It has become a truism in liberal circles that Ronald Reagan brought us Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. The accusation could already be heard mere weeks after 9/11. Articles developing the "blowback" thesis metastasized around the Internet. Given the staying power of ideologically convenient misinformation, it is worth reviewing the facts of the Reagan administration's support for the mujahedeen, the fighters who resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and their link with today's Islamic extremists.
The USSR, it will be recalled, invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979. The Soviets proceeded to brutalize a country that, though still very poor, had made surprising progress since the 1950s. How would the United States respond?
One man who spoke up promptly was Ronald Reagan, then a candidate for the Republican nomination for president. In a campaign speech in Florida in January 1980, Reagan urged Washington to provide Stinger antiaircraft missiles to Afghans fighting the Red Army. He called specifically for supplying the rebels with "shoulder-launched, heat-seeking missiles that can shoot down Soviet helicopter gunships."
In due course, the Carter administration did aid the mujahedeen. Then in November 1980, Reagan was elected president, and throughout his eight years in office he continued assisting the Afghan rebels. Those American Stingers ultimately became the bullet to the chest of the Soviet campaign, central to the Kremlin's devastating withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, and a vital contribution to the demise of the USSR and the end of the Cold War.
The mujahedeen--literally, "strugglers"--were a force specific to the Soviet war in Afghanistan. They comprised an assortment of factions. There were Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns, fundamentalist Sunnis and moderate Sunnis, Shiites, clerics and non-clerics, Wahhabis, Islamists with links to madrassas in Iran and Islamists connected to madrassas in Pakistan, extremists who came out of Hezbollah and extremists with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. There were even religious reformers who favored a secular state--the polar opposite of the theocracy the Taliban would one day impose on Afghanistan.
While it is true that many of these mujahedeen would later make up the Taliban, others would oppose it and help to drive it from power. In particular, many former mujahedeen joined the Northern Alliance, the Afghan coalition that fought alongside U.S. troops in October and November 2001 to overthrow the Taliban.
Today, some former members of the mujahedeen are part of the democratic movement trying to move Afghanistan back to the days of promise and modernization that preceded the Soviet ruination of the country. This explains how it is that Hamid Karzai, elected president in 2004, could say fondly, "The people of Afghanistan remember Mr. Ronald Reagan's assistance to Afghanistan during the years of 'jihad' against the Soviets." Karzai is attempting to steer his country toward democracy, a difficult undertaking that has had its bumps. The transition has been flawed, but it is going forward. Certainly, no one could liken Karzai to the Taliban chieftain, Mullah Omar.
Mohammad Ashraf Azeem, a columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Islamabad Khabrain, likewise celebrates Reagan "for checking the Soviet advanc`e in Afghanistan. As a result of this [Afghan] war, the Soviet Union was disintegrated, and its dream of expanding its influence beyond Afghanistan was shattered once and for all." There are numerous voices like his in the region. And on the ground in Afghanistan, when U.S. Special Forces get a tip leading them to one of the fanatical thugs who once cheered the stoning of women in stadiums, it typically comes from someone who opposed the Soviet invader in the 1980s.
That said, it is true that we do not know precisely the percentages of mujahedeen who subsequently joined al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, and the small but growing band of liberal democrats inside Afghanistan.
But this we do know: To assume that every member of the mujahedeen resembled the 9/11 hijackers is to engage in stereotyping of a kind that usually enrages liberals. Afghans were intimately familiar with the vicious nature of the Marxist regime that the militantly atheist Soviet Union had tried to prop up in Kabul, just as they knew the egregious tactics employed by the Red Army, from the deployment of chemical weapons to the use of booby-trapped toys. It is understandable that many Afghans--not all of them reactionary Islamic extremists--fought for freedom from these killers.
The mujahedeen would have existed irrespective of U.S. policy--ditto for Osama bin Laden. The Afghan resistance coalesced without us. Our objective was to help it win, and thereby further undermine the Soviet Union at a desperate time in its history. It was the Soviet invasion that drew Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan, not U.S. aid to the resistance. As Olivier Roy wrote in Afghanistan: From Holy War to Civil War: "The mujahedeen consisted of . . . elements or factions that all interpreted Islam differently but were united in a common cause--to expel the infidel Soviets."
Finally, anyone who would blame Reagan for supporting the mujahedeen must also point the finger at Democrats: As noted above, it was Jimmy Carter who first began aiding the mujahedeen, at the urging of top advisers like Zbigniew Brzezinski and with the support of a Democratic Congress. And many Democratic congressmen and senators continued to vote to authorize the aid through the Reagan years. Helping the mujahedeen was a no-brainer: It was the right thing to do.
Paul Kengor is the author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperCollins, 2006) and God and Hillary Clinton: A Spiritual Life (Harper-Collins, 2007). He is associate professor of political science at Grove City College.