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From 1978 to 1989 the U.S. encouraged Islamist militants in Afghanistan to fight the new Soviet-backed secular regime that had taken power through a military coup. (The coup was sparked by Saudi and Iranian-backed efforts by the Afghan government to crack down on the “Marxist-Leninist” People’s Democratic Party that had some support within the army.)
The Mujahadeen (“strugglers” or holy warriors) were recruited from all over the Muslim world, especially Saudi Arabia, which sent young Osama bin Laden to head up the Arab forces. The CIA worked directly with bin Laden, as well as with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Pashtun warlord later labelled a terrorist and targeted for CIA assassination. The Mujahadeen were encouraged by Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to view their struggle as a jihad, a holy war for Islam against godless communism. (Brzezinski always emphasized the political value of religion and the exploitation of religious identity, as in the case of his native Poland, where the Roman Catholic Church helped bring down the pro-Soviet regime in 1989.) But the Mujahadeen were not so much concerned with “communism” as an abstraction but the regime’s efforts to educate women, provide a national health care system, implement land reform, curb the powers of tribal leaders and clerics, etc.
The issue for the Carter and then Reagan administrations was not the issue of a progressive political agenda versus a fanatical medieval religious mentality (the mentality which brought us 9/11). It was the issue of punishing the USSR for having backed the triumphant Vietnamese during the epochal struggle for Vietnamese independence and unification ending in 1975. It was part of a strategy of weakening the Soviet Union globally.
While there would surely have been resistance to the secular regime, organized by tribal leaders and mullahs, the war encouraged by Brzezinski was surely more destructive as a result of the CIA-coordinated effort to inflict as much pain as possible on the Soviets. Stinger antiaircraft missiles were crucial to the effort. So were delayed timing devices for plastic explosives for urban guerrilla attacks.
The U.S. naturally recruited its ally Pakistan, which neighbors Afghanistan, separated from it by an arbitrarily-crafted colonial border, into the fight. The Islamic republic of Pakistan allowed the jihadis to group in camps on the border and attack across it. In the ensuing war, up to two million Afghan civilians were killed, along with maybe 90,000 jihadis, 14,000 Soviets, 18,000 Afghan government forces. Three million refugees poured into Pakistan.
After the fall of the pro-Soviet regime (in 1992), Afghanistan fell into total chaos as the Mujahadeen now in power fell into quarreling among themselves. Former U.S. ally Hekmatyar’s forces were bombing Kabul. Warlords were battling over boys. Pakistan promoted the formation of a group called the Taliban (“students”) which had a simple solution to Afghanistan’s problems: the application of the Sharia, of Islamic religious law, prescribed by Allah Himself.
In a largely illiterate, highly traditional society, this concept enjoys and continues to enjoy great appeal. It’s quite understandable why Pakistan’s military intelligence (ISI) would opt to support the Taliban that was organizing in madrassas in Pakistan and taking shape in Afghanistan under the leadership of the mysterious Mullah Omar. It’s understandable that the Pakistani government (while disturbed by instances of Taliban excess and cruelty) would recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government from 1996 to 2001 when the U.S. ordered it to withdraw recognition. Only Saudi Arabia and Oman ever recognized the Taliban as the Afghan government formally.
So in brief: the U.S. due to its Cold War priorities promoted a sort of international Islamist movement in Afghanistan during the 1980s that fueled a war that greatly affected Pakistan. It led to the emergence of the Taliban, seen by Pakistan as a preferable option to rule Afghanistan to the collection of bloody warlords comprising the Northern Alliance, plus the Pashtun ones such as Hekmatyar. The U.S. rejoicing at the collapse of the Soviet Union turned its attention from the region, leaving Pakistan to cope alone with the consequences of the war in the period from 1992 to 1996. These consequences included ongoing fighting in Afghanistan impeding trade with Central Asia, rampant opium trafficking and an ongoing refugee crisis. Meanwhile the U.S. withdrew aid from Pakistan, its close Cold War ally, after it tested a nuclear weapon in May 1998 (ten days after arch-rival India had done so). It made sense to Islamabad to recognize the Taliban, which was capable of imposing order over 90% of the country, legitimatizing itself as an Islamist movement devoted to the observance of the Sharia, the laws set down by God.
It was not Pakistan’s fault that Osama bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996, just before the Taliban took power. (The former U.S. ally turned anti-U.S. terrorist was expelled from Sudan at U.S. insistence and allowed to settle in Afghanistan.) It was not Pakistan’s fault that the Taliban allowed bin Laden to stay; his services to the anti-Soviet struggle in the 1980s and the Pashtunwali requirement of hospitality to foreigners seemed to justify his asylum. It was not Pakistan’s fault that bin Laden oversaw terror plots from Afghanistan, including 9/11. The latter attack produced the immediate U.S. demand to Pakistan to cut ties with the Taliban, which George W. Bush famously refused to distinguish from al-Qaeda, although the two are in fact very different.
(Al-Qaeda is an Arab-based international network dedicated to global jihad versus the west. The Taliban is a political organization rooted in the Pashtun community in Afghanistan, exposing a kind of Pashtun nationalism and xenophobia alongside fundamentalist Sunni Islam. It does not have international ambitions or as a rule engage in international terrorism.)
The U.S. State Department in September 2001 demanded that the Pakistani president agree to a list of demands or risk a nuclear attack by the U.S. Deputy secretary of state (under Colin Powell) Richard Armitage told Pakistan’s intelligence director, “Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the stone age'” unless he complied with U.S. demands.These included cutting ties with the Taliban, banning anti-U.S. demonstrations in Pakistan, and accepting the upcoming U.S. war on the neighboring country. (In return the U.S. would forget about Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and rescind sanctions that had been imposed on it for that reason). President Pervez Musharraf buckled. The U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan. More refugees poured into Pakistan. Taliban ideology spread, as it continues to do, within Pakistan.
As armed groups aligned with the Taliban emerged in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the Pakistani army by tradition maintains a light presence, the U.S. demanded that the army suppress them. These led to repeated, embarrassing army defeats and a hardening of Pakistani public opinion against the U.S. and its heavy-handed treatment of the region. When Obama became president, the deployment of drones to bomb Pakistani targets drastically accelerated, killing more civilians, sparking more hate and calls for vengeance.
Now this clown of a president affecting an air of informed confidence, reads a script declaring that the U.S. can “no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations.We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars, at the same time, they are housing the very terrorists we are fighting … that must change immediately.” He demands that this sovereign nuclear state with almost 200 million people “demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.” One wonders if he even understands the degree of insult conveyed by that statement, addressed to a nation with a glorious civilization dating back to the fourth millennium BCE.
(As though the U.S.A. of Donald Trump is the paragon of civilization, order, and peace! What’s more civilized than a Trump rally? More orderly than a cop’s handling of a black man’s traffic stop, resulting somehow in his death, or maybe just his incarceration joining the largest prison population per capita and in absolute terms anywhere on the planet? More peaceful than the places the U.S. has pacified this century?)
The buffoon who few in the big wide world respect tells Pakistan that to be civilized it must immediately stop providing safe havens for terrorists. Like this is easy to do. The Haqqani network, founded by the Afghan Jalaluddin Haqqani who commanded the Mujahideen Army from 1980-1992, with CIA assistance, now operates some compounds in North Waziristan (Pakistan) that the army has failed to eliminate. It is aligned with the Taliban and influential in some madrassas.
The people around Trump—wanting to say something new about Afghanistan—want to knuckle down on Pakistan as part of the problem. This means turning reality on its head. Instead of acknowledging that the U.S. in its reckless response to 9/11 inflicted enormous unnecessary pain on Pakistan, Trump depicts the U.S. as victim of Pakistan’s lack of commitment to civilization.
“This must change immediately.” What does that mean? MOABs dropped on Waziristan, if no immediate change?
Trump told Kim Jung-Un that “North Korea best not make any more threats,”or it will be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” Then Jung-Un made more threats. Everybody knows Trump is all about bluster. But they also suspect he’s nuts and could actually do something the likes of which the world has never seen.
China is leaping to the Pakistanis’ defense, stressing their sacrifices in the war against terrorists. New Delhi is happy, eager to get the green light to expand influence in Afghanistan at Pakistan’s expense. The U.S. president has no idea what he’s doing, and doesn’t want to talk about it, to keep everybody wondering and scared. This is his main success so far. Not retaining the support, despite repeated setbacks, of his one-third base. Not avoiding impeachment. But success in imposing a climate of fear based on fear about his own mental stability.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper after watching Trump’s crazy Phoenix post-election campaign rally, told CNN anchor Don Lemon: “I just find this extremely disturbing. I really question his ability to be – his fitness to be – in this office…” He is concerned about Trump’s access to nuclear codes if he has “a fit of pique” over North Korea. “The whole system is built to ensure rapid response if necessary. So there’s very little in the way of controls over exercising a nuclear option, which is pretty damn scary.”
I don’t like Clapper, of course. He lied to Congress about the collection of telephony metadata on virtually everybody in the world. He is a liar, oppressor and imperialist. His notion of “fitness for office” surely differs from mine. But it’s significant that his interview with Lemon, now being widely discussed, he questions the man’s sanity and validates the anxiety sending record numbers to the therapist’s office.
Anxiety must be running high in Pakistan, as leaders scramble to realize Trump levels of civilization, remembering that threat about getting bombed back to the Stone Age.