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Congressman Dana RohrabacherOn Sept. 10, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher had a premonition "that something horrible was going to happen."
Long a student of Afghanistan's affairs, its personalities and, more recently, its brutal Taliban leadership, Rohrabacher made much of an otherwise innocuous foreign event: the assassination of the Taliban's greatest internal enemy, the Afghan warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud.
For most people in this country, the hit on Massoud was nothing, not even a blip. His murder rated just a few lines in a few American dailies: he was meeting with reporters in his field tent in northern Afghanistan when the reporters blew themselves up. But Afghanis have been at war—with Russians, Ottoman Turks, Greeks, English, Mongols and themselves—for so long that the murder of one man hardly registers.
However, it made a deep impression on Rohrabacher, a seven-term Republican congressman from Huntington Beach. "I was so concerned about this [attack on Massoud] that I made an appointment to see the top officials in the White House in the National Security Council," said Rohrabacher during an hourlong speech on the House floor a week later.
Rohrabacher said his appointment was set for the next day—Sept. 11—at 2:30 in the afternoon.
"Unfortunately," he said, "at 8:45 that morning, the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center."
Now Rohrabacher says he believes—no, says he knows—that the Taliban hit on Massoud was aimed at eradicating the man most likely to assist U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks that led to more than 6,000 fatalities.
Maybe Rohrabacher was on to something. Or maybe he was right about the impending attacks for the wrong reason. It doesn't really matter now.
But there is wicked irony in the fact that it is Rohrabacher who believes he can read the actions of Afghanistan's most unstable and dangerous personalities—because it was Rohrabacher who spent much of his young policy-wonk days during the anti-Camelot of the Reagan administration helping to arm many of the very Afghan veterans now accused of carrying out the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil.
Rohrabacher considers himself the king of the hill on Afghanistan. "I understand Afghanistan," he told reporters at the Capitol Hill police station during a makeshift Sept. 11 press conference just a few hours after a hijacked airliner crashed into the Pentagon, located just across the Potomac River. "I'm a bigger expert on Afghanistan than any member of Congress."
While hardly the man who ought to be sitting at the State Department's Central Asia desk, Rohrabacher has indeed shown genuine interest in the region and its troubles. His studies began 20 years ago during the U.S. government's covert war against Soviet troops who invaded Afghanistan in 1979. No U.S. troops were involved in that war. Instead, Reagan officials leveraged native resistance fighters called the mujahideen. A guerrilla force that first attempted to repel the Soviets with 19th-century British weapons and tactics—Enfield rifles and horses—was suddenly equipped with surface-to-air missiles, automatic rifles and, perhaps most important, the best intelligence the U.S. government could offer.
"The American people can be proud that we provided the Afghan people the weapons they needed to win their own freedom and independence," Rohrabacher told House members.
But in his hourlong Sept. 17 speech, Rohrabacher only obliquely mentioned the role he played during the Reagan administration: "During my time at the White House during the 1980s," he said, "I had the opportunity to meet and get to know most of [the mujahideen] leaders."
He's being modest. As a speechwriter and special assistant to the president, Rohrabacher played a key role in getting U.S. support for the Afghan rebels, then at war with the Soviet Union. And Rohrabacher's role was no secret. "We should remember the many Americans who helped the Afghan mujahideen reclaim their country," stated an April 19, 1992, Orange County Register editorial. "One was Dana Rohrabacher, now an Orange County congressman. As a Reagan speechwriter, he became a point man for Afghan policy, actually facilitating the delivery of [Stinger] missiles to the freedom fighters."
In a brief interview with the Weekly, Rohrabacher described his role during those heady days a little differently than the Register. "There was a coalition inside the Reagan administration," said Rohrabacher. "Its goal was to see to it that we were supporting those people opposing communist domination around the world. I was certainly a major player in that."
It was called the Reagan Doctrine. In the eyes of Reagan officials bent on rolling back the Reds everywhere, Afghanistan exemplified the phrase "communist domination." By the time the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, the U.S government had lavished $3 billion in arms on the rebels, who, during the bloodiest days of the war, were downing an average of one Russian helicopter gunship per day.
"These weren't American weapons," said Rohrabacher. "By and large, it was done with Russian equipment bought from Egypt or one of the other states that was once allied with Russia but was now friendly to us. About the only American weapons they had were the Stinger missiles."
Rohrabacher also says it was during these years when he first met Commander Massoud, who died on Sept. 15 of wounds he received six days earlier in the attack that so concerned Rohrabacher.
"I knew Massoud," he said. "I visited him once personally. He was a very dramatic leader, a very fine leader."
Massoud may have been a great guy, but the majority of U.S. military-aid recipients were unsavory, even unstable characters. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which coordinated the efforts on the ground in Afghanistan, was never very choosy about who got arms.
Roughly half the weapons the CIA supplied went to fundamentalist Afghan leader Gulbeddin Hekmatyar—"one of the most stridently anti-Western of the resistance leaders," according to Mary Ann Weaver's May 1996 article in The Atlantic Monthly. Another arms customer was the blind Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, later convicted of involvement in the 1993 botched bombing of the World Trade Center.
Oh, and Osama bin Laden, the man whom George W. Bush says was behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
That fact bothers Rohrabacher considerably, and he tries to brush it off. "Bin Laden's people were funded by the Saudis themselves," he told the Weekly.
But he's wrong. During the Afghan war, the Saudis were, as they are today, doing America's bidding on the world stage. The CIA—at the behest of a White House, Congress and American media completely united in helping the Afghan rebels—was calling the shots. It is a fact Rohrabacher himself has acknowledged in the recent past.
"I witnessed this in the White House when U.S. officials in charge of the military aid program to the mujahideen permitted a large percentage of our assistance to be channeled to the most anti-Western, nondemocratic elements of the mujahideen," said Rohrabacher in an April 14, 1999, official statement on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan.
Rohrabacher saw firsthand evidence to support his claim. In November 1988, having just been elected to Congress, Rohrabacher took off on his first trip to Afghanistan. The anti-Soviet war was still raging as Rohrabacher set off on a five-day hike with an armed mujahideen patrol from Pakistan into eastern Afghanistan.
"We at one point in that march came across a camp of tents," Rohrabacher said of his visit to Jalalabad, then under siege by the Afghan rebels. "I was told at that point I must not speak English for at least another three hours because the people in those tents were Saudi Arabians under a crazy commander named bin Laden and that bin Laden was so crazy that he wanted to kill Americans as much as he wanted to kill Russians."
Even then, as Rohrabacher moved through that Jalalabad camp, bin Laden's force of "Afghan Arabs" was receiving the U.S. aid Rohrabacher helped make possible.
U.S. aid and assistance come back to haunt Americans so often that the intelligence community has a name for it: blowback. And no U.S. policy epitomizes blowback better than the American-led covert war in Afghanistan.
Clearly, the CIA was playing with forces it couldn't control, much less understand. Bin Laden, who allegedly had ties to Saudi intelligence—which, of course, had contacts in the U.S. intelligence community—recruited fundamentalist Muslim fighters from all over the world: China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait and a bunch of other places. Upon arrival, they had free access to weapons, military training and radical Islamic teachings.
The result, according to political scientist Samuel Huntington, was "a legacy of expert and experienced fighters, training camps and logistical facilities, elaborate trans-Islam networks of personal and organizational relationships, a substantial amount of military equipment including 300 to 500 unaccounted-for Stinger missiles, and, most important, a heady sense of power and self-confidence over what had been achieved and a driving desire to move on to other victories."
It's doubtful the Stingers still work—the war ended, after all, 12 years ago. But bin Laden's Afghan Arabs have been linked to terrorist actions all over the world since the end of the war, including the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, as well as the 2000 attack against the destroyer USS Cole, then docked in Yemen.
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And Rohrabacher has been watching them throughout. He has spent the past four years denouncing the Taliban—which took over Afghanistan in 1996—as "the most anti-Western, anti-female, anti-human-rights regime in the world." He has frequently accused Afghanistan of being "the world's largest source of heroin" and of allowing terrorists to use the nation "as a base of operations." Rohrabacher railed against the Clinton administration on Afghanistan, accusing them of coddling the Taliban. When then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright denied this and refused to release diplomatic documents the congressman claimed would expose the administration's secret policy of "keeping the Taliban in power," Rohrabacher alleged a cover-up. In June 2000, he joined Gloria Steinem, Catherine Deneuve and Christopher Hitchens in signing the "Statement of Support for the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women."
And, of course, he's got a solution to our Afghan terrorist mess today. Near the end of his long Sept. 17 speech on the House floor, Rohrabacher rejected calls to invade the nation that has given Western invaders trouble since Alexander of Macedon.
"Now, we do not need our troops; the worst thing we could do is just try to send an army into Afghanistan," he said. "If there are two rules of modern warfare, it is you do not march on Moscow and you do not invade Afghanistan."
So what should we do? In addition to sending special forces teams to "those countries on the northern border of Afghanistan," the U.S. should—you guessed it—return to the Reagan Doctrine. "Those teams and other military units," he said, "should establish a system of supply and equip those Afghans friendly to the United States so that they can free themselves, with our help, from Taliban rule." Picking Afghanistan's winners and losers is, of course, how we got where we are today.