Monday, July 25, 2005

No, the US did not Create Bin Laden

London Mayor Ken Livingstone recently made some remarks in which he blamed Western policies for creating Islamist terrorism. Such comments are par for the course for the man know as "Red Ken". Still, one particular passage from Livingstone's comments stood out:

"I think the particular problem we have at the moment is that in the 1980s the Americans recruited and trained Osama bin Laden, taught him how to kill, to make bombs and sent him off to kill the Russians in Afghanistan and they didn’t give any thought to the fact that once he had done that, he might turn on his creators," he said.

The idea that the US "created" Osama bin Laden is a popular one with the anti-American left. For one thing, it feeds their desire to be able to blame America for everything that is wrong with the world. It also allows them to make the thinly-veiled claim that the US got what it deserved on 9/11, and has no right to feel aggrieved or claim the moral high ground, let alone fight back.

There's just one problem with this theory: it is completely and utterly wrong. Peter Beinart explained why in an October 2001 piece for the New Republic:

As bizarre as it may sound to the antiwar left, the CIA was deeply wary of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The Agency didn't think the mujahedin rebels could beat Moscow, and it feared that if it ran the war, it would take the blame if things went awry. As Vincent Cannistraro, who led the Reagan administration's Afghan Working Group from 1985 to 1987, puts it, "The CIA was very reluctant to be involved at all. They thought it would end up with them being blamed, like in Guatemala." So the Agency tried to avoid direct involvement in the war, and to maintain plausible deniability. For the first six years following the 1979 Soviet invasion, the U.S. provided the mujahedin only Eastern-bloc weaponry, so the rebels could claim they had captured it from Soviet troops rather than received it from Washington. And while America funded the mujahedin, it played barely any role in their training. To insulate itself, the U.S. gave virtual carte blanche to its allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to direct the rebel effort as they saw fit.

This is where bin Laden comes in. After Moscow invaded, he and other Arab militants went to defend Afghanistan in the name of Islam. The Pakistani government allowed them in, and the Saudis gave them money, hoping to foster a Sunni Islamist network to counter the Shia network of rival Iran. Riyadh thought the network would espouse the monarchy's brand of conservative, rather than revolutionary, fundamentalism. And that idea seemed less naÔve in the 1980s when bin Laden was still a loyal Saudi subject, and before Islamist rebellions had broken out in Algeria and dramatically intensified in Egypt.

Had the U.S. been present on the ground in Afghanistan, it would have known about this. And it probably would have tried to stop it--if only because the Arab volunteers were aiding a virulently anti-Western Afghan rebel leader named Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who opposed not only the Soviets, but the Western-backed mujahedin as well. But the U.S. wasn't present on the ground, and it had only the vaguest knowledge of the Arabs' presence and aims. In retrospect, that might seem hard to believe. But remember, contrary to bin Laden's later boasts, the Arabs were few in number (most came after the war, once bin Laden's network was established) and played virtually no military role in the victory over the Soviets. And the skittish CIA, Cannistraro estimates, had less than ten operatives acting as America's eyes and ears in the region. Milton Bearden, the Agency's chief field operative in the war effort, has insisted that "[T]he CIA had nothing to do with" bin Laden. Cannistraro says that when he coordinated Afghan policy from Washington, he never once heard bin Laden's name.

As Beinart pointed out, bin Laden and the "Afghan Arabs" were a mere footnote to the anti-Soviet war. More importantly, they had their own support network, pursued their own agenda, and had nothing to do with the CIA. Peter Bergen, in his book Holy War, Inc., lays this out in detail. In short, the notion that the US "created" bin Laden is easily disproved by the historical record. Sadly, though, I doubt we've heard the last of this canard.


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