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Harvest of Sorrow

09.14.2001 | POLITICS

It has been compared to Pearl Harbor, but the analogy goes not far enough. Certainly the day will live in infamy. The anniversary of the Camp David Accords, once a milestone of peace, have now been twisted into a monument for violence. Innocent people were not simply killed but turned, while dying, into instruments of murder. There is no cause, no context, no God that justifies such base brutality. It cannot be called a surprise attack, for its victims had no reason to be prepared. It cannot be called a crime, because the word "crime" lacks the breadth, the imagination, to encompass what happened Tuesday morning. It was below war, below crime; neither warlords nor criminals would claim this deed, could look on it without blanching and turning away.

But someone did it all the same, and in these awful days after the attack the identity of that someone is coming rapidly into focus. What we are learning, glued to CNN and MSNBC, is that the first attack on the East Coast of the United States since the War of 1812--an attack dizzying in its sophistication and depthless in its evil--was most likely perpetuated not by a foreign government but by a foreign individual. Not that this is overly surprising. Even before the towers of the World Trade Center had fallen, before the full scale of the tragedy at the Pentagon had sunk in, the name of Osama bin Laden was escaping the mouths of reporters and politicians. The renegade Saudi millionaire, reportedly sheltered by Afghanistan's Taliban government, has already declared a Holy War against America. He is believed to have ordered the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa, the 1999 attack on the US army barracks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and last year's suicide assault on the USS Cole in the Persian Gulf. That he has not taken credit for the Trade Center attacks seems to be of little import; taking credit has never been part of his modus operandi. His is a different sort of terrorism, one that makes no demands, releases no statements.

And doubt about his culpability seems to be evaporating on all fronts. Intercepted phone communications from the hours after the hijackings apparently reveal his associates discussing the successful destruction of "two targets." Colin Powell calls him the prime suspect. The editor of the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper heard three weeks ago that bin Laden was planning "very, very big attacks against American interests." And in Palestine, overjoyed militants seemed certain of who was responsible for their grotesque celebration. As they marched through the streets, some firing weapons into the air, they chanted "Merciful bin Laden, strike Tel Aviv!"

Juxtapose these facts--and the FBI's conclusion that a network of at least 50 people was involved in the bombings--with this statement made by a top official at the National Security Council during Tuesday's chaos: "We don't know anything here. We're watching CNN too." For a nation that spends $30 billion a year on the gathering of intelligence, this can only be describing as horribly disillusioning. Over and over, the same questions have been asked: how could there have been no warning? Why weren't we prepared? Where was the CIA? The answers, when they weren't helpless shrugs and mea culpas, took on a numbing sameness. Osama bin Laden is evil. He is psychotic. He is one man and difficult to track.

All of this is true. But he is something else as well. He is considered, in the parlance of the intelligence community, to be "blowback"--the negative fallout of an otherwise successful foreign policy. Osama bin Laden, we should never forget, began his career working for the CIA. The same agency that failed so horribly on Tuesday succeeded equally horribly years before: it trained bin Laden, it gave him weapons, and it helped create the vast web of Islamic militants he now draws on to torture the world.

* * *

In 1979 the Soviet Union made a colossal mistake. It had watched for a year as its puppet regime in Afghanistan, under the leadership of the communist President Najibullah, was besieged by multiple insurrections, most of them led by Islamic militants. As the insurrections gained momentum, the USSR decided it had seen enough, and invaded Afghanistan. In so doing it quickly became mired in its own version of Vietnam. The terrain in Afghanistan was harsh, the resistance fanatical, and the resolve of Soviet troops an open question.

The CIA, working with intelligence agents from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, was quick to capitalize. Within a year it had started funneling money and weapons to seven different Afghan resistance groups, hoping to intensify the Red Army's quandary. In that sense the operation worked--the resistance, or mujahideen, inflicted hideous losses on the Soviet troops--but from the beginning there were problems. For starters, the different mujahideen factions didn't particularly like each other. In its desire to solve this problem, and to maintain some level of cohesion among its proxy armies, the CIA began to promote men who might otherwise have been regarded as extraordinarily dangerous. The journalist Mary Ann Weaver, in a prescient 1996 article for The Atlantic Monthly, noted that none of the resistance groups "had democratic leaders, [and] all...were fundamentalist in religion to some extent, autocratic in politics, and venomously anti-American." Nevertheless, she wrote, over the course of eight years the CIA pumped almost $3 billion into them, and in the process "helped to train and fund what eventually became an international network of highly disciplined and effective Islamic militants--and a new breed of terrorist as well."

Maybe the CIA never thought the mujahideen would actually win. Maybe it assumed that these fanatical men would, for all their ferocity, eventually be ground to bits beneath Soviet tanks, or cut down by Soviet helicopters. The Agency's goal, after all, was never to win the war outright. It wanted only to prolong it, and maximize the Russian body count. So it kept arming and training the mujahideen, on the idea that none would live to be a future problem. At its height, the Afghan jihad, or Holy War, attracted over 25,000 fighters. Recruited from around the world by the CIA and the Saudis, the combatants included members of Palestinian groups like Al-Islamiya and Al-Jihad, anticommunist paramilitaries from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and far-flung extremists from such obscure sects as the Philippines' Moro Liberation Front.

The men who emerged as leaders of these disparate warriors were by necessity men of uncommon charisma and conviction. Often they were also deeply suspicious of, if not openly hostile to, the United States. They included the blind Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, whose strident anti-Americanism was overlooked in light of his ability to coordinate different resistance groups (The CIA called him a "valuable asset.") The Sheikh is currently in an American prison, convicted of plotting to "wage a war of urban terrorism against the United States." The CIA also thought highly of the Palestinian Ramzi Ahmed Youssef, who is now more famous for masterminding the first bombing of the World Trade Center. And then there is Osama bin Laden.

For years bin Laden worked with Saudi intelligence in funding the jihad, and ultimately he became both a financier and logistics officer for the Office of Services, the Saudi- and CIA-run clearinghouse for jihad warriors. Most of the Office's operations were staged out of Peshawar, the lawless Pakistani city just over the border from Afghanistan, and in the nearby Khyber Pass, through which the mujahideen, armed with M-16s and Stinger missiles, entered Afghan territory.

Bloodied and convinced its war was unwinnable, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988. The CIA soon followed. The Agency's goal had been achieved, but the mujahideen's had not; even with the Red Army gone, Afghanistan remained under Najibullah's control. So the mujahideen kept fighting, although without American assistance, and in 1991 it seized Kabul and toppled the country's Soviet-installed leaders. At that point the country devolved into chaos. The different resistance groups, long held together by only the CIA and the hatred of a common enemy, became fratricidal, and fought for control of Afghanistan's new government. A large number of the mujahideen joined in these battles; many others, seeing that the jihad was over, simply went home. But approximately 1,000 stayed on the Afghan-Pakistani border, and began plotting a new kind of war. Among these was bin Laden. As his fundamentalism grew, he became less inclined to pay heed to his former employers, and in 1993 the Saudi government revoked his citizenship, citing his refusal to "obey instructions."

Peshawar remained an armed camp, a nerve center for anti-Western extremism, and a reliable place for the violence-minded to secure American weapons. "Even today," a Western diplomat told Weaver, "you can sit at the Khyber Pass and see every color, every creed, every nationality pass. These groups, in their wildest imaginations, never would have met if there had been no jihad. For a Moro to get a Stinger [missile]! To make contacts with Islamists from North Africa! The United States created a Moscow Central in Peshawar for these groups, and the consequences for all of us are astronomical."

Amazingly, in the war's aftermath the CIA seemed unaware of, or at least supremely uninterested in, what would become of the lethal men it had trained. According to Ruel Marc Gerecht, a former case officer for the Agency's Near East Directorate (and author of "The Counterterrorist Myth," Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2001), in the early 1990s a CIA agent named Robert Baer suggested to his superiors that the CIA begin collecting more intelligence on Afghanistan. The reply, according to Gerecht, was why bother? Afghanistan was too dangerous, and with the Soviet Union gone it posed no threat. From there the Agency's ability to monitor Islamic extremism--always limited to begin with--disintegrated to the point of being laughable. "The CIA probably doesn't have a single truly qualified Arabic-speaking officer of Middle Eastern background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist, and who would volunteer to spend years of his life with shitty food and no women in the mountains of Afghanistan," Gerecht quotes another Near East agent as saying. "For Christ's sake, most case officers live in the suburbs of Virginia. We don't do that kind of thing."

* * *

American interest in Afghanistan was briefly resurrected by the rise of the Taliban, though not, as one might surmise, because of the Taliban's vocal hatred of the West. In 1992 the Taliban was a fledgling movement, an ultraconservative militia caught up in the war for Afghanistan's central government. But it also happened to control a stretch of land coveted by the American oil company Unocal, which had been searching for a pipeline route that would bypass Iran. The CIA abetted Unocal by giving weapons and assistance to the Taliban, reasoning (correctly) that any area under the Taliban's control would be extremely stable. By 1993 the American-armed Taliban had seized power in Kabul, and in the coming years it built one of the most repressive governments on earth, an autocratic society that vilified the West and denied every basic liberty to women. It also began to harbor bin Laden. Unocal, it is worth noting, seemed unperturbed by these developments, and continued to pursue its pipeline plans. Only after bin Laden launched his attacks on the U.S. embassies in 1998, and the United States fired cruise missiles into Afghanistan in reprisal, did the company decided to scrap its project.

So let us recap. The CIA armed and destabilized an entire region of the world, a region known for extremism and virulent anti-Americanism, and then simply left. It returned briefly a few years later, at the behest of an American corporation, to support a group whose hatred of America ran deeper still. Then it not only left again, but also allowed its intelligence capability in that region to hopelessly atrophy.

Now let us consider the consequences of such thorough incompetence. Innocent civilians, working in a civilian facility, have their lives shattered when an object, hurled on orders from thousands of miles away, crashes through their walls and explodes. That is a fair description of what happened at the World Trade Center on September 11. But it is also a fair description of what happened on the night of August 20, 1998, when Tomahawk missiles laced through the night and struck a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan. And it describes what happened in 1999, when American bombs fell on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. In the latter case, the CIA had given the Air Force an erroneous map of the city. In the former, the CIA had told the Pentagon that the pharmaceutical factory was owned by bin Laden, and being used to make nerve gas. As it turned out, neither of these accusations was true. It was later revealed, in fact, that the CIA's "intelligence-gathering" on the factory's ownership and purpose had consisted of an Internet search and little more.

The death toll in both these instances was far less than the atrocity at the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Only one person--the night watchman--was killed by the missiles in Sudan. But when the factory was destroyed the country lost 70 percent of its capacity to manufacture drugs. Sudan is a miserably poor nation, and the factory had been able to produce medicine at 20 percent of market prices. The loss of that capability has visited a staggering cost on the country. Public health advocates estimate that thousands of people have since died as a result, wasting away from malaria, tuberculosis and other treatable diseases. And while Americans can take solace in knowing that the FBI will, someday, track down the subhuman animals who bombed New York, the Sudanese enjoy no such assurances. The culprit in their instance is already known, but how can a country like Sudan ever hold America accountable? It could go to the World Court, one supposes, but precious little evidence exists. No one can even determine the precise death toll of the assault, because the United States, on top of its refusal to apologize, blocked a UN inquiry into the matter.

Two days before the attack on theWorld Trade Center, American and British planes bombed civilian areas of Iraq, killing eight people. America regularly bombs Iraq, and has placed punishing sanctions on its people for the crime of having a dictator they cannot depose. This dictator, it should be remembered, was for a decade armed and supported by the United States, and considered a loyal ally in its battle against Iran. Not that the United States ever really battled Iran; it provided money and guns while Iraq provided soldiers. But there was no doubt that the two nations were allies. When an Iraqi fighter jet accidentally fired missiles into the USS Stark in the Persian Gulf, killing 37 American sailors, an apology from Hussein was quickly accepted. No reprisals followed. And when the CIA had no further use for him, Hussein was abandoned, left to solve for himself the problem of a country bloodied by 11 years of American-encouraged war. The fact that his nation was teetering on the brink of economic implosion influenced in no small part his decision to invade Kuwait, and we all know the story from there. George Bush the elder, who as Vice President had nodded along when Ronald Reagan accepted Hussein's apology as the sincere entreaty of a trusted friend, now publicly equated the Iraqi leader with Hitler. How fickle our favors are.

Make no mistake; Saddam Hussein is an evil man. But over one million people have died as a result of the sanctions on Iraq, and none of them have been Hussein or his associates. The United Nations estimates that 5,300 children under the age of five perish each month as a result of the blockades on food and medicine, and as early as 1996 it was projected that the children's death toll would eclipse 500,000 (it since has). When Madeline Albright was asked about that figure, and if the sanctions were justifiable in light of it, she said "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it."

Why? Are the children's lives worth less than those of the innocents in New York? And might such remarks, such blithe dismissals of the sanctity of Middle Eastern life, explain at all the dull and steady rage toward the United States that permeates that region? Explain the ghoulish jubilation we have witnessed on the streets of Palestine? In Palestine, too, the legacy of American counter terrorism is not a proud one. On March 8, 1985, the CIA tried to kill a suspected terrorist named Fadlallah by leaving a car bomb outside the Beirut high-rise where he lived. When the car exploded it killed 80 people and injured 200 more. Fadlallah himself excaped uninjured--he later agreed to halt his attacks against America in exchange for $2 million worth of food, medicine and educational expenses for his people. The 80 deaths remain unavenged; the survivors' cries for justice go unrequited.

The memories of such crimes persist in the Arab mind. It is not for no reason that around the world the American pursuit of "justice" is feared more by the innocent than the guilty. "If President Bush goes on television and says we're going to get the terrorists and those who harbor them, that means a lot of people are going to suffer," a remarkably candid American official told the Los Angeles Times on September 13. "We think we're doing it for the right reasons...but our policies have enormous impact, and many people have suffered a lot because of what they see as our arrogance."

We are right, we are entitled, to our anger over the indiscriminate bombing that has taken away so many people in New York and Washington. But once our anger has subsided, it may also be incumbent upon us to rethink our foreign policy, which has itself, in recent years, become increasingly reliant on indiscriminate bombing. Desert Storm, Desert Fox, Kosovo--the new American military, reluctant to engage in ground combat, bombs its way out of problems. And we may also be required to rethink our fifty-year habit of using proxy armies. Every gun and missile that has killed a Palestinian was given to Israel by the United States. We have made possible Israel's countless wars, including the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that killed 37,500 civilians. We unseated democracies in Guatemala and Chile, and replaced them with brutal dictators who "disappeared" thousands of innocent people. We fomented a revolution (30,000 civilians dead) in Nicaragua, using a CIA-created army whose instructions, according to the World Court testimony of a former colonel, were to "kill, kidnap, rob and torture... Many civilians were killed in cold blood." The CIA installed Manuel Noriega, a drug-running dictator, in Panama. When it was through with him, the United States bombed and invaded his country and took him away. And yes--how can we forget--we built the mujahideen, built Osama bin Laden, used their deep-seated and maniacal beliefs until they served us no more purpose, and then discarded them and wandered away.

There is a book about international terrorism called Pirates and Emperors. Few people read it at the time it was published; now it is long since out of print and difficult to find. Its small availability is unfortunate, but in truth anyone who understands its title will also understand its point. The title is borrowed from a chapter in St. Augustine's The City of God. The chapter, which has the rather clunky tagline of "How Unjust Kingdoms are like Robberies," describes an encounter between a captured pirate and the emperor he is brought before to receive judgment. After the pirate is thrown at the emperor's feet, the two have a short exchange. "How dare you molest the ocean?" the emperor asks. "How dare you," the pirate replies, "molest the world? I have but one ship and am called a pirate; you have a navy and are styled emperor."

* * *

"We have an expression in Arabic," Sheikh Omar told Mary Ann Weaver from his cell in a United States prison. "'Everybody sings for those whom he loves.' In effect, it means that everyone is singing for something different. And that is exactly what happened in Afghanistan. Do you think we were naive enough to believe that the United States government was helping us because it believed in our cause--to raise the flag of Jihad for Islam? That they were helping a people, a country, to free themselves?

"Absolutely not. The Americans were there to punish the Soviet Union, and when they were sure that the Soviet Union had suffered and was about to collapse, they stopped everything--all the aid, all the equipment--just like that. They didn't care that there was still a communist government in power in Afghanistan. They simply turned their back and walked away. And the Saudis, oh, the Saudis, and the Egyptians--they did precisely the same. It took three more years for the mujahideen to oust the Najibullah regime. Thousands of lives were lost; crops and livelihoods were destroyed. But not one life mattered to the Saudis, the Egyptians, or the United States."

It cannot be said enough: what happened on September 11 was barbaric and despicable. Those who did it must be punished, and those who died must be mourned. It should also be understood that the United States is not an evil country. No country that believes itself so good can possess the willful malice it takes to be truly evil. But it is not an innocent country either. Our lifestyle, which is the envy of the planet, is maintained by a government that projects its influence into countless corners of the world--most notably the Middle East. What we are is an ignorant nation, one whose citizens choose to know not what their government does, and disregard the price paid by the rest of the world as a result. Our worldview brings to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald's description of the Flapper rich, and their utter thoughtlessness toward all other classes: "They were careless people...they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made..."

No more. The world is not our china shop, passively awaiting the bull of our hegemony. No longer can we build armies and governments, co-opt people and their beliefs, and leave them strewn across the earth like so many used-up marionettes. For as we are learning now, the puppet show doesn't end when the puppeteer walks away. These puppets can stand and walk, they can untangle their strings, and they can--in full view of a horrified world--wrap them around the necks of their former master.

About the Author
Michael Manville's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications. He lives in Los Angeles.
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