Letter from Washington — From the January 2016 issue

A Special Relationship

The United States is teaming up with Al Qaeda, again

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In the wake of 9/11, the story of U.S. support for militant Islamists against the Soviets became something of a touchy subject. Former CIA and intelligence officials like to suggest that the agency simply played the roles of financier and quartermaster. In this version of events, the dirty work — the actual management of the campaign and the dealings with rebel groups — was left to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). It was Pakistan’s fault that at least 70 percent of total U.S. aid went to the fundamentalists, even if the CIA demanded audited accounts on a regular basis.

The beneficiaries, however, have not always been content to play along with the official story. Asked by the ABC News team whether he remembered Charlie Wilson, the Texas congressman later immortalized in print and onscreen as the patron saint of the mujahedeen, Hekmatyar fondly recalled that “he was a good friend. He was all the time supporting our jihad.” Others expressed the same point in a different way. Abdul Haq, a mujahedeen commander who might today be described as a “moderate rebel,” complained loudly during and after the Soviet war in Afghanistan about American policy. The CIA “would come with a big load of ammunition and money and supplies to these [fundamentalist] groups. We would tell them, ‘What the hell is going on? You are creating a monster in this country.’ ”

Fighters with Jabhat al-Nusra search residents at a checkpoint in Aleppo, Syria, October 2013 © Molhem Barakat/Reuters

Fighters with Jabhat al-Nusra search residents at a checkpoint in Aleppo, Syria, October 2013 © Molhem Barakat/Reuters

American veterans of the operation, at the time the largest in CIA history, have mostly stuck to the mantra that it was a Pakistani show. Only occasionally have officials let slip that the support for fundamentalists was a matter of cold-blooded calculation. Robert Oakley, a leading player in the Afghan effort as ambassador to Pakistan from 1988 to 1991, later remarked, “If you mix Islam with politics, you have a much more potent explosive brew, and that was quite successful in getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan.”

In fact, the CIA had been backing Afghan Islamists well before the Russians invaded the country in December 1979. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser, later boasted to Le Nouvel Observateur that the president had “signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul” six months prior to the invasion. “And that very day,” Brzezinski recalled, “I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.” The war that inevitably followed killed a million Afghans.

Other presumptions proved to be less accurate, including a misplaced faith in the martial prowess of our fundamentalist clients. As it turned out, the Islamists were really not the ferocious anti-Soviet warriors their backers claimed them to be. McWilliams, who left Kabul in 1988 to become special envoy to the Afghan rebels, recalled that Hekmatyar was more interested in using his U.S.-supplied arsenal on rival warlords. (On occasion, he tortured them as well — another fact the envoy was “discouraged” from reporting.) “Hekmatyar was a great fighter,” McWilliams remembered, “but not necessarily with the Soviets.”

Even after the Russians left, in February 1989, the agency’s favorite Afghan showed himself incapable of toppling the Soviet-supported regime of Mohammad Najibullah. Hekmatyar’s attack on the key city of Jalalabad, for example, was an embarrassing failure. “Oakley bragged in the weeks leading up to this offensive [that] it was going to be a great success,” said McWilliams, who had passed on warnings from Abdul Haq and others that the plan was foolhardy, only to be told, “We got this locked up.” To his disgust, the Pakistani and American intelligence officials overseeing the operation swelled its ranks with youthful cannon fodder. “What they wound up doing was emptying the refugee camps,” McWilliams told me. “It was a last-ditch effort to throw these sixteen-year-old boys into the fight in order to keep this thing going. It did not work.” Thousands died.

Anxious as they might have been to obscure the true nature of their relationship with unappealing Afghans like Hekmatyar, U.S. officials were even more careful when it came to the Arab fundamentalists who flocked to the war in Afghanistan and later embarked on global jihad as Al Qaeda. No one could deny that they had been there, but their possible connection to the CIA became an increasingly delicate subject as Al Qaeda made its presence felt in the 1990s. The official line — that the United States had kept its distance from the Arab mujahedeen — was best expressed by Robert Gates, who became director of the CIA in 1991. When the agency first learned of the jihadi recruits pouring into Afghanistan from across the Arab world, he later wrote, “We examined ways to increase their participation, perhaps in the form of some sort of ‘international brigade,’ but nothing came of it.”

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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