As submitted to the Journal of Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations

Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism

John Cooley, with a forward by Edward Said, 2002

Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 3rd edition

xx + 268 pp., pb $19.95, ISBN 0-7453-1917-3

Reviewed by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad

An astonishingly wide variety of front-page events over the past decade are tethered to threads attached to the Afghan war against the Soviet occupation. John Cooley brings together myriad threads with captivating storytelling.

In the late 1970’s, when the United States and the Soviet Union were both suspicious of a danger that the other was increasing its influence in Afghanistan, Hafizullah Amin came to power as prime minister. At that time the Soviet’s had the greater influence as the Americans had snubbed Afghani requests for aid while the Soviets had invested in a number of projects and lent Afghanistan enough to place it in substantial debt. Amin professed his friendship to the Soviets, but they saw him as a petty bourgeois whose overriding interest in his own personal power might easily lead him into cooperation with the Americans. Zbignew Brzezinski confessed to a French reporter that he encouraged Jimmy Carter to give clandestine aid to Afghan enemies of the pro-Soviet regime, knowing that this would increase the likelihood of a Soviet military intervention. The mechanism for intervention was indirect, allowing others to do what Brzezinski wanted done.

Cooley tracks the history of the Afghan intervention beginning with the Safari Club, “an informal but for a time highly effective covert operation” [p. 15] exposed when the Ayatollah Khomeini allowed an Egyptian reporter to poke into the archives of former Club member, the deposed Shah of Iran [p. 16]. Another Club member, Anwar Sadat, flirting with Islamists for his own domestic political reasons, then offered to assist the American plans by helping to “train, equip and supply volunteers for the Afghan jihad” with the aid of “selected groups of US military trainers” [p. 21].  Even Israel made a “substantial contribution to the secret anti-Soviet Muslim army in Afghanistan” ironically subsiding “Palestinians who ... became founders and movers of the Islamist HAMAS resistance movement...” [p. 23].

Among the recruiters for the operation was the same Shaikh Omar Abdel Rahman who would later be imprisoned in America on charges of involvement in a conspiracy to bomb targets in New York such as the World Trade Center. The war was launched from Pakistan, already an American ally, under Zia al-Haq, who, given the country’s disastrous domestic situation “needed a good war” [p. 41].

Cooley also describes the role of a wide variety of countries in the Afghan jihad, including China, and the consequences for that nation with a Muslim population of at least 14 million (by overly conservative official figures), perhaps up to 50 million (according to the Islamists). He provides remarkably detailed descriptions of the complex recruitment and training schemes that involved everything from the use of missionaries like the Tablighi Jamaat organization (whom I think of as the “Jehovah’s Witnesses” of Islam because they go door-to-door seeking to convert Muslims to Islam) to CIA-produced Qur’ans printed in Virginia.

Despite the secrecy surrounding the Pentagon’s “Black Budget” for such operations, Cooley discusses the problems of financing the Afghan jihad, largely by the CIA and Saudis (increasingly private funds) in some detail. The lid is clamped even more tightly on the CIA involvement in drug trafficking, yet Cooley documents a host of fascinating and suggestive facts, including the fact that the CIA sought and obtained an “exemption ... from a legal requirement to report on drug smuggling by CIA officers, agents or other ‘assets’” [p. 111].

The first edition of John Cooley’s Unholy Wars was published in 1999, before the average American had heard of Osama bin Laden and at time when the American government was feigning obliviousness to the humanitarian catastrophe that was Afghanistan, in the aftermath of the war that triggered the fall of the Soviet Union. Now that foreign troops in Afghanistan are American, I wish I had the power to get every one of my fellow-citizens to read this new edition of John Cooley’s well-researched, absorbing account of what got us where we are with all its sobering implications on where this path we tread may ultimately lead.



                                               Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, President

                                     Minaret of Freedom Institute

Co-editor of Islam and the West: A Dialog