This piece by journalist and author Edward Girardet, who was in India at the time of Osama bin Laden’s killing, was published by The Essential Edge 13 June, 2011.
New Delhi — The killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces early last month has had little impact on the war in Afghanistan as some analysts had predicted. While certain insurgent attacks may have been inspired by what many consider to have been an operation to execute the iconic al Qaeda leader, the anger has been far more profound among Pakistani or muslim extremists elsewhere in the world.
This is not surprising given that few Afghans, even members of the armed opposition, have shed tears over bin Ladin’s demise. The truth is that they have never really trusted or liked the meddling in their affairs by Gulf Arabs.
I first experienced the animosity that Afghans feel towards Arab interference during a chance encounter with bin Laden in eastern Afghanistan on the eve of the Red Army pullout in February, 1989. While reporting from the frontlines near Jalalabad, I was confronted by a tall Arab commanding some 60 mainly Middle Eastern jihadists. The Arab, who later turned out to be the al Qaeda leader, stepped up to me and demanded to know what I was doing in Afghanistan. Arrogant and disdainful, he claimed the Jihad as his own and expressed contempt for local Afghan forms of Islam. He also threatened to kill me if I returned. Unnerved, I left.
A week later, I was back. This time, tensions mounted between the Arabs and the mujahideen accompanying me. Only barely did my colleague, American producer Tom Woods, and I escape with our lives. The Afghans clearly disliked these foreign Islamists, whom they referred to as “diwana” or crazy for wishing to die in the Jihad, but begrudgingly tolerated because they were being paid off. The Afghan resistance finally kicked out the Arabs in the early 1990s. Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996 as the Taliban swept into power.
During those days, none of us knew who bin Laden was. But the al Qaeda leader was already a CIA asset and working closely with ISI or military Interservices Intelligence, Pakistan’s equivalent to the CIA. ISI has always played a double game and was openly supporting the Taliban right up to the US-led intervention in October, 2001. Elements of ISI have continued to back the Taliban and almost without a doubt for those who have known the Pakistani organization since the early 1980s protected bin Laden in his Abbotabad hideaway despite fervent denials by the Islamabad government.
The US interest in the 1980s, however, was to mobilize the Afghans to fight the Soviets. Inflaming Islamic passions against the foreign infidels seemed like an effective approach at the time.
Pakistan’s goal was – and still is – to prevent India from gaining a foothold on its western frontiers. Encouraging Muslim radicalism seemed like an appropriate approach, albeit this time against Hinduism rather than atheistic Communism. As it turned out, both the United States and Pakistan were playing with fire, and “blowback” soon followed. Hekmatyar Gulbudeen, whom the US aggressively backed at ISI’s urging, is now a leading insurgent fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan. Jalalaludin Haqqani, founder of the Haqqani Network based out of Pakistan’s remote tribal area of North Waziristan, is another.
Western journalists and aid workers during the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s often came across ISI operatives deep inside Afghanistan. Afghans such as Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was receiving Russian and Indian support during his final days prior to being assassinated by two al Qaeda suicide bombers, had long maintained that without Pakistan the Taliban would never have been able to operate. Others say the same today about ISI’s ongoing collaboration with the insurgency.
Massoud also warned the Bush administration in April 2001 about al Qaeda plans with ISI connivance to launch international terrorist operations from Afghanistan. He specifically referred to a major assault against the West, most likely on US soil. Instead Pakistan continued to supply the Taliban with weaponry, advisors and active military support right up to the US intervention. Many had to be evacuated by US military forces as part of the official political façade that Pakistan was on the side of the West. But even the United States had provided the Taliban with a 40 million dollar grant less than six months prior to 9/11. The Bush administration, however, did not respond until it was too late, barely two weeks before the World Trade Center attacks.
With bin Laden’s death, the West now has the opportunity to reassess its role in Afghanistan, but in a manner that may actually help turn things round. But this means new ideas linked to a very long term approach for real recovery. Pursuing yet more military options make no sense. Little is being gained with the West’s war in Afghanistan.
Nor do demands that the government should only talk to the Taliban and other insurgents once they have put down their weapons and renounced their armed opposition. This only smacks of extraordinary naiveté and a complete failure to understand the mind of the Afghan. No Afghan will talk from weakness.
The temptation now is to pull out and leave Afghanistan to a Darwinian struggle among its warring factions, including its corrupt government. Over the past weeks, the talk on the Hill in Washington and in think tank discussions has been how and when to pull out troops. However, there remains an inherent danger of Afghanistan reverting into a safe haven for terrorism as it did following the Soviet withdrawal and the disastrous abandonment of the country by the US.
The West needs a stable Afghanistan, and Afghanistan needs the West in order to recover from over three decades of brutal warfare. If outside assistance has not succeeded up until now, it is largely because Western involvement has proven unrealistic or uninformed with recovery never really the primary objective. We provided aid mostly to buy Afghan political consent as a means of imposing our own ulterior strategic objectives.
Those objectives were always suspect to Afghans, and became even more so when private sector players, ranging from mercenary companies such as Blackwater (now Xe) to Halliburton and others, began to see the war as a way of bilking the American taxpayer in a bizarre form of reverse colonialism. We like to blame the Afghans for corruption, but this is nothing compared to the billions of aid dollars that have been recycled back to the high rollers with political connections in Washington leaving little substantive to show on the ground.
Bin laden’s exit from the scene gives us a chance to begin to set things right. The current approach has failed. Ordinary Afghans, and not just the insurgents, increasingly regard the NATO presence as a foreign occupation not unlike the Soviets during the 1980s. So a major out-of-the-box re-thinking is urgently needed involving people, both Afghans and expatriate, with broad experience and understanding of the country. There also needs to be a public awareness initiative aimed both at the international community and Afghans to explain what the real problems are.
What Afghanistan does not need are the usual suspects – the US government, the European Union, the World Bank and others – to impose their views and agendas on what should be done with Afghanistan. This happened before at great cost at the Bonn conference in late 2001. New ideas (or perhaps old ones which have been ignored) should ensure that Afghans remain in the lead, not foreigners.
Perhaps the impetus for such an initiative should come from a neutral, non-NATO country such as Switzerland. Switzerland has played this role before for other conflicts, so why not Afghanistan? Whether the Swiss government will recognize this responsibility is another question.
The first step is to focus on implementing a far more cost-effective and imaginative recovery effort, particularly in the countryside where 80 percent of Afghans live. This means drastically cutting military and development expenditure and only channelling investment where it counts. It also means adopting a long-term strategy aimed at putting responsibility back in the hands of the Afghan grassroots, including a steadily disillusioned new generation, and not the same old corrupt elites that have profited so massively from Afghanistan’s military, aid and narcotics-backed economy.
Edward Girardet is the author of Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan published by Chelsea Green in September, 2011. A journalist and producer, he has reported widely from humanitarian and conflict zones in Africa, Asia and elsewhere for The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, and The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour . He is also the author of Afghanistan–The Soviet War and editor of The CROSSLINES Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan (4th edition, February,2014).