From September 11 to the punitive expedition in Afghanistan

The most spectacular attack ever carried out took place on September 11, 2001 with grotesquely ridiculous means and a classic modus operandi. It left nearly three thousand dead in New York City while the Pentagon was also struck. These were major symbols and consequences were guaranteed to be considerable. The majority of the terrorists were Saudi nationals. It has been forgotten since then that shortly after the attack, the staff of the Saudi embassy left the United States and that Saudi assets were withdrawn from US banks. The attacks had a terrifying psychological effect. And for US public opinion, they were traumatic.
September 11 allowed the Neocons, led by Paul Wolfowitz and supported by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to impose their views on President George W. Bush.1 Shortly thereafter, Paul Wolfowitz designated Iraq as the target. As of September 20, the “War on Terror” was declared before becoming the “Global War on Terrorism,” and the Patriot Act was issued in October of the same year.

Al-Qaeda’s goal was to reconstitute the community of believers, return to the real or supposed purity of Islam at its beginnings, restore the caliphate, and in the shorter term, eliminate corrupt and/or impious regimes such as that of Saudi Arabia whose territory “had been soiled” by the presence of US troops and Egypt.

Jihadism, whatever its version, breaks with all other violent movements by the fact that it has nothing to negotiate.

Mullah Omar refused to hand Osama bin Laden over to the United States, so a punitive air expedition was conducted in Afghanistan with participation on the ground of a few dozen US and British special forces. On the ground, the war was sub-contracted to the Northern Alliance made up of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, Commander Massoud having been opportunely the victim of an Islamist attack coordinated from Belgium two days before September 11. Against US advice, the Northern Alliance seized Kabul. In the Pashtun part, in the south, the United States made deals with tribal war chiefs of fluctuating loyalties, something that allowed the Taliban and al-Qaeda staff to exfiltrate to Pakistan.

Kabul, and only Kabul, and its surrounding area were made safe by less than twenty thousand US and British troops. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established at the end of 2001; it included about thirty countries, and eighteen months later comprised five thousand five hundred men.

After a series of negotiations, the leader chosen by the United States, Hamid Karzai, was placed at the head of the country. He would remain there more than a dozen years with a very mediocre record. Gorge W. Bush mentioned once that a Marshall Plan would be set up in Afghanistan; it was never again to be heard about. Considering this business settled, Afghanistan being, in their view, a minor theater, the Neocons turned to their core project: the plan to reshape the “Greater Middle East,” aimed at producing a regime change in Teheran. Meanwhile in Washington, an “axis of evil” had been designated, made up of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. One can definitely wonder in what way they formed an axis …

Held as victorious, the war in Afghanistan with Hamid Karzai placed in power would be, in fact, a collateral victim of the Iraq War. This latter was actively prepared in people’s minds on the diplomatic and political fronts through intensive propaganda spread by the United States, and in Great Britain by Tony Blair (did he not declare that Iraq had the means to strike Europe within forty-five minutes?) claiming the presence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that would not be found, and supposed contacts in Prague between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda, when in fact al-Qaeda would come to Iraq as a consequence of this “war of choice.”

The Iraq War, contrary to that in Afghanistan, did not get UN approval, and Germany and France, contrary to Great Britain, refused to take part in this imperial project.
The fall of the Soviet Union (1989-1991) had left the United States with no rival. US hegemony, particularly on the military level, seemed absolute. In fact, the United States stated the law, applied it, and sought to have it applied with or without United Nations approval.


The first Gulf War (1991)

Caused by Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait and his refusal to withdraw from it, the coalition led by the United States included four Arab states and all the Western allies while Iraq was isolated. Toppling Hussein’s regime was wisely avoided so as not to strengthen Iran by bringing the Shia majority to power.

The Kurds, fiercely repressed, were saved by Western television. A no-fly zone was guaranteed to them after the French, then the British, intervened in their favor. The United States launched Operation Provide Comfort.

In 1993, a truck-bomb attack was aimed at the World Trade Center (seventeen dead). In Saudi Arabia, unclaimed attacks in 1995-1996 killed twenty-four US soldiers. It was in 1998 that al-Qaeda loudly claimed attacks against the Unites States Embassies in Nairobi (Kenya) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania). Another attack left seventeen dead in the crew of US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Cole at the port of Aden, in Yemen (2000).


Soviet failure in Afghanistan

Unexpectedly, around Christmas 1979, the USSR intervened in Afghanistan, a nearby state where its influence had not ceased to grow during the 1970s. Moscow wanted to save a “Marxist-Leninist” regime at the end of its rope. The USSR had to prevent the collapse of a Communist regime, which would set an unfortunate precedent.

A year earlier, in 1978, a coup had brought to power the most radical faction of the Communist Party, Khalq, one of the goals of which was to modernize the Afghan populations. Implemented with typical Stalinist rigidity, reforms aimed at customs and traditions were all the more badly experienced that the party leadership was seen, rightly so, as hostile to Islam. In early 1979, the United States was already secretly helping the Afghan resistance.

By that fall, it had become obvious that the sitting regime would collapse. Discussions were held at the Soviet Central Committee, which after much hesitation and against the general staff’s advice, decided not to leave the Communist regime to its fall. At the end of December 1979, Soviet troops invaded Kabul, got rid of the Khalq leader, and replaced him with Babrak Karmal, a moderate from the other Afghan Communist Party current, the Parcham.

The Soviet mistake of intervening in Afghanistan to save the Khalq Communist regime in power since 1978 would make it possible for Saudi Arabia to retake the initiative. The CIA, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan agreed to support the Afghan insurrection as of 1980, and to facilitate, thereafter, the arrival and incorporation of jihadists come to support the Afghan resistance against the “infidels.” Saudi Arabia, assisted by the Gulf Emirates, was the state that provided the greatest financial contribution, while Pakistan supplied logistics and a sanctuary for the jihadists… This Jihad, it would be noted much later, was Sunni.

Ten years later, in February 1989, after a political defeat, the Soviet troops withdrew in good order. Apart from its special forces (Spetsnaz), the Soviet army was not in the least adapted to this type of war. The major part of operations had been carried out by paratrooper units and special forces, especially since 1983, often successfully.

What explains the Soviet defeat? Compared to the Vietnamese, the organizational capacities of the Afghan resistance, divided into more than a half-dozen movements, were of confounding mediocrity. The Afghan forces, whose propaganda machine had been provided by the United States and its allies, were largely overestimated. Were they not claiming to have defeated the Soviet enemy, and even caused the fall of the Soviet regime, when it had taken them three years to overthrow Mohammad Najibullah’s regime, which had all the country’s cities under its control? The Mujahideen’s operational weakness was blatant.

Throughout the entire war, the number of Soviet troops remained lower than one hundred twenty thousand, that is, two times lower than the US forces thereafter, with just as little success.

The Soviets and their Afghan auxiliaries emptied the countryside of almost one-third of its population (fifteen million) and tripled that of the capital (from seven hundred thousand to nearly two million).

From beginning to end, the Pakistani sanctuary was vital. The logistics from this country, like the combatants, were not at any time seriously jeopardized. The Afghan resistants’ tenacious pugnacity was rewarded and, starting in 1986, fearsome anti-aircraft weapons (Stinger) made the intervention of Soviet helicopters problematic. In terms of guerrilla warfare, Afghanistan did not bring any innovations. The change was occurring in Moscow, with Mikhail Gorbachev in power, rather than on the ground.

The Soviets made the same mistake as the United States had done in Vietnam. This type of colonial war should never be waged by a conscription-based army. This was a mistake the British had never made. The Soviets were paradoxically the victims of democracy, because the war was not popular, neither among the Russians nor among the non-Russians.
The Afghans were able to hold their ground thanks to the segmentation of their society (first ethnic, then religious and ideological), which allowed the guerrilla not to be dismantled since it had neither a leader nor an underground political infrastructure. With no central leadership, but equipped with an unconquered symbol in the person of Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir,” the resistance was very difficult to take down. The Afghans’ disadvantage in terms of revolutionary warfare turned out to be an advantage. The Pashtuns had basically waged regular war instead of using modern and structured guerrilla warfare. Massoud was the first—and his example was scarcely followed—to impose the idea of a full-time irregular combatant.

Added to the traditional warlike qualities of the Afghans—who had an ideal ground for guerrilla warfare—Afghan underdevelopment was a major advantage in a population accustomed to a very frugal existence, and the impact of the war had relatively limited material effects.1 Massoud was practicing a “diversion of Leninism.”2

No more than the United States did at the beginning of the Vietnam War, did the Soviets have troops that were adapted to the type of irregular warfare they were running up against. Under Brejnev, it was hard to imagine the Soviets withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Dictatorships do not withdraw unless they collapse. To their credit, the Soviets contributed to strengthening the Afghan intelligence services, the Khad, and applied an ethnic-based strategy in the colonial tradition. Even though there was a high rate of desertion from the Afghan army, a solid core remained operational to the end (1992).

As previously mentioned, the turning point of the war did not happen at the military level, but at the political level, in 1985, with the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbatchev, who with Glasnost (democratization) and Perestroika (economic restructuring) started a new policy that he was ultimately not able to control. As support for the combatants was growing, Gorbatchev announced the imminent withdrawal of the Soviet troops, which was to be in 1988. There were anti-war demonstrations before that, particularly in Transcaucasia.

In 1987, the former head of the Afghan intelligence agency, Mohammad Najibullah, was appointed head of the Afghan state and launched, in vain, a reconciliation process with no reference to Marxism. Starting in 1986, the Soviet forces virtually ceased their offensive operations. From then on, the main burden of the counterinsurgency was in the hands of the Afghan army. Volunteers for the Jihad were organized by a Palestinian from Jordan, Abdullah Azzam, with assistance from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). To the end, the United States and their Middle Eastern allies supported the most Islamist of the Afghan movements, which were divided between more or less extreme Islamists and traditionalists attached to the royalty. Hezb-e-Islami and its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, were the main beneficiaries of this foreign assistance. Among the foreign jihadists was Osama bin Laden, who would come to public attention after Abdullah Azzam was killed in a car explosion at the end of the war.

The Mujahideen made no headway between 1989 and 1992, while in these three years the Najibullah regime, which was well organized and did not have corruption as its main feature—something that deserves mentioning—did not lose any cities except for the small frontier city of Khost.

After the Soviet Union disappeared and the Najibullah regime fell, the years 1992 to 1994 were two years of violent civil war around Kabul between the partisans of Massoud the Tajik and those of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar the Pashtun. It caused many victims and did a lot of damage. In the countryside, disorder and insecurity enabled banditry while the economic situation seriously deteriorated. The United States lost interest in the country once the USSR was out of Afghanistan.

It was in 1994 that the Taliban, Pashtuns educated and trained in Deobandi madrasas, organized and armed by the ISI, penetrated Afghanistan and seized Kandahar, and two years later, Kabul. The people, particularly in the Pashtun spheres, were relieved to welcome an organized force that would ensure their security. Dissatisfactions would be expressed later, in urban areas, against the rigid moralism of the new regime, which otherwise had no economic agenda.

Osama bin Laden, who like all the foreign combatants had left the country shortly after the Soviet withdrawal, returned to Afghanistan in 1996. His influence was gradually felt on Mullah Omar, who was leading the country. A new wave of apprentice jihadists moved into Afghanistan. Gradually, through a boomerang effect, jihadism turned against the impious Arab regimes (including Saudi Arabia) and “the Crusaders and the Jews.”


Chapter 6 – The first war in Afghanistan

Evolution of the situation in the Middle East

After World War II, the states in the Middle East that had not yet acquired independence obtained it without violence. All the states were nominally independent, but Great Britain remained very influential in Egypt until 1952-1956; in Iraq until 1958; in the Gulf Emirates until 1971, and in Jordan as well.

The kingdom of the Saud dynasty, first founded in 1744, had been conquered since 1925 in the vacuum left in the Arabian Peninsula. The Saud family took over most of the peninsula militarily, holy cities included, at the expense of, among others, Yemen (1932). In 1945, Saudi Arabia became an ally of the United States thanks to its oil and received in return the assurance of security.

The Wahhabis were rivals of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 in Egypt by Sheikh Hassan al-Banna in an anticolonial context. The rigorism preached by the Wahhabis sought to rebuild a militant Islam, which in the mid-1950s was opposed to Nasserite Pan-Arabism.
The Muslim Brotherhood, for their part, had actively helped the “free officers” to seize power. They were marginalized, then repressed by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was assassinated (1949). The movement was radicalized with Sayyid Qutb, who opposed Pan-Arabism and preached an offensive Islam. He was executed in 1966. Imprisoned, persecuted, the Muslim Brotherhood embodied a both theocratic and populist movement that was well integrated among the dispossessed.

Almost all the monarchies, except for Saudi Arabia, Oman and Jordan, were overthrown by military coups. The small Gulf Emirates and Kuwait, protected by the Anglo-Saxons, escaped this fate.

During the 1950s and the 1960s, Pan-Arabian nationalism seemed to triumph. The prestige of the USSR, after its launching of Sputnik (1957), brought various Arab regimes to more or less adopt a Socialist-leaning posture in the 1960s (Egypt, Syria, South Yemen, Iraq, and Algeria). Secular regimes, or those claiming to be secular, had the upper hand. And yet there was no lack of failures: the Syrian-Egyptian union (1958-1961) broke down, among other reasons, because of Egypt’s paternalism. In Yemen, Egypt got bogged down as it faced Yemeni mountain dwellers supported by Saudi Arabia (1964). Most of all, in 1967, the disastrous defeat of the Arab states (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq) in their conflict against Israel really turned the tables. The region then obviously became militarily dominated by the Hebrew state.

The Palestinian national question

The Palestinian issue, up to that point considered to be a problem of refugees who had been despoiled of their land, soon became the Palestinian national question. And yet between 1949 and 1967, the West Bank and Gaza, now claimed in order to constitute, with East Jerusalem, a Palestinian state, were in the hands of the Arab countries: the West Bank had been annexed by Transjordan, and Gaza depended on Egypt. Nothing was proposed to the Arabs of Palestine other than to wait for a possible victory of the Arab armies, which would restore a homeland for them.

As for the national Palestinian movement, it came out into the open shortly after the Arab defeat of 1967. Thus far instrumentalized as refugees, the Palestinians became the Arabs’ newly found honor because they dared, as in the Battle of Karameh in 1968, to stand up to Israeli tanks. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) intended nothing less than to create a “democratic Palestine,” which implied defeating Israel and a religious-minority status for those Jews who had been in Palestine before the institution of Israel. The Fatah’s Utopian program was to be achieved thanks to guerrilla warfare—after all, the Vietnamese were foiling five hundred thousand US troops—and help from the Arab countries. As for the movements of the left or the far left such as the George Habash’s PFLP or Nayef Hawatmeh’s DFLP, they saw themselves as the revolutionary vanguard fated to bring in the Arab masses of the Near East in its wake by challenging all the existing regimes.

The PFLP’s publicity terrorism, which consisted in hijacking planes, made the Palestinian national question widely known as of the summer of 1968. But no state would have allowed that a movement, no matter how popular, be allowed to negotiate illegally with a foreign state, which the PFLP claimed to do in Jordan after having hijacked two US planes. The Black September repression (1970) cut off the Palestinian national movement from Jordan, its essential base.

The active participation of Palestinians in the Lebanese civil war hardly advanced the Palestinian cause. Anwar El Sadat sent back Egypt’s Soviet advisers (1972), made overtures to Washington, and considered a limited war intended to improve his capacity to act upon a situation dominated by Israel. In October 1973, the Israelis were surprised to discover that they had dozed off on an excessive feeling of superiority, and the Sinai border was far from their vital concerns.

The process of colonization in the West Bank was accelerated with the rise of the Likud (1977).

The peace signed with Egypt after Anwar El Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem (1979) and the Oslo Accords (1993) intended among others to allow the creation of a Palestinian state, were responded to with the assassination of Sadat (1981) and that of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1995). Did not Saudi Arabia’s offer, in 2002, of the Arab League’s recognition of Israel in exchange for a return to the borders of 1967 come too late?

Everything indicates, when examining the map of the West Bank, that as far as the coalition in power in Israel was concerned, the physical possibility of creating a state was no longer on the table nor, in fact, the political will to contribute to it. Contrary to what Yasser Arafat thought in 1969, time will not have worked in favor of the Palestinians. A territory cannot be disputed only with demographic growth.

In his own way, General Ariel Sharon got rid of Gaza, which was waging its war on its own. With the passing of years, Israel found itself with a neutralized Egypt, then an occupied Iraq, in any case divided for a long time, and soon a Syria in civil war, while the Palestinian question moved into the background with the rise of Islamist radicals leading multicontinental jihadism against a backdrop of quarrels between Sunnis and Shias.

In addition to the Palestinian question, the major events in the Muslim world for the past forty years or so have been a militant Islam in Saudi Arabia and a theocratic state in Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s diffusion of militant Islam

The oil crisis, a consequence of the war of October 1973, caused the price of oil to quadruple, giving Saudi Arabia considerable means. The country took advantage of this situation to undertake a systematic militant re-islamization of societies from West Africa to Indonesia, where a sustained campaign, together with financial assistance, the building of mosques and madrasas (Islamic schools) equipped with preachers sowed the ground on which Islamism has proliferated. A rival of the Muslim Brotherhood and much more powerful financially, Saudi Arabia did not produce any thinkers, contrary to Egypt, Syria, and other countries.

Creation of a theocratic state in Iran

In Iran, in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed a revolutionary theocratic state, which was offered to the Muslim world as an example. It lashed out at the United States, which it called “The Great Satan,” and at Israel, “The Little Satan.”

This message from Khomeini, a Shia and a Persian, was inadmissible to Saudi Arabia. The ayatollah’s tactical qualities may have been indisputable, but the coherence of his strategy was questionable. He had no allies, could not solicit the atheistic USSR, and despite his anti-Israelism, could not champion the Sunnis. So it was he alone against the world. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq began hostilities against Iran, he was universally supported except by Syria, which could not suffer a Baas rival, and by Israel, which did not want a battle-hardened Iraqi army. According to Henry Kissinger, the ideal situation for the United States was for the two adversaries to be worn down. Iran, unconquered, was finished off by an embargo.