by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
April 23, 2004
MAKING THE MONSTER
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- So many mistakes have been by the Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan that it's hard to know where to begin.
Perhaps the Bush team's biggest mistake has been a failure to understand the true nature of the conflict this nation is currently fighting in those two countries.
The commonly offered explanation for what's become known as "the war on terror" is that Islamic culture (or more specifically, the fundamentalist branch of Islam) is at odds with secular Western values (or perhaps more specifically, the fundamentalist Christian and Jewish sects of the West) and the result of all this has been terrorism.
But terrorism isn't necessarily endemic to Islamic culture. In fact, terrorism as we now know it has its origins in the last three decades of U.S. foreign policy.
Mahmood Mamdani, an Ugandan-born professor of political science and anthropology at Columbia University, believes that the 9/11 attacks are not the result of radical Islam. Rather, they are the result of the rise of non-state violence and proxy warfare - two strategies developed by the U.S. in the latter stages of the Cold War.
Mamdani lays out this argument in his new book, "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror." In it, he describes how the CIA supported and trained terror groups and proxy armies in Indochina, Africa, Latin America and Afghanistan to fight against pro-Soviet regimes.
After the Vietnam debacle, Mamdani writes that the U.S. made a conscious decision to shift its strategy against the Soviet Union from direct military confrontation to the use of privatized, stateless proxy forces to do the fighting. From UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) and RENAMO (the Mozambican National Resistance) in Africa, to the Contras in Nicaragua, to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, the idea was to create "an international cadre of uprooted individuals who broke ties with family and country to join clandestine networks with a clearly defined enemy."
The one thing all these forces had in common, besides CIA assistance, was that all used the random killing of civilians as a way to sow fear and paralyze the governments they were fighting against.
The mujahedeen in Afghanistan are a perfect example of the proxy war strategy. Mamdani writes that this force was created as a secular counterbalance to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The hope was to turn the religious schism in Islam between the minority Shia and the majority Sunnis into a political schism.
On top of this, the Reagan administration saw the opportunity to form an alliance between Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to unite a billion Muslims in a holy war against the Soviet Union and its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Mamdani writes that the idea of a jihad, an armed struggle against an external enemy, hadn't been part of the Islamic world since the Crusades, but the CIA decided to revive the concept and have eager young jihadis do battle against the Soviets.
It took 10 years for the mujahedeen to drive out the Soviet army. Unfortunately, victory came at an exceptionally high cost for a poor country with about 15 million people - 1 million dead and another 1.5 million maimed, as well as more than 5 million refugees.
Things didn't get better in Afghanistan after the Soviets were routed. The various factions, led by anti-American Islamic hardliners, turned to fighting each other with all of the first-class American weaponry they had received from the CIA. Still, the U.S. money kept flowing, even after the victors in the intramural Afghan destruct-a-thon, the Taliban, took in an old friend from the mujahedeen days - Osama bin Laden - and let him use Afghanistan as a base for what eventually became al-Qaida.
The term for this is blowback - the unintended boomeranging of a covert strategy. The U.S. created a jihad to defeat the Soviets, only to see it turned against the U.S.
This is the backdrop that the "war on terror" is being fought under. For more than three decades, the U.S. encouraged and funded proxy armies and terrorist groups as a low-cost, low-risk way of fighting the Cold War. Now, some of the veterans of those struggles against the Soviets have decided to turn their attention toward their former paymasters.
As Mamdani points out, Islam is not the driving force behind terrorism. Instead, it is years of cynical foreign policy decisions that grafted terrorism onto religion and did not consider the consequences.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.