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Erik Moberg ©:

2. Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and Iraq

 

Afghanistan has, in fact, been a failed state for a very long time. It has a population of about 26 millions and practically all of these (99.7 %) are Muslims, and of these some 85-90 % are estimated to be Sunnis and the rest Shiites. In the colonial era the country was exposed to pressure from Russia on the one side and Britain on the other. From that period, and for a number of years ahead, the country was a western-oriented kingdom, although a shaky one. In 1929 the king was dethroned, and so was another king in 1973. Then, in 1978, the regime became Soviet-oriented when the communist party captured the power. Even this regime was however weak and fragile. One reason was fights between fractions within the communist party, another the guerilla activities, supported by Pakistan and parts of the western world, of an association of Muslim jihadists or warriors called Mujahideen. This was in fact the first association of this kind in modern times, but, as we will see later on, more ones would soon appear. Anyway, the conflicts in Afghanistan escalated into a civil war and probably about a million Afghans lost their lives.

 

In that situation the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979. The efforts to defeat the western-supported Mujahideen fighters, operating from strongholds in the mountains bordering to Pakistan, and also supported by many volunteer Muslim soldiers coming from other countries, failed however and finally, in 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew. The war has, in fact, been characterized as the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. It may be noted that this withdrawal came quite close to the collapse of the Soviet empire itself–the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989 and the empire in 1991. Anyway, after the Soviet withdrawal Afghanistan was almost perpetually plagued by civil war until 2001. Here we may however leave Afghanistan and its history for a while for focusing, rather, on an important individual, namely the Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden.

 

Osama bin Laden, born in 1957, was rich and educated in engineering, economy and administration. He also had strong religious interests and was a devout Sunni Muslim. Immediately after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan he went there for taking part in the warring against the Soviet Union. Among others he helped in organizing the volunteer soldiers coming from other countries, and, being an engineer, he also took part in the building of roads and tunnels. And so, in 1988, he also took the first steps towards founding what was to become al-Qaeda. After the Soviet withdrawal he then returned to Saudi Arabia where he was received as a war hero. The harmonic relation between bin Laden and his own country did however not last long. The reason was Saudi Arabia’s reaction to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. For understanding that it may be beneficial to turn to Iraq and its history for a while.

 

Iraq has a population of about 34 million and practically all of them (99 %) are Muslims. And among the Muslims the Shiites, some 65-70 %, dominate. Then there is also an important ethnic division. Thus about 8 millions of the total population are Kurds. Going then to the country’s history it was independent even before the end of World War II and after the war it was at first, under the pro-British king Feisal II, west oriented. Then, in 1958, a group of officers ousted the king and took power. The officers could however not control conflicts among themselves and in 1968 the relatively secular Arabic nationalist Baath party took over. And so, in 1979, the strongman of that party, Saddam Hussein, made himself dictator. Thereby the interesting, latest history of Iraq started.

 

With large incomes from oil the country was a great regional power and Saddam Hussein started modernizing the economy, industry and education. The sharia law was abandoned and women’s rights extended. In 1980, however, Iraq also attacked Iran. The conflict between the two countries had several components. One was about the waterway leading to the Persian Gulf, the final part of the Euphrates-Tigris system, vital for Iraq but controlled by Iran. Another one about religion–Iran, the dominating Shiite power since its revolution in 1979, was criticizing Iraq for its secularism in general and for its maltreatment of its Shiite majority in particular. Iraq’s attack on Iran was at first successful but in 1982 Iran counterattacked and pushed deep into Iraq. The success of the counterattack did not persist however; the war dragged on, and finally, in 1988, Iran, exhausted, accepted a cease-fire. After the war against Iran Saddam Hussein tried to persuade other oil-producing countries, and in particular Kuwait, to decrease their production and thereby to increase the price of oil. He did however not succeed and therefore, in 1990, invaded and annexed Kuwait.

 

And now we will return to Osama bin Laden. He had, we remember, returned as a war hero to Saudi Arabia in 1989 and soon after that, in 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. In that situation the Saudis, as well as others, thought about the possibility that the Iraqi forces, unless stopped, might continue into Saudi Arabia, and so the US president, George Bush (president 1989-93) initiated an international response. US forces together with other western and Arabian troops were invited to Saudi Arabia where they assembled close to the border to Kuwait. Then, in 1991, after Iraq’s refusal to withdraw, they executed operation Desert Storm and drove away all Iraqi forces from Kuwait. They stopped however at that and no efforts were made to go further into Iraq and to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

 

Now, the use of Saudi’s territory for stationing US and other hated western troops prior to the attack was utterly disgusting for Osama bin Laden. He first criticized the royal family harshly and then declared his goal to overthrow it and create an Islamic republic. His Saudi Arabian citizenship was withdrawn and, in 1991, he moved to the northern, mostly Islamic, part of Sudan. (Sudan was by that time not yet divided into the two states of Sudan and South Sudan). There he assisted in road building but also turned into an important and dedicated terrorist and developed and strengthened the al-Qaeda organization. And now the terrorist attacks of al-Qaeda also started. In December 1992 a hotel in Yemen was bombed. In February 1993 a truck bomb was detonated at the World Trade Center in New York. In August 1998 the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were bombed. In October 2000 a US warship was bombed. And so, on September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center in New York and Pentagon in Washington D.C. were attacked. All of this is important since here we meet, for the first time, a Muslim warring organization which operates internationally over large areas. With Mujahedin, the other organization we have met so far, it was not so. Its activities were limited to Afghanistan and areas in Pakistan close to the border to Afghanistan.

 

Before the last attacks mentioned above, in 1996, Osama-bin Laden had however been expelled from Sudan–he was accused of having taken part in a conspiracy to murder Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak–and returned to Afghanistan. And there, in 1994, a new jihadist organization, the Taliban, had been created by Mullah Mohammed Omar. The purpose–to fight the Afghani communists who remained strong after the Soviet withdrawal–was successful, and Kabul, the capital, was taken in 1996. But even so Mullah Omar, as a person, was very different from Osama bin Laden. He was shy and withdrawn, his education was limited to the Koran, and his militant activities were confined to Afghanistan and some Pakistani areas close to Afghanistan. Because of all this his relation to bin Laden, after the latter’s return to Afghanistan in 1996, was at first somewhat restrained. Mullah Omar disliked, for instance, bin Laden’s and al-Qaeda’s external, international activities. But that was to change. Their relationship gradually improved even if bin Laden, by means of al-Qaeda, continued his terrorist actions from Afghanistan. As we have seen above there was an attack on US embassies in 1998, on a US warship in 2000, and so in 2001, the 11th September attack on World Trade Center and Pentagon.

 

Immediately after these September attacks the US president George W. Bush (president 2001-9) required the Taliban government to hand over Osama-bin Laden and close all terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Then, and following the Taliban refusal, US air forces together with NATO allies and Afghan ground forces in opposition to the Taliban attacked and overthrow the regime. A large number of al-Qaeda activists, although not bin Laden, were captured or killed. This was the first operation in a set of activities that were to continue, and which George W. Bush called the war on terror. After the toppling of the Taliban regime efforts to democratize the country began and a new government, led by President Hamid Karzai, was installed. And thereby a new era, though certainly not without its own serious problems, in Afghanistan’s history began.

 

I will soon return to Afghanistan but prior to that the development in, and related to, Iraq should be dealt with. There, we remember, the Western powers, in 1991, had executed Operation Desert Storm which however stopped at the border between Kuwait and Iraq. The next important event is the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 by troops from the US, Britain and some other countries. The initiative came from the US president George W. Bush and the attack was considered as a continuance of the war on terror even if the main reason was the allegation that Iraq had, and was hiding, weapons of mass destruction (biological, chemical and nuclear). In spite of the failure of UN-inspectors to find any such weapons the US, supported by Britain, still insisted that the weapons were there. And so, ignoring the vetoes of France, Germany and Russia in the UN Security Council, they attacked on their own. No weapons of mass destruction were however found but even so the operation, at first, was considered successful by President Bush. Saddam Hussein and many of his officials were captured and–in the same way as in Afghanistan–efforts to turn Iraq into a democracy were initiated. But soon various problems, to which I will return, emerged.

 

We have now followed the developments in Afghanistan and Iraq until the western invasions in 2001 and 2003 respectively, both initiated by George W. Bush. So let us now look at the further developments. I will start with Afghanistan.

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