Reagan's Osama Connection
How he turned a jihadist into a terrorist kingpin.
The battle lasted for about a week. Bin Laden and 50 Arab volunteers faced 200 Russian troops. … The Arab volunteers took casualties but held out under intense fire for several days. More than a dozen of bin Laden's comrades were killed, and bin Laden himself apparently suffered a foot wound. … Chronicled daily at the time by several Arab journalists … the battle of Jaji marked the birth of Osama bin Laden's public reputation as a warrior among Arab jihadists. … After Jaji he began a media campaign designed to publicize the brave fight waged by Arab volunteers who stood their ground against a superpower. In interviews and speeches … bin Laden sought to recruit new fighters to his cause and to chronicle his own role as a military leader. He also began to expound on expansive new goals for the jihad.
Had Gorbachev thought that Reagan was willing to strike a deal, the battle of Jaji would not have taken place—and the legend of Bin Laden might never have taken off.
Reagan can't be blamed for ignoring the threat of Osama Bin Laden. Not for another few years would any analyst see Bin Laden as a significant player in global terrorism; not till the mid-1990s would his organization, al-Qaida, emerge as a significant force.
However, Reagan—and those around him—can be blamed for ignoring the rise of Islamic militancy in Afghanistan and for failing to see Gorbachev's offer to withdraw as an opportunity to clamp the danger. Certainly, the danger was, or should have been, clear. Only a few years had passed since the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in Iran—the shah toppled, the U.S. Embassy employees held hostage, the country turned over to the mullahs, the region suddenly destabilized. Reagan beat Jimmy Carter so decisively in the 1980 election in part because of the hostage crisis.
Gorbachev had accepted that Afghanistan would become an Islamic country. But he assumed that Reagan, of all people, would have an interest in keeping it from becoming militantly, hostilely, Islamist.
In September 1987, after the previous spring's escalation failed to produce results, Soviet Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze met with Secretary of State George Shultz to tell him that Gorbachev planned to pull out of Afghanistan soon. He asked Shultz for help in containing the spread of "Islamic fundamentalism." Shultz had nothing to say. Most Reagan officials doubted Gorbachev would really withdraw, and they interpreted the warnings about Muslim radicals as a cover story for the Soviet Union's military failure.
By this time, Reagan and Gorbachev had gone some distance toward ending the Cold War. The dramatic moment would come the following spring, during the summit in Moscow, when Reagan declared that the U.S.S.R. was no longer an "evil empire." At the same time, though, the U.S. national-security bureaucracy—and, in many ways, Reagan himself—continued to view the world through Cold War glasses.
After the last Soviet troops departed, Afghanistan fell off the American radar screen. Over the next few years, Shevardnadze's worst nightmares came true. The Taliban rose to power and in 1996 gave refuge to the—by then—much-hunted Bin Laden.
Ten years earlier, had Reagan taken Gorbachev's deal, Afghanistan probably still wouldn't have emerged as the "friendly, neutral country" of Gorby's dreams. Yet it might have been a neutral enough country to preclude a Taliban takeover. And if the Russian-Afghan war had ended earlier—if Reagan had embraced Gorbachev on the withdrawal, as he did that same autumn on the massive cutback of nuclear weapons—Osama Bin Laden today might not even be a footnote in history.
Correction, June 11: Leonid Brezhnev was general-secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at the time of the Afghanistan invasion, not Yuri Andropov as the article originally stated. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Video still of Osama Bin Laden from AFP/Al-Arabiya Al-Jazeera.