The uses and abuses of anti-Communism

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Addressing Parliament on Sept. 20, South African Foreign Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said, among other things, that South Africa is opposed to terrorism.

She emphasized that even during the course of the armed struggle, the ANC had scrupulously avoided terrorism as a tactic. All these points are absolutely true.

After the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, the government of the United States declared “war on terrorism.” President Bush sounded extremely earnest in his declaration, but a question arose in my mind: Is the U.S. in fact opposed to terrorism?

Closer examination of the Sept. 11 outrage sheds a rather different light on U.S. pronouncements, past and present.

The Washington Post reported May 25: “Last week [the United States government] pledged another $ 43 million in assistance to Afghanistan, raising total aid this year to $124 million and making the United States the largest humanitarian donor to the country.”

This was barely four months ago!

Digging deeper into the recent archives of the U.S. press, one finds other reports. Among the most interesting: “The Afghan resistance was backed by the intelligence services of the United States and Saudi Arabia, with nearly $6 billion worth of weapons. And the territory targeted last week, a set of six encampments around Khost, where the Saudi exile Osama bin Laden has financed a kind of ‘terrorist university,’ in the words of a senior United States intelligence official, is well known to the Central Intelligence Agency.

“The CIA’s military and financial support for the Afghan rebels indirectly helped build the camps that the United States attacked. And some of the same warriors who fought the Soviets with the CIA’s help are now fighting under bin Laden’s banner.

“From those same camps, the Afghan rebels, known as Mujahideen, or holy warriors, kept up a decade-long siege on the Soviet-supported garrison town of Khost.

“Thousands of Mujahideen were dug into the mountains around Khost. Soviet accounts of the siege of Khost during 1988 referred to the rebel camps as ‘the last word in NATO engineering techniques.’”

After a decade of fighting, during which each side claimed to have killed thousands of the enemy, the Afghan rebels poured out of their encampments and took Khost.

“This was the most fiercely contested piece of real estate in the 10-year Afghan war,” Milt Bearden, who ran the CIA’s side of the war from 1986 to 1989, told The New York Times Aug. 23, 1998.

The New Yorker of Jan. 24, 2000 reported the same Milt Bearden admitting that while he never personally met bin Laden, “Did I know that he was out there? Yes, I did ... [Guys like] bin Laden were bringing $20-$25 million a month from other Saudis and Gulf Arabs to underwrite the war. And that is a lot of money. It’s an extra $200-$300 million a year. And this is what bin Laden did.”

The Mujahideen, led by Osama bin Laden, now accused of being the chief suspect responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center (WTC) and the attack on the Pentagon, it transpires, has been an ally of the United States intelligence community for well nigh two decades.

He and his network are in large measure a creation of the virulently anti-Communist elements in the U.S. establishment, who not only supported them with funds, but also helped train and equip them to fight the then Soviet Union.

During those years, the CIA, its helpers in Pakistan and the Saudi rulers taught bin Laden and his associates a host of skills, including how to move money to fund their operations, from country to country.

As one U.S. commentator wrote: “The system is no surprise to the U.S. government because Washington and its allies have used it, too.”

The Bank of Credit and Commerce International was a British-Pakistani bank that used secret offshore accounts to effect a global money-laundering fraud that cost victims $8 billion.

Before it was shut down in 1991, it was used to fund the Mujahideen, then fighting the Soviet-supported government of Afghanistan. The money came from U.S. and Saudi intelligence.

Of the formerly U.S.-backed Mujahideen, how many are now members of bin Laden’s network?

They know all about how to launder money through the international bank secrecy system. If Washington wants to stop the money flow that supports terrorism, it needs to cut that pipeline.

The first step should be immediate passage of legislation sponsored by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Levin’s bill, which was opposed by Republican leaders last year, has two key elements. It would bar U.S. banks from providing banking services to foreign shell banks that have no physical presence in any country.

And it would require U.S. banks to conduct in-depth investigations when opening accounts of $1 million or more for foreigners, as well as correspondent accounts for offshore banks or banks in countries with high money-laundering risks.

The alliance among bin Laden, the Taliban, the Saudi monarchy and the U.S. establishment is not as odd as it might appear at first sight. There is a remarkable convergence of views among the Taliban in Afghanistan and the religious right in the United States.

In the United States, the ultraright’s platform includes an extreme fundamentalist reading of the Christian scriptures, (indeed, there are states where pressure from its more extreme supporters has succeeded in having the theory of evolution banned from the school curriculum).

Right-wing opposition to women controlling their own fertility in extreme cases spills over into attacks on doctors and clinics that terminate unwanted pregnancies. “Family values” is code for the restoration of patriarchal relations in the family.

Its opposition to any reforms that will accord equal rights to all U.S. citizens is as legendary as its xenophobia. Members of the ultraright are the most vociferous proponents of a retributive penal system and the death penalty.

In the Muslim world, but specifically in Afghanistan, the coalition of forces represented by bin Laden and the Taliban also insists on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran.

They are opposed to women exercising any choice regarding their fertility, and they enforce with violence strict patriarchal family relations.

Women in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan probably had fewer rights than chattel slaves in the antebellum South. It should come as no surprise that among the principal grievances cited by the Mujahideen when they rose in rebellion were attempts by the then Soviet-backed government to extend education to women.

It might turn out that the U.S. ultraright has sown dragon’s teeth by arming and inspiring what was essentially an anti-modernist rebellion against a left-wing government.

The reality is that bin Laden, the Taliban and others of their ilk are striking out today at what used to be a doting parent, a parent who not only gave them life but also armed them to wage war on the “godless Communists.”

But what could have persuaded these reckless offspring to turn against their parent? In examining the roots of the anti-left rebellion in Afghanistan, one can understand today’s events better.

The left-wing party that seized power in Afghanistan during the late 1970s had no intention of introducing socialism to that country.

Afghanistan was an impoverished, semi-feudal society, barely touched by the modern world. While Babrak Karmal and his colleagues indeed drew inspiration from and looked to the Soviet Union for assistance, their immediate aim was to bring their country abreast of the rest of Asia.

That would have entailed mass literacy by the building of modern schools, the secularization of the society, and the construction of modern infrastructure such as roads, electrification, and telecommunications.

These would have ended Afghanistan’s isolation and narrowed the distance between its people and the modern era.

Modernization held out the promise of intellectual emancipation. But that would also have curtailed the power of the Muslim clerics. The left’s project in Afghanistan was compromised by too close an association with the Soviet Union.

The leadership was also highly factionalized, resulting in a cycle of murderous coups and counter-coups in 1979. It was in the wake of such a counter-coup that the Soviets intervened in support of Karmal.

The standard around which the U.S., its helpers in Pakistani intelligence, the Saudi monarchy and the conservative religious leaders in Afghanistan mobilized opposition to this government was rejection, not of socialism, but modernism itself.

They appropriated the banner of Islam for that purpose and advocated a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran.

The CIA, with a purely instrumentalist approach, recognized that religion would be a powerful symbol around which to rally opposition to the Soviet-backed government, but paid little attention to a possible unforeseen outcome.

The “bleeding ulcer” of Afghanistan was among the many factors that sapped the strength of the Soviet Union, leading to its collapse. What U.S. policy-makers did not realize is that to the radically anti-modernist Mujahideen, the United States – the land of skyscrapers, the home of Hollywood, with hundreds of television channels, millions of educated women and a strong emphasis on the separation of church and state – represented the epitome of the modernism they had been mobilized to crush.

The ideological affinities between the U.S. ultraright and the Taliban sealed the alliance.

But while the former necessarily took elements of modernism for granted, the latter regarded even its most benign expressions as satanic deviance. Thus, the stage was set for the offspring to rise against their parents.

The history of the last century abounds with numerous examples of politicians who have sought to harness anti-Communism, in a very instrumental manner, to their project.

In most instances, these have been reactionaries and conservatives defending disreputable systems of oppression and exploitation.

But there have been numerous instances of liberals, nationalists and ostensibly progressive people who have been tempted to play the anti-Communist card with a view to some immediate political gain or who have capitulated before it in the hope of gaining some dubious political advantage.

U.S. policy-makers during the liberal Carter administration of early 1980s probably thought they could ride the tiger of anti-Communism with impunity.

The conservative Reagan and Bush administrations of the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s, U.S. media reports indicate, thought they could take that even further by subverting Soviet Asia.

Anti-Communism, they are discovering today, is a doubled-edged sword.

While its keen blade helped sweep away what President Reagan once called “the evil empire,” on its back-swing it returned as a guillotine to wreak terrible havoc in the very citadels of U.S. power. There is a lesson there somewhere!

But the last word should go to two U.S. foreign policy specialists, Tom Barry and Martha Honey:

“In recent years, we have made encouraging progress in establishing and enforcing international norms for human rights and crimes against humanity. This is an opportunity to forge a broader international coalition – bringing disparate nations together in a common determination to fight against such crimes against humanity.

“A first principle, then, must be that we treat this as an international crime, not an act of war, and that the rule of law should guide international response.”

Z. Pallo Jordan was South Africa’s Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and Broadcasting and Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. Jordan is now a Member of Parliament for the African National Congress.