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Jere Van Dyk: A historical perspective of the fight over Afghanistan

Northern Alliance fighters observe Taliban troops' positions just north of Kabul, Afghanistan
Northern Alliance fighters observe Taliban troops' positions just north of Kabul, Afghanistan  

Jere Van Dyk is the author of "In Afghanistan" and a former reporter for The New York Times. In the early 1980s he covered the Afghan-Soviet war, living with the Afghan rebels. He received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his work.

CNN: Welcome to Newsroom Jere Van Dyk. We are pleased to have you with us today.

JERE VAN DYK: Good afternoon, I'm Jere Van Dyk, and I'm very happy to be here today.

CNN: What can you tell us about the U.S. government's role in Afghanistan over the last two decades, and what impact that might have made in today's situation?

VAN DYK: The United States was interested in Afghanistan in the early fifties. Under Eisenhower, the U.S. felt that it should become involved in the frontline state, perhaps against the Soviet Union and communism. However, the decision was later made to let Afghanistan go. So, for the next two decades, the United States essentially ignored Afghanistan. There was some humanitarian aid, but the U.S. did not become involved politically. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1978, the United States took immediate notice, and supplied the mujahadin (holy warriors) who were fighting the Soviet Union, with small arms. No American arms, but small arms.

In 1986, the CIA under William Casey, made a very clear decision to supply the Afghans with serious hardware, stinger missiles. The United States ultimately spent $10 billion supplying weapons to the men fighting the Soviet Union. All of these arms went through the Pakistani military, in particular, the intelligence arm, which is called ISI, Interservice Intelligence. The ISI gave most of these arms to the most radical elements in the mujahadin. The Pakistanis kept about 40 percent of the weapons for themselves, and the 60 percent went to the most militant Afghans, that is, the most strongly Islamic, with an agenda beyond fighting just the Soviet Union, but anyone not Islamic. These people rose to political power as a result of their access to weaponry, provided by the United States and others.

Most of the weapons went to the Pathans. They are the principle tribe, 40 percent of Afghanistan. When the war ended, there was a coalition government comprised of the Afghan guerilla leaders who fought and defeated the Soviets. It was a coalition among different ethnic groups. When the war ended, the country which was exceedingly agrarian, exceedingly traditional, landlocked, with no railroad or telephone system, was left by the United States. The U.S. had accomplished its task, which was to defeat the Soviet Union. The U.S. government used the Afghans in its war against the Soviet Union, in the same way that the Chinese and the Russians used the Vietnamese in their war against us.

Now, a warlord culture grew up out of the vacuum when the U.S. left. This warlord culture became corrupt. The Taliban rose out of this warlord culture. Its goal was to cleanse the country of corruption, to install a pure Islamic state.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What was Russia's interest in Afghanistan in the first place?

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VAN DYK: Since the time of Peter the Great, Russia, later the Soviet Union, has wanted warm water ports, access to the Indian Ocean. Lenin, when he came to power, said he wanted to move south, with India the ultimate goal. Number two, Russia was afraid, and by virtue of President Putin's agreement with President Bush, is still afraid of an Islamic insurgency along its southern borders. It's very concerned about Islam spreading into the Soviet Union. It wanted to stop it in its tracks. Three, it wanted to back a pro-communist government in Afghanistan that it had helped establish. In doing so, by the way, it killed the American ambassador to Afghanistan. Lastly, the Soviet Union could move into Afghanistan, build air bases, which it did. The airbase Shindad was built by them and is now in the hands of the Taliban, and the U.S. will have to destroy it or use it. It built the airbase in the southwest corner of Afghanistan in order to put, at the time, more pressure on Europe and the West, because it could position its bombers that close to the oil fields of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why did Russia really lose that war? It must have made quit a few mistakes.

VAN DYK: The Soviet Union spent $45 billion fighting the Afghans. There was a movement among returning Afghan veterans, the mothers of Afghan veterans, which started to create trouble for the Kremlin. Also, it started to lose when the CIA introduced missiles into the conflict, and the Soviet Union started to lose substantial numbers of helicopters and pilots. The cost of the war became much higher. At the same time, Mikhail Gorbechev, who came to power, introduced parastroika and glasnost, meaning to modernize communism. He did not want the albatross of Afghanistan around his neck. Solidarity had started in Poland at the same time. One reason they went into Afghanistan was their fear of Islamic insurgency on their southern borders. They were losing the war in the Islamic world. He cut his losses, and they pulled out.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: As hindsight is 20/20, do you think that it eventually was a mistake to hinder the Soviets in their mission in Afghanistan?

VAN DYK: That's a question being debated throughout the government, I'm sure. The United States' intentions were pragmatic, to fight the Soviet Union. There was talk, even when the CIA was introducing more weaponry, the fear of blowback, that it would blow back to us, that it would come back to haunt us. We supplied the Afghans with as many as 500 stinger missiles, 200-300 of these are unaccounted for. The CIA instituted a buy-back program. Some Afghans were selling these missiles to the Iranians for as much as $1 million. One thing we'll have to be aware of if we go into Afghanistan is stinger missiles being used against us. In hindsight, maybe we could have done something differently, but hindsight is easy for all of us.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How well were the [Afghans] trained by the USA, and is it true that bin Laden was also trained by the states?

VAN DYK: In the mid-1980s, Pakistani and American military officers did train certain members of the mujahadin. We were introducing new weaponry to them, and we wanted them to win their war. So we did do some training. We did not fight with them. And bin Laden did, at the beginning, work with the Americans.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Did the U.S. know what the Taliban was about before they decided to help them defeat the Russians?

VAN DYK: The Taliban did not exist when the United States was helping the Afghans fight the Russians.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How did the Taliban make so much gain in Afghanistan in so short a time?

VAN DYK: Afghanistan was exhausted. It had lost 1.5 million people. It had tremendous numbers of injured and maimed people. The country, desperately poor, was exhausted. The Taliban's leadership, particularly Muhammed Omar, the leader, was a Robin Hood figure at the beginning. They welcomed these well-intentioned Islamic students who would purify the country and bring peace and end corruption. And, as people like bin Laden joined them with tremendous amounts of money from Saudi Arabia, they were able to buy off tribal leaders, war lords, and others who were fighting one another for power. The war, by the way, was not easy, and they did not take over most of the country very quickly. The war went on for five years. The Pakistani military also helped them greatly. Pakistani soldiers fought with the Taliban. The main ethnic group in Afghanistan are the Pathans. The Taliban are Pathans. There are equal numbers of Pathans in Pakistan.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why did we leave Afghanistan to twist in the wind after we helped them beat the Russians? Why weren't we more active in supporting moderate, pro-democratic factions?

VAN DYK: The saying at the time was that the United States will fight the Soviets to the last Afghan. By that I mean that we did not care about Afghanistan or the Afghans. Our goal was to defeat the Soviet Union. Once that goal was accomplished, we left them alone. Afghanistan was not important to us strategically. The Soviet Union was defeated. Iran is the principle power in South Asia. Our ally has always been Pakistan. We signed a treaty with them in 1954.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is it that the Afghan people believe that could possibly give them the impression that they would be a worthy adversary to a host of nations in this day and age? Did they not see what we are capable of in WWII and other conflicts more recently?

VAN DYK: You must differentiate between the Afghan people and the Taliban. The Taliban, particularly the leadership, are comprised of men whose fathers fought and defeated the Soviet Union. When I was there, I sat around campfires, and heard men talking of defeating the British in the 19th century. Most are illiterate, but there is a rich oral history. A man once had a difficult time understanding the concept of an elevator, though. They have no electricity, no railroads. It is landlocked. It is one of the most isolated places on earth. They defeated the Soviet Union, they defeated the British. They defeated the men in their civil war who fought the Soviets. They have God --Allah --on their side. They know only victory. They have no idea what they're up against.

CNN: Are you surprised at Pakistan's immediate cooperation with the U.S. coalition, and will it hold if the U.S. begins military attacks on Afghanistan?

VAN DYK: Pakistan, which has only existed since 1947, is torn between being an Islamic state and being a secular state. The word itself, Pak means pure, istan means land. Pure Islamic land. It is torn. It's clear that the military part of Pakistan made a cold, pragmatic decision to support the West, because it wants foreign aid, sanctions lifted. It's also afraid of an Islamic insurgency within its own borders.

When President Musharref spoke with Islamic leaders in Pakistan about his decision to side with the United States, they went back into history and said that the prophet Muhammed made a practical decision to stop a war against infidels, and make a pact with certain tribes, because he had to do it to win in the end. The president had to make a speech to the Islamic priesthood, in order to win them over to his side. We don't know what's going to happen in Pakistan in the future, which is comprised of four principle ethnic groups, which don't get along. It needs as much as it can to protect itself against India, with a sensitive Kashmir problem. It was a bold decision, a pragmatic decision.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

VAN DYK: I think it's very important to note that the Afghan people themselves do not dislike the West. They do not hate America. The word Tali means "student of Islam," and Taliban is the plural of that. These men don't know anything about their own country, not their own history, not their own culture. They grew up in refugee camps. They only know the Islam that they have been taught. They do not represent the Afghan people. The Afghan people, through four years of drought, are held hostage. My hope is that when the West goes into Afghanistan to capture those men who are not Afghans, those Islamic militants who do hate the West, that they will not hurt the already beaten-down Afghan people. That's my own personal thought.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Jere Van Dyk.

VAN DYK: Goodbye, and thank you very much for inviting me here, and for your very good questions. I learned things myself in answering them.

Jere Van Dyk joined via telephone from New York. CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview on Tuesday, September 25, 2001.


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