The report showed exclusive footage of a Taliban group in northern Afghanistan where foreign fighters, whom Al Jazeera’s Sue Turton called al-Qaeda, are bolstering the local forces. Turton interviewed ISAF spokesperson Brig. Gen. Chris Whitecross. Upon being asked about the identity of the outsiders strengthening the Taliban in Afghanistan’s north -- a clear tactical counter-weight to ISAF’s presence in the south -- Whitecross spoke without hesitation: “That means al-Qaeda and foreign fighters.”
Given that the current war in the Hindu Kush was supposedly caused by Sept. 11 and that allied action in Afghanistan still aims to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda,” to use President Barack Obama’s alliterative war mantra, it is interesting to note the ease with which foreigners joining the Taliban jihad against the ISAF occupation are termed “al-Qaeda.” As such, this recent development, arguably scooped by Al Jazeera, shows the way in which the war effort in Afghanistan has come full circle in the space of 30 years.
On Dec. 25, 1979, Soviet forces officially entered Afghanistan in an effort to support the Communist regime led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The Communists had seized power in April 1978 during the so-called Saur Revolution when Afghanistan’s first president, Mohammed Daud Khan, who had himself seized power in a bloodless coup in 1973, was killed. The Communist government in Kabul was highly unpopular in the conservative countryside and prone to fall prey to yet another coup or even an armed insurrection.
Supporting one’s neighbor
As a result, the Soviets deployed their troops to support a friendly regime in its southern neighbor. The director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation, Barnett Rubin, argues in his book “The Fragmentation of Afghanistan” (1995) that the Soviets had primarily entered Afghanistan with the aim of establishing a key position in Asia, one with trade possibilities and access to Gulf oil. But once the Soviets had installed themselves in the country, they “imposed military and social reforms that began to make enemies within different sectors of the indigenous population,” as related by journalist Sehrish Shaban. Afghanistan as a landlocked country in the Hindu Kush mountains is home to a whole host of different ethnic groups professing adherence to Islam. Islam thus really functions as the single unifying factor in Afghanistan, and as a benchmark of Afghan identity.
The type of Islam practiced in the Afghan mountainside tends to be rather conservative and grounded in local tribal traditions and attitudes. As a result, the Soviets’ proposed “military and social reforms” could not but engender hostility among “different sectors of the indigenous population.” This resentment grew and grew into a fully fledged call for a jihad against the unbelievers -- the Soviets being notoriously atheist.
Nowadays the term jihad is much bandied about and used and/or abused at will by Muslims as well as non-Muslims the world over. The historian and Islam specialist Mark Sedgwick maintains that the concept of jihad was developed in the eighth century, when it basically functioned as a “mixture of the Army Regulations and the Geneva Conventions, appropriate for the circumstances of the time.” At the time of the Islamic conquests (seventh-eighth centuries), the world was divided between the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the House of War (Dar al-Harb) and international relations between both spheres were primarily military in nature. But as the centuries progressed and relations between Muslims and the outside world achieved a quasi-peaceful status quo, punctuated by commercial exchanges and trade links, the idea of jihad changed as well. There is the well-known distinction between the greater jihad (al-jihad al-akbar) and the lesser jihad (al-jihad al-asghar), between a personal struggle in the way of Allah (crf. Surah 29:69) and an armed struggle to protect believers against oppression and violence perpetrated by unbelievers. In other words, jihad evolved from a code of war into a defensive mechanism, tantamount to a religious duty leading to religious rewards. In Afghanistan during the 1980s, the protection of the land from Soviet occupation warranted the execution of a jihad by locals and other sympathetic believers willing to participate in a meritorious act proving one’s commitment in the way of Allah (al-jihad al-asghar).
The US joins in
But what about the Soviets’ main rival, the United States? Were they but passive observers of these weird scenes in the mountains? A few years ago, Hollywood reminded the world of the activities of US Congressman Charles Wilson, whom The New Yorker foreign correspondent Mary Anne Weaver called “one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the jihad on Capitol Hill.” The Hollywood movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” detailed Wilson’s role in organizing and financing the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviets throughout the 1980s. The Reagan administration, in conjunction with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, actively supported the mujahedeen fighting the Evil Empire. In 1985, US President Ronald Reagan even entertained the notorious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as well as other mujahedeen in the White House, calling them “valiant and courageous Afghan freedom fighters.” At the moment, still leading the Hezb-i-Islami, Hekmatyar continues to fight -- this time, his enemies are the US and ISAF forces, however. Back in the 1980s, in struggling for their country’s freedom, not just Afghans volunteered freely, but also militants from nearly 30 counties participated in this jihad; these foreigners were collectively known as “Afghan Arabs.” And now apparently, the unending war in Afghanistan has come full circle. Today’s mujahedeen, known as the Taliban, again seem to enjoy the support and fighting power of non-Afghan militants. The Taliban and these non-Afghan militants, whom ISAF refers to as “al-Qaeda and foreign fighters,” are once again engaged in a jihad to drive an occupying force of unbelievers from Afghan soil -- but this time, these unbelievers are Americans and their allies.
*Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a broad interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the wider Middle East. His publications include the book “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles.