Books: Flirtation with our Satanic foe

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Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism

by John Cooley

Pluto pounds 20

The CIA and its allies, Britain among them, were excellent teachers. They showed how to use anti-aircraft missiles and armour-piercing weapons, how best to stab and strangle. They taught demolition, arson and industrial sabotage. They explained sophisticated fuses, timers, explosives and remote- control devices. They lectured on counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics and paramilitary operations, on deception, ruse and evasion. And when the war was over, they saw it all come home to roost as an army of almost 250,000 Islamic mercenaries, recruited to drive the Soviet army out of Afghanistan, found new battlefields on which to deploy its hard-won skills.

A decade after the Soviet army admitted defeat in Afghanistan, it is no secret that much of the instability and terrorism bedevilling the post-communist world has its roots in the extraordinary anti-communist alliance forged by the United States in Afghanistan. The devil of John Cooley's unsettling book is in the detail; the detail not only of how the CIA planned and ran this "holy war" hand-in-glove with radical Islam, but how Britain connived in an alliance that began as a flirtation, developed into a serious affair and ended in tears - with Afghanistan in ruins, in thrall to the monstrous Taliban, and Afghan veterans spreading Islamic militancy across a swathe of countries from Egypt and Algeria to Chechnya and China.

Unholy Wars does not seek to explain why the veterans found fertile ground in Algeria, why Chinese Uighurs returning from Afghanistan turned their guns against China, or why the West should now live under a permanent cloud of terrorism. But it is a persuasive argument against one-night stands in international alliances and makes clear that there will be an intolerable price to pay if Islam replaces communism as the next "Satanic foe".

The price of the West's proxy war in Afghanistan has already been huge. Hundreds of lives have been lost in terrorist attacks; faithful allies like President Anwar Sadat of Egypt have been murdered. But it could have been, and still could be, much worse. Cooley discloses that weapons procurers for Osama bin Laden, the construction tycoon turned holy warrior/terrorist, were ordered in the early Nineties to buy components for nuclear weapons with which to attack US forces in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia.

Like Nato's war in Kosovo, the proxy war in Afghanistan required no commitment of ground troops. It appeared, at the time, as a risk-free strategy. Older and wiser after Vietnam (or so it thought), America handed over the daily running of the war to Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence Directorate, which, like the CIA itself, gave bin Laden free rein in Afghanistan. No wonder that American missiles found bin Laden's Afghan camps so easily when Washington sought revenge for the bombings of its Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassies: the camps had been designed by the CIA at a time when bin Laden was on our side.

Fighters from across the Moslem world flocked for training in America, in Pakistan's tribal north-west and, as the war progressed, in Afghanistan itself. Arms poured in from friend and, indirectly, foe - beginning with ancient Soviet weaponry and ending with one of the deadliest and most desirable anti-aircraft missiles ever developed: the Stinger. Financing came from American taxpayers, Arab oil states, the massively fraudulent Bank of Credit and Commerce International, bin Laden himself and the fabulous profits of drugs lords.

To help finance the war, the CIA and its allies tolerated - and, according to some of Coley's sources, facilitated - the rise of the biggest drugs empires outside Colombia. Pakistan and Afghanistan are today the largest centres of heroin production in the world, accounting for some 500 tons by 1997. World production of heroin in the late 1990s is 10 times what it was in the 1970s. The purity of the drug sold on the streets has increased sixteenfold.

The history of Britain's participation in this most unholy of wars can be traced back to a car park in Washington DC. It is 1982 and Britain is at war with Argentina. Under cover of darkness British diplomats are taking delivery of Stinger missiles from American officials violating their own government's ban on the transfer of high-tech weapons. Soon Stingers are shooting down Argentinian fighter-bombers and saving British lives. In return for helping Margaret Thatcher win back the Falklands, CIA director William Casey seeks and obtains British help for the Afghan campaign. Veterans of the Special Air Services and the improbably named Keenie-Meenie Services, an outcrop of Control Risks, train Islamic recruits - with the approval, Cooley says, of the Foreign Office. Intercepts from GCHQ in Cheltenham inform the trainers of the latest Soviet moves and enable them to adjust their step.

Exactly a decade after the anti-communist alliance triumphed in Afghanistan, a new mercenary army has been fighting in a new war unleashed by the West. Although there are unconfirmed reports that America has supported the Kosovo Liberation Army with specialist weapons, there is no whisper of any British contribution. Yet Nato gave encouragement to the KLA, lending it air support in the final weeks of the war, and now finds itself confronting another ally unwilling to surrender its weapons. With nothing in the final agreement to give the KLA the independent Kosovo it wants, there is already concern that a new backlash is in the making.

The rag-tag army of the KLA cannot be compared - except, perhaps, in dedication to its cause - to Afghanistan's holy warriors. But the problems it poses bear out the truth of Cooley's warning that "when you decide to go to war against your enemy, take a good, long look at the people you chose as your friends, allies or mercenary fighters. Look well to see whether these allies have unsheathed their knives - and are pointing them at your own back."