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Book Review with commentary
America, The Cold War, And The Roots Of Terror
Mahmood Mamdani

The title is a bit misleading; the subtitle captures the essence of this book. The title becomes clear late in the book, where former allies changed from good to bad by turning on us. And of course, whether another person is good or bad depends on which side we are on. Nevertheless, each page is riveting. Nearly every page holds surprises for those of us who have lived through WWII while paying too little attention to world events ever since.

Mamdani is a masterful story teller of political history who counters the hubris, half truths, and outright propaganda of our times with hard, not-easly-accepted, facts. While rolling back the USSR, we sowed and nurtured the seeds of international terrorism of today. In his words:

      "The source of privatized and globalized terrorism in today's world, the international jihadis are the true ideological children of Reagan's crusade against the "Evil Empire" [The Soviet Union.]

Whereas Carter employed containment against the USSR, Reagan, with advice from the Neocons, changed the equation to one of roll-back. But he could not do it openly as law and democracy would have it. He had to resort to clandestine means that relied on the Saudis and private sources for financing. The latter included drug running in Asia as well as in South and Central America by the CIA--yes, from many well documented sources. In fact, Mamdani's recitations of history are open to anyone interested. History is subject to various interpretations; his seem more likely than any others we have read. Reagan's motivation came mainly from the huge and costly tidal wave from Vietnam that seemed likely to soon consume Central America.

In other words, projecting forward from Reagan's day, Communisim, with Cuba already in hand, and a presence in Central America, seemed already knocking on American doors and would soon get the upper hand. Reagan believed, rightly, that something had to be done.

He had a lot of company. Learning an important lesson from Vietnam, that it is useless to fight insurgencies from half a world away, Reagan employed surrogates from wherever he could find them to start, lead and finance a jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Logically enough, this war became an American jihad in fact if not in the public mind. Desperate for help in rolling back the USSR, Reagan employed any and all volunteers. In fact, he preferred the radical fringe for their very eagerness and strong motivation to throw the Soviets out of Afghanistan. And that too appeared logical enough. It was certainly great tactics; it hastened the demise of the USSR. But as it turned out it was poor strategy for peace. Defeating the Russian brand of Communism had become an obsession; winners would get the Holy Grail.

Recruits came from the world over. Many were honest folk fighting for what they considered a just cause. Some were common criminals intent on practicing their trade. But others were already radicalized, not just against the USSR, but against modernization or simply all things Western. Bin Laden was among the private organizations actively supported and financed by the CIA in Afghanistan. So were students from certain Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan. According to reports, some 80,000 mujahadin from 43 countries learned the techniques of insurgency in training centers in Pakistan financed by the CIA. Only a fraction of those trained actually fought. One of Mamdani's key points is that something akin to the French Foreign Legion took shape that would play a role in changing the course of history. In speaking to a Los Angeles Times reporter, Mahfoud Bennoune, an Algerian sociologist, declared:

      "Your government has created a monster; now it has turned against you and the world: 16,000 Arabs were trained in Afghanistan, made into a veritable killing machine."

The Taliban group was from Pakistan, not Afghanistan. What distinguished them was that they prepared better for the future than other groups did. Because of their dedication to the cause in Afghanistan they received more than their share of American aid.

Reagan's policy seemed natural enough at the time. The problems with it crystallized with the "sudden" rise of the Taliban. [No one seemed to recognize that a paradigm shift was coming; maybe no one could have. Those who might have were on the ground at low levels, teaching anthropology or history, and were not asked to advise the government. If there is a lesson here, it is that today's world is far too complex not to seek help from those directly involved or specialists who know the issues and potential dangers as well as any individual can. Otherwise, in pursuing obvious tactics, the key strategies will be missed.]

With the withdrawal of the Soviets, an armed cadre was left with nothing to do, polyglot as it was. Some of the factions turned on each other for control of Afghanistan, Kabul in particular. Many "soldiers" joined or rejoined terror groups; others simply went home. The radical cores did not. They found new causes to fight, like corrupt kings or modernization led by the US and Europe. Meanwhile the Taliban triumphed in Afghanistan.

That the Taliban won the battles for Afghanistan and then pacified the countryside so quickly surprised many observers. Being fundamentalists, they immediately went after Afghani women and children, put them into religious straight-jackets of the most fundamental sort.

Other groups, equally radical but with different foci, turned on Islamic issues beyond Afghanistan. One group in particular did not stop there. They honed their techniques to the point where they could execute 9/11. Al Qa'ida, an ally-of-convenience, well-trained in insurgency by no less than the CIA, was now four-square an arch enemy of America and the modernization it leads. Al Qa'ida was never and is still not restrained by any form of secular, national, or international law. [Though not emphasized by Mamdani, al Qa'ida also provided a template that is now in use by terror cells anywhere with no control by, or even any relation to, Al Qa'ida itself. They communicate in their own homes, out of touch with any central command. Eavesdropping can now only catch the careless or untrained. The genie released by the Reagan Adminsistration now has few bounds. Neither Bush Sr nor Clinton did anything to "cork the bottle"--to use an American idiom.]

Of course there is much more to modern terrorism, and many other issues are highlighted in this book. It is not an easy read to realize how our seeming best efforts in one age can turn against us in another time. Reagan's roll-back policy to reverse the losses in Vietnam and Central America certainly hastened the demise of the USSR as a superpower. And that was not only historic, it was wonderful.

The down-side of Reagan's policy gave us international terrorism instead--equally bad -- maybe worse if terrorists obtain the bottle with a nuclear genie. It also brought us misgovernance, one where the White House feels no need to account for its actions, even to Congress, through both Republican and Democratic adminstrations. If this is not a serious and dangerous situation, we have never seen one. No one in America is free of potential eavesdropping, denials notwithstanding. The Fourth Amendment no longer provides any real protection. Congress has in effect become a rubber stamp for the adminstration. The logic seems to be that security necessarily trumps freedom. One must then ask, What is freedom worth? Our founding fathers happened to think it was worth dying for. Ben Franklin hit the nail on the head: "Those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither."

If we wish to leave this world better than we found it, this book is the best read we have seen about the origins of political and religiouos terrorism. We cannot say enough about this book, nor can we say enough about the messages it contains. Mamdani provides an extensive bibliography for research by anyone interested.

Managing an empire and making it hum just got tougher. Beyond that, the nuclear genie is now out of the bag, thanks once again at least in part to Pakistan.

    Negative histories of containment, roll back, or unilateral invasion speak for themselves.
    Is it time for an new philosophical approach?
    What will it be?

Mamdani has more:

      "If we are to find a way out of the collective punishment and group resistance--and out of the cycle of terror in its many forms--we have no choice but to identify and address the politics that inform all sides of the debate... The violence of the settler and the suicide bomber, more than any other, has come to define the contemporary world of terrorism and counterterrorism."

This is exactly our position on this web site. Whatever else might be said, Mamdani presents two viewpoints: political and cultural, most simply.

      "Culture Talk seeks the explanation for the deed in the culture of the doer. In contrast Political Talk tends to explain the deed as a response to issues, to a political context of unaddressed grievances." This matters, because the assumptions we make will differ, depending on the belief system we rely upon.

Of course neither side listens much to the other. Dialogue is the last thing either side can imagine, much less accomplish. After all, each view is Authoritarian in nature. Each "side" views the other as being the fault. Beyond that, many of our responders in the culture camp, seem to be in denial that collective punishment even happens much less that it needs to be addressed. On the political side, responders are also in denial over their own all too real shortcomings. Together, these reflect a human condition that need not be.

The link becomes clear in the simple statement we have heard many times: "If the Palestinians want peace, they can stop bombing." Of course. In counterpoint, it is self-evident that the Palestinians have indeed lost their home of 14 centuries. Whether we like it or not there are two sides to this "debate." Both the political and cultural aspects must be addressed. Until they are, terror and counterterror will remain with us. Of course that is a message we would rather not hear.

    • How can a solution be found?
    • Will a world government ever come into being with a constitution declaring that all states are equal, that none has a veto?
    • Will that ever come to pass?
    • Is politics an obsolete system of governance?
    • If so, what can possibly replace it?


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