Published on Sunday, September 23, 2001 in the Boston Globe
US May Confront Its Own Arms, Experts Say
As US military planners prepare the final details of a retaliatory strike inside Afghanistan, they seem keenly aware of what's known in the intelligence community as ''blow-back.''
Defined as US-made weapons and military expertise that are turned against US troops, ''blow-back'' is a distinct possibility - perhaps an inevitability - in Afghanistan, according to US intelligence sources, military analysts and weapons specialists.
During the Cold War in the 1980s, billions in weaponry and military training was funneled by the CIA, through Pakistan, to the Afghans fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Out of that CIA-backed resistance emerged the Taliban, which today controls most of Afghanistan and the sprawling terrorist enterprise controlled by Osama bin Laden, whom the Taliban is believed to be harboring.
Equipment as crude as machine guns and as sophisticated as antiaircraft Stinger missiles are now believed to be in the hands of the Taliban regime's military, and quite possibly in the clutches of the heavily armed militias that surround Osama bin Laden.
If US forces undertake a ground operation, that US-supplied weaponry and training could cause US casualties.
''Is there concern about that? Yes,'' said an intelligence official in Washington. ''There are a lot of weapons awash in that part of the world, and they are American-made weapons, for sure, and lots of weapons made elsewhere.''
''Steps have been taken to try to get them under control, but we can never be certain,'' the official said, referring to the CIA's efforts to recover some of the more advanced weapons, such as the Stinger missiles, which are accurate, and which, if operational, could take down a US helicopter over Afghanistan. ''We cannot rule out the possibility that some might work.''
The Afghan resistance eventually ended up in a bloody civil war that left the country in ruins and resulted in the emergence of the Taliban, a group known for its centuries-old interpretation of Islamic Law. The Taliban's rise to power allowed bin Laden to sharpen his terrorist network known as Al Qaeda.
The weaponry and training in the 1980s fulfilled the US Cold War geopolitical strategy by helping the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union. The Soviet retreat in 1987, many historians say, may have presaged the Soviet collapse two years later.
The CIA-backed Afghan resistance included factions that now form the military of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It also included the brigades that gravitated to bin Laden. CIA officials insist that there was never any direct link to bin Laden.
''We did not have a relationship with bin Laden, despite reports and claims to the contrary,'' said the intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ''We did support the `mujahideen,' or `freedom fighters,''' as the Afghan resistance was called.
Other US officials remember bin Laden during that time.
''We knew who bin Laden was back then,'' said Milton Bearden, a former CIA station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, who directly facilitated the CIA funding of the mujahideen. ''But I stayed pretty much away from the crowd of Gulf Arabs who were doing the fund-raising in Peshawar,'' also in Pakistan. ''Our sense was to leave them alone. They were not a major part of the war.''
Some military analysts and specialists on the weapons trade say the CIA has spent years covering its tracks on its early ties to the Afghan forces. Those forces, they say, splintered after the Soviet Union collapsed. One piece mutated into the network of terrorists who became bin Laden's Al Qaeda, the group suspected in this month's attacks.
Despite the CIA's denials, these experts say it was inevitable that the military training in guerrilla tactics, and the vast reservoir of money and arms that the CIA provided in Afghanistan would have ended up helping bin Laden and his forces during the 1980s.
''Americans ought to learn about this phenomenon of blow-back because it is likely to end up killing Americans,'' said William Hartung, director of the World Policy Institute's Arms Trade Resource Center, and author of a 1996 book titled ''And Weapons for All.''
If blow-back does occur in Afghanistan, it will not be the first time US troops have faced it. In the post-Cold War era, where East-West tensions have been replaced by sectarian conflicts, almost every conflict involving the United States - Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Iraq, and Bosnia - US troops have faced US-made weapons. But the issue may not have been as pronounced there, analysts say, as it may be in Afghanistan.
US-made Stinger missiles, which were made by General Dynamics in the early 1980s, were given by the CIA to the Afghan resistance, and ''may still have utility,'' Hartung said.
US intelligence officials do not discount this possibility, but they argue that the sophisticated circuitry, wiring, and even batteries would have been very difficult to maintain over the years, especially in the country's harsh conditions.
The United States also provided radio field equipment, and some observers have voiced fear that this could assist Afghan forces in monitoring US military radio traffic.
''Stingers, antitank missiles, night-vision, early laser-guiding systems, military radio frequencies, all that stuff is going to come into play if the US sends ground troops,'' said Joseph Trento, a specialist on the international weapons trade for the National Security News Service in Washington. ''The CIA has been ducking this for years, and it is about to all come back to haunt them.''
There are other aspects of blow-back that may be aiding the Taliban and perhaps even bin Laden today, analysts said.
The web of secret bank accounts and organizations that the CIA established to fund the mujahideen, including charitable enterprises, may have given bin Laden a blueprint for how to fund his Al Qaeda terror network all over the world.
In a book published this year by Yale University Press, Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani investigative journalist, said that the very Afghan bases where bin Laden is believed to have trained his Qaeda network were built with covert CIA funding from the mid-1980s.
One camp in particular, near the region of Khost, has an elaborate network of tunnels where tanks and a cache of weapons could easily be stored. It is believed to be where bin Laden has been hiding out. The Clinton administration tried unsuccessfully to target bin Laden in this camp with cruise missles after the bombings at US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Another book, titled ''Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism'' by an ABC News investigative journalist, John Cooley, tells how the CIA helped the Taliban establish a network of Islamic schools that later became facilities to train terror networks, including Al Qaeda. The CIA used Muslim charities and mosques as fronts for recruitment of fighters in their war against the Soviet Union, according to Cooley, and bin Laden used that for Al Qaeda.
Bearden defended the CIA's role in Afghanistan.
''Everyone wants to jump on this and say the CIA screwed it up, but it wasn't that,'' he said. ''Should we not have gone into the Afghan thing? I don't think so. Look at what it led to, the end of the Soviet Union.''
Hartung, however, cautioned that the very operation that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union could have brought the terror that struck the United States. Of particular concern, Hartung said, was the possibility that US officials are now considering backing Afghanistan's Northern Alliance against the Taliban.