How Reagan created Bin Ladin
Reagan's Osama Connection
How he turned a jihadist into a terrorist kingpin.
Posted Thursday, June 10, 2004, at 4:34 PM PT
Earlier this week, I cited recently declassified documents to show that
Ronald Reagan did indeed play a major role in ending the Cold War. Now it's
time to note that a similar set of documents shows that Reagan also played a
major role in bringing on the terrorist war that followed - specifically, in
abetting the rise of Osama Bin Laden.
Once again, the story concerns the fascinating relationship between Reagan
and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev took the helm as the reform-minded general-secretary of the
Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985. Within months, he had
decided privately to pull Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. One of his
predecessors, Leonid Brezhnev, had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and the move
was proving a disaster. Tens of thousands of Soviet troops had died;
military morale was crumbling; popular protest - unheard of, till then, in
Communist Russia - was rising.
Part of the Soviet failure in Afghanistan was due to the fact that the
Reagan administration was feeding billions of dollars in arms to
Afghanistan's Islamic resistance. Reagan and, even more, his intensely
ideological CIA director, William Casey, saw the battle for Afghanistan as a
titanic struggle in the war between Eastern tyranny and Western freedom.
(Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, had
started assisting the resistance, but with not nearly the same largess or
At a Politburo meeting of Nov. 13, 1986, Gorbachev laid his position on the
table: The war wasn't working; it had to be stopped:
"People ask: "What are we doing there?" Will we be there endlessly? Or
should we end this war? ... The strategic objective is to finish the war in
one, maximum two years, and withdraw the troops. We have set a clear goal:
Help speed up the process, so we have a friendly neutral country, and get
out of there."
In early December, Gorbachev summoned President Najibullah, the puppet
leader of Afghanistan, to give him the news: The Soviet troops would be
leaving within 18 months; after that, he was on his own.
Two months later, on Feb. 23, 1987, Gorbachev assured the Politburo that the
troops wouldn't leave right away. He first had to foster a stable
environment for the reigning government and to maintain a credible image
with India, the Soviet Union's main ally in the region. The exit strategy,
he said, would be a negotiated deal with Washington: The Soviets pull out
troops; the Americans stop their arms shipments to the rebels.
However, within days, Gorbachev learned to his surprise that Reagan had no
interest in such a deal. In a conversation on Feb. 27 with Italy's foreign
minister, Giulio Andreotti, Gorbachev said, "We have information from very
reliable sources ... that the United States has set itself the goal of
obstructing a settlement by any means," in order "to present the Soviet
Union in a bad light." If this information is true, Gorbachev continued, the
matter of a withdrawal "takes on a different light."
Without U.S. cooperation, Gorbachev couldn't proceed with his plans to
withdraw. Instead, he allowed his military commanders to escalate the
conflict. In April, Soviet troops, supported by bombers and helicopters,
attacked a new compound of Islamic fighters along the mountain passes of
Jaji, near the Pakistani border. The leader of those fighters, many of them
Arab volunteers, was Osama Bin Laden.
In his magisterial book, Ghost Wars (possibly the best diplomatic history
written in the past decade), Steve Coll recounts the fateful consequences:
"The battle lasted for about a week. Bin Laden and 50 Arab volunteers
faced 200 Russian troops. ... The Arab volunteers took casualties but held
out under intense fire for several days. More than a dozen of bin Laden's
comrades were killed, and bin Laden himself apparently suffered a foot
wound. ... Chronicled daily at the time by several Arab journalists ... the
battle of Jaji marked the birth of Osama bin Laden's public reputation as a
warrior among Arab jihadists. ... After Jaji he began a media campaign
designed to publicize the brave fight waged by Arab volunteers who stood
their ground against a superpower. In interviews and speeches ... bin Laden
sought to recruit new fighters to his cause and to chronicle his own role as
a military leader. He also began to expound on expansive new goals for the
Had Gorbachev thought that Reagan was willing to strike a deal, the battle
of Jaji would not have taken place - and the legend of Bin Laden might never
have taken off.
Reagan can't be blamed for ignoring the threat of Osama Bin Laden. Not for
another few years would any analyst see Bin Laden as a significant player in
global terrorism; not till the mid-1990s would his organization, al-Qaida,
emerge as a significant force.
However, Reagan - and those around him - can be blamed for ignoring the rise
of Islamic militancy in Afghanistan and for failing to see Gorbachev's offer
to withdraw as an opportunity to clamp the danger. Certainly, the danger
was, or should have been, clear. Only a few years had passed since the
Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in Iran - the shah toppled, the U.S.
Embassy employees held hostage, the country turned over to the mullahs, the
region suddenly destabilized. Reagan beat Jimmy Carter so decisively in the
1980 election in part because of the hostage crisis.
Gorbachev had accepted that Afghanistan would become an Islamic country. But
he assumed that Reagan, of all people, would have an interest in keeping it
from becoming militantly, hostilely, Islamist.
In September 1987, after the previous spring's escalation failed to produce
results, Soviet Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze met with Secretary of
State George Shultz to tell him that Gorbachev planned to pull out of
Afghanistan soon. He asked Shultz for help in containing the spread of
"Islamic fundamentalism." Shultz had nothing to say. Most Reagan officials
doubted Gorbachev would really withdraw, and they interpreted the warnings
about Muslim radicals as a cover story for the Soviet Union's military
By this time, Reagan and Gorbachev had gone some distance toward ending the
Cold War. The dramatic moment would come the following spring, during the
summit in Moscow, when Reagan declared that the U.S.S.R. was no longer an
"evil empire." At the same time, though, the U.S. national-security
bureaucracy - and, in many ways, Reagan himself - continued to view the
world through Cold War glasses.
After the last Soviet troops departed, Afghanistan fell off the American
radar screen. Over the next few years, Shevardnadze's worst nightmares came
true. The Taliban rose to power and in 1996 gave refuge to the - by then -
much-hunted Bin Laden.
Ten years earlier, had Reagan taken Gorbachev's deal, Afghanistan probably
still wouldn't have emerged as the "friendly, neutral country" of Gorby's
dreams. Yet it might have been a neutral enough country to preclude a
Taliban takeover. And if the Russian-Afghan war had ended earlier - if
Reagan had embraced Gorbachev on the withdrawal, as he did that same autumn
on the massive cutback of nuclear weapons - Osama Bin Laden today might not
even be a footnote in history.
Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slate. He was the Boston
Globe's military reporter from 1982 to -91 and its Moscow bureau chief from
1992 to -95.
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