Marjorie Cohn: Review of Deepak Tripathi, "Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism" (Potomac Books, Inc., 2011)






Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School, past president of the National Lawyers Guild, and editor, most recently, of The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse (NYU Press)

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration rolled out its “Global War on Terror.”  Although the Obama White House doesn’t use that moniker, many of its policies are indistinguishable from those of its predecessor.  Both administrations have focused on combating the symptoms of terrorism rather than grappling with its root causes.  Longtime BBC correspondent Deepak Tripathi was based in Kabul, Afghanistan for 15 months in the early 1990s, where he gained a unique perspective about the genesis of terrorism from his access to Afghan leaders and citizens during the civil war following the expulsion of the communist regime there.

Breeding Ground makes a significant contribution toward understanding the origins and triggers of terrorism.  Tripathi traces the development of a ‘culture of violence’ in Afghanistan—largely due to resistance against foreign invasion—from the “U.S.-led proxy war” against the USSR to the current U.S. war.  Without such historical insight, efforts to make us safe from acts of terror will prove futile.

Absent from the national discourse after 9/11 was a substantive inquiry into why nineteen men could hate the United States so much they would blow themselves up and take more than three thousand innocents with them.  The source of that hatred can be traced to foreign occupation of Afghanistan as well as resentment of the United States for its uncritical support of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.

Tripathi reproduces an October 7, 2001 statement by Osama bin Laden that says, “What America is tasting now is something insignificant compared to what we have tasted for years,” citing “humiliation and degradation.”  Bin Laden adds, “Millions of innocent children are being killed as I speak.  They are being killed in Iraq [from the blockade and sanctions] without committing any sins.”  And he writes, “Israeli tanks infest Palestine . . . and other places in the land of Islam, and we don’t hear anyone raising his voice or moving a limb.”

Bin Laden’s statement mirrors the grievances set forth in a 1998 Al Qaeda declaration, which listed Israel’s control over Jerusalem, the Palestinian problem, and Iraq as its three primary complaints.  The declaration cited America’s “occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors and turning its bases into a spearhead” against Muslims.  It complained of “the huge number of those killed” by the blockade of Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.  The declaration described U.S. aims as “religious and economic,” with a desire to serve Israel’s interests by diverting attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and the murder of Muslims in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Tripathi dialectically traces the rise of radical Islam against communism in Afghanistan, U.S. support for the Islamic forces to repel the Soviets, and the later development of terrorism in opposition to American policies once the Soviet Union was expelled from Afghanistan.

In 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan and began a ten-year occupation to prop up the struggling Afghan communist government which had come to power the year before.  “The rise of communism radicalized the country’s Islamic groups,” Tripathi writes.  After the invasion, bin Laden moved to the Afghan-Pakistan border to “liberate the land from the infidel invader.”  Supported by the CIA, he created an organization to fight the Soviets.  It became part of the Mujahideen, which was based in Pakistan and backed by the United States.

The U.S. and its allies financed the war against the Soviet Union with billions of dollars worth of weapons.  American aid was funneled by the CIA to the Mujahideen via the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) in Pakistan, which received $3 billion in U.S. assistance for its efforts.  President Jimmy Carter began a policy of active confrontation with the communists by authorizing secret support of the Mujahideen.  When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency, he made a conscious decision to increase CIA military aid to the Mujahideen.  By 1987, 65,000 tons of arms and ammunition was going through the CIA pipeline to the Afghan resistance.  “These fundamentalist fighters were willing to endure extreme hardship and make the ultimate sacrifice—martyrdom,” notes Tripathi.  Many defectors and prisoners of the Mujahideen were tortured or killed.  The ISI had a great deal of influence over Mujahideen leaders.

“Terror was fundamental in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan,” according to Tripathi.  The occupation lasted until 1989 when the Soviet Union was forced to withdraw from Afghanistan due to its devastating costs.  In the decade of war and brutality, over 1.3 million Afghans were killed and more than a third of the population became refugees.

Bin Laden formed Al Qaeda in the mid-1980s to overthrow corrupt, heretical regimes in Muslim countries and replace them with Islamic law.  “Al Qaeda’s ideology was intensely anti-Western,” Tripathi says, “and bin Laden saw America as the greatest enemy that had to be destroyed.”  While the United States supported radical Islam against the communists in Afghanistan with money and weapons, it “failed to recognize that the demise of the Soviet empire would leave the United States itself exposed to assaults from groups like al Qaeda,” Tripathi writes.  “In time, this failure proved to be a historic blunder.”

After the demise of the USSR, which was partially attributable to its loss in the Afghan war, Afghanistan sank into chaos and civil war.  Radical Islamic forces came to the fore.  “Helped by America and its allies, the Afghan resistance generated its own culture of terror, which grew in Afghanistan—and beyond—over time.”  Afghanistan, which generally had been a peaceful country, became identified with global terror in the 1990s.  Toward the middle of that decade, the Taliban rose to prominence.  Comprised of young Afghan refugees from the war against the Soviet Union, many grew up in Pakistan.  Most of the Taliban leaders hailed from poor backgrounds.  Relying on strict Shari’ah law, they promised to restore peace and security to Afghanistan.  But it came at a price. Shi’a Afghans, women and ethnic minorities became victims of Taliban atrocities.  ISI supplied the Taliban with military equipment and fighters.  By 1998, the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan.  “Torture and ill-treatment had become systematic.”

The adage, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ is nowhere more relevant than in Afghanistan.  The CIA gave weapons and copies of the Quran to Afghan and Arab groups.  The virulent anti-communism of Carter, Reagan and President George H.W. Bush backfired.  “Al Qaeda and the Taliban’s anti-Western ideology was a grotesque mirror image of the Carter and Reagan-Bush administration’s anti-Soviet policy,” Tripathi observes.  “The rise of Al Qaeda and its Afghan hosts, the Taliban, was as much a reaction to America’s relentless pursuit of an anti-Soviet policy as it was a symbol of the fundamentalists’ will to advance their brand of Islam.”

George W. Bush launched his “war against terror” after the 9/11 attacks by invading and occupying Afghanistan.  The dead include 1,672 Americans, 2,604 coalition troops, and, by the end of 2010, at least ten thousand Afghan civilians.  Under the guise of fighting terror, Bush also attacked and occupied Iraq, which had no connection to Al Qaeda.  In Iraq, 4,474 Americans, 4,792 coalition troops, and between 101,906 and 111,369 Iraqi civilians have been killed.  Those occupations continue to claim lives.  Between 9/11 and 2012, the projected cost of these two wars is $1.42 trillion.

The Bush administration developed a policy of torture and abuse of prisoners, many of whom have been detained for years without evidence of any connection to terrorism.  The U.S. prison at Guantánamo became synonymous with the dehumanization of men of Arab and Muslim descent.  Photographs of cruel treatment that emerged from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq sent shock waves around the world.  The Guantánamo prison still operates under the Obama administration, which has also increased attacks by unmanned drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. More than 90 percent of those killed have been civilians, according to the Brookings Institution.

Rather than endearing us to the people in these countries, those policies incur hatred against the United States, making us more vulnerable to terrorism.  Tripathi’s excellent work ends with a call to replace the military strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan with development, reconciliation, and reconstruction.  It behooves us to heed his wise counsel.


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