Born in the CIA
by Amjad Hussain
Born in the CIA
By Amjad Hussain
The New York Times Magazine recently carried a cover story, "Jihad U", about a religious school located in the northwestern hinterland of Pakistan. According to Jeffrey Goldberg, the writer of the article, this particular religious school or madrassa, is not only the hot bed of militant Islamic fundamentalism, it is also the spiritual centre of gravity for the Taliban leadership of Afghanistan.
There are hundreds of similar madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan. How a religious school located along the turbulent North Western Frontier of Pakistan came to be the training ground for the likes of Taliban of Afghanistan and their supporters in Pakistan is an interesting question. The answer, however, lies not in the devastated Afghan countryside or in Pakistan but in Langley, Virginia, the home of America's Central Intelligence Agency. After the Soviet withdrew from Afghanistan, the country was engulfed in a bloody civil war. The Taliban were the answer to the nasty conflict between the warring factions of Afghan freedom fighters or mujahideen. To understand the Taliban phenomenon, we need to rewind to the early days of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The US was caught off guard when the Soviet forces entered Afghanistan in 1979. Though an indigenous Islamic resistance movement had arisen against the Soviets, it had no chance of succeeding on its own. America, for its own strategic reasons, was eager to help but needed a common link that the mujahideen could identify with. That common link between America and its allies and the hapless mujahideen turned out to be religion.
From that point on, the struggle was between the camps of believers and non-believers or as was stated at the time, between Dar-ul-Islam, the abode of the faithful, and Dar-ul-Harb, the abode of the infidels. This medieval concept envisioned the world into two distinct camps. Once inside the abode of the faithful, the West became a full partner in jihad against the Soviet infidels. For ten years (1979-1989), the CIA and the Pakistan army trained and equipped mujahideen and Muslim mercenaries from around the world to fight the Soviet infidels. Armed with the latest American weapons and burning with religious zeal, the mujahideen took on a super power and defeated it. But at an enormous cost. Five million Afghans were forced to flee the country, the land was devastated and a pervasive gun and drug culture permeated Afghanistan and next door Pakistan. Once the Soviet forces left, the mujahideen turned on each other.
The Taliban were the creation of the US with the active support of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as an alternative to the warring mujahideen. During the Afghan conflict, Pakistani strongman General Zia-ul-Haq also exploited religion to hang on to power. He channeled large sums of foreign aid to the religious parties to open madrassas throughout the country. These schools operated in the old medieval tradition and taught only religion and that too of the most orthodox persuasion. Most of the current Taliban leadership was educated in these schools.
At the time, the Taliban were centred in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. With the active support of the US and Pakistan, the Taliban (Persian for students or students of religion) emerged from Kandahar and in a short span of a few years, captured most of the country from the warring mujahideen. They were able to restore a much needed law and order in Afghanistan. And they enforced a ritualistic, authoritative and archaic version of Islam that is brazenly anti-feminist and anti-West.
This is the Islam they had studied in the dusty madrassas in Akora and elsewhere. This Islam considers America as its main enemy. It supports and protects any one who is against America as it has done with Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind behind the embassy bombings in East Africa two years ago. Even though Afghanistan is in desperate need of outside help, its protection of Osama remains the main stumbling block in the way of improved relations with the West. Given the black-and-white mindset of the Taliban, they would go to any length to protect him.
This stand has won them many supporters in Pakistan. A Taliban style religious revival is gaining ground in Pakistan. The call for such revival is emanating not only from religious parties and teachers and students of the madrassas but from the spick and span brass of the Pakistan army as well. During Zia-ul-Haq's Islamization campaign, the well disciplined and highly efficient Pakistan army also went through an ideological metamorphosis. Even though General Pervez Musharaf, the current head of the country, is considered a moderate, his support rests with generals who are more conservative and orthodox than the Sandhurst-trained officers of the past.
The Afghan war of liberation was a long nightmare that did not end with the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from that country and subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union. It left behind not only a devastated Afghanistan and the rise of militant fundamentalism but also a weak and unstable nuclear Pakistan with a pervasive arms and drug culture and three million semi-permanent but restive refugees within its borders.
The Jihad University that The New York Times featured in its magazine is but one of the legacies of the abode of the faithful. The distance between the dusty town of Akora, the home of this particular madrassa, and Langley, Virginia, the home of CIA, is a rather short, if one looks at the whole picture.
The writer is a professor of surgery at the Medical College of Ohio and an op-ed columnist for the daily Toledo Blade