Gareth Porter is a historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book,Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam was published in June 2005.
George Bush’s new argument that Iran and Hezbollah are part of the same terrorist network as al-Qaida turns the recent history of international politics on its head to cover up a truth that makes the Bush administration extremely uncomfortable.
In two speeches on August 31 and September 5, Bush said there is no difference between Iran and Hezbollah, on one hand, and al-Qaida, on the other, as terrorist enemies of the United States. This is fraud so brazen that it makes even the outrageous 2002 Bush administration effort to portray Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden as allies pale by comparison.
In his August 31 speech in Salt Lake City, Bush drew a parallel between “radicalized followers of the Sunni tradition, who swear allegiance to terrorist organizations like al-Qaida” and “radicalized followers of the Shia tradition, who join groups like Hezbollah and take guidance from state sponsors like Syria and Iran.” Then he declared, “Despite their differences, these groups … form the outlines of a single movement, a worldwide network of radicals that use terror to kill those who stand in the way of their totalitarian ideology.”
On Sept. 5, Bush offered a slightly different formulation of the same theme. “The Shia and Sunni extremists represent different faces of the same threat. They draw inspiration from different sources, but both seek to impose a dark vision of violent Islamic radicalism across the Middle East.”
These carefully crafted rhetorical devices (“a single movement,” “a worldwide network of radicals that use terror,” “different faces of the same threat") represent a breathtaking falsification of history.
The reality is exactly the opposite of Bush’s lie. Iran was pursing active opposition for years against al-Qaida and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which provided it a safe haven while the United States was either on the wrong side or refused to take sides.
After the Taliban regime took power in September 1996, the extremist Sunni Taliban and Osama bin Laden, who immediately moved to Afghanistan to enjoy the Taliban’s hospitality, hated Iran because it was the region’s only Shiite regime. Iran regarded the Taliban regime as a direct threat to its security and accused it of providing sanctuary to terrorist organizations, including, of course, bin Laden’s al-Qaida. Iran immediately offered money, weapons and humanitarian aid to the only armed Afghan resistance to it, the largely-Tajik so-called “Northern Alliance.”
The United States, on the other hand, responded by accommodating the Taliban regime. As Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll recalls in his book Ghost Wars, the Clinton administration responded to the new regime by urging members of the United Nations Security Council to work with the new Taliban regime rather than isolating it. “It was unclear during the fall of 1996 whether the United States regarded the Taliban as friend or foe,” writes Coll.
But it wasn’t only the Democratic administration that cozied up to the Taliban. The prominent neoconservative strategist Zalmay Khalilzad—the man Bush would later name as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan—in the Washington Post, two weeks after the Taliban takeover, called for the United States to “reengage” with the new regime because of “common interests between the United States and the Taliban.” Those common interests, of course, had to do with the fact that the Taliban was a potential ally against Iran.
By late 1996, the CIA knew that bin Laden and his followers were operating under Taliban protection in Kandahar but made no move to support the Northern Resistance. Even after the Northern Alliance began to make gains against the Taliban regime in 2000, the Clinton administration, which had adopted an official policy of strict neutrality on the war, was still undecided about whether to commit to supporting it.
The Bush administration was no better. It had plenty of information showing that bin Laden was threatening the United States from his Afghan safe haven, but the neoconservatives were still not sure they wanted to confront the Taliban. Only days before the terrorists crashed into the Pentagon and the twin towers, as Coll reports, Bush finally approved a new policy toward the Taliban and bin Laden, after months of hand-wringing over the issue. What Bush proposed, according to Coll, was not to bring about regime change but to send a diplomat to Kabul to urge the Taliban regime to expel bin Laden.
Of course the al-Qaida attacks of 9/11 put an end to Bush’s indecision. But even after those attacks, high-level Pentagon officials were less interested in taking out al-Qaida than they were in taking down Saddam. Gen. Greg Newbold, the senior staff officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later recalled to Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, the authors of COBRA II, “You could still smell the smoke in the corridors” when Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith upbraided him when he said he was working hard on tracking down al-Qaida in Afghanistan. “Why are you working on Afghanistan?” Feith demanded. “You ought to be working on Iraq.”
When the United States sent its forces into Afghanistan, it was allying with the existing Iranian-supported anti-Taliban coalition forces rather than creating something new. In fact, the United States could not have gotten rid of the Taliban regime without the help of Iran. Not only did Tehran allow the United States to transport food and humanitarian goods across Iran’s territory, but gave the Bush administration advice on the sociopolitical cleavages in Afghanistan and, according to James Risen’s State of War, even what targets to bomb.
After the Taliban was overthrown, Iran not only used its considerable political influence with the Northern Alliance to help put together the new Afghan regime but ensured that its charter would commit it to cooperation with war on terrorism. Then Iran offered to feed, cloth, equip and train 20,000 Afghan troops, as then-U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Dobbins has described in detail, only to be refused by the Bush administration. The Bush administration also refused to cooperate actively with Iran against al-Qaida, rejecting the recommendations of its intelligence and counterterrorism specialists.
Contrary to the propaganda pumped out by Rumsfeld from 2002 to 2004, accusing Iran of harboring al-Qaida cadres, within the first few months after the collapse of the Taliban, Iran had arrested 80 percent of the group of cadres who had been associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which had crossed the border to hide in Iran. That account was given by high-ranking al-Qaida member Saif al-Adel, posted on an al-Qaida website in mid-2005. The al-Qaida leader declared, "The steps taken by Iran against us shook us and caused the failure of 75 percent of our plan.”
But if Iran has been the main state enemy of al-Qaida and its state sponsor, where was the external support for the Taliban regime coming from? None other than Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the closest allies of the United States in the Islamic world. Ahmad Rashid’s authoritative account in Taliban shows that, as early as mid-1994, Pakistan’s intelligence services began secretly providing financial and material support to the Taliban, aimed at setting up a Saudi-style radical anti-Shiite Sunni theocracy in Afghanistan.
Even after 9/11, Pakistan’s close cooperation with the Taliban continued. President Pervez Musharraf went through the motions of joining the U.S. in the war on al-Qaida, but he declared in an Urdu address to the nation on September 19, 2001, “We are trying our best to come out of this critical situation without any damage to Afghanistan and the Taliban.” South Asia specialist Selig Harrison noted in a Sept. 5 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that even now, pro-al-Qaida Pakistani Islamist groups which help shelter terrorist cadres are being protected by Pakistani armed forces.
And behind the Pakistanis are the Saudis, who not only facilitated the transfer of tens of millions of dollars to the Taliban from Saudi charities but subsidized Pakistan’s army and intelligence services to the tune of “at least several hundred million dollars,” according to Coll. Furthermore, as Coll’s account shows, the Saudi Interior Ministry frustrated systematically the CIA’s efforts to investigate al-Qaida individuals and cells in that country, leading U.S. intelligence specialists on al-Qaida to suspect that the Saudi regime had an official understanding with bin Laden that he should focus on the United States and leave the regime alone.
So America’s allies in the region—not Iran—have been the real allies of the jihadi terrorists who have attacked the United States. It was in large part because of its close relations with those regimes—owing in large part to their usefulness against Iran—that the United States was so uninterested in going after the Taliban and bin Laden for so long. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who was so eager for war with Iraq, later defended the Bush administration’s reluctance to move against bin Laden’s sponsors in Afghanistan by explaining, “You can’t go after the government of Afghanistan without recognizing the problems in your relationship, particularly with Pakistan, but with other neighboring countries as well.” He was obviously referring to Saudi Arabia.
No wonder Bush feels compelled to tell a big lie about Iran and al-Qaida. The real history of the international politics of al-Qaida shows that the Bush administration is being compromised by its ties with countries aligned with the terrorists against Iran. This fifth anniversary of 9/11 is a time to demand the truth and call the administration to account.