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Bin Laden, The Afghan Mujahadeen, And The CIA: The Myth That Needs To Die

Andrew Sullivan cited this tweet from Michael Moore as a Moore Award Nominee:

John Cole obviously disagrees with Sullivan characterizing Moore’s statement as “divisive, bitter and intemperate left-wing rhetoric” and links to this from Wikipedia in support (emphasis mine):

In mid-1979, about the same time as the Soviet Union deployed troops into Afghanistan, the United States began giving several hundred million dollars a year in aid to the Afghan Mujahideen insurgents fighting the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and the Soviet Army in Operation Cyclone. Along with native Afghan mujahideen were Muslim volunteers from other countries, popularly known as Afghan Arabs. The most famous of the Afghan Arabs was Osama bin Laden, known at the time as a wealthy and pious Saudi who provided his own money and helped raise millions from other wealthy Gulf Arabs. An often missed fact, when the tables began to turn and the Soviets started to overcome these Afgan fighters, the United States then stopped all aid. This lead to the complete demise of the forces meant to help the U.S. with the Soviet issue. Tens of thousands of Afgans were killed in this U.S. funded venture.

As the war neared its end, bin Laden organized the al-Qaeda organization to carry on armed jihad in other venues, primarily against the United States — the country that had helped fund the mujahideen against the Soviets.

I’m not sure how this exactly backs up Moore’s claim that we armed, funded, and trained bin Laden during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Especially when you combine it with other information on the same Wikipedia page, such as this statement from CNN’s Peter Bergen who conducted the first television interview of bin Laden in 1997:

The story about bin Laden and the CIA — that the CIA funded bin Laden or trained bin Laden — is simply a folk myth. There’s no evidence of this. In fact, there are very few things that bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the U.S. government agree on. They all agree that they didn’t have a relationship in the 1980s. And they wouldn’t have needed to. Bin Laden had his own money, he was anti-American and he was operating secretly and independently.

The evidence, in fact, is fairly clear that the “Afghan Arabs” like bin Laden didn’t interact with the Americans at all. The allegations, on the other hand are based on little more than circumstantial evidence and exaggerations. This idea that the CIA trained Osama bin Laden back in 1980 is simply a myth that needs to die along with bin Laden himself. Moore was wrong, and Sullivan was, it seems to me, entirely correct to call him out for it. This is a myth that has taken hold on both the far left and the far right and it’s time that people stopped lying.

UPDATE (James Joyner): I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “lying,” since people are just repeating what they’ve heard. The confusion comes from the Western conflation of the generic “mujahadeen” into a coherent Mujahadeen, much as we’ve done with the various Taliban groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But, yes, it’s completely wrong. See my March 31 post “Taliban History Lesson: Not Our Boys From the 80-s.” It cites Pat Lang:

The groups we supported were defeated by the Taliban in the civil war that followed Soviet withdrawal.  The Taliban and Usama bin Laden were supported by the separate “Sayyaf” group of Mujahideen supported by Saudi Arabia and Deobandi fanatics in Pakistan.

The confusion has been cleared up often enough that knowledgeable people should know better.

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. mantis says:

    Indeed.

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  2. Ben Wolf says:

    In truth we have no idea whether bin Laden received any U.S. funding. At the war’s height we were donating a billion dollars per year, but that money was channelled through the ISI which decided how it would be utilized. The U.S. had few direct links with the mujahideen, allowing Pakistan to act as intermediary in exchange for their support against Soviet forces.

    At best one could make the argument that our (not uncommon) lack of oversight may have contributed to the arming and training of Islamic extremists.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  3. mattb says:

    True Ben, and most likely accurate. Which is a good example of the law of unintended consequences and another strong argument for a more conservative (traditional usage here) mode of foreign intervention.

    That said, there’s a HUGE difference between that sort of “aide” and a direct and intentional relationship, including the direct providing of training or support. There doesn’t seem to be any of that in this case.

    Of course there are other examples of far more direct support of recent enemies. And I expect that, given enough years, we’ll see more examples of this in the future.

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  4. John Cole says:

    At best one could make the argument that our (not uncommon) lack of oversight may have contributed to the arming and training of Islamic extremists.

    That is putting it mildly.

    That said, there’s a HUGE difference between that sort of “aide” and a direct and intentional relationship, including the direct providing of training or support. There doesn’t seem to be any of that in this case.

    I’d find it agreeable that no American money went to intentionally arm or train bin Laden, but this is far from settled and far from being a “myth.” Guns don’t just evaporate. Knowledge on tactics don’t just disappear. We pumped a lot of money, intel, and arms into the region, and it is just preposterous to claim that none of it found its way into the hands of bin Laden and company.

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  5. It’s even more preposterous to claim that the United States armed, trained, and funded bin Laden as Moore claimed in his idiotic tweet.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 5

  6. pumpybeanis says:

    Good job using Wikipedia as a source.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  7. ponce says:

    Isn’t it more embarrassing to admit that the groups armed and trained by the U.S. military got their asses kicked by some school kids?

    Why do we have such a talent for backing losers?

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  8. Tano says:

    I don’t have any reason to doubt the debunkers, but it should be noted that there is legitimate grounds for skepticism regarding the debunking, given that the it is very much in the interest of the debunkers to do the debunking.

    That bin Laden and the US government agree on a historical scenario is unremarkable, once you realize that both parties would very much want to deny any past relationship even if it were true.

    Sources from the intelligence community also have quite an incentive to downplay any historical relationship with bin Laden – it only makes them look bad. And they are hardly against doing a little spin….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  9. mattb says:

    John,

    The fact that guns don’t evaporate, trainees can become teachers, and that capital continues to circulate is exactly what I meant when I wrote:

    [The high probability of an indirect] is another strong argument for a more conservative (traditional usage here) mode of foreign intervention.

    I guess I should have been more explicit — the fact that there are always these unintended consequences is exactly why we should refrain from engaging in cowboy diplomacy (aka Charlie Wilson’s War).

    One area where there’s a lot of cross over between people of all ideological stripes is a danger assumption that the world is far simpler than it is. Not acknowledging the necessary interconnectedness of things leads to the idea that those guns will only be used on our enemies.

    Finally, that a connection is indirect doesn’t somehow make us entirely innocent of the “blow back” that the it might create decades down the line.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. PD Shaw says:

    Foreign policy, Calvinism and the wages of sin.

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  11. [...] Bin Laden, The Afghan Mujahadeen, And The CIA: The Myth The Needs To Die (outsidethebeltway.com) [...]

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  12. mattb says:

    PD… Calvinism in what way?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. Dean says:

    Ponce: Why do we have such a talent for backing losers?

    As a Cubs’ fan, I ask myself that everyday.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. TG Chicago says:

    The allegations, on the other hand are based on little more than circumstantial evidence and exaggerations.

    Actually, the allegations cited in wiki include reports from the UK, Russia, Canada, and Germany as well as corroborations from high-ranking officials from the UK, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. They can’t be brushed aside quite that easily.

    I’m not saying those accounts are entirely convincing: as Tano said, there’s surely plenty of spinning (and quite possibly some lying) going on around this question — from both sides.

    But as mattb and John Cole indicated, we aided fighters in Afghanistan who were opposing the Soviets. And Osama bin Laden was among those fighting the Soviets. Those two facts don’t necessarily mean that we directly helped ObL, but ObL was the enemy of our enemy. We didn’t support fighters in Afghanistan for any other reason than that they were fighting the Soviets. Can anyone reasonably claim that the CIA would have hesitated to arm ObL in the 80s if they thought doing so would help our objective of creating a Vietnam for the Soviets?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  15. Lit3Bolt says:

    Re-reading the statements, it’s hard to definitely say there is a lie or a myth here. Moore is trying to score political points, but c’mon…he’s Michael Moore. Even if it is a myth or fabrication, I think the lesson of unintended consequences is more important than the current United States foreign policy model of hemorrhaging money, arms, and training to random Middle Eastern tribes of dubious dedication and loyalty (which we were doing for most of the 20th century and yes that includes the Israelis).

    Saying the equivalent of “Yes, but bin Laden didn’t get the money or arms DIRECTLY from the US” is pretty weaselly as well. Yes, we just gave billions in arms and cash to our “allies” with no oversight. No hard evidence, can’t prove anything! Almost like we wanted it that way…

    SO, Moore is wrong to suggest a direct link (which may or may not be an honest mistake). However, the lack of oversight and genuine knowledge keeps it from being a lie or a myth. Do you want to claim the opposite view, that the United States throughout the 1980s had nothing to do with bin Laden? What about Ali Mohamed? No CIA training! Myth!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. Southern Hoosier says:

    Doug Mataconis says: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 14:57

    It’s even more preposterous to claim that the United States armed, trained, and funded bin Laden as Moore claimed in his idiotic tweet.

    Why is that? Wikipedia is hardly a crediable sorce,

    Bin Laden and the Arab-Afghans

    One of the first non-Afghan volunteers to join the ranks of the mujahideen was Osama bin Laden, a civil engineer and businessman from a wealthy construction family in Saudi Arabia, with close ties to members of the Saudi royal family. Bin Laden recruited 4,000 volunteers from his own country and developed close relations with the most radical mujahideen leaders. He also worked closely with the CIA, raising money from private Saudi citizens. By 1984, he was running the Maktab al-Khidamar, an organization set up by the ISI to funnel “money, arms, and fighters from the outside world in the Afghan war.”

    Since September 11, CIA officials have been claiming they had no direct link to bin Laden. These denials lack credibility. Earlier this year, the trial of defendants accused of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Kenya disclosed that the CIA shipped high-powered sniper rifles directly to bin Laden’s operation in 1989. Even the Tennessee-based manufacturer of the rifles confirmed this. According to the Boston Globe,

    http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Afghanistan/Afghanistan_CIA_Taliban.html

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  17. TRUTH!!!11!1! is once again more important than fact.

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  18. Davebo says:

    The only lie here is the definitive claim that this is a “myth” Doug.

    Obviously, nutpicking Moore is going after low hanging fruit.

    Stating that “The CIA never provided funding or training to bin Laden or his acolytes” because the CIA says so is to be more than a bit gullible.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  19. anjin-san says:

    A Wikipedia article proves this is a “myth”… Really?

    Look, if we did support him back then, it seemed like a pretty good idea at the time. If its true, its just a reminder of the law of unintended consequences.

    At any rate, I am not putting much faith in a CIA denial.

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  20. ponce says:

    It’s also a stretch to ask us to believe that Saudi Arabia was funding a group operating in a US war zone without our approval.

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  21. esteban says:

    It was not the CIA that trained, armed, and funded Osama Bin Laden, the ISI recruited Bin Laden because of his money connections in the Arab world. Bin Laden was never directly involved in any of the fighting in Afganistan, his was more logistical support of the rebel in getting arms and supplies to the Muhajadeen, and it was out of the this network the pilots came for the 9/11 attack…

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  22. Mark Spencer says:

    He deserves to die but should be hanged in our country. We deserve to watch him die rather than just report to us that he is already dead.

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  23. mantis says:

    He deserves to die but should be hanged in our country. We deserve to watch him die rather than just report to us that he is already dead.

    Whatever, ghoul. Go watch a horror movie or something.

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  24. fasteddie9318 says:

    This may be nitpicky for English speakers, but RE: James’ update, it’s mujahideen, not mujahadeen. The difference between the “a” short vowel and the “i” short vowel there is the difference between passive and active voice. A mujahid is a fighter. I don’t know what a mujahad would be, although the feminine (mujahadah) can mean “battle.”

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  25. fasteddie9318 says:

    I guess RE: the title of this post, too. I should stop reading at the headlines, I guess.

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  26. ted littleford says:

    Critical to this discussion: how did the Afghan rebels get Stinger missiles? According to every analysis of the Soviet war, these missiles were instrumental in turning the tables. My understanding is that we supplied them. If so, then one of the critical instruments in winning the war was supplied by the United States. Any discussion beyond that is academic.

    And, according to the latest Wikileaks release, the Taliban still has those missiles, and is using them against us.

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  27. BobN says:

    Uh… I’m not sure how explaining our cutting and running and leaving the Afghan mujahadeen to be slaughtered is supposed to somehow prove that our abandonment had no effect on the next generation — the orphaned sons of those we betrayed — and how they viewed the U.S.

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  28. Tlaloc says:

    It’s even more preposterous to claim that the United States armed, trained, and funded bin Laden as Moore claimed in his idiotic tweet.

    I don’t know, I’m more on Cole
    ‘s side here, and given what a dipshit I think he is that’s saying something. While it’s wrong to say we specifically armed and trained OBL it’s very naive to say that we didn’t end up training a good number of people who became Taliban and more importantly AQ. We chose to take a bunch of religious fanatics and teach them terror tactics, but you really think none of that bled over into the OTHER religious fanatic group trained in terror tactics from the same region? Come on.

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  29. blair says:

    Any contact between CIA and bin Laden’s cadres is probably still classified. Anyone claiming knowledge for or against and talking about it is either blowing smoke or breaking the law. Nor can the government or bin Laden be trusted to officially acknowledge it, since it would be a blot on both of them to admit it. Regardless, their relationship during the 80s is not what caused the trouble in the 90s, it was America’s policy of dropping Afghanistan like a plutonium grenade the moment the Soviets quit the war, leaving the fate of the country in the hands of whoever was armed, willing, and organized enough to conquer it, and painting America as a bunch of assholes for using it to punch the Rooskies that way. Even the Soviets could have walked back in, if they weren’t too busy firing shells at their own legislature. The point of war is freedom and stability. You can’t stand a knife on its point and walk away expect it to just stay that way. It’s going to fall over, and someone you injured or betrayed is going to pick it up and cut you with it.

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  30. Milica says:

    I don’t know what the Americans are thinking about Al Qaeda, many say different opinions.. but I can tell you this.. couse I was a witness. back in 1992, UNPROFOR was hosting Al Zagrawi in Croatia and took him to Tuzla (Bosnia), to overlook the trainings of mujahedins in a camp, 30km outside of Tuzla.. we were all rushed around by the US soldiers, who were acting as some kind of protection for this ‘sheik’ (that’s how they called him). many people from Bosnia witnessed and can tell you stories about US supporting Al Qaeda back then in Bosnia. In Kosovo as well, Cia infiltrated Al Qaeda to train KLO army. They set up many training camps around Kosovo, they are still there. I traveled a lot to Kosovo, and I can tell you that these things are not even a secret here. You can see american base Bondstill, and couple of kilometres away you can see a ‘hidden’ Al Qaeda camp.. and they all cooperate very well. I don’t know the story behind 9/11 , but having witnessed these things in Bosnia and Kosovo, it looks so strange to me that Al Qaeda attacked America, couse I know that they are cooperating for decades in my country.. I’m certanly not going to believe to wikileaks or another sources, when I have myown eyes. Why they are lying people in US that they are not connected, I don’t know.. but it’s unbelievable that they are managing to hide something , which was witnessed by thousands of people in Bosnia and Kosovo.

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  31. Milica says:

    btw do you know that Bush and Bin Laden family are partners and have a construction company together? which is realy succesful.. and famous in Saudi Arabia and throughout middle east.. check it out.. if you know people who live in Saudi Arabia, they can tell you. Not the emigrants, but the people who live there. By the way, if you are interested in any country or your external politics in that country, please don’t believe what your media tells you, don’t believe cnn,bbc, al jazeera,or cia controlled wikileaks.. please ask the people who live there, and they will tell you the real truth..

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