Unfinished 9/13/01
This essay was written while the fires at the twin towers were still burning

by David Dienstag


As a result of the recent attacks on the U.S. by terrorists, a lot of examination is going to be aimed at Afghanistan to understand why these attacks came about. It has always been believed that somehow what has happened could never happen. The root causes, meanings and implications will be the topic of some debate. However, most analysts agree that this attack is the work of Osama Bin Laden. They are likely correct. Circumstantially, there are indications that point to him.

1. Most analysts agree that his organization has the funds and the reach to pull this off. They tend to ignore the attendant implication that this is a pan-Islamic Jihadi vision. It is multinational in its recruitment, its vision, and its targeting. This is a crucial element in looking at the present Afghan predicament.

2. On Sunday, a bomb went off killing Ahmad Shah Massoud, the critical military leader of the Northern Alliance in opposition to the Taliban, now hosting Osama. Both Osama and Massoud had exchanged death threats over the years. The assassination was probably a move to neutralize the biggest threat in the region to his stronghold. If the U.S. had been attacked and Massoud was around, policy makers would almost certainly look seriously at Mr. Massoud as the ablest military force to effectively challenge the Taliban and Osama.

3. Osama has targeted the World Trade Center before. When Ramzi Yousef was being flown back to NY to face justice, an American law enforcement official pointed to the Center through the window and said: "See, it's still standing". Yousef replied: "Only because I didn't have enough money". Osama's organization may even be more interested in attacking the United States than Israel and may have weakness for obsessing on some targets or objectives.

In the past only a vague, negative haze characterized the impression of Afghanistan. It has served policy makers poorly and we have learned horribly how the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach can turn around and bite us. But understanding the players in the Afghan civil war will help identify opportunities in the future.

The Players
1. The Taliban has long been identified as an extreme Deobandi Pashto Islamic movement dreaming of a "pure Islamic state" but lacking global ambitions other than rhetorical. Its evidently appalling notion of how civil society works is demonstrated by its inept civil government which is now alienating many within the jurisdiction of its rule. Moreover, morale among Taliban troops has sagged and they are becoming less reliable or aggressive in combat. While most of its subjects are self-subsistent and outside of a real cash economy, Taliban leadership earns its money from "road taxes", sympathetic Pakistani organizations, and Saudi (Wahabi) generosity. Traditionally, they have fought for roads and territory through which to lay pipeline carrying oil and natural gas from the North which they would tax. This is a traditional approach in that Afghanistan has been a crossroad from the time of Marco Polo and before. This is a country where, in the best of times, very small scale economic activities have had a profound impact. Road tolls are disproportionately important and an extra road block set up by a rogue warlord here or there is cause for serious conflict.

2. The forces of Osama Bin Laden by contrast, are much more aggressively focused on an international vision that has haunted Islam for centuries in spite of the fact that there is a rich history of catastrophe associated with it. They have been gaining strength in numbers, discipline and resources since the end of the Soviet occupation and the withdrawal of American interest in the region. Over the years, they have fought along side the Taliban and are believed to supply the Taliban's best troops in the fight against Massoud and the Northern Alliance.

The popular explanation of funding for their pan-Islamic movement has been that they are funded by Osama. This observer believes that explanation is incomplete for two reasons. There are now between 8,000 and 12,000 of them. (Tony Davis, Jane's Intelligence Review) In addition, the original Arab contingents that appeared in Afghanistan in the late eighties were supported by the Saudi Wahabis who raised money by donation in mosques around the world. This second likely source of support would explain much of their behavior. Symbolic gestures and romantic appeals to Islamic ascendancy have worked well for Hamas, an Iranian supported mirror movement. The killing of Americans generates free candy in the streets in some parts of the Arab world. It also generates larger donations and generosity. As Osama's forces become larger and more expensive to maintain, his targets become more sensational.

Additionally, this observer dares to speculate that there has been a connection to the Saudi intelligence community for a long time. As far back as 1988, Saudi commanders in Afghanistan were in possession of satellite images of battlefields as far away as Basra. Trying to guess the source of those images has been fertile ground for speculation but they certainly were not from any guerrilla source in any case. This connection however is also very likely to be Wahabi influenced and has another implication.

Osama has always maintained his hostility toward the present ruling family in Saudi Arabia. However, he also can be seen as an extension of Saudi foreign policy and is, therefore, tolerated by them to a limited extent. His connection to anti-Russian Chechen jihadis may well serve to help block oil export from rich FSU fields and force continued world dependency or partial dependency on Middle Eastern oil sources. However, it is believed by this observer, Saudi support for Osama in any guise is highly controversial. An interesting report has surfaced that the head of Saudi Intelligence has resigned today.

In any case, it can be said that Osama's mission has a far broader scope and vision than that of the Taliban. This is important because it reveals a vital weakness in his position. There is a schism developing that can be exploited. As the Taliban lose their grip on the country, through incompetent governance, rotting military power and challenges from a resurgent opposition, Osama gains importance and strength on Afghan soil. The assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud is a sign of Osama's insecurity with regard to his base of operations.