Setting the Record Straight on Operation Cyclone

Claims that the al-Qaeda founder worked for the CIA are demonstrably unfounded, but the facts behind the U.S.'s decade-long program to fund and arm the Afghan mujahideen are not much better.

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Last month, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Twitter account posted a short article on the FIM-92 Stinger, a surface-to-air missile system that has become a metonym for American assistance to Afghan guerrillas between 1979 and 1989. Some users on the site were quick to flippantly reply with "and then what happened?", with one of the implications of course being that this set off a chain of events that eventually bore the bitter fruit of the September 11th terrorist attacks by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, as well as the rise of their then-allies in Afghanistan, the Taliban. It has long been argued by critics of U.S. foreign policy that before he became an Emmanuel Goldstein-type figure, the very same bin Laden had in fact been a strategic asset in the United States’ Cold War-era proxy conflicts with the U.S.S.R., in particular the US aid to the mujahideen, the primarily Islamic militant resistance to the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, before he turned his sights on his former benefactors, with some going as far to state that the father of global jihadist violence was once on the payroll of the CIA. In other words, a classical case of what is known in intelligence circles as blowback.

Other commentators were in turn quick to emphasize the distinction between the admittedly variegated native-born Afghan mujahideen, the foreign mujahideen that would later go on to form the basis of al-Qaeda, and the ultra-conservative Taliban that would, beginning in the 1990s, become a the dominating force in Afghan politics and continue to remain influential up to and through the present day. It wasn’t, after all, Stinger missiles that took down the World Trade Center. Much ink has been spilled debating and assessing the consequences that American assistance to the mujahideen during the 1980s, known as Operation Cyclone, has had on global politics. While both retroactive defenders and critics of the program have made claims exaggerating respectively the benefits and costs of Cyclone, an objective look at the evidence gives more credence to the arguments of its detractors that Cyclone did far more harm than good and serve as a lesson of the limits of American power, even if some of the more dramatic claims remain spurious.

Afghanistan is not an Arab country

So how exactly did this all start in the first place? In December 1979, Soviet troops entered Afghanistan, ostensibly at the request of a sympathetic Afghan government seeking assistance in quelling internal unrest. Some analysts have argued that the United States in fact provoked the USSR into entering Afghanistan, namely by indirectly via Pakistan funding and training mujahideen to rebel against the Soviet-aligned Afghan government. Others, however, have argued that early US support for the mujahideen had little if any effect on the Soviet decision to intervene. Regardless, the entry of the USSR into Afghanistan marked the beginning of what is now known as the Soviet-Afghan War, between the USSR and the allied Afghan government, and anti-Soviet guerrillas known as mujahideen and their foreign backers.

A now-declassified memorandum to the President from National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski shortly after the Soviet intervention alludes to the possibility that the conflict may mirror the American quagmire in Vietnam and analogously result in military, strategic, human, and moral losses for the USSR, but based on the material realities at the time, that outcome was far from assured. It is suggested that the United States, among other actions, should thus

A. It is essential that Afghanistani resistance continues. This means more money as well as arms shipments to the rebels, and some technical advice;

B. To make the above possible we must both reassure Pakistan and encourage it to help the rebels. This will require a review of our policy toward Pakistan, more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a decision that our security policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our nonproliferation policy;

D. We should concert with Islamic countries both in a propaganda campaign and in a covert action campaign to help the rebels;

These were the origins of what would become known as Operation Cyclone, beginning with less than a million dollars in 1979 and ballooning to hundreds of millions of dollars each year under the Reagan Administration by the mid-80s. The program was organized in conjunction with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) under Islamist dictator General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, and the Saudi Arabian General Intelligence Directorate (GID) and its head Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, along with several other countries, as portrayed in the 2007 Charlie Wilson’s War starring Tom Hanks.

So who exactly were the mujahideen? The term itself refers to one who undertakes jihad, the Islamic concept of struggle, which can take both violent and nonviolent forms. In the years since September 11th, jihad has become synonymous with religiously-motivated acts of violence perpetrated against civilians, but this is a highly misleading and ahistorical understanding of the idea, which has evolved over centuries in tandem with Islamic jurisprudence. Without getting too deep into theology, the Afghan mujahideen took up arms to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, but they were far from monolithic in their aims and methods. Among the various factions, it included moderates like Ahmad Shah Massoud, known colloquially as the "Lion of Panjshir", a supporter of Islamic democracy and women’s rights and later an opponent of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, having been assassinated by the group a mere two days before 9/11, and who had earlier warned of al-Qaeda attacks upon the United States; rival communist fighters, especially Maoists, backed by the People’s Republic of China; Shi’a militants, in large part from Afghanistan’s Hazara minority, backed by Iran; and of course this article’s central focus, Sunni Islamists with a highly conservative interpretation of the Islamic faith, supported by, among others, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

It must be emphasized here that all of the previous fighters were native Afghans from Afghanistan, not foreigners such as Osama bin Laden. This is in contrast to a parallel, semi-private program1 coordinated by the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to recruit foreign volunteers from across the Islamic world to fight in the Afghan jihad, which in turn included some of the future founders of al-Qaeda. Defenders of Cyclone will remind its detractors of these two contrasting though similar efforts, as after all, Afghanistan is not an Arab country, unlike the primary membership of the foreign mujahideen. However, Cyclone’s supporters will have the public believe that the native and foreign mujahideen were wholly separate enterprises, while in truth the relationship was far more complicated.

The tangled webs we weave

As mentioned earlier, the Afghan mujahideen, beyond sharing the goal of seeking to remove the USSR from Afghanistan, had little else in common. Just as it so happened, the CIA, Saudi Arabia, and the Pakistani ISI had settled upon primarily funding an alliance of militant groups that came to be known as the Seven Dwarves, having received its moniker from the seventh group, Ittihad-e-Islami, led by the Saudi-backed Abdul Rasul Sayyaf2. This coalition included the likes of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, his militia Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, and his allies who espoused a highly austere, authoritarian, and socially conservative version of Islam inspired in large part by Saudi Wahhabism. Hekmatyar and other Islamic fundamentalist mujahideen, while nominally committed to resisting the Soviet occupation, in fact spent a great deal of their American funding and arms fighting rival mujahideen, and in the process killing large numbers of civilians3, activities he would continue into the turbulent years of Afghan politics of the 1990s. Another Islamic fundamentalist mujahid who would receive generous amounts of American aid was Jalaluddin Haqqani, being so close to US intelligence that it is said he once personally met with President Reagan. It would serve readers well to remember these two names in particular, as they would prove to be a crucial nexus between the native Afghan and foreign mujahideen.

A rather infamous photograph of Reagan meeting with Afghan militants in the White House ironically illustrates the difference between the native and foreign mujahideen. While often captioned as the then-President meeting with al-Qaeda/and or the Taliban (despite neither existing at the time and the Taliban being a principally Afghan organization, unlike bin Laden’s al-Qaeda), it actually depicts the President meeting with local Afghan mujahideen, including a woman on the far right of the photo, something that the highly misogynistic al-Qaeda or Taliban would unlikely permit. Additionally, the attire worn by the figures depicted is clearly Pashtun and includes a pakol, headgear far more characteristic of South-Central Asia than the Arab world. Incidentally, however, while not pictured, Reagan did in fact go on to meet Yunus Khalis, who was to become a supporter of both Islamic fundamentalist groups.

The foreign mujahideen meanwhile received much of their funding from private sources, albeit with many linked to the Saudi and other Persian Gulf royal families. In some cases, foreign volunteers would serve alongside native mujahideen, such as in Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s Ittihad-e-Islami. Bin Laden himself financed his and other Arab volunteers’ efforts in Afghanistan through his own personal fortune, yet at the same time acted as a courier between Saudi intelligence and local mujahideen commanders, helping to recruit foreign volunteers to the Afghan cause4. According to Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, the CIA, GID, and ISI all ran separate programs totaling billions of US dollars to aid militant resistance to the Soviets, while at the same time working together when their interests converged as well as spying on each other’s efforts.5 Consequently, while not directly assisting the foreign mujahideen, which included Osama bin Laden, it is incredibly likely that the CIA knew that extremist and even anti-American foreign elements were flooding Afghanistan under Saudi and Pakistani guidance, but did little if anything to stop it, viewing it as boon to the collective effort to bleed the Soviets dry.

While there is no concrete evidence to suggest that bin Laden was ever employed by the CIA, much less that the agency even specifically knew of him at the time6, the story doesn’t end there. While the claims of a direct bin Laden-CIA connection remain unfounded, OBL did indeed inadvertently receive training from by the CIA by a double agent by the name of Ali Mohamed, an Egyptian known Islamic fundamentalist recruited by the agency to train mujahideen in Afghanistan. It is thought that Mohamed was not further investigated because was an asset to the CIA in their proxy war against the USSR Furthermore, the intelligence agency also facilitated7 Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, one of the accomplices to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, receiving entry visas to the United States, where he recruited foreign volunteers to fight in Afghanistan.

Far from being completely unrelated to each other, however, several of the native Afghan mujahideen that received assistance under Operation Cyclone would go on to work closely with the founding members of al-Qaeda, and for that matter, the Taliban, in particular Hekmatyar and Haqqani. Under the program, the Afghan mujahideen received not only the aforementioned Stinger missile launchers, but several other kinds of heavy weaponry as well, including that of non-U.S. origin. American assistance as a matter of fact when beyond military support, with the CIA providing textbooks published by the University of Nebraska-Omaha to Afghan schoolchildren endorsing violence and Islamic fundamentalism, in the context of the jihad against the USSR Because Cyclone tended to favor more fundamentalist mujahideen than moderates, which the CIA of course had no small part in inculcating, it was not difficult for some of these Afghan militants to in turn make common cause with foreign extremists, including Osama bin Laden. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar continued to be one of the main, and for that matter the most brutal warlords in the country, and with his weapons and training paid for the United States vis-à-vis the Pakistani ISI offered al-Qaeda militants sanctuary in areas under his control where they were to conduct activities related to terrorism8. Jalaluddin Haqqani, another heavy beneficiary of joint U.S.-Saudi-Pakistani assistance, similarly offered his services to the likes of bin Laden. The effects of Operation Cyclone’s heavy patronage of hardline mujahideen like Haqqani and Hekmatyar became clear, not just in the descent into violence and religious fanaticism in Afghanistan, but soon enough to the rest of the world as well in the form of global jihadist terrorism.

A note on the Taliban

What would become the Taliban, meanwhile, for the most part sat out the Soviet-Afghan War in Pakistan, being educated in hyper-conservative madrassas, having been taught to endorse violence and a highly puritanical version of Sunni Islam, with funding from the Saudi and Pakistani governments. The word "Taliban" is actually Pashto for "students". It should be noted that the Taliban, unlike al-Qaeda, is a partially-nationalistic group that has no ambitions outside of Afghanistan. Following their return to Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, by the mid-90s Taliban fighters had managed to take over most of the country, with heavy support from American-allied Pakistan, in large part because Afghanistan had been heavily damaged from fighting between rival mujahideen. Likewise, many of the previously U.S.-backed militants flocked to the group, seeing it as a stabilizing force with a sympathetic ideology, including one Jalaluddin Haqqani, who was to become a senior figure in the Taliban. Hekmatyar, for his part, did not join, but a large portion of his followers did, and he himself would later enter into an alliance with the Taliban following the 2001 US invasion. Before the Taliban’s association with al-Qaeda became clear, the United States had up to that point tacitly supported9 the group, seeing them as a buffer to an adversarial Iran. One need only visit any news website today to view how this all ended up shaking out.

Taking Stock

So, does the United States’ actions during Operation Cyclone bear at least some responsibility for the subsequent unleashing of global jihadist violence as well as the Talibanization of Afghanistan? The evidence would certainly appear to say so, and much more than "some". While perhaps not as sexy as the myth of Osama bin Laden as a CIA agent, the United States’ wanton disregard toward it’s allies fomenting of violent religious fundamentalist sentiments to counter an American adversary has evidently had disastrous consequences, for the world as a whole and Afghanistan in particular, and offers a somber lesson on the limits of American power projection, as well as clues toward reassessing whom the country ought to consider allies. Conversely, the true, albeit convoluted, story of Operation Cyclone serves for critics of American foreign policy as an opportunity to scrutinize the actions of the US government abroad, but doing so factually and intelligently.

Thomas Resnick is a freelance writer on foreign policy among other political and cultural issues, as well as in the process of founding a Jewish organization to oppose military action against Iran. You can subscribe to his newsletter at