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Afghanistan: The never-ending war that still haunts the Arab world 

New memoir highlights the continuing failure of the US debate on political Islam, terrorism and the arming of insurgents
Ahmad Shah Massoud, second from left, talks with aides in Afghanistan in 1990 (AFP)

Afghanistan continues to dominate the US military psyche, as the Pentagon prepares another reboot of a war that has been ongoing, with direct US involvement, for more than four decades. 

On a weekly basis, headlines in major papers and on defence websites trumpet the need to withdraw from the conflict. Yet this argument is tempered by the warning of a new threat, whether real or imagined, of Arab and other foreign fighters returning to Afghanistan, as the global theatre of international "jihadis" shifts back from the Levant to central Asia. 

Almost all insurgencies in the Arab world can be traced back to Afghanistan. The Algerian military always insisted that it was the Afghan "veterans" who brought back their extremist cause to Algeria in the 1990s.

The Egyptians have also been adamant that the likes of al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were behind established political groups challenging the Egyptian military. One of Syria’s most-wanted men in the 1990s was also traced back to Afghanistan by Pakistan’s security services. 

Bias and faulty intelligence

That the war in Afghanistan during the 1980s had global implications has never been in doubt. Indeed, the terrorism that was spawned from the mountains in the Hindu Kush led to 9/11 and gave training to the likes of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. 

At its heart, this is a turf war that has dominated the Arab world since the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1989

However, the legacy and analysis of the Arabs in Afghanistan is one-sided, based on bias and faulty intelligence, which has dominated US intervention in the Middle East since 9/11.

A new memoir by one of its most influential protagonists, Abdullah Anas, is questioning and bringing into sharp focus the continuing failure of the US debate on political Islam, terrorism and the arming of insurgents. His main focus is his relationship with Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Massoud and the warnings of how Arab fighters would wreak havoc, fully supported by Arab and Western intelligence agencies. 

It has become common knowledge that all Arabs who went to fight in Afghanistan ultimately became al-Qaeda terrorists or returned to join extremist groups in Algeria, Egypt and other countries of origin.

Study after study has obsessed over this image of the "Afghan Arabs" who participated in wars in Iraq, Syria, Bosnia and beyond. 

Even the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi was tarnished with this brush after he fell out of favour with the Saudis. Opponents of Khashoggi  focused on his alleged “terrorist” legacy; even Donald Trump Jr was out spreading false information about Khashoggi’s time in Afghanistan. 

'Liberalising' political Islam

Yet, in the tragedy of the Khashoggi case, one also finds the story of the Arabs in Afghanistan. The search to "liberalise" political Islam, as the Saudi crown prince describes it, has brought new and contested narratives about "good" and "bad" versions of political Islam.

The battle between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over who controls the political leadership of Islam, and the blockade of Qatar - rooted in Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned by the UAE and Saudi Arabia - are all part of this debate. 

But those accusing the Qataris or the Turks of supporting certain political groups in North Africa or the Levant are themselves replete with contradictions. At its heart, this is a turf war that has dominated the Arab world since the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1989.

The duplicity of Arab states joining in the fight against one army invading a Muslim country (the Russians in Afghanistan) while supporting another (the Americans in Iraq) has brought schisms into the fractured world of good versus bad political Islam. 

Afghan anti-Soviet resistance fighters are pictured in the early 1980s (AFP)
Afghan anti-Soviet resistance fighters are pictured in the early 1980s (AFP)

Anas’s memoir, To the Mountains, references his friend Khashoggi and also discusses the wars in Syria and Libya, in addition to the Algerian civil war - the first bloodbath in the Arab world between a popularly elected political Islamic party, militant Islam and military forces.

This fog of confusion has not gone away; time and again, in Libya, Egypt, Syria and even relatively stable Jordan, the question of good and bad political Islam has arisen. 

Anas argues that the likes of Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri were in no mood to help the Afghan people, but rather to gather a larger force to cause upheaval. The formation of al-Qaeda was aided and abetted by intelligence agencies from the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and even Israel; and Anas is not the first to talk about weapons going into the wrong hands. 

Ghosts of Afghanistan

In his book, The Wars of Afghanistan, former US ambassador Peter Tomsen details how extreme militants were favoured over legitimate, moderate Afghan and Arab fighters, including the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Killed two days before 9/11, Massoud had been warning for more than a decade that the Americans and Saudis had backed the wrong horse, and that there would be devastating consequences for the region and the wider world.

Years later, Massoud’s assassins were closely linked to 9/11 and the Islamic-State-linked terrorist bombings in Paris more than a decade afterwards.

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Massoud warned against the use of Islam by militants to undermine legitimate space for political Islam; at the same time, he was against the politicisation and usurpation of this form of political Islam by Arab and Western intelligence agencies in Afghanistan.

Khashoggi also spoke out against the use of political Islam in ways that could undermine it. 

Ultimately, Anas’ book cites the need for a reset in the understanding of political Islam, noting that governments in the US, Saudi Arabia and Egypt continue to undermine the legitimate use of political Islam by equating it with terrorism. 

Eerily, one of the most decorated CIA officers in history, Milton Bearden - the man charged with arming the Arabs in Afghanistan - cautioned against arming the rebels in Syria’s war, having seen first-hand how best intentions can get lost in intelligence wars. The ghosts of Afghanistan continue to haunt the Arab world. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Kamal Alam
Kamal Alam is a Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). He specialises in contemporary military history of the Arab world and Pakistan, he is a Fellow for Syrian Affairs at The Institute for Statecraft, and is a visiting lecturer at several military staff colleges across the Middle East, Pakistan and the UK.