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Author Roy Gutman Talks About What Went Wrong in the Decade Before 9/11 Attacks

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Roy Gutman has written a new book, How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan, in which he examines what went wrong in the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Roy Gutman calls the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in 1989 the “start of one of the great turning points in modern history.” He told VOA's Judith Latham, Gary Thomas and Spozhmai Maiwandi that America’s departure from the scene after the Soviet defeat left a vacuum and was an “open invitation to Afghanistan’s neighbors to back one side or the other in the civil war.” He says that, during the war, it was the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) in cooperation with Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), which led U.S. operations in support of the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union. But he underscores that there was no real U.S. foreign policy, which is traditionally the province of the State Department. Roy Gutman reports that it was a serious mistake to “outsource the war to ISI” rather than taking direct control of it. In fact, he calls it the “cardinal sin in this whole story.”

After the war, Roy Gutman points out, U.S. attention turned to the nations of Eastern Europe in their struggle to be free of Soviet domination and later to the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. Mr. Gutman stresses that there was virtually “no planning” for a post Russian-dominated Afghanistan, which he calls a “colossal mistake,” particularly since the Afghan resistance was not united and their leaders came from different ethnic groups. During this period, Mr. Gutman notes, the most pro-Western of the rival groups in Afghanistan was the one around the “legendary guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud,” an ethnic Tajik from the northeast who had fought the Russians through multiple offensives. But his principal Pashtun rival, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was supported by Pakistan, which had its own interests that often differed from Washington’s.

In the 1990’s, the U.S. administration cut aid to Afghanistan and declared its position was going to be one of “neutrality,” which Roy Gutman says led to the emergence in 1994 of the Taliban, an extremist Islamist faction promoting strict shari’a law, as a political force. In September 1996, the Taliban captured Kabul. A few months earlier the wealthy Saudi-born revolutionary Osama bin Laden, who had fought with the mujahadiin in the war against the Soviets in the 1980’s, arrived in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, having just been expelled from Sudan. He was provided safe-haven by the Taliban. In August 1998, Islamic extremists blew up the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in a plot that U.S. intelligence traced back to bin Laden. By early 1999, Mr. Gutman says, U.S. officials concluded that bin Laden had “hijacked the Taliban.” Furthermore, when General Pervez Musharraf came to power in Pakistan in 1999, he turned what had been a “policy of friendship and support for the Taliban into a total embrace.” Instead of trying to pressure Pakistan into changing its policy, Roy Gutman says, Washington pursued a “diplomatic policy of trying to convince the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden peacefully” – that is, to extradite him. But Mullah Mohammed Omar Ajhund, the Pashtun supreme leader and “Emir” of Afghanistan, repeatedly refused.

Roy Gutman says three successive U.S. administrations began from the premise that, after the collapse of the Soviet empire, the United States could “withdraw from parts of the world where it had no obvious material or strategic interests.” He says the lesson for future administrations is that, “in this post-Cold War world, you actually can’t withdraw from anywhere,” and Washington has to have a “policy for everywhere.”

The lesson for the international press is equally critical says Roy Gutman. In Afghanistan, he says the media “left the scene after the Russian defeat in 1989, and was barely present during the period of the Taliban.” As a result, there was little or no coverage of the “internal war inside Afghanistan,” which was where bin Laden got his foothold. Roy Gutman says, “We missed that story.” The lesson, he says, is that the media “have to be there and – if they don’t want us somewhere – that’s where we need to be.”

For full audio of the program Press Conference USA click here.