I originally thought I wasn’t going to write a 9/11 historical piece, rather just an account of what I remembered on the day of the tragedy. However, I remembered a recent discussion I had with some friends and they held on to this belief that Osama bin Laden and the people who made up the Taliban and Al Qaeda were directly funded by the U.S. government to fight the USSR in the 1980s and in that time they were known as the Mujahideen. This myth is best expressed by the left-wing author Bevins who wrote, “In Afghanistan, Soviet troops had been trying to prop up a communist ally for nine years, Moscow’s forces retreated, the CIA-backed Islamist fundamentalists set up a fanatical theocracy, and the West stopped paying attention” (Feroz). Robert Fisk of The Independent talked about “CIA camps in which the Americans once trained Mr. bin Laden’s fellow guerillas” and Mort Rosenblum of the Associated Press wrote, “Usama bin Laden was the type of Soviet-hating freedom fighter that U.S. officials applauded when the world looked a little different” (Rubin). This myth, which I admit makes for a compelling story, has spread far and wide among the far left whose adherents make a habit of blaming America first and believe the CIA is behind many of the evils of the world, the far right whose adherents think America First means withdrawing from the world stage, and even people in the mainstream. This narrative is used to imply that 9/11 amounted to the “chickens coming home to roost” for America and richly deserves to be demolished. If I have succeeded in doing so, by the end of this post you will walk away knowing this narrative is nonsense.
This narrative at first sounds like it makes sense. The Taliban are Islamic fundamentalists, the Mujahideen were Islamic, the communists were militant atheists and brutally suppressed Islam and under the American foreign policy credo of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” they funded those fundamentalists only for the fundamentalists to bite them in the ass later. There are several problems with this narrative. First, the Taliban was founded in 1996, seven years after the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989. Second, many more people than religious extremists had reason to fight against the communists in Afghanistan. Third, most members of the Taliban did not fight with the Mujahideen and were in fact opposed to the rule of the Mujahideen.
For the first problem with the narrative, many of the participants in the Taliban had been students in Islamic schools during the 1980s and not fighting with the rebels. They were by and large simply a younger group than the Mujahideen.
For the second problem, the communist regime in Afghanistan the Soviets went in to back against resistance was notorious for its brutality and imprisoning, torturing, and mass murdering of the religious. As journalist Emran Feroz (2021) notes, “A lot of those who succumbed to their ghastly fates at the hands of the Communists were targeted simply because they prayed five times a day, betrayed any sign of religiosity, were people of some standing and influence, or criticized the mass-murdering regime that was in power”. There were far more people who had good reason to fight and fought communist rule than just Islamic fundamentalists. The CIA in fact provided aid to rebels in the country before the USSR invaded and so brutal was their regime, and when the regime looked like it was going to fall apart in the face of resistance, the Soviets stepped in to stop the region from destabilizing and executed Hafizullah Amin, the zealot communist leader who refused to step down. They installed in his place a puppet for Moscow, but still a regime hostile to Islam remained and the Soviets themselves engaged in mass torture and murder of civilian populations. This began the decade long quagmire the Soviets endured in Afghanistan, and aid from the CIA to covertly aid the rebels increased in an effective payback for the Soviets helping the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War. In 1986, the United States finally decided to provide Stinger missiles to the rebels ending the covert nature of the aid. Other nations that aided the Mujahideen included Saudi Arabia, Israel, China, and European nations. Also, as Michael Rubin (2002) notes that there was “an early 1990s covert campaign to purchase or otherwise recover surplus Stinger missiles still in the hands of the mujahidin factions”.
For the third problem with the narrative, Zmarak Yousefzai (2014) notes, “The group (Taliban) actually began, with support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as a draconian vigilante movement in the Kandahar province that initially aimed to challenge the chaos caused by the Mujahideen – The Afghan fighters the West had actually supported against the Soviets”. In other words, this was a rebellion against the former rebels. What’s more, the United States opposed the rise of the Taliban from the start. In 1997, Secretary of State Madeline Albright issued the following statement, “We are opposed to the Taliban because of their opposition to human rights and their despicable treatment of women and children and great lack of respect of human dignity” (Yousefzai). As for Osama bin Laden, he was not funded by the CIA either. Indeed, per Feroz (2021), “Osama bin Laden joined the war much later, and he never acquired weapons or training directly from the CIA”. Bin Laden thus stands as a tertiary figure in the anti-Soviet fight, bound only by a shared opposition to the anti-Islam position of the Soviets.
Unfortunately, it is often true that what gets people and policies far in this world is not their relation to efficacy or truth, rather how compelling the story told is. The best storytellers in life tend to get the jobs and get their work noticed. This myth surrounding 9/11 is a compelling story to tell, but it also happens to be wrong.
What I Remember on 9/11
When 9/11 happened, I was a 14-year old high school freshman. I was being driven to school by my dad that bright and sunny morning (not the typical story introduction, right?) and I remember hearing about the World Trade Center towers collapsing over the radio. I could hardly believe my ears. Was this what was really happening? My father answered in the affirmative. Since I was in California the attacks had happened while I was asleep. Throughout the day I was disturbed and couldn’t stop thinking about what happened. I also felt a tremendous anger as I wanted bin Laden and his fellow conspirators to pay. To this day I think that bin Laden’s demise was the best thing Obama ever did. I found some relief from the weight I felt by watching the classic Three Stooges short A Plumbing We Will Go (1940), but I knew the nation and the world had changed that day. I don’t recall focusing on the news as heavily in the days afterwards as did the adults, but this was one of four factors that had long-term consequences for my thoughts on politics.
The other three were the irrational nature of political correctness that I now see as the more moderate mother of wokeness, the realization that the schools and teachers in my area had opted to ignore the Venona documents when covering the so-called “Red Scare” of the 1950s as the narrative was more important than the truth, and a .edu website regarding the myth of the “rich got richer and the poor got poorer” and that greed prevailed during the Reagan years that I am having trouble finding at the moment. If I find it I’ll update the post with the link (Update: I found it, It’s called “Contemporary Economic Myths” by economics Professor Steven G. Horwitz, who died this year, link is in references.). I once thought that when I grew up I’d be a Democrat but I doubt I would have ever subscribed to woke ideology or anything falling under the Marxist ideological umbrella. I thought I’d be a “Clinton Democrat”, which I now realize was progressivism adapted to the political climate of the 1990s. Before 9/11, my thoughts on Republicans were that they were hyper-moralistic fuddy-duddies and I was disappointed that Gore had lost. Looking back, I knew more than the average 14-year old but it still wasn’t much. I never thought that during my senior year I’d register as a Republican, but when I was a kid I also never thought I’d sport a beard. Conservative Reverend Jerry Falwell talking about how Tinky Winky from the Teletubbies was gay didn’t warm me up to social conservatism, but one can be a conservative Republican without liking Jerry Falwell or the other evangelical preachers. Given that the Democratic Party of today more and more caters to the woke and the zealotry they exhibit would make the elderly church ladies who approved of Falwell blush, I suppose my turn would have happened at some point whether 9/11 occurred or not. Perhaps being something of an iconoclast is in my blood…I’m not interested in upholding historical myths, even when they come from my side (ex: “JFK was a conservative”, “MLK was a Republican”) and I confess especially not when they come from the far left. A lot of the other beliefs conservatives hold followed from what I came to believe after 9/11, but some I already had from the start and just didn’t know it yet. I think the same is true with a lot of people, but the social circles they stay with and the people they respect and admire just don’t encourage such thought.
Feroz, E. (2021, April 26). What the CIA Did (and Didn’t Do) in Soviet-Occupied Afghanistan. Newlines Magazine.
Horwitz, S.G. Contemporary Economic Myths. St. Lawrence University.
Rubin, M. (2002, March 1). Who Is Responsible for the Taliban? The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Yousefzai, Z. (2014, January 16). Three Myths About the Taliban. Foreign Policy.