America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror

By Mahmood Mamdani

Pantheon. 304 pp. $24

In an iconic photograph from the Cold War era, President Ronald Reagan is shown warmly greeting Afghan mujaheddin leaders who were then fighting the Soviets. It was within that anti-Soviet crusade that today's violent and radical Islamist jihadi movements were empowered, funded and trained, all with generous American support. This is a relationship that conservative Cold Warriors now no longer wish to recall: They seemingly suffer from amnesia on the subject of their former comrades. Mahmood Mamdani, an East African of Indian descent and a professor of government at Columbia University, reminds them in "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim."

Mamdani's central thesis is that the struggle against the Soviets made use of proxy wars in the Third World, which concentrated and privatized violence within non-state actors. To be sure, garden-variety terrorist organizations had existed, but none had the reach and the desire to refashion Muslim societies globally until after the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. The financing and arming of the jihadis was the "largest covert operation in the history of the CIA" with, according to one estimate the author cites, approximately $3 billion in aid dispensed.

Mamdani points out that during the Reagan presidency, the American, Saudi and Pakistani intelligence agencies shared the objective of uniting the most radical anti-communist Islamist movements worldwide in a jihad against the godless Soviets. Islamist radicals were thus recruited from the entire Arab-Islamic world, including Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and such Western countries as the United States and England. Provocatively, the author asserts that the Reagan administration "rescued right-wing Islamism" from a "historical cul-de-sac" and, moreover, that it helped create a terrorist infrastructure worldwide where one did not exist.

The ideological mobilization made use of mosques, madrassas (schools of Islamic learning) and proselytizing institutions. Madrassas in Pakistan were turned into centers of ideological indoctrination and military training at the behest of the Pakistani dictator Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. As one instance of American involvement, Mamdani cites a U.S. grant by which the University of Nebraska designed children's textbooks during the 1980s. Sample questions included: "One group of mujahidin attack 50 Russian soldiers. In that attack 20 Russians are killed. How many Russians fled?" (The textbook program ended in 1994.)

An estimated 35,000 mujaheddin from 43 Muslim countries fought and trained in Afghanistan, with more than 100,000 additional Muslim radicals passing through Afghanistan and Pakistan. These fighters returned to their countries of origin, often to fight bloody wars against governments they deemed to be insufficiently Islamic or, ironically, too pro-American.

The worst harm was done to Afghanistan and Pakistan in ways that are unfathomable. To finance their operations, the mujaheddin turned to drug cultivation and smuggling. "Prior to the jihad in Afghanistan," Mamdani writes, "there was no local production of heroin in either Afghanistan or Pakistan. The production there was of . . . opium, a very different drug, which was directed to small, rural, regional markets." However, at the war's end the region became the "world's largest producer of opium and processed heroin." Not all the heroin and opium was for export -- there are now several million Pakistani heroin addicts.

The book is not without flaws. Mamdani leaves out of this sordid tale the trail of death and destruction left by the Soviets in Afghanistan: They destroyed some 80 percent of the structures, drove millions from their homes and sowed vast parts of the countryside with land mines. What the Soviet invaders did counts among the major war crimes of the 20th century.

Mamdani also skates dangerously close to drawing a moral equivalent between U.S. foreign policy and al Qaeda. This is a form of Left moral nihilism. And he fails to take religious ideology seriously. One gets the impression that he views religions as mere epiphenomena of material and political forces. He doesn't seem to understand the power of religious belief, its autonomy and ability to inspire action.

Nonetheless, "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim" is a necessary corrective to the hubris and willed amnesia of Cold Warriors who acted as handmaidens for radical Islamist jihadis. The harmful unintended consequences of the anti-Soviet Cold War on the Arab-Islamic world and the West have never been fully appraised until now.