How the US created Osama bin Laden

Published: 02/05/2011

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Originally listed under: Imperialism

As news broke yesterday that Osama bin Laden had been killed in an American attack in Pakistan, the usual assortment of pious media hacks and bloodthirsty cheerleaders for the US empire erupted in a chorus of baying and backslapping.

The Australian’s Greg Sheridan – their most enthusiastic performing dog – was one of the first to pitch in, tail wagging and panting furiously: “This is a great day for America, and for Australia, and for all those who oppose terrorism…today, the US basks in righteous triumph,” he gushed.

Righteous triumph? It took the world’s biggest superpower a decade to track down one man. That’s hardly a vindication of the jingoistic triumphalism spewing across the news networks. Of course no one can say the US hasn’t had an impact over the last decade. Its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have killed well over 1 million people. Intransigent US backing of continued Israeli incursions into the occupied Palestinian territories and Lebanon has further driven nails in the coffin of US credibility in the Middle East.

As WikiLeaks has confirmed this week – if confirmation was indeed necessary – the other side to the “war on terror” has been a staggering assault on civil rights. From Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay (and all the secret prisons in between), the US and its allies have imprisoned, tortured and held without charge thousands of innocent people.

Socialists do not mourn bin Laden. He was always an enemy of workers and the left. Socialist Alternative has always argued (and have been decisively proven right this year) that the way to fight US imperialism and the despots it aligns itself with in the Arab world is not terrorism but mass revolutionary action by millions of people.

But we do recognise the basic truth that bin Laden’s crimes pale when compared to the millions that have been butchered in the last 50 years as a result of the policies of Western governments – polices carried out with the support of the media and the judicial systems, and with weapons of mass murder whose effects are no less bloody and unconscionable because they carry official sanction and the blessings of newspaper editors.

What makes the response to bin Laden’s death sickening is the fact that he, the supposed nemesis of the West, was in fact the creation of the same military and political establishment that has killed so many people under the pretext of the fight against al-Qaeda.

The article below by Ben Hillier, first published by Socialist Alternative in 2007, looks at this history.



How the West created Osama bin Laden

ON JULY 3 1979, US President Jimmy Carter, under advice from National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, signed the first directive allowing secret aid to be given to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime that had recently come to power in Afghanistan. It marked the beginning of a now infamous convergence of interests, which saw the CIA, the Saudi Arabian regime and the Pakistani Interservices Intelligence Directorate (ISI) train and equip the Islamist mujahideen resistance to the Soviet Union.

The US saw an immense opportunity. In the preceding five years, they had been forced out of both Vietnam and Iran. It had been “the most humiliating half decade in American history”. Now they sought to lure the Soviets into an intractable guerrilla war in Central Asia.

Over more than a decade up to 35,000 fighters from the Muslim world were recruited, $US10 billion worth of aid was channelled (including, by 1987, 65,000 tons of arms), and a “ceaseless stream” of CIA and Pentagon officials helped to plan mujahideen operations.

According to Stephen Coll, writing in the Washington Post:

At any one time during the Afghan fighting season, as many as 11 ISI teams trained and supplied by the CIA accompanied mujahideen across the border to supervise attacks… CIA operations officers helped Pakistani trainers establish schools for the mujahideen in secure communications, guerrilla warfare, urban sabotage and heavy weapons.

Not only this. They gave support to the most retrograde elements like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. His followers, according to journalist Tim Weiner, “first gained attention by throwing acid in the faces of women who refused to wear the veil”. The reasoning of the CIA was simple: the more fanatical the fighters and the more brutal their methods, the better they would fight. And the better they fought the more support they should receive.

Ronald Reagan – the same man who denounced the African National Congress and the Palestine Liberation Organisation for not renouncing violence – described the mujahideen as “freedom fighters.” As president, Reagan met in Washington with rebel leaders like Abdul Haq, who openly admitted his responsibility for terrorist attacks such as a 1984 bomb blast at Kabul’s airport that killed at least 28 people.

Meanwhile, with CIA assistance, the mujahideen greatly expanded opium production in areas under their control – turning Afghanistan into what one US official later described as the new Colombia of the drug world.

One of the first non-Afghan volunteers to join the ranks of the mujahideen was Osama bin Laden, hailing from a wealthy construction family in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden recruited 4,000 volunteers from his own country and developed close relations with the most radical mujahideen leaders.

He also worked closely with the CIA, raising money from private Saudi citizens. By 1984, he was running the Maktab al-Khidamar, an organisation set up by the ISI to funnel “money, arms, and fighters from the outside world in the Afghan war”.

According to journalist John Cooley, “the CIA gave Osama free rein in Afghanistan, as did Pakistan’s intelligence generals. They looked with a benign eye on the build up of Sunni sectarian power in South Asia to counter the influence of Iranian Shi’ism of the Khomeiny variety.”

By 1989 the Russians were exhausted. Afghanistan had become to them what Vietnam had become to the US. News of the Soviet defeat saw champagne corks popping all over Washington. The Cold War was about to become history, the US had triumphed.

But when the USSR finally withdrew, the administration of George Bush Sr. turned its back on Afghanistan – leaving it, in the words of The Economist, “awash with weapons, warlords and extreme religious zealotry.”

As the state funding from the Saudis and the US dried up, private financiers – like bin Laden himself – further stepped up their contributions to “the cause”. The Soviets may have gone, but there were new targets, and they weren’t limited to within Afghanistan’s borders.

Looking back on his role in the conflict Zbigniew Brzezinski asked (in 1998), “What is most important to the history of the world…some stirred up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” In light of the “war on terror” Brzezinski’s question is tragic.

The hypocrisy is there for all to see: the “terrorists” of today were trained, funded and backed by modern imperialism yesterday. Bin Laden gave Bush just the excuse the US needed to go into Afghanistan again, and to follow it up with the obliteration of Iraq. That war shows that while bin Laden may have been a useful protégé, the US is still the master when it comes to terror.