Paul Kengor: Reagan is not to blame for the Taliban





[Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperCollins, 2006) and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.]

It has become a truism in liberal circles that Ronald Reagan brought us Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. The accusation could already be heard mere weeks after 9/11. Articles developing the "blowback" thesis metastasized around the Internet. Given the staying power of ideologically convenient misinformation, it is worth reviewing the facts of the Reagan administration's support for the mujahedeen, the fighters who resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and their link with today's Islamic extremists.
The USSR, it will be recalled, invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979. The Soviets proceeded to brutalize a country that, though still very poor, had made surprising progress since the 1950s. How would the United States respond?

One man who spoke up promptly was Ronald Reagan, then a candidate for the Republican nomination for president. In a campaign speech in Florida in January 1980, Reagan urged Washington to provide Stinger antiaircraft missiles to Afghans fighting the Red Army. He called specifically for supplying the rebels with "shoulder-launched, heat-seeking missiles that can shoot down Soviet helicopter gunships."

In due course, the Carter administration did aid the mujahedeen. Then in November 1980, Reagan was elected president, and throughout his eight years in office he continued assisting the Afghan rebels. Those American Stingers ultimately became the bullet to the chest of the Soviet campaign, central to the Kremlin's devastating withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, and a vital contribution to the demise of the USSR and the end of the Cold War.

The mujahedeen--literally, "strugglers"--were a force specific to the Soviet war in Afghanistan. They comprised an assortment of factions. There were Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns, fundamentalist Sunnis and moderate Sunnis, Shiites, clerics and non-clerics, Wahhabis, Islamists with links to madrassas in Iran and Islamists connected to madrassas in Pakistan, extremists who came out of Hezbollah and extremists with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. There were even religious reformers who favored a secular state--the polar opposite of the theocracy the Taliban would one day impose on Afghanistan.

While it is true that many of these mujahedeen would later make up the Taliban, others would oppose it and help to drive it from power. In particular, many former mujahedeen joined the Northern Alliance, the Afghan coalition that fought alongside U.S. troops in October and November 2001 to overthrow the Taliban.

Today, some former members of the mujahedeen are part of the democratic movement trying to move Afghanistan back to the days of promise and modernization that preceded the Soviet ruination of the country. This explains how it is that Hamid Karzai, elected president in 2004, could say fondly, "The people of Afghanistan remember Mr. Ronald Reagan's assistance to Afghanistan during the years of 'jihad' against the Soviets." Karzai is attempting to steer his country toward democracy, a difficult undertaking that has had its bumps. The transition has been flawed, but it is going forward. Certainly, no one could liken Karzai to the Taliban chieftain, Mullah Omar.

Mohammad Ashraf Azeem, a columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Islamabad Khabrain, likewise celebrates Reagan "for checking the Soviet advanc'e in Afghanistan. As a result of this [Afghan] war, the Soviet Union was disintegrated, and its dream of expanding its influence beyond Afghanistan was shattered once and for all." There are numerous voices like his in the region. And on the ground in Afghanistan, when U.S. Special Forces get a tip leading them to one of the fanatical thugs who once cheered the stoning of women in stadiums, it typically comes from someone who opposed the Soviet invader in the 1980s.

That said, it is true that we do not know precisely the percentages of mujahedeen who subsequently joined al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, and the small but growing band of liberal democrats inside Afghanistan.

But this we do know: To assume that every member of the mujahedeen resembled the 9/11 hijackers is to engage in stereotyping of a kind that usually enrages liberals. Afghans were intimately familiar with the vicious nature of the Marxist regime that the militantly atheist Soviet Union had tried to prop up in Kabul, just as they knew the egregious tactics employed by the Red Army, from the deployment of chemical weapons to the use of booby-trapped toys. It is understandable that many Afghans--not all of them reactionary Islamic extremists--fought for freedom from these killers.

The mujahedeen would have existed irrespective of U.S. policy--ditto for Osama bin Laden. The Afghan resistance coalesced without us. Our objective was to help it win, and thereby further undermine the Soviet Union at a desperate time in its history. It was the Soviet invasion that drew Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan, not U.S. aid to the resistance. As Olivier Roy wrote in Afghanistan: From Holy War to Civil War: "The mujahedeen consisted of elements or factions that all interpreted Islam differently but were united in a common cause--to expel the infidel Soviets."

Finally, anyone who would blame Reagan for supporting the mujahedeen must also point the finger at Democrats: As noted above, it was Jimmy Carter who first began aiding the mujahedeen, at the urging of top advisers like Zbigniew Brzezinski and with the support of a Democratic Congress. And many Democratic congressmen and senators continued to vote to authorize the aid through the Reagan years. Helping the mujahedeen was a no-brainer: It was the right thing to do.

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Arnold Shcherban - 10/10/2007

Qiute possibly so...


amy farland - 10/9/2007

I wonder sometimes whether our history of populating this country with the "oppressed" has created a country who can only oppress others .. including its own citizens who are not part of the ruling class? People speak of "Minnesota nice" ... in reading of the immigration of my Nordic ancestor, i discovered the influx of Norwegians here was largely due to their attempt to avoid the Swedish draft during its brief history of imperialism. Contrast that with the Scotch/Irish whose legacy seems to have created a much different mindset among other Americans.

China has a long, complicated history. It has had to by necessity develop nuances in its foreign policy. Its long history probably explains its ability to act for long term gain, rather than short term, immediate advantage?


Arnold Shcherban - 10/8/2007

You're right: China, whether sincerely or not, executes incomparably wiser foreign policy than this country, and the US is already swallowing some bullets over it, and will be doing much more of the swallowing in the years to come.
There is yet another side of the China-US comparison. Historically (taking, say, the last century) the US has led (debatably, for better or worse) essentially imperialistic - at times belligerent - foreign policy in practically all regions of the world: Central and South America, Pacific Ocean, South East Asia (the Chinese neighborhood), Middle East, etc.
In difference with US (and some other
imperialistic powers) China has not done that. Folks can have different opinions on the reasons of such behaviour of Chinese (as well as the American one), but the opinions cannot remake the history.


amy farland - 10/8/2007

while Reagan gladly fought proxy wars, he also gladly defunded public (secular) schooling in Pakistan which the US had solely funded thru humanitarian and foreign aid budgets. This unquestionably allowed the mullahs to fill the void with the free "schooling" they provided to the populations as a replacement to the schooling there that Reagan effectively ended.

To ignore this piece of the puzzle and the subsequent explosion of this fundamentalist ideology embraced by the groups the writer says comprised the mujahedeen -- surely facilitated if not triggered by Reagan's dismissal of non-military foreign aid -- is puzzling to say the least.

This was not the case of "unintended consequences" ... but rather implementation of ideology that resulted in disaster. (Sound familiar?)

One only has to look at the methods being used by China today in Africa to equate its government in the minds of Africans with "humanitarian aid" and realize that "butter" can be far more useful long term than "guns" ... both internationally and domestically.

China has adopted our previous "liberal policies" focusing not just on military sales but also economic foreign aid in "winning hearts and minds."






amy farland - 10/8/2007

while Reagan gladly fought proxy wars, he also gladly defunded public (secular) schooling in Pakistan which the US had solely funded thru humanitarian and foreign aid budgets. This unquestionably allowed the mullahs to fill the void with the free "schooling" they provided to the populations as a replacement to the schooling there that Reagan effectively ended.

To ignore this piece of the puzzle and the subsequent explosion of this fundamentalist ideology embraced by the groups the writer says comprised the mujahedeen -- surely facilitated if not triggered by Reagan's dismissal of non-military foreign aid -- is puzzling to say the least.

This was not the case of "unintended consequences" ... but rather implementation of ideology that resulted in disaster. (Sound familiar?)

One only has to look at the methods being used by China today in Africa to equate its government in the minds of Africans with "humanitarian aid" and realize that "butter" can be far more useful long term than "guns" ... both internationally and domestically.

China has adopted our previous "liberal policies" focusing not just on military sales but also economic foreign aid in "winning hearts and minds."






Arnold Shcherban - 10/8/2007

It was President Carter who issued the secret (soon became known by Kremlin) directive to overthrow Afghan's communist government BEFORE
the Soviet invasion to that country. It was Mr. Brzezinski himself who's essentially bragged several years ago how skillfully the US enticed the Soviets into the Afghan's trap, which eventually, in his opinion, led to the collapse of the Evil Empire. "Unfortunately", it led to about a million of Afghani lives and many dozens of thousands of Soviets' ones. But in the eyes of Mr. Brzezinsky it was absolutely valid sacrifice on the altar of the "victory" in the Cold War.
Over the Soviet invasion, Reagan or no Reagan, the US would support the so-called Afghan fighters (many of whom, as the Americans knew very well already then, hated the US and Israel - some being known to the CIA terrorists - the US not less than they hated "infidel" Russians) by any means, excluding the direct military invasion, anyway.
So long, for Reagan's exclusive role
or foresight...


Lisa Kazmier - 10/6/2007

Haven't we heard this somewhere before? Bet ya wanna deny Reagan traded arms for hostages as a way to humiliate Carter, too.

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