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Patrick McElwee: Reckless Disregard

Reckless Disregard: US May Be Supporting Terrorists, Endangering Its Own Citizens

By Patrick McElwee
t r u t h o u t | Guest Contributor

Tuesday 06 March 2007

In the 1980s, in the context of the Cold War, the United States government and its allies provided training, weapons and billions of dollars to Islamist warriors, enabling the development of a terrorist infrastructure. One group emerging from that period later perpetrated the attack of September 11th, 2001. This lesson from history is especially important now that some reports indicate our leaders may be doing it again, ironically in the name of a "war on terror."

In 1978, a pro-Soviet government took power in Afghanistan. In late 1979, after the US provided aid to opponents of the Afghan government, the Soviet Union invaded to shore up its allies. In a secret presidential "finding," President Carter authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to provide lethal and non-lethal support to Afghans fighting the Soviets.1

The Reagan administration in 1980 announced a more aggressive policy against the "evil empire." Operations in Afghanistan were ramped up. Billions of dollars were poured into the region to support an Afghan "jihad." Saudi Arabia pumped a similar amount of money into the effort. The goal was to recruit, arm and train radical Islamic forces to inflict maximum damage on the Soviet Union.

US leaders were not able to directly commit American forces, both because the US public would not allow it after the horror of Vietnam and due to the risk of hot war with the Soviet Union. So they relied on proxies to do the dirty work; Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt had the most direct contact with fighters.2

There is a debate about whether the United States directly funded the non-Afghani Arabs who joined the war and later formed the core of the Islamic terrorism movement, but it is clear that US allies did. No one seems to have objected to these activities, including when the Saudis recruited the son of a prestigious and wealthy Saudi family: Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden built his organization, al-Qaeda, while fighting in Afghanistan and benefiting from US backing for that effort.

Arab fighters also clearly benefited from the availability of arms and cash in the region, as well as from tactical training. Some Afghan fighters were trained in camps in the United States.3 After the war, Arab fighters returned home hardened and with detailed knowledge of skills like infiltration, taking prisoners and handling weaponry.

In 1996, the Los Angeles Times found that veterans of the Afghan war had been implicated in all of the major terrorist attacks since the 1980s.

Some press reports indicate our government may once again be aiding terrorists in service of a new cold war - this time with Iran and its Shiite allies in the region.

The US government sees Iran as a competitor for regional power. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq had the side-effect for Iran of removing two hostile neighbors. In the case of Iraq, the ties between Iran and the Shiite-led government are especially strong.

In a detailed New Yorker story posted on February 25th, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh reports that in the last few months, the White House has decided to confront Iran and its allies by supporting Sunni Muslims in a regional sectarian conflict. In the search for Sunni groups able to act as violent proxy forces, Washington and its allies may be supporting the growth of terrorist groups.

Lebanon is a major front in this new cold war. The Shiite Hezbollah organization, which gained popularity in its war with Israel last summer, is seeking more power in the Sunni-dominated government. In a scenario that sounds painfully similar to the proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Hersh reports that covert funds from the United States and Saudi Arabia provided to the Lebanese government are being used to support violent Sunni groups with ideological ties to al-Qaeda.

While the Bush administration publicly acknowledges its alliance with Sunni states, funding to violent, non-state actors is reportedly kept secret - even from Congress. This is done both by using Saudi money and by tapping into secret pools of money, such as the billions in reconstruction funds unaccounted for in Iraq.

They can also avoid informing Congress about these activities by relying on covert agencies other than the CIA. When authorizing a CIA operation, the president is required by law to send a secret "finding" to Congress. That is not the case for the National Security Council or many Pentagon operations, for example.

At least one member of the Washington foreign policy establishment seems to endorse the administration's strategy. Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told Hersh that in Lebanon, "We're justified in helping any non-Shiite parties that resist [a change in the distribution of political power to benefit Hezbollah]. We should say this publicly, instead of talking about democracy."

Another report of US support for terrorist groups in its confrontation with Iran comes from the Sunday Telegraph, which reported on February 25th that the US is secretly funding separatist militias inside Iran, some of which engage in terrorist attacks. For example, the "Brigade of God," a Sunni militia, last year kidnapped and killed eight Iranian soldiers.

The Telegraph reports there is even an ongoing discussion in the Defense Department over whether to "unleash" on Iran an Iraqi-based organization, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, which is on the State Department's terrorist list.

The American people and Congress have a very real interest in investigating and stopping covert support for violent, anti-Iranian groups. Terrorist attacks against Americans or against other civilians are the entirely predictable consequences of supporting "our" terrorists against a perceived enemy - just as they were a predictable consequence of the US-supported Afghan jihad.

Congress needs to use its committee and subpoena powers to investigate these allegations, and should act to strengthen prohibitions against funding for terrorist groups. There are two precedents for such action: the Clark Amendment of 1976, which barred US aid to private military or paramilitary groups in Angola, and the Boland Amendment, which prohibited support for the contras in Nicaragua.

The war in Iraq has already increased the threat of terrorism, according to a 2006 National Intelligence Estimate. War with Iran would only further exacerbate it. We must stop these wars. But at the same time, we must be aware of the possibility that our government will support terrorist proxies if they cannot commit US forces. After the horrible blowback we experienced on 9/11, this is completely unacceptable. We must mobilize to restrain our leaders, who seem incapable or unwilling to learn from history.


Patrick McElwee is a policy analyst and national organizer of Just Foreign Policy.

1 Zbigniew Brzezinski interviewed in Le Nouvel Observateur, January 15-21, 1998. 2 Mahmood Mamdani, "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror", (New York: Pantheon Books, 2004), pp. 119-177. 3 John Cooley, "Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America, and International Terrorism" (London: Pluto Press, 2000), p. 90.

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