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What the 9/11 Commission Overlooks

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As Condoleezza Rice prepares for her long-awaited testimony before the commission investigating al-Qaeda and the Sept. 11th attacks, a look at Israel's experience with terrorism is instructive. It may shock Americans to learn that Israeli leaders freely admit that the growth of Hamas was partly a tragedy of their own making. Israel made a conscious decision to allow the Islamist movement to grow in the West Bank and Gaza in the early 1980s, hoping that this would undermine support for Yasser Arafat's PLO. "In retrospect we made a mistake," former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer told the daily Maariv last week.

The Israeli military administration in the territories had prohibited the PLO from operating openly, but it was instructed to allow the Islamists the freedom to establish a large-scale religious-welfare-political infrastructure. The Islamist welfare effort, which gave Hamas a claim on the hearts and minds of Palestinians living under occupation, was, of course, driven by an agenda even more poisonous than the PLO's to Israel's interest. But, says Ben Eliezer, "by the time we realized what was happening, it was too late."

The candor displayed by Ben Eliezer has been distinctly lacking in Washington's investigation of the 9/11 attacks.

Sure, the public debate has been vigorous, even bloody, as officials from the Bush and Clinton administrations skirmish over who paid more attention to the looming al-Qaeda threat in the run-up to the attacks. It is certainly extremely important to understand whether more could have been done to protect us. But the furor over the allegations by Richard Clarke have framed the question facing the public as simply whether you believe the former terrorism czar's charge that the Bush team took its eye off the ball, or whether you accept the administration's account of Clarke as a disgruntled former employee trying to get back at those who overlooked his self-imagined importance. The debate over Clarke's claims asks no questions about how the Qaeda threat had emerged in the first place. And it is on this score that more candor may be required.

It is generally accepted among historians of the Qaeda phenomenon that Bin Laden's organization grew out of the "Arab Afghans," young men recruited from throughout the Muslim world to join the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. The program to recruit, arm, train and deploy these men involved three U.S.-allied intelligence agencies — those of Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — working in conjunction with the CIA, which was coordinating America's own covert assistance to the Afghan jihad. It suited the Egyptians and Saudis to ship off the restive Islamist elements who might pose a domestic challenge to wage war on the Soviets, and it suited the U.S. to help rally anti-Soviet sentiment in the Islamic world, particularly among Sunni elements naturally at odds with Iran. That's why a number of former intelligence personnel regard the emergence of the Qaeda phenomenon as 'blowback,' spook jargon for the unintended consequences of a covert operation. What the U.S. and its allies had helped to do in Afghanistan was assemble an international brigade of radical Islamists — hardly natural allies of the West, but nonetheless an extremely useful proxy in the immediate task of "bleeding the Soviets." But in the eyes of the "Arab Afghans" themselves, the experience had revived the idea of the unity of the world's Muslims across the national boundaries imposed on them by the West, honoring their age-old religious obligation to wage war against "infidel" armies on Muslim soil.

The unintended consequences, of course, came years later. The proxy warriors initially behaved exactly as expected. But once the Soviets had been defeated, the "Arab Afghans" — now battle-hardened combatants whose radicalism had only been deepened by their Afghan sojourn in the company of some of the world's most extreme theologians of militant fundamentalism — were not welcome back home. Instead, bin Laden kept them together and continued to expand their ranks for purposes of waging jihad in support of embattled Muslims everywhere. And in their radical Islamist mindset, the primary enemy soon became the United States, which they perceived as an aggressive interloper in the Muslim world whose influence would stymie the restoration of Islamic rule throughout the old Muslim empire. The new ideology pioneered by Bin Laden maintained that the local battles waged by Muslims everywhere could only be won if the U.S. was driven out of Muslim lands.

An instance that demonstrated an uncomfortable intimacy between U.S. power and the forerunners of al-Qaeda was the case of Sergeant Ali Mohammed, a former major in Egyptian military intelligence who had served as a Sergeant at the U.S. military's Special Forces base at Fort Bragg from 1986-1989. Before his stint at Fort Bragg, Mohammed had been well connected in Egyptian radical Islamist circles, all the way up to bin Laden's Number 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and during his tenure in the U.S. Army he took weekends off to travel to the New York area where he gave military training to local cells established to send men to fight in the anti-Soviet effort in Afghanistan. Two of these men later turned out to have been part of a failed plot to bomb the World Trade Center, while Sergeant Mohammed himself became a key Qaeda operative in the early 1990s. After sharing his expertise in explosives, guerrilla warfare and counterintelligence with the highest levels of bin Laden's organization and taking a key role in organizing the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Sergeant Mohammed turned himself in to the FBI after falling out with al-Qaeda leaders. He is currently serving a prison sentence for his role in the embassy bombings.

Neither side in the partisan wrangling over 9/11 has shown much interest in exploring the origins of al-Qaeda, and the lessons that may be learned from it. That may be because the practice of relying on and empowering dodgy elements as allies and proxies in America's wars remains a strategic staple. Saddam Hussein became an enemy of Washington only after he invaded Kuwait in 1990; in the early 1980s the same tyrant had been supported by the Reagan administration in his war against Iran, then Washington's most immediate foe in the Muslim world. More recently, in Afghanistan, instead of sending in tens of thousands of its own troops, the U.S. relied on local warlords to provide the infantry component against the Taliban. Supported by U.S. air power and directed by U.S. Special Forces, they were more than sufficient to put the Taliban to flight. But today, many of those warlords have reverted to their old ways, running personal fiefdoms with scant respect for democracy or human rights, restoring Afghanistan's place as the world's leading source of heroin, and delaying any transition to democracy. Ironically, many observers now believe that unless there's a substantial increase in the number of foreign troops there and the warlords are disarmed, Afghanistan will revert to being a failed state.

Similarly, the need for basing rights for the Afghanistan operation prompted the U.S. to crown Uzbekistan's authoritarian President Islam Karimov as an ally. But Human Rights Watch this week noted that President Karimov is using the war on terror as an excuse to mount a massive crackdown on all Muslims who want to practice their faith independently of the government. Some observers believe that this week's outbreak of bombings and shootings directed against the police in Uzbek cities may be rooted not only in local al-Qaeda linked groups, but also in response to President Karimov's repression of a far wider group of Muslims.

Over in Pakistan, we find President Pervez Musharraf, an enlightened military dictator who has been embraced as a major strategic ally of the U.S. for his cooperation in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. That support is probably the reason Washington seems to have accepted the fiction that Pakistan's profligate nuclear proliferation over the past decade was all the work of a single rogue scientist who supposedly managed to export the country's nuclear weapons technology unbeknownst to the military — and who, in turn, appears to have also been forgiven after appearing on TV in Pakistan and saying he was really, really sorry. Pakistan, of course, had pretty much invented the Taliban as its own proxy in Afghanistan, and remains, by all accounts, the sanctuary from which Mullah Omar and his men operate. But as long as his men are helping in the hunt for Bin Laden, other trespasses may be overlooked.

The grownup world of realpolitik is all about compromise and lesser evil and deals with the devil in pursuit of limited objectives; it's simply na´ve to imagine that principle tops expedience in the pursuit of national security objectives . Still, it's worth asking — as the Israelis have done over Hamas — whether it was possible, in the 1980s, to visualize the long-term consequences of the "Arab Afghan" program. If we focus only on an immediate objective and our sense of history is measured in months, we may, unfortunately, be doomed, sooner or later, to repeat it.