AS SOON as news broke last week of the devastation in the United States, Osama Bin Laden was proclaimed the number one suspect. Afghanistan was dubbed a 'rogue state' and has been accused of harbouring terrorists.
Some commentators and politicians demanded military assaults to 'sort out' Afghanistan and its Taliban regime. Yet the same Western leaders who today condemn the Afghan government backed it until recently, and provided the arms and finance the Taliban needed to seize power. Afghanistan's history is of a country destroyed by the system and by outside intervention.
Afghanistan escaped formal colonial subjugation in the 19th century. But the country was hemmed in by the Russian Empire to the north and the British Empire, which controlled what are today Pakistan and India, to the south and east. Afghanistan was on the frontier of a struggle between those two empires for control of the vast Central Asian region. Just before becoming viceroy of India in 1898, Lord Curzon wrote of Afghanistan and its neighbours, 'I confess they are pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for the domination of the world.' The struggle was called the Great Game.
The end of the Second World War brought a new struggle for domination. The British Empire crumbled. India achieved independence in 1947, only to be partitioned into India and Pakistan. Afghanistan was one of the countries ground between the two superpower blocks, centred on the US and Russia, during the Cold War.
A royal family held power through links with local leaders, landlords and military figures who had a power base in different areas of the country. It was desperately poor, but with a thin layer of big landowners. A succession of governments made attempts at industrialisation and development.
But they never offered significant change for the vast majority of the population, and succeeded only in fuelling the tensions between different groups in the ruling class and across the country. In 1979 a pro-Russian government that had come to power the year before began to break up.
Various armed Islamic groups stepped up their campaigns to seize control of remote parts of the country. Afghanistan slid towards civil war. Then the superpowers stepped in and poured petrol on the flames. Russia sent troops into Afghanistan in December 1979 to prop up its client government.
The US threw its weight behind the assorted Afghan forces ranged against Russia. Through its allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it poured $500 million of military aid behind the rebels in 1980. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher spoke of the 'brave Afghan struggle for freedom'.
The war devastated the country and hundreds of thousands fled. Many urban supporters of the government grew to hate its dependence on Russia, and went over to the Mujahadeen rebels. Russia was finally forced to withdraw in 1988 and 1989. The loose Mujahadeen coalition of Islamic groups seized the capital, Kabul, in April 1992.
By then, with almost a quarter of the population in refugee camps and the country in ruins, the US and the West had cut off all aid. The US had found $3 billion to finance war, but not a penny to rebuild the country. The Mujahadeen split. A group backed by Iran took control of Kabul. America and Saudi Arabia backed a rival group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. It bombarded Kabul, and 25,000 people died just as horrifically as those in New York last week. The group failed to take Kabul and fell apart.
The Taliban emerged in 1994. It took its ideology from the version of Islam practised by the Saudi ruling family. It was austere and concentrated the most oppressive features of rural societies. Within two years the Taliban went from a 30-strong guerrilla movement based in one area of southern Afghanistan to seize the capital. It won considerable support from the mass of people who were sickened by fighting and warlordism, and who were desperate for stability.
The Taliban also got the backing of the the US and its allies in the region. The Pakistani intelligence services helped arm the Taliban. A few months before the Taliban entered Kabul, a US State Department official said, 'You get to know them and you find they really have a great sense of humour.'
Hours after the Taliban took Kabul in September 1996, acting State Department spokesperson Glyn Davies said the US could see 'nothing objectionable'. The coldest of calculations lay behind the US policy. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had created five independent states in Central Asia. The early 1990s were awash with speculation that these states were sitting on huge reserves of oil and gas.
A top US commentator wrote that the Taliban's 'most important function was to provide security for roads and, potentially, oil and gas pipelines that would link the states of Central Asia to the international market through Pakistan rather than through Iran.'
Then the US did a U-turn. It feared the Taliban would encourage radical Islamist movements in other countries which could threaten US interests. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright signalled the shift in November 1997 with a typical display of hypocrisy. She got on her knees in front of Afghan children in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan and said, 'I'll never forget you-being here with you. I will do everything to help you and your country.' The US's only contribution since 1997 has been to bomb part of the country in 1998 in an ongoing attempt to kill Osama Bin Laden.
The US, Russia, European powers, oil multinationals and local rulers are playing a new Great Game which stretches from Turkey through Central Asia and Afghanistan to the western provinces of China. The men moving the chess pieces are hurling millions of people into poverty, with tens of thousands forced to flee from numerous civil wars. Violent intervention by Bush and Blair will only make matters worse and create more people ready to die to hit back at the West.
'What is more important in the world view of history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred up Muslims or the end of the Cold War?'
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, national security adviser to President Carter and mentor to Madeleine Albright, when the Taliban were useful to the US
They built him up, now they try to kill him
OSAMA BIN Laden was an ally of the US during the war against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The US state made him its key figure in its attempt to bring the Afghan resistance movement wholly under the West's control. Bin Laden was a personal friend of the rulers of the US's staunchest Arab ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia.
He built his guerrilla force in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan with the help of the secret police of Pakistan-the key pro-US state in Central Asia. The US now backed Bin Laden until its drive to dominate the whole of the Middle East forced him and others (for example, Saddam Hussein's Iraq) to turn against the US.
Osama Bin Laden inherited a fortune. He first visited Afghan rebel camps in Peshawar, western Pakistan, in 1980. Over the next two years he funnelled Saudi and US money to the Afghan resistance.