07 October 2021, The Tablet

Fostering jihad

US foreign policy

Fostering jihad

Smoke rises after a rocket attack on Kabul by the Afghan mujahideen in April 1988 that killed two young sisters.
Photos: Alamy/Planetpix


In its catastrophic Afghan war, the United States posed as a defender of democracy and the rights of women, and a protector of religious minorities. But behind this facade lay an insatiable military machine with a long-standing record of supporting militant Islamist fundamentalism

As American forces scrambled to complete their shambolic evacuation from Kabul, news broke that the head of the CIA, William Burns, had actually flown into the Afghan capital to meet a senior Taliban figure, Abdul Ghani Baradar, on 24 August. Three weeks later, he returned to the region for a less-publicized meeting with the head of ISI, Pakistan’s all-powerful intelligence agency, Faiz Hameed, in which they discussed the creation of the Taliban regime’s new intelligence agency. But there was nothing novel about these encounters. There is a long history of CIA engagement with extremist Islamist organisations, as we can see from one long-forgotten incident in an earlier Afghan war.

On a chilly morning early in 1988, Ed McWilliams, a Foreign Service officer posted to the US Embassy in Kabul, heard a massive explosion from the other side of the city. It was more than eight years after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and the embassy was a tiny enclave with only a handful of diplomats. McWilliams, a former Army intelligence operative, had made it his business to venture as much as possible into the Soviet-occupied capital. Now he set out to see what had happened.

It was obviously something big: although the explosion had taken place on the other side of Sher Darwaza, a mountain in the centre of Kabul, McWilliams had heard it clearly. After negotiating a maze of narrow streets on the south side of the city, he found the site. A massive car bomb, designed to kill as many civilians as possible, had been detonated in a neighbourhood full of Hazaras, a much-persecuted Shia minority.

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