A legend has spread: The CIA ''created'' bin Laden as part of the US-financed fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The reality is far more complicated.Now, of course, the CIA isn't exactly going to step up to the plate to take credit for bin Laden, but you can't just assume that Bearden is lying because he's from the CIA and beleive the opposite of what he says. Somebody from the other side of the story should be able to contribute information, too.
Two decades ago, President Ronald Reagan wanted to force the collapse of the ''Evil Empire,'' the Soviet Union. He agreed to arm Afghanistan's mujahideen fighters, who were trying to expel the invading Soviets. Over time, the CIA would send more than $3 billion to the Afghan cause, a budget matched dollar for dollar by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
But the CIA wanted ''deniability'' - a cover story. So it arranged for every penny to go through Pakistan, which in turn decided to support seven factions waging war against the Soviet invaders. Bin Laden did not belong to any of these seven factions given CIA money via Pakistan, according to Vincent Cannistraro, who dealt directly with the Afghanistan matter during the 1980s as director of intelligence programs for the White House's National Security Council.
Milt Bearden, the former CIA station chief in Pakistan who oversaw the US effort in Afghanistan, said the agency briefly considered, but rejected, the idea of supporting Arab fighters.
Did the CIA meet or fund bin Laden? ''Never happened,'' Bearden said. ''He was a fund-raiser himself. He brought a lot of money in.''
Indeed, bin Laden, whose family had made billions in the Saudi construction industry, aided the mujahideen cause in the 1980s with his own money, spending tens of millions to build roads, tunnels, and other infrastructure to support the mujahideen, according to the book ''Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America,'' by Yossef Bodansky.
It's pretty clear that Pakistan's ISI used CIA support to bolster bin Laden, the Taliban, and other Muslim extremists such as the Chechnya rebels with effects that far outran US foreign policy goals and expectations. Blithe acceptance of bad side-effects and a willingness to consort with parties that are themselves destabilizing and vicious by the US government is one of the major causes of the Afghan tragedy. But even the most critical commentary I could find that made a coherent argument did not assert that the CIA trained bin Laden. It would make for a great ironic twist but reality isn't always so full of poetic justice.
- In that same Globe article, Benazir Bhutto (a former Prime Minister of Pakistran) admitted that her government worked with the Taliban, but a few years later, she was ousted in a vote that had Taliban support.
- I was going through some of my books in the basement to cull off for selling, and noticed Soldiers of God by Robert D. Kaplan, my favorite pessimist. I quickly turned to the index and was surprised no mention of the Taliban (1990 still about five years before their time). It is currently ranked 435 in Amazon book sales, which is pretty good.
- Here is a special report from Ahmed Rashid, whose book on the Taliban is acknowledged to be one of the best.