TUCSON, ARIZ. — In the discussion about Osama bin Laden, a key point is often omitted: that Mr. bin Laden began his career as a US ally. Indeed, he has followed in the tradition of Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein - unsavory leaders who began as America's "friends," and later became archenemies.
Bin Laden's military career began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Bin Laden, a Saudi exile, moved to the Afghan frontier to join the guerrillas, or mujahideen. During this time, the US launched a vast effort to support the guerrillas. This effort, carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency in cooperation with Pakistani intelligence, was the largest operation in CIA history, involving billions of dollars of weapons, training, and other support.
The mujahideen had great publicity; after all, they were fighting communism. But their image concealed an exceptional brutality by key leaders. Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, a mujahideen leader and recipient of US aid, began his political career as a student who threw acid in the faces of women who did not wear veils. Several guerrilla leaders participated in the international heroin trade, and Afghanistan became a major source of heroin entering the United States.
The US continued aiding the mujahideen, even though the Reagan administration had declared war on drugs. US officials believed that winning the cold war outweighed concerns about human rights and narcotics.
One of our Afghan allies was bin Laden. Accounts differ on whether bin Laden had direct ties to the Central Intelligence Agency.
But there is little doubt that many men in bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist organization received CIA arms, training, or other support, either directly or through the CIA's intermediary in Pakistan. Al Qaeda has US-supplied weapons, including Stinger missiles. At least one Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan - which was targeted during the 1998 US cruise missile attack - was constructed with CIA assistance.
Afghanistan's Taliban government, which supports bin Laden, is the successor to the mujahideen. From 1994 to 1996, the US encouraged Pakistani aid to the Taliban, which seemed the best bet for protecting Western interests in the region. In backing the mujahideen, US officials knew the risks.
The CIA was well aware that the mujhahideen were involved in drug trafficking; they ignored it, and discouraged efforts to investigate the "Afghan connection" in the world heroin trade. The Islamic extremism that prevailed among mujahideen leaders also was well known.
The grim story of US involvement in Afghanistan serves as a cautionary note: US interventions can and often do go awry. Let us hope that in responding to Sept. 11, the Bush administration will choose its allies more carefully than previous administrations did - and will avoid supporting future terrorists.
David N. Gibbs is associate professor of political science at the University of Arizona, Tucson.