Nailing bin Laden requires new allies Pakistan, Saudi Arabia support Afghan zealots who protect terrorists

August 23, 1998|By John K. Cooley

Carrying out President Bill Clinton's promise of dire punishment of the bombers of U.S. embassies in Africa once again raises the old ghost of the CIA's war against the Soviets in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. It also involves major trouble for old allies in that war.

The chief suspect thus far in the assaults on the two embassies is the Saudi construction tycoon Osama bin Laden, 45, who was described in the early 1990s as a mastermind of international terrorism by the U.S. State Department and other Western agencies.

The rhetoric used in claims and near-claims of the bombings, signed by an "Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Muslim Holy places" or "The Exiles," is virtually identical to bin Laden's fiery declarations of war against America.

The claims have to come either from him, from his disciples (the few reporters who have visited him in his Sudanese and later Afghan lairs estimate their number at about 3,000) or from someone wanting to put the blame on him.

The Saudi multimillionaire, despite disavowals of him by his family, probably has additional billions at his disposal from the bin Laden construction firms, a Saudi business and engineering empire with global reach. This gives him unlimited financial resources.

He put these at the disposal of the CIA and Pakistan during their 10-year war to evict the Russians in the 1980s.

With such resources, bin Laden and his acolytes can continue to recruit and finance terrorists everywhere, including the likes of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers in New York.

Bin Laden has been the well-protected guest of the Taleban, the Muslim zealots now overwhelming Afghanistan. The Taleban have condemned the embassy bombings. They say they have warned bin Laden not to proclaim holy war from Afghan territory.

Ever since their appearance as fiercely austere "students" opposing the corruption and banditry of local Afghan warlords and their conquest of Kabul in the mid-1990s, the Taleban have had supply, training and political support from Pakistan's intelligence service.

Iran, Russia and governments of nearby ex-Soviet Muslim republics such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan fear that, feeling flush with current victories, the Taleban's Islamist warriors who deny women schooling and skilled jobs, and enforce medieval punishments for everything from adultery to inadequately long men's beards may send ideology as well as soldiers abroad in a jihad across the South and Central Asian borders.

Pakistan, the CIA's companion-in-arms in the Afghan conflict, which was the largest covert American operation since the wars in Vietnam and Laos, is accused, possibly justly, of now lending support by regular Pakistani military forces to the Taleban.

Pakistan vehemently denies this. However, it has long been clear that Pakistan wants the Taleban to prevail over its Afghan foes. Islamabad wants to control trade and energy routes between the Indian Ocean and Central Asia. Despite Iranian, Russian and Indian support, those Afghan foes are now on the run.

Saudi Arabia, the main ally of the United States in the Muslim world, has been financing the Taleban since their appearance, just as it financed their immediate predecessors and godfathers, the Afghan mujahidin who fought Russians and are now fighting their own governments and societies, from Egypt to the Philippines and New York.

Once again, Washington policymakers must consider the price that is still being paid for their anti-Communist alliance with Muslim extremists during the previous generation, especially in Afghanistan.

If the Taleban do not abandon bin Laden, could the United States send air cover and strong special forces to break Taleban resistance and arrest him or his followers, against opposition from their Pakistani and Saudi allies?

Could the Clinton administration sell to the U.S. Congress and American public a reversal of alliances?

It would mean opposing, at least temporarily, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and joining instead the anti-Taleban coalition of Iran, India, Russia and Russia's former Islamic subject states of Central Asia, and perhaps igniting new conflicts.

John K. Cooley, an author and ABC correspondent in the Mideast based in Cyprus, is completing a book on the consequences of the 1979-1989 Afghanistan war.

Pub date: 8/23/98

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