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After getting U.S. help, Taliban blow back in our faces

The CIA calls it "blowback" — when what we've created blows back in our faces.

Osama bin Laden is blowback. Not too long ago, when Afghanistan was under Soviet occupation, he was one of Ronald Reagan's cherished "freedom fighters," armed and trained by the CIA.

Manuel Noriega was blowback. Once on the CIA's payroll, Panama's strongman turned drug lord and caused us to go to war against an entire country for the arrest of one man.

Saddam Hussein is blowback. Courted and armed by the United States as a counterweight to Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf, Iraq's dictator was deluded into thinking we would let him invade Kuwait. He had to be corrected by another war and now is our undying enemy, perhaps in cahoots with bin Laden.

Pakistan is blowback. A decade ago it was a moderate Muslim nation, pro-Western, pro-American, our key ally in South Asia and a conduit for funneling U.S. arms to the Afghan mujahideen. Today it is a hotbed of Islamic fanatics who threaten to overthrow their military government if it assists us in our war on terrorism.

Albanian guerrillas in the Balkans are blowback. We armed and supported their war against Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, saved their bacon in Kosovo and let them destabilize Macedonia, the only former Yugoslav state that had enjoyed any kind of peace after the breakup of the federation. Now they must be disarmed by the same NATO peacekeepers who let them run amok in the first place.

U.S. foreign policy is littered with blowbacks, but nowhere more so than in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The two are inextricably linked by radical Islam and the international menace it has spawned: Islamic terrorism.

Afghanistan, as big as Texas with harsh mountain terrain that defies conventional warfare, was once part of the historic "Silk Road" that brought trade goods from Europe to China. Its explosive mix of tribes and religions have been ruled — but never really conquered — by Persians, Mongols and British.

Half the population of 20 million are Pashtuns, Sunni Muslims who now make up the bulk of the Taliban army. The rest are Uzbeks and Tajiks (Turkic tribes) and Hazaras, who speak Dari Persian and, like their Iranian cousins, belong to the Shia sect of Islam.

In the 19th century, Britain beat Russia in "The Great Game" to dominate Afghanistan, but it proved to be what one British viceroy called a "poisoned chalice."

British and Indian soldiers borrowed from the Raj suffered heavy losses trying to subdue the fiercely independent Afghan tribes, the worst an 1842 massacre in the Khyber Pass.

The Russians, by then Soviet communists, fared no better when they invaded Afghanistan in 1979. They found a country awash in drugs and guns, most of which were turned on the "infidel" invaders. Besides being at the crossroads of the Asian arms bazaar, Afghanistan is the world's biggest producer of opium, from which heroin is made.

During the 10-year Soviet occupation, the CIA invested some $5 billion into arming and training the mujahideen, self-styled holy warriors belonging to 16 separate resistance groups. They killed more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers by official count — unofficial estimates range much higher — causing President Mikhail Gorbachev to call Afghanistan a "bleeding wound."

The CIA's principal ally in this proxy war was Pakistan's notorious Directorate-General of Inter Services Intelligence. From the Afghan refugee camps within its own borders, the ISI recruited thousands of mujahideen for the "jihad" against godless communism and lavished them with American weapons — automatic rifles, rocket launchers, explosives and Stinger missiles.

The ISI was so successful in training these terrorists-to-be that Pakistan now has five times as many Islamic militants as policemen, who often find themselves on the receiving end of that CIA-supplied firepower. The militants despise their government for "licking the boots of the West" and the more Americans express fears about radical Islam the more anti-American they become.

Pakistan has never known democracy. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, it has been ruled either by military dictators or a sorry run of "feudals," rich landowners typified by the Bhutto family, who spent 25 percent of the national budget placating Pakistan's powerful generals.

But, no matter how powerful they are, they too have had a hard time controlling Pakistan's explosive mix of ethnic and religious conflicts. Sunni Muslims, 80 percent of the populace, regard minority Shiites as "kefirs," — unbelievers, who should be driven out. Their battles are interspersed by other miniwars between Muhajirs, Urdu-speaking Muslim migrants from India, and resident Pashtuns.

Pakistan also is an economic basket case. Servicing its $37 billion foreign debt takes up most of the budget and military spending, because of ongoing hostilities with India, eats up the rest. The number of Pakistanis living in poverty has been rising for a decade, further threatening the government of President (and former general) Pervez Musharraf.

Part of Pakistan's problem is the Pressler Amendment, which requires the United States to cut off aid to countries suspected of manufacturing nuclear weapons. Pakistan's nukes were conveniently overlooked as long as the Soviets were in Afghanistan, but as soon as they left in 1989 the plug was pulled on American aid.

Washington also lost interest in Afghanistan, and the various mujahideen factions were left to their own devices. They turned on each other in a savage internecine war that went on for five years with no clear winners before the Taliban entered the fray.

The Taliban was an army of young Afghans who had grown up in the refugee camps of Pakistan. Their spiritual home lay in religious schools run by the Jamiat e Ulema, an Islamic party that repudiates democracy in favor of religious revolution. Their leaders were former Islamic scholars who had stud-

ied under the Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzi at the Banuri Mosque, located in the most violent quarter of Pakistan's most violent city, Karachi.

The mufti's teaching were simple: Kill a killer, maim a thief, get rid of television and, above all, do not allow women to go to school or work. "Look what happened to President Clinton," he told the Toronto Globe and Mail shortly after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Initially regarded as a rabble of inept students, the Taliban captured the capital of Kabul, executed former president Najibullah and put all the other Afghan factions on the run. Today it controls 95 percent of the country, still resisted by a northern army of mujahideen remnants who recently lost their leader, Ahmad Shah Masoud, to a Taliban-inspired assassination.

The Taliban rule with a terrifying blend of religious intolerance and ethnic hatred. Although its mullahs insist they are merely trying to create an Islamic society that will heal the wounds of war, they have massacred minorities and made life hell on earth for the Pashtun majority.

All forms of entertainment, even kite-flying, are banned. Women cannot venture outdoors except in the company of a male relative. Education for girls is forbidden beyond the age of eight and harsh Koranic penalties are imposed for anything remotely "un-Islamic," such as immodestly dressed women and men whose beards are too short.

Famine, disease and illiteracy stalk the land, mostly rubble from three decades of war. The United Nations is feeding 5 million Afghans it says are in danger of starving to death while 4 million refugees have fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

The Taliban's worst mistake in its relentless conquest of Afghanistan was persecuting Hazaras, the Shiite minority with links to Iran. U.N. investigators and Amnesty International said up to 6,000 were slaughtered when the Taliban's Pashtun troops captured the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998.

Hazara males over 16 had their throats slit in front of their families.

Younger boys had both hands chopped off at the wrist so they could "fight no more."

Some victims were skinned alive, a traditional Pashtun torture, and hundreds of bodies were thrown down wells to poison the water supply.

Among the dead were 10 Iranian diplomats and an Iranian television journalist who had taken refuge in the consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif. This so outraged Iran it massed troops on the Afghan border and threatened war until the Taliban apologized and returned the bodies.

Relations are still strained with Iran regularly accusing the Afghan regime of genocide, drug smuggling, gun running and "promoting a false image of Islam by repeatedly violating human rights."

This argues against any alliance between the two on the terrorist front.

The Taliban have given sanctuary to Islamic terrorists of many nationalities — Egyptians, Algerians, Lebanese, Saudis, Gulf Arabs, Palestinians, Sudanese, Filipinos of the Abu Sayyaf Brigade and even Bosnian Muslims — who perfected their skills in the very training camps that had been funded by the CIA and run by the ISI.

These form the core of a network now run by bin Laden, a rogue Saudi millionaire disowned by his family and blamed by the United States for a long string of terrorist attacks — on the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia, two U.S. embassies in Africa, the USS Cole and the devastation of Sept. 11.

Slapped with sanctions for refusing to surrender bin Laden, the Taliban have long maintained that it would violate Islamic hospitality to turn out a "guest."

But, under growing international pressure and the urgings of Pakistan, their only ally in the outside world, they appear to be inching toward a handover.

If they don't, they risk U.S. military retaliation — President Bush has vowed to strike any country that harbors terrorists — and Pakistan risks a serious uprising by its own Muslim radicals if it becomes a springboard for such a strike.

Retired Gen. Hameed Gul, former head of the ISI, warns that "the first victim would be Musharraf's government (since) the Pakistani people would never accept an American presence on their soil."

The second victims would be both Americans and Afghans, "an enormous loss of human life because it is easy to enter Afghanistan and hard to leave.

"Nobody has ever succeeded in suppressing the Afghans."


Holger Jensen is International Editor of the Rocky Mountain News. E-mail: hjens@aol.com.