From the transcript of Friday night’s debate, here’s John McCain:
First of all, I won’t repeat the mistake that I regret enormously, and that is, after we were able to help the Afghan freedom fighters and drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, we basically washed our hands of the region.
And the result over time was the Taliban, Al Qaida, and a lot of the difficulties we are facing today. So we can’t ignore those lessons of history.
Those “freedom fighters” were of course the mujaheddin in Afghanistan waging jihad against the Soviets, including one Osama bin Laden and one Zayman Al Zawahiri. We backed and funded them–sort of. We didn’t “create bin Laden,” as some have alleged. But we certainly supported the factions fighting alongside him, factions every bit as militantly Islamic as bin Laden–as even the State Department concedes.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright documents how in Afghanistan, the U.S. saw the opportunity to give the Soviet Union, in the words of Secretary of State National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, “its own Vietnam.” By most accounts, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in part out of naked aggression, but also to quell the militant Islamism gaining traction in the country (sound familiar?)&tag=theagitator-20. So in our effort to bog down the Soviets, the U.S. gave its own money and helped divert billions in Saudi money to the Pakistan’s ISI secret police, which then distributed the funds to seven separate mujaheddin tribes, one of which was led by bin Laden (just how much U.S. money bin Laden received through ISI isn’t clear–at least from what I’ve read). The Saudis also provided additional funding to bin Laden’s group through other channels.
Anti-communists in the Regan administration regularly referred to the mujaheddin as “freedom fighters,” apparently for no other reason than that they were fighting the Soviets. We now know, of course, that they were fighting for independence, not freedom. There’s a big difference. That McCain continues to use the Reagan-era terminology is telling. Our support–even if indirect–of bin Laden in his jihad against the Soviets ought to be a lesson in the perils of meddling in foreign conflicts. But in the McCain-Bush black-and-white, you’re-with-us-or-you’re-against-us foreign policy, the side America backs is always the side of freedom. It’s foolhardy to think it’s always that simple.
Moreover, you sort of wonder what McCain thinks we should have done. Should we have sent in U.S. troops to set up bases and occupy the country the moment the Soviets pulled out? Installed a puppet regime? I can’t think even a by-then crumbling Soviet Union would have stood for what would have been the equivalent of a U.S. satellite on its southern border. Until then, our support for anti-Soviet Afghans was it least covert. I’m sure the Soviets knew about it, but it wasn’t a slap in the face, as the installation of a base or a blatantly pro-U.S. government would have been.
It would be nice to see a campaign correspondent ask McCain to clarify. Does he really still think the mujaheddin were “freedom fighters?” And what does the think we should have done once the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan?
One other thing: Can you imagine the uproar on the right if Obama had referred to the Afghan mujaheddin as “freedom fighters?”