receive generous
amounts of American aid was Jalaluddin
, being so close to US intelligence that it is said he once personally
met with President Reagan. It would serve readers well to remember these two
names in particular, as they would prove to be a crucial nexus between the native
Afghan and foreign mujahideen.

A rather infamous photograph of Reagan meeting with Afghan militants in the
White House ironically illustrates the difference between the native and foreign
mujahideen. While often captioned as
the then-President meeting with al-Qaeda/and or the Taliban (despite neither
existing at the time and the Taliban being a principally Afghan organization,
unlike bin Laden’s al-Qaeda), it actually depicts the President meeting with
local Afghan mujahideen, including a woman on the far right of the photo, something
that the highly misogynistic al-Qaeda or Taliban would unlikely permit. Additionally,
the attire worn by the figures depicted is clearly Pashtun and includes a pakol,
headgear far more characteristic of South-Central Asia than the Arab world.
Incidentally, however, while not pictured, Reagan did in fact go on to meet
Yunus Khalis, who
was to become a supporter of both Islamic fundamentalist groups.

The foreign mujahideen meanwhile received much of their funding from private
sources, albeit with many linked to the Saudi and other Persian Gulf royal families.
In some
, foreign volunteers would serve alongside native mujahideen, such
as in Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s Ittihad-e-Islami. Bin Laden himself financed his
and other Arab volunteers’ efforts in Afghanistan through his own personal fortune,
yet at the same time acted as a courier between Saudi intelligence and local
mujahideen commanders, helping to recruit foreign volunteers to the Afghan cause4.
According to Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, the CIA, GID, and ISI all ran
separate programs totaling billions of US dollars to aid militant resistance
to the Soviets, while at the same time working together when their interests
converged as well as spying on each other’s efforts.5
Consequently, while not directly assisting the foreign mujahideen, which included
Osama bin Laden, it is incredibly likely that the CIA knew that extremist and
even anti-American foreign elements were flooding Afghanistan under Saudi and
Pakistani guidance, but did little if anything to stop it, viewing it as boon
to the collective effort to bleed the Soviets dry.

While there is no concrete evidence to suggest that bin Laden was ever employed
by the CIA, much less that the agency even specifically knew of him at the time6,
the story doesn’t end there. While the claims of a direct bin Laden-CIA connection
remain unfounded, OBL did indeed inadvertently receive training from by the
CIA by a double agent by the name of Ali
, an Egyptian known Islamic fundamentalist recruited by the agency
to train mujahideen in Afghanistan. It
is thought
that Mohamed was not further investigated because was an
asset to the CIA in their proxy war against the USSR Furthermore, the intelligence
agency also facilitated7
Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, one of the accomplices to the 1993 World Trade Center
bombing, receiving entry visas to the United States, where he recruited foreign
volunteers to fight in Afghanistan.

Far from being completely unrelated to each other, however, several of the
native Afghan mujahideen that received assistance under Operation Cyclone would
go on to work closely with the founding members of al-Qaeda, and for that matter,
the Taliban, in particular Hekmatyar and Haqqani. Under the program, the Afghan
mujahideen received not only the aforementioned Stinger missile launchers, but
several other kinds of heavy weaponry as well, including that of non-U.S. origin.
American assistance as a matter of fact when beyond military support, with the
CIA providing textbooks
published by the University of Nebraska-Omaha to Afghan schoolchildren
endorsing violence and Islamic fundamentalism, in the context of the jihad against
the USSR Because Cyclone tended to favor more fundamentalist mujahideen than
moderates, which the CIA of course had no small part in inculcating, it was
not difficult for some of these Afghan militants to in turn make common cause
with foreign extremists, including Osama bin Laden. Following the Soviet withdrawal
from Afghanistan in 1989, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar continued to be one of the main,
and for that matter the most brutal warlords in the country, and with his weapons
and training paid for the United States vis-à-vis the Pakistani ISI offered
al-Qaeda militants sanctuary in areas under his control where they were to conduct
activities related to terrorism8.
Jalaluddin Haqqani, another heavy beneficiary of joint U.S.-Saudi-Pakistani
assistance, similarly offered his services to the likes of bin Laden. The effects
of Operation Cyclone’s heavy patronage of hardline mujahideen like Haqqani and
Hekmatyar became clear, not just in the descent into violence and religious
fanaticism in Afghanistan, but soon enough to the rest of the world as well
in the form of global jihadist terrorism.

A note on the Taliban

What would become the Taliban, meanwhile, for the most part sat out the Soviet-Afghan
War in Pakistan, being educated in hyper-conservative madrassas, having been
taught to endorse violence and a highly puritanical version of Sunni Islam,
with funding
from the Saudi and Pakistani governments. The word “Taliban” is actually
Pashto for “students”. It should be noted that the Taliban, unlike
al-Qaeda, is a partially-nationalistic group that has no ambitions outside of
Afghanistan. Following their return to Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal,
by the mid-90s Taliban fighters had managed to take over most of the country,
with heavy support from American-allied Pakistan, in large part because Afghanistan
had been heavily damaged from fighting between rival mujahideen. Likewise, many
of the previously U.S.-backed militants flocked to the group, seeing it as a
stabilizing force with a sympathetic ideology, including one Jalaluddin Haqqani,
who was to become a senior figure in the Taliban. Hekmatyar, for his part, did
not join, but a large portion of his followers did, and he himself would later
enter into an alliance with the Taliban following the 2001 US invasion. Before
the Taliban’s association with al-Qaeda became clear, the United States had
up to that point tacitly supported9
the group, seeing them as a buffer to an adversarial Iran. One need only visit
any news website today to view how this all ended up shaking out.

Taking Stock

So, does the United States’ actions during Operation Cyclone bear at least
some responsibility for the subsequent unleashing of global jihadist violence
as well as the Talibanization of Afghanistan? The evidence would certainly appear
to say so, and much more than “some”. While perhaps not as sexy as
the myth of Osama bin Laden as a CIA agent, the United States’ wanton disregard
toward it’s allies fomenting of violent religious fundamentalist sentiments
to counter an American adversary has evidently had disastrous consequences,
for the world as a whole and Afghanistan in particular, and offers a somber
lesson on the limits of American power projection, as well as clues toward reassessing
whom the country ought to consider allies. Conversely, the true, albeit convoluted,
story of Operation Cyclone serves for critics of American foreign policy as
an opportunity to scrutinize the actions of the US government abroad, but doing
so factually and intelligently.

Thomas Resnick is a freelance writer on foreign policy among other political
and cultural issues, as well as in the process of founding a Jewish
organization to oppose military action
against Iran. You can subscribe to
his newsletter at

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