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Hamida Ghafour
Hamida Ghafour

Hamida Ghafour

A spin doctor's bitter legacy in Afghanistan Add to ...

When Osama bin Laden lived in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, you could buy popcorn balls with his smiling image imprinted on bags in markets all over the south. Such was the self-aggrandizement of the now-dead al-Qaeda leader.

One of his legacies has been to turn Afghanistan into an ideological battleground against the supposed forces of Western imperialism.

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Decent Afghan leaders and ordinary citizens repeatedly talk of the need for the rule of law and basic health services but, to many, Afghanistan is simply a place to make a deadly statement against America.

Only last week, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the organization's offshoot in North Africa whose members kidnapped four Frenchmen in Niger last year, demanded that France withdraw its peacekeepers from Afghanistan in exchange for the safe return of the hostages. Why anyone in Niger, which has its own problems, should concern themselves with a faraway war is odd.

The narrative of Afghanistan as a pan-Muslim cause has been sold so successfully that no one questions why Abdul Ghani travelled all the way from Saudi Arabia to assassinate Afghan tribal leaders before he was killed by a NATO air strike on April 13.

It is thanks to Mr. bin Laden and al-Qaeda propaganda that aspiring jihadists everywhere consider Afghanistan to be their own romantic war.

This process began in the early 1980s when Mr. bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called the Soviet occupation an "incubator" for global jihad. The welfare of the Afghan people was never a concern for the good doctor - their country was cheap real estate for a bigger cause.

Mr. bin Laden's skills as a spin doctor were far superior to his fighting prowess.

His one and only victory against the Russians was in 1987 when he successfully defended his training complex in Paktia province against the Soviet Spetznaz. He milked it for all it was worth. The Afghans who actually fought the war recall scornfully that the Arabs who followed him posed for photographs, then ran back across the border to the safety of Pakistan.

Mr. bin Laden, who was born in Saudi Arabia, was also good at raising money for his cause, another enduring legacy. Saudi Arabia is the world's largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups, including the Afghan Taliban, but the Saudi government is reluctant to stop this, according to a memo by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that was leaked by WikiLeaks last year.

The al-Qaeda leader was deeply unpopular among most ordinary Afghans. The Arabs who overran their country in the 1990s played by their own rules as they trained in the camps. Afghans were begging on the streets and forbidden from watching TV, while al-Qaeda fighters' families had satellite television and lived in comfortably furnished houses. It was Mr. bin Laden who had advised Mullah Mohammed Omar to blow up the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

The Taliban leaders who refused to give him up to America after 9/11 may now be regretting their decision. A report last year suggested that Mullah Omar wished he had not given sanctuary to Mr. bin Laden because his regime might still now be in power. The one-eyed Taliban leader himself is believed to have been given sanctuary in Pakistan.

On Monday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in an allusion to Pakistan, said "the fight against terrorism is in its sanctuaries, in its training camps and its finance centres, not in Afghanistan and today it has been proved we were right."

The Afghans may be vindicated, but it's come at a huge cost.

The last word, perhaps, belongs to Amrullah Saleh, the shrewdly observant former chief of Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security. "There is no verse in the Koran and I have not seen the hadith that says the route to heaven is through Afghanistan. I wonder why everyone who wishes to go to heaven comes and launches jihad in my country."

Hamida Ghafour is a journalist and author of The Sleeping Buddha: The Story of One Family's Past, and Afghanistan's Search for a Future.

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