by David Dienstag
Some ten years ago, I had a conversation with a senior official from the NSA about Afghanistan. I had returned from there in 1988 and before that, had been a research analyst for one of the activist groups then supporting the Afghans against the Russians. I did my best to warn him of the influence of Wahabis and Ikhwanis in Peshawar and Afghanistan. His reaction was dismissive. "Oh, there are only a few hundred there", was his response. I had no solid number for them but I thought that there were a great many more and that they had a very dangerous agenda. This notion was universally held then as it is now and it is a grave error.

To this day virtually all analysts and writers from Michael Scheuer to Robin Wright start their chronologies of Al Qaeda in the nineties. They continually ignore events before the nineties as unimportant. It is a serious mistake. I was in Afghanistan and Pakistan when the Jihadis first coagulated. I understood then and there that the Afghan conflict was the war on which the millennium turned. There were many signs of things to come. For many years, this has been a deeply frustrating situation for me. I saw an attack like 9/11 coming over a decade before it actually happened. I did try to warn people about it but could not overcome an intellectual stasis that persists to this day. Now as we try to sort out an unclear Islamic threat, young Americans are dying. It will continue until we get serious about who our adversaries really are. Right after 9/11, most analysts were "prescient" if they knew that this had been the work of Al Qaeda. In time, some have come to understand that there is a greater Jihadi movement. But the money for the most serious attacks on the U.S. has come from members of the Wahabi sect in Saudi Arabia. They have consistently propagated and financed hatred for America since well before Al Qaeda ever hatched.

Our Jihadist adversaries have been a gestating idea since well before the nineties. This is a poorly understood part of the problem. We are fighting a much different adversary than is commonly understood. If we continue to characterize our adversary as Osama or Zarqawi, we deprive ourselves of opportunities to defeat and destroy them. Let's look at four different common ways this adversary has been described:

1. Osama Bin Laden
2. Al Qaeda
3. "The Evil Ones"
4. "Terrorism"

1. Osama Bin Laden is most certainly a dangerous menace who lives and breathes to destroy the United States and murder as many Americans as he possibly can. I have believed this since 1988, and I believe this is why a friend of mine, Carlos Mavroleon, was murdered. Osama is credited with and takes responsibility for financing Al Qaeda in the early days.

I don't believe that Osama financed Al Qaeda as much as he is commonly believed to. I saw some of the "caves" that he had dug in 1988 and it would have cost the kind of money that Federal road projects are budgeted for. He did not have to personally finance them because it was easy to raise money from the worldwide Islamic community. He certainly had other options and personal financing is not the most efficient way to go about this from a political as well as a financial perspective. When you get people to donate to your cause, you further cement your relationship with them by allowing them to feel like more of a part of your movement.

Nor is Osama the "Great Man" that Michael Schuyer portrays him as. Osama is a madman who exists because he found himself to be in the right historical circumstance to get away with a megalomaniacal fantasy. There are a lot of madmen sitting around waiting for the right opportunity in this world. Few get as good a shot as Osama did. Look at Ward Churchill. If he had an Afghanistan to hide in and an international fundraising mechanism to sustain him, would it be far-fetched to posit that he might appoint himself as fearless leader of a violent "revolutionary" guerrilla force? I think not.

Continually various news "experts" talk about world events as if they are driven by great people or great leaders and little else. It is a mistake and it is the kind of perception that revolutions and revolutionaries take great advantage of. Revolutionaries tend to have a better understanding of the simple fact that they are surfing on a groundswell. They also tend to be very aware of the ambitious men all around every leader who are ready to seize power from that leader by force if necessary or even convenient.

When Osama needed to hide, there was enough depth on the Al Qaeda bench for other leaders to step in and sustain the movement. The Jihadi doesn't need Osama that badly and he will make a fine martyr one day. He may well be more effective as a martyr than as a leader. In any case, the Jihadist movement seems to be doing just fine without his money or his rhetoric. There are plenty of young volunteers. There are plenty of leaders trying to recruit and train young men for any number of Jihadist organizations. There is plenty of money. A major goal of each Jihadist organization, Hamas, Al Qaeda, etc., is to bring in as many new young men as possible. I think that the most telling words came from Osama himself. Shortly after 9/11, in a video seen around the world, he takes responsibility for the attack, describes how they thought that the towers would break rather than collapse and earnestly asks a very telling question: "How many brothers are volunteering in the mosques?" I wonder if Al Qaeda has more chiefs than it has Indians. In any case, Osama clearly expressed a need for more recruits. You may aspire to be a "Great Man", but if you can't get enough young bodies, you're a nut in a cave with a video camera whose best days are behind him.

2. Al Qaeda, as an organization, is the product of Ikhwan, Wahabism , Pakistani ISI as well as Saudi intelligence efforts. In the early days, the former two had an international vision while the latter two were more regional. In 1988, I ran into quite a few early volunteers in Peshawar. At that time, there was no Al Qaeda to speak of. But there was a growing Arab awareness of each other and there was a commonality of vision. Even then, they made little effort to disguise their intentions. Defeat the Russians first and go after America next. They said as much to me in Jalez and Peshawar.

The volunteers were a mixed bag of Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Yemenis and Syrians that I know of. They were from very different classes. Some were obviously from wealthy backgrounds and some were very poor. They also had different takes on the people who were training, organizing and feeding them. I met and talked to one Saudi who decided to go home before he finished his training. He was disillusioned by what he saw. I regularly saw another volunteer in the dining room of Green's Hotel frequently making a nuisance of himself by making impossible demands on the dining room staff, protesting vigorously when they couldn't satisfy his expensive tastes. We used to call him the "Saudi Shrimp" because he was enormous and made a commotion one night when he demanded shrimp from a frightened waiter even though it was not on the menu."Are there no prawns in Peshawar?" he bellowed. I realized later that this insufferable jackass was none other than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who helped finance the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and the "principal architect of the 9/11 attacks" according to the 9/11 Commission. It was my impression then and it still is today that many of these volunteers are misfits who can find nowhere else to fit in. By no means do I mean to suggest all of them are. I did meet earnest, decent young men among the early volunteers. What interests me is the difference between them as a possible source of cracks in the organization. God-fearing, self-respecting people tend to be turned off by the kind of buffoons I often saw in Peshawar.

I am convinced that not everyone who went through Jihadi training program bought into the whole Islamist Caliphate nonsense and some may have had agendas of their own. A young medical student from Egypt who I met among the Jihadis, will find out, sooner or later, that he will want more than a cave to live in.

Again, I remind the reader of Osama's concern about recruitment of "brothers" in the mosques. Unfortunately, too many analysts are looking at the personalities of various Jihadi leaders and not looking for opportunities closer to the ground level of their organizations. I saw signs of many drop-outs and less enthusiastic Jihadis. If Wahabi generosity shrinks, how effective will Al Qaeda be in Pakistan?

3. President Bush's characterization of Al Qaeda as the "evil ones" is on the right track but vague. It says more about George Bush than it does about Al Qaeda or the Jihadi movement. During the first presidential campaign, a minor fuss was created when a reporter asked candidate George Bush who the leaders of Pakistan and India were. He didn't have an answer and he seemed annoyed. Within days, the unhappy reporter was accused of practicing "gotcha journalism". In my opinion, it was one of the smartest questions of the campaign. Knowing the importance of the region and seeing a candidate's lack of knowledge speaks to his understanding of that region as president. It is not reassuring. The term "evil ones" does point to something important. It is an explanation of the motives of Al Qaeda leadership in the terminology of personality theory and morality rather than political or religious ideology. But it is still only an understanding of the movement as a monolithic entity. There have to be factions within it. I can find no "expert" discussion of what those divisions may be. Nationality, class, and any of the 1001 versions of Islam offer real opportunities to identify and exploit.

It is inadequate to lump together all of Al Qaeda and its supporters as merely evil. They have an agenda or agendas which no one has adequately identified. I continually hear seemingly intelligent people bleating on about the presence of U.S. soldiers on the Arabian peninsula as being the casus belli for Al Qaeda. The very idea is stupid. For one thing, Islamic looney tunes were painting "Death to America" in Peshawar long before American soldiers were in Saudi Arabia. For another, no revolution will point to some attainable goal after which they will simply go home. Revolutions and revolutionaries need to perpetuate themselves or they are out of business. If next week, all American soldiers were to pull out of Iraq and the Saudi monarchy were to hand the reins of power to Al Qaeda, does anyone seriously believe that the revolutionaries will become peaceful members of the world community?

The Jihadi movement is a systematic organization of hatred with America as the primary focus of that hatred. Its stated goals of creating caliphates and defeating America are so remotely plausible that they appear more like conveniently unobtainable goals that provide a self-perpetuating raison d'etre.

4. Terrorism is an overused word. It is a method, not a movement. The people who twice attacked the World Trade Center were only one crew of terrorists. They are not Hamas, PLO, Shining Path or Red Brigades. All Poodles are dogs. All dogs are not necessarily Poodles. It still amazes me that no one has thought to find and exploit differences between these organizations.

Unfortunately, these four terms are often used interchangeably in both the media and in government. Media and government seem to be far more comfortable talking about specific political actors. They focus on Osama, Zarqawi, Zawahiri or any of a dozen or so individuals on the terrorist Most Wanted list. These names have become something like the characters of a soap opera. But this is a movement that defines itself as revolutionary. It is best understood from the ground up. No one in our foreign policy senior leadership seems to want to give this rule its proper importance. It's like a mental disease among them. They simply will not leave plush, air conditioned surroundings to deal with the dusty, gritty reality of Afghanistan. Case in point: Milt Bearden CIA chief of station, Peshawar, 1986-1989.

I saw Milt Bearden on TV last year as a member of a panel discussion about Afghanistan (where he was introduced as a former CIA station chief. I'm not blowing any covers here.) One of the things he said was a rather insulting comment to the effect that those of us who saw Massoud and the Jamiat as a much-abused ally in the Afghan guerrilla alliance as a "Robin Hood". This is fatuously wrong. What could be seen clearly from a good journey into Afghanistan was that the Jamiat and Massoud were far more capable at making effective alliances with other guerrilla factions. They had to because they didn't have the numbers to act as a monolithic ethnic force in the way that Hekmatyar and the Hezbi Islami did. It's also very clear in the CIA's own ethnographic map of Afghanistan. There is a heavy Pashtun dominance all along the Durand Line. As you go further west and north, the various other ethnic components of Afghanistan become more of a patch quilt of Tajiks, Turkmen, Hazaras, etc. For Massoud, it was essential to make accommodations with various other political factions in the resistance. While there were frictions, they became more prominent after the Soviet withdrawal. They still managed to pull together to fight the Taliban and became known as the "Northern Alliance". What I liked about the Massoud's Jamiat was that they could work with other factions more effectively as an equal partner than Hekmatyar's Hizbis. I saw this ability to work with other factions as a very good thing for the end game in Afghanistan, after the Soviet pullout. The CIA and State Dept saw something very different and played no endgame at all.

It seemed to be another situation where you can win a war and lose the peace. Whenever that happens, it's time to examine the competence of your diplomats and intelligence officers.

Somewhere, I saw a picture of station chief Bearden "in Afghanistan". He looks plump. I can tell you from experience, that if you went trekking with Afghans into their country, you will lose weight in a hurry from sheer physical exertion if not from a few microbial passengers. The climate, altitude and food are a great way to drop many pounds. Afghans could make a fortune running fat farms. But you do have to get out of your air conditioned Toyota and live in conditions somewhat less like the safaris the CIA was famous for. Fatuous living leads to fatuous thinking. Mr. Bearden seemed far more interested in maintaining a personal relationship with the leadership of Pakistan. The "strategy" for Afghanistan was to buy a lot of weapons and give them to the Pakistanis to disperse to the guerrillas. I am reminded of an old Tom Lehrer song about German V2 scientist Werner Von Braun:

"Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down?

That's not my department, Says Werner Von Braun."

That's the way the CIA handed out arms in the eighties.

The Pakistanis took those weapons and gave them out heavily favoring the most virulent anti western faction in the Afghan resistance, the Hezbi-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Alternative means and distributions like direct air supply, were fought vigorously by the CIA. That would mean having to work hard and take risks. Not only did the CIA refuse to have people in country in any serious numbers, they didn't even go outside of their compounds in Pakistan enough to see what was happening right around the corner. They simply refused to read the handwriting on the wall. In a place like Pakistan, graffiti matters.

Instead diplomats, congressmen and CIA officers preferred a patrician to patrician relationship with their Pakistani counterparts who recognized this as a golden opportunity to take advantage of. The Saudis and the Pakistanis did the same thing. They told the CIA whatever they thought the CIA wanted to hear while continually feeding a cobra that was to bite us at the twin towers on 9/11. It is very reminiscent of the operational modality of the CIA before the Shah was overthrown. Ignore the street and concentrate on rulers.

What was consistently missed was the information readily available to anyone who cared to look. This is a very old pattern with State Dept. and CIA employees. No one, it seems, will address this gigantic weakness. Entire revolutions can spawn right in front of them and they will be caught completely off guard. They seem to think that they can carry out a foreign policy by remote control. Somehow, in some way, American diplomats and intelligence officers need to stop hobnobbing exclusively with patricians, dictators and the leadership class and learn to read the handwriting on the wall.

Graffiti is public diplomacy that matters.