Reagan's Osama Connection
How he turned a jihadist into a terrorist kingpin.
Earlier this week, I cited recently declassified documents to show that Ronald Reagan did indeed play a major role in ending the Cold War. Now it's time to note that a similar set of documents shows that Reagan also played a major role in bringing on the terrorist war that followed—specifically, in abetting the rise of Osama Bin Laden.
Once again, the story concerns the fascinating relationship between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev took the helm as the reform-minded general-secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985. Within months, he had decided privately to pull Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. One of his predecessors, Leonid Brezhnev, * had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and the move was proving a disaster. Tens of thousands of Soviet troops had died; military morale was crumbling; popular protest—unheard of, till then, in Communist Russia—was rising. Part of the Soviet failure in Afghanistan was due to the fact that the Reagan administration was feeding billions of dollars in arms to Afghanistan's Islamic resistance. Reagan and, even more, his intensely ideological CIA director, William Casey, saw the battle for Afghanistan as a titanic struggle in the war between Eastern tyranny and Western freedom. (Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, had started assisting the resistance, but with not nearly the same largess or ambition.)
At a Politburo meeting of Nov. 13, 1986, Gorbachev laid his position on the table: The war wasn't working; it had to be stopped:
People ask: "What are we doing there?" Will we be there endlessly? Or should we end this war? ... The strategic objective is to finish the war in one, maximum two years, and withdraw the troops. We have set a clear goal: Help speed up the process, so we have a friendly neutral country, and get out of there.
In early December, Gorbachev summoned President Najibullah, the puppet leader of Afghanistan, to give him the news: The Soviet troops would be leaving within 18 months; after that, he was on his own.
Two months later, on Feb. 23, 1987, Gorbachev assured the Politburo that the troops wouldn't leave right away. He first had to foster a stable environment for the reigning government and to maintain a credible image with India, the Soviet Union's main ally in the region. The exit strategy, he said, would be a negotiated deal with Washington: The Soviets pull out troops; the Americans stop their arms shipments to the rebels.
However, within days, Gorbachev learned to his surprise that Reagan had no interest in such a deal. In a conversation on Feb. 27 with Italy's foreign minister, Giulio Andreotti, Gorbachev said, "We have information from very reliable sources … that the United States has set itself the goal of obstructing a settlement by any means," in order "to present the Soviet Union in a bad light." If this information is true, Gorbachev continued, the matter of a withdrawal "takes on a different light."
Without U.S. cooperation, Gorbachev couldn't proceed with his plans to withdraw. Instead, he allowed his military commanders to escalate the conflict. In April, Soviet troops, supported by bombers and helicopters, attacked a new compound of Islamic fighters along the mountain passes of Jaji, near the Pakistani border. The leader of those fighters, many of them Arab volunteers, was Osama Bin Laden.
In his magisterial book, Ghost Wars (possibly the best diplomatic history written in the past decade), Steve Coll recounts the fateful consequences:
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.