Lever Time with David Sirota

On this week’s episode of Lever Time, David Sirota is joined by Brendan James and Noah Kulwin, producers and hosts of the wildly popular historical narrative podcast Blowback. Their new season covers the history of foreign intervention in Afghanistan and both the intentional and unintentional blowback from those efforts. 

“Blowback” refers to an old CIA term meaning, “the unforeseen and unwanted effects, or repercussions to one’s actions.” In Blowback, Brendan and Noah report on the history of America’s foreign policy and interventions — including its efforts related to the various wars in Iraq, the Cuban Revolution, and the Korean War. 

David speaks with Brendan and Noah about their new season, which goes into painstaking detail about Afghanistan, a country that has arguably suffered more modern foreign interventions than any other place on Earth. They cover Soviet interventions in the country in the 1970s and ’80s, the U.S.-backed rise of the Mujahideen, the September 11 World Trade Center attacks, and the subsequent U.S. invasion and war, which lasted over two decades. 

A transcript of this episode is available here.

BONUS: On this past Monday's bonus episode of Lever Time Premium, exclusively for The Lever’s supporting subscribers, we shared our interview with attorney Jeffrey Simon, who is part of the legal team suing 17 fossil fuel companies for their contribution to a 2021 heatwave that killed 69 people in Oregon’s Multnomah County. 

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What is Lever Time with David Sirota?

From LeverNews.com — Lever Time is the flagship podcast from the investigative news outlet The Lever. Hosted by award-winning journalist, Oscar-nominated writer, and Bernie Sanders' 2020 speechwriter David Sirota, Lever Time features exclusive reporting from The Lever’s newsroom, high-profile guest interviews, and expert analysis from the sharpest minds in media and politics.

David Sirota: [00:00:00] Hey, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Lever Time. I'm David Sirota. On today's show, I'm going to be talking about the whole concept of blowback, that CIA term about the unintended consequences of military adventurism. I'm going to be talking about that with Brendan James and Noah Colwin, the hosts of the historical narrative podcast, which is literally called Their new season covers the decades of foreign intervention into Afghanistan, from the British Empire to the Soviets and then to the United States.

Brendan and Noah do a terrific job researching and producing the show, and we had a great discussion about it and what Afghanistan says about U. S. Foreign policy for our paid subscribers were also always dropping bonus episodes into our lever [00:01:00] premium podcast feed. This past Monday, we published our interview with attorney Jeffrey Simon, who's part of the legal team suing 17 fossil fuel companies for their contribution to a 2021 heat wave that killed 69 people in Oregon.

We're going to get right to my interview right now with Brendan and Noah, the producers and hosts of the podcast blowback. If you've never heard of blowback, that title references that old CIA term, meaning the unforeseen and unwanted and unintended effects or repercussions to one's actions. In the podcast Blowback, Brendan and Noah report on the history of America's foreign policy and interventions.

Their previous seasons covered the Iraq War, the Cuban Revolution, and the Korean War. For their new season, which is just out now at blowback. show, they've turned to Afghanistan. which has arguably suffered the most from foreign intervention than any other country on the entire planet. I spoke [00:02:00] with Brendan and Noah about the new season, which goes into painstaking detail about Afghanistan's development, including the Soviet intervention of the 1970s and the 1980s, the rise of the Mujahideen and Osama bin Laden, and the United States involvement.

And we talked about the September 11th World Trade Center attacks, the 2001 U. S. invasion of Afghanistan, and the subsequent war there, which lasted over two decades.

Hey, Brendan. Hey, Noah. Thanks for doing this. Really appreciate it. Um, been listening to blowback, uh, season four. it's one of my favorite podcasts and I guess let's start with. For folks who don't know what Blowback is and who don't necessarily know what the term refers to, why don't you tell our audience what the show is about, uh, and what relation it has to that title, the word Blowback.

Noah Kulwin: Alright, so, uh, I think that for us in our first season, we actually addressed the idea of blowback at the [00:03:00] end in talking about the Iraq war to sort of explain that, you know, rather than conceive of the Iraq war as a mistake, that actually the consequences and the outcomes of that war were part of a kind of a system, a positive feedback loop or reinforcing mechanism that sort of propelled the force of the war and its devastation forward.

and in the case of Afghanistan, you know, it's sort of considered, I think, for most Americans, probably, uh, if they do know the word, it is from the case of 9 11 and the idea that we had, you know, loosely armed the jihadis and they came, you know, they came back to bite us in the butt somehow. And I think for us this season, you know, it was, it was to a certain extent, a side quest of the season, if you will, to help demonstrate to people that actually blowback, you know, even this example of blowback is not really like an unintended consequence all the way.

Um, you know, that there are in fact, a lot of really, uh, hairy outcomes of our funding of the Mujahideen that [00:04:00] were basically what were intended. 9

Brendan James: Yeah, yeah, the, the, the term is an old CIA Uh, term coined by, I believe, Chalmers Johnson, who was once an agent, and, um, know, in our show, we sort of playfully titled it Blowback. It's a punchy title. In some cases, we found that what is usually termed blowback is a little bit more complicated, a little bit, maybe even a little bit more sinister.

Um, it, it can sometimes sound as though the empire, in question is stumbling, goodheartedly, but mistakenly from one place to another, um, and that the effects of that, uh, naivete come back to haunt the American Empire later. Well, we found sometimes that's, that's really a bit of, uh, another term, ass covering, um, that, that, that is useful.

Uh, and then, of course, there are times when blowback is really at play. Things aren't, uh, accounted for that, that, uh, coming home to roost. But, uh, it's, it's a complicated thing. And that's really what the show is, is surveying a [00:05:00] lot of different damage. And, uh, sometimes it turns out to be blowback, sometimes it doesn't.

David Sirota: So, uh, let's, let's... Turn to the question as you alluded to Afghanistan. I think a lot of people conceive of Afghanistan. I mean, I mean, I guess it's changed how how Americans have have perceived Afghanistan in the sense that it started out being the good and just war. I think a lot of people saw it that way.

I'm not, I'm not saying I saw that, but that, that, that, that after 9 11, it was, it, it was a among, I guess, according to polls, a fairly not controversial military activity in the sense of Osama bin Laden was, was there and we went to go get him. That was the story that was told. It became more controversial as it became a quagmire.

And then the, the, um, yeah. The pulling out from Afghanistan was obvious. More recently has obviously become controversial. I think the question is, is why do you think Afghanistan is so Uh, [00:06:00] important for people to understand if they want to understand Afghanistan vis a vis the United States, why is it so important for us to understand what happened there to understand where this country is, uh, in its current foreign and military policy.

Brendan James: Yeah, I, I think that the, the one version of, the way people process the war in real time and then how, how they've remembered it is the... Justified or proper war that should have been executed after 9 11, given that the Taliban, the government in Afghanistan were hosting Osama bin Laden, Osama bin Laden's group was connected to 9 11, therefore The mission to invade and topple that government and replace it with something, um, more secular and stable and friendly to the West.

While maybe not everyone was up for that or enjoyed the idea of regime change, they could understand it as a continuity. but the other way to look at it, uh, rather than it being the good war as opposed to the criminal Iraq war. that many more people, uh, would later come to find [00:07:00] as a, as a war of choice as opposed to Afghanistan, uh, is that it was really the beginning of everything that would allow, America to, to do in the 21st century, um, from the Iraq War to the War on Terror, really the, the Afghanistan foundational part of the War on Terror, um, and the, everything from domestic, Sort of a domestic reorganization of the executive branch, civil rights, things like this, uh, new practices abroad, um, uh, torture, all the things that people associate with the bad old days of the Bush administration that have never left us.

Um, the Afghanistan war, far from being the good war, could also be alternatively perceived as the foundational crusade. That brought all this other stuff in and indeed, a kind of war on terror that while we don't really talk about anymore still is used to justify a lot of, um, quite nasty things abroad.

David Sirota: So let's rewind the tape here. Uh, I want to go back before our war [00:08:00] in Afghanistan, our, the United States war, uh, back to the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. The Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, there's this idea that it was Russia's Vietnam, their quagmire. For those who don't know, just the short Summary of why did the Soviets get involved in Afghanistan?

Was it an eager involvement? Was it a reluctant involvement? And why did they stay involved in Afghanistan?

Noah Kulwin: So the Soviet Union, uh, went into Afghanistan essentially to shore up. A weak allied government. In fact, Afghanistan, uh, is the oldest Soviet ally. They were the first government to recognize the Soviet Union, uh, after the Russian revolution. And in the case of the 1970s, the Afghan state had essentially been, you know, disintegrating.

There had been a, uh, sort of a, a strongman. leader [00:09:00] in, uh, Kabul named Dawood, whose government fell and gave way to a radical communist party that took over the country sort of unexpectedly and against, frankly, probably the wishes of the Soviet Union, which didn't really want to have to think about Afghanistan.

but The U. S. and the West and its allies sensed an opportunity to enhance the resistance to the Soviet, supported government, uh, you know, the, the, the Afghan communists. So, in the 1970s, the United States, uh, allotted support and organized support for the people who would become the mujahideen.

And so, in 1979, uh, the, as the Communist Party in Afghanistan has sort of intensified its attempts to reform the country, uh, its leader, who is sort of, uh, acting erratically, the Soviets suspect that he's working with the Americans, he's shooting lots of [00:10:00] people, the Soviets don't like that, they say, alright, alright, alright, we're just gonna kill this guy, cut him loose, and then we're gonna try and prop up a government, And then we're going to get out of here, because we don't want to stick around for long.

So, it was not a war in which the Soviet Union was enthusiastic to go in. In fact, the Soviet Union had been resisting sending troops for quite some time before they ended up going in. And it was also in response to a situation, a deteriorating stabil you know, a deteriorating security situation in the country that was in large measure provoked by the U.

S. and its allies.

David Sirota: Yeah, and this is a part that I didn't know much about. Uh, this debate, as you guys, uh, report on this debate between the so called bleeders and the dealers, uh, which is a really good frame for understanding how the Carter administration at the time, perceived what it could do or should do in Afghanistan.

Why don't you tell [00:11:00] us about that debate? Who were the bleeders? Who are the dealers? Who won that debate? Why is it so important

Brendan James: Well, there's bleeders and dealers in every era, including our own, and one of the reasons this was an important topic we found, uh, to go all the way back, uh, to the, to the 1980s and, and before, was to see how this dynamic between bleeders and dealers plays out. And in the case of the, uh, 1980s and the anti Soviet jihad.

this was the brainchild of, of the bleeder side, uh, the idea to fund Mujahideen, um, inside of Afghanistan to undermine the Soviet mission there. these were guys like National Security Advisors Bignu Brzezinski, uh, a very influential advisor to Carter, who essentially could, uh, could take credit for the entire shape of, um, political Islam in the region following this.

this war against the Soviets, and he often did take credit. Um, when it became a little more embarrassing to do so after 9 11, [00:12:00] he started to, become much more humble in this regard. But for a long time, he was truly the, the leader of the, of the bleeder side and of the anti Soviet jihad. There were also guys like the neocons who would come to be known years later, Richard Perle, Oliver North, the same types of people who were very hawkish in places like Latin America were very hawkish in Afghanistan.

There were some interesting, um, democratic, uh, mutations of this, like Charlie Wilson who was publicly against the war in, uh, in, in Nicaragua, for example, but was the most influential member of Congress pushing for aid to the Mujahideen. These were the bleeders. The dealers were people largely confined to the State Department, all the while undermined by, uh, Brzezinski, the CIA.

and those who were looking to shake things up in Afghanistan. People like the Secretary of State at the time, Cyrus Vance, who was kicked out of the administration fairly early on in the conflict, um, and an ambassador to Afghanistan named [00:13:00] Adolf Dubs, who was, in a very bad turn of luck for Afghanistan, assassinated in the country, which gave the, uh, American leaders the ability to, ratchet up a justification and materiel and support for the war against the Soviets inside that country.

So, um, it was a, it was a war pretty easily won within the White House by the bleeders at the time.

David Sirota: So just to Set the scene here. So the Soviets they don't really want to go into Afghanistan. They have a destabilized country, nearby. They want to go in, stabilize it, get out. People like the bleeders like Brzezinski actually see an opportunity here, an opportunity for the so called Afghan trap to give the Soviets their own version of Vietnam to weaken the Soviet Union.

This is part of, they see this as a way to be a thorn in the side, a weakening thorn in the side of the United States chief global adversary, the [00:14:00] Soviet Union. There was a stat in Blowback that's kind of amazing. A stat about our involvement in this effectively a proxy war wasn't some small C.

I. A. Op. You report that at one point in the 19 eighties, this was 50 to 70 percent of the C. I. A. S. Operations budget. Now, when you when you said that stat, is that a stat about the sort of, uh, Islamic fundamentalist jihad sort of around the world? Or is that in Afghanistan specifically? And I guess what I'm getting at is just paint a picture for how, how big an operation this was for the CIA, how big a priority was.

It wasn't some small little thing that they were sort of, you know, some side project. Right.

Noah Kulwin: No, and I think another thing to sort of, uh, you know, the, the thing about Afghanistan that's really set it apart and enabled that level of expenditure [00:15:00] is that Afghanistan, even in the 1980s was a good war. It was a clean war. So even though the funds, the CIA is money. For, uh, Afghanistan was literally held in the same accounts at BCCI, the criminal bank, as the CIA's money for the Contras, which was very illegal, Afghanistan was good.

And so I think when we, when we describe how, you know, how was it that Afghanistan came to occupy You know, this, this, this, this level of expenditure, this incredible cost and all this devastation. you know, it was not always front of mind. In fact, it was even as a lot of the money was going into the Afghan jihad.

It was not necessarily always the thing that was most in the mind of these people. They were spitting quite a number of plates. However, uh, it was a place where they saw a lot of success and. I think that as far as a, you know, an operation that they could keep on the books and one that they didn't have to lie about [00:16:00] because they were so proud of how they were doing this one.

Uh, Afghanistan, you know, it was a, it was, was the good for, for a lot of people in Langley. Uh, it was the good war,

uh, that they, that they always wanted.

Brendan James: and also it was but but it was in large part off the books, there was a public support, you know, for the Mujahideen again, Charlie Wilson was sort of the face of that he would go on talk shows and, and with with one hand urge the United States to commit more while simultaneously You know, keeping quiet on what was actually being done at that time.

Um, at a certain point he was calling for more support when, as you just said, it was the vast majority of the CIA's operational budget. And when you ask about whether that was just in Afghanistan, it was not. Uh, there were recruitments happening all over the world with American involvement, with American agents doing the recruiting.

there was a recruitment center in Brooklyn. Very close to where I'm recording this with you, called the Kifa Center. Uh, this is [00:17:00] where, um, really a proto Al Qaeda was, uh, germinating. And, There were American agents who, or, or rather, uh, allies. Uh, some of them were assets, some of them were more, um, kept at arm's length, but they would turn up later in things like the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, um, in the operations of Al-Qaeda in Africa, in, in the late, uh, 1990s.

And of course, um, uh, we would get to know Osama Bin Laden very well after nine 11. So it was a global effort and it was the rallying cry of, you know, political Islam in many parts of the world was, was Afghanistan and, uh, it was shaped by the policy of the United States, along with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, who was right next door to Afghanistan, just as the Soviets were, and other players as well, like Israel, uh, like Egypt, um, and, and, um, other places that were also looking to use Islamic fundamentalism as a, uh, tool in their foreign policy.

David Sirota: And I want to, that's a [00:18:00] great segue to the next question, which is, You talk about an alliance between the United States and Islamic fundamentalism. And I think when some people hear that, they're like, wait a minute. I don't get it. Like, the Ayatollah of Iran, he's an Islamic fundamentalist and he was our big enemy.

And, you know, Osama bin Laden became our big enemy. Just explain, give us some examples of how this wasn't, you know, it certainly was, Afghanistan was a focus of that, but how this really was an alliance, a strategic alliance between America and Islamic fundamentalism and and how it was a deliberate effort.

Alliance between those like what are some other examples of where we decided that we would make common cause we the United States with the jihad,

Brendan James: Well, the oldest example is probably Saudi Arabia itself. Um, in the 1930s, uh, around there, there was a handshake, uh, that persists to this day. [00:19:00] There's a lot of politicking going on right now between America and Saudi Arabia and China, as China becomes more powerful. But the Saudis have always been, our point man in the Middle East, and we're a loyal customer of theirs for obvious reasons.

and with that relationship, Uh, you had other Gulf monarchies who justified their, their existence and their authority through Islam, through Islamic authority. you, you had a, a clear delineation as a scholar named Timothy Mitchell writes in a book called Carbon Democracy. Um, most of the secular nationalist modernizing forces in the Arab world and in the Muslim world beyond the, the Middle East were secular and did not justify their politics or exercise their politics through Islamic authority or through Islamic fundamentalism.

In fact, they were enemies of those types of political

David Sirota: So we're talking about, we're talking about, we're talking about Egypt. We're talking about, uh, Iraq,

Brendan James: Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and the PLO, the, the Palestinian movement. While there were terms that were kind of loosely interpreted in the West as [00:20:00] Islamic, like jihad, and of course we use the term jihad referring to our... policy in Afghanistan, jihad was used in a secular sense by the PLO.

It was not a Hamas style, uh, theocratic movement, but we were, pretty much on the opposite side of the table from every one of those states or groups that we just mentioned. Whereas we were on the same side of the table when it came to the, um, Islamic, theocratic movements. Or, foot soldiers like the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.

So, um, the scholar Timothy Mitchell, who I just mentioned, rather than think of the world as divided into the McDonald's Empire of Capitalism and the, um, Jihad of, supposedly backward or reactionary Islamic fundamentalists, he coins the term McJihad. Um, a blend of the two that really worked in tandem, uh, much more often than either side would like to admit.

David Sirota: Okay. So the soviets get, get out. what happens to Afghanistan after the soviets get out? And, and I [00:21:00] asked that with the, with the obvious question. Direction of the question. What happens that we should know about that created the conditions for what would happen right before 9 11, right after 9 11.

Noah Kulwin: So when the Soviet Union collapsed as a, you know, as a, as a collective, as an entity, the Afghan communist government had been going strong without Soviet, you know, support, uh, Soviet troops for about three years. So, they held out a lot longer than I think most people would have expected.

And, at the end, it was basically though, once the Soviet Union, that superpower fell, the Afghan communist government, you know, its expiration date became sort of a matter of, it was a question of when. And, it fell a few, you know, within a month, a few months, and you know, what happened next essentially, uh, was called the Civil War.

Um, there was a, the people who had [00:22:00] been previously called the Mujahideen, now we can call many of them warlords. Uh, Ahmad Shah Massoud, uh, Golbadine Hekmatyar, Ismail Khan. These were commanders who represented all different constituencies, some allied, some opposed, that, you know, had previously all fought against the Soviet Union, although they frankly spent most of their time fighting against one another, uh, and in this case of the Civil War, they were allowed, you know, they were, they were unleashed and you know, the sort of most telling detail Uh, of how they were unleashed was that Kabul, you know, Afghanistan, in a sense, always had kind of Uh, a chance as a state because it's capital, which was really, it's, you know, the center of government and, and where the, the seat of everything happened was, was this, was this capital city of several million people and it had been pretty much untouched by, uh, you know, or mostly untouched, uh, By the violence, like it had not suffered like other cities of the countryside had over the previous 10, 12 years.

And [00:23:00] it's at this point that like, you know, the warlords just level it. And the country basically begins to go through a series of, you know, uh, convulsions domestically that ultimately, you know, lead to the rise of the only people, you know, like the only people who have yet appeared who could be more, you know, hardline religious, uh, extremists than the warlords that we helped install.

Brendan James: After the Afghan government fell, which as Noah just mentioned, uh, stuck around for many more years than anyone thought it could without Soviet troops on the ground. all the wonderful people we had been funding for the past decade, um, were able to finally. Take up arms against each other without any distractions from the the pesky Soviets and they could really settle the scores They wanted to settle that's why Kabul was destroyed They were all trying to take it and while one held on to it another sent rockets in and while one was kicked out another one moved in and occupied the same position and What this meant was chaos poverty and one of the bloodiest and most destructive periods of the country's [00:24:00] history and the war with the Soviets was supposed, was over, um, but, but the war in Afghanistan went on and I think that's a, that's a key way to, to put this to people trying to understand these eras that lead up to our involvement is war did not stop and then out of the convulsions that, that these warlords were putting the country through came a, Force for order and stability in the eyes of many Afghans and in the eyes of the Americans by this point, which was the Taliban, and that is when the Taliban arrived in the early to mid nineties.

They finally solidify their rule in the mid nineties in 1996. They take Kabul. And afterward, the Americans are trying to work with them on natural gas pipelines and things like this. The only problem is, by the end of the 1990s, it becomes clear that they are a little too close to Osama bin Laden, who is by now, uh, striking against American targets, rather than working with Americans to strike at Soviet targets.

And so this creates a drama, between [00:25:00] the, Taliban government, which everyone in the former, you know, club of, of America, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan quite liked. Uh, and, and their ability to host Osama bin Laden, which, which was a problem and did muck up a lot of deals. And by the time that, uh, 2001 rolls around, we were still in negotiations with the Taliban, but we were starting to threaten them that if they didn't get with the program and let us help them build the pipelines that, that, uh, everyone wanted to build.

They, they might find themselves on the end of American cruise missiles again, and through a bizarre series of events, that is exactly what happened, although perhaps not in the way that everyone thought it was going to happen, after September, uh, 2001.

David Sirota: Okay, so let's talk about Osama Bin Laden. one question comes up. Why were the Taliban... So adamant about harboring him, knowing that we didn't want them to harbor him. Uh, so let's take that question, right? I mean, [00:26:00] was it just that, you know, their ideological allies and that's it. But I mean, if, if the American government's coming to the Taliban saying, Hey, listen, we'll, we'll, we'll deal with you.

We'll help you, you know, build stuff, make money, et cetera, et cetera. If you just, you know, in part, if you just hand over this guy and stop harboring him, why were they so resistant to that?

Brendan James: Well, uh, they, they really weren't as resistant as we like to make it out. There were several moments in which they were, they were talking about handing him over, including right after the attacks of September 11th. in, in every case, there was a heavy, you know, as far as they were, There was a, the heavy hand of the Americans dissuaded them from feeling like they were going to get anything out of it.

And after 9 11, the Bush administration was unequivocal about how it needed to happen. The Taliban essentially wanted to hand bin Laden over to a third party and have it be an orderly thing where they weren't seen as directly handing him to the imperialists, you know. We'll never know if that would have happened because the Bush administration [00:27:00] flatly rejected the offer.

And so for a country that was apparently so interested in acquiring this guy, we stopped any possible conversation to collect him after 9 11 had actually happened. But also before, the Taliban, there were moments where negotiations looked fruitful. neither side was, was, was always, Uh, as, as savvy as they probably could have been though, neither the Taliban nor America, so the handoff never actually happened, but they, they had some ideological affiliation with him, although there were people in the Taliban who said we should give him up, who didn't like him at all.

In fact, the highest religious body in the government, um, told Mullah Omar, who was the head of the Afghanistan, of Afghanistan's government, of the Taliban, they ruled that Osama should be sent away. So it was not a monolithic partnership. but by any stretch of the imagination, it was a much more, um, sort of idiosyncratic, relationship that was really hostage to any given political moment that was playing out between America and, [00:28:00] um, and Osama or with, with the Taliban.

David Sirota: And of course that, that, that gets us to Osama. So, one major storyline covered in Blowback is, is the rise of bin Laden and the lead up to 9 11 and there's this line obviously everyone remembers who lived through it, George W. Bush's line that bin Laden financed the 9 11 attack because he, Supposedly hates our freedom.

That was the the shorthand of it. The actual answer is much more complicated. So what is the answer for why Osama bin Laden, did what he did focused on the United States?

Noah Kulwin: So, if you're seeing the world through Osama Bin Laden's eyes, he is the son of a, uh, you know, Saudi construction magnate, he's a sort of princeling, he's a spoiled rich kid, and, He, you know, unlike his siblings who invest their families largesse and more conventional ways, [00:29:00] you know, uh, real estate investment, you know, finding other more conventional ways of participating in the phenomenon known as, you know, like globalization, Osama is sort of, you know, he, he has swept up in the Afghan struggle and over the course of the 1980s and the 1990s, the U S and Saudi Arabia become Very, you know, that is the period by which they become very, very close.

Like, it wasn't just a constant. It was a trajectory. And the, uh, in particular, that was set in motion by the fall of the Shah of Iran, whose collapse meant that the U. S. needed to find, uh, some new friends. And, and to beef them up. And, around the time of the Gulf War, which was, in effect, the U. S., you know, dispatching Saudi Arabia's, uh, chief local rival.

Thank you. Uh, you know, we were, we were wounding Saddam on their behalf. We sent troops down into Saudi Arabia. And [00:30:00] Osama Bin Laden, you know, he had cassette tapes that were getting passed around in Saudi Arabia at this time. There are many people that, you know, there is a feeling of, anger about what is, you know, what is viewed, what are viewed as concessions to the West that are unacceptable.

And Bin Laden looks at this, he looks at, uh, the spectrum of U. S. operations, uh, you know, Iraq is not the only, Arab or Muslim country in which the U. S. is operating, and what had always been a latent energy of the Mujah quality of the Mujahideen, Anatole Levin, the journalist, uh, whom I interviewed, who's in a bonus episode, he talks about this, you know, the Mujahideen, yeah, they hated the Soviet Union most of all, but next on that list was the United States.

And so it was, in a certain sense, a, uh, view, you know, bin Laden's, uh, disposition, let's say, was not unique And it was just simply he was, you know, the [00:31:00] most possibly well resourced person to be able to act on it and was thus given support and base for those kinds of operations, increasing operations against the U.

S., especially in Sudan before the U. S. got him kicked out of there where he was sent back to Afghanistan in the late 90s.

Brendan James: Yeah, the short answer would be that the Gulf War plopped 500, 000 American troops in what bin Laden and his associates believed was one of the most holy locations in a religious outlook that that that they had. And of course, his adopted homeland as well. He was Yemeni, but he lived in Saudi Arabia, his family did.

And so the Soviet Union being gone, and or by by the Gulf War, greatly reduced in power and prestige, and the Americans suddenly Uh, taking half a million people into what he decided was the holiest place in Islam. this was a sincere ideological belief that there needed to be an opposition to, um, the McDonald's side [00:32:00] of, of the, uh, Approaching 21st century and while he knew damn well that he had worked with the Americans and in fact Al Qaeda would work with, British interests, uh, to say, try to assassinate Muammar Gaddafi in the mid 1990s, for example, this ongoing relationship of Islamic fundamentalists in the West against secular.

states and leaders would go on, there was an increasing acknowledgment that bin laden had an ambitious vision of using a group like Al Qaeda, not so much as a state, but as a, you know, a sword or hammer to, uh, effect change throughout the world to give theocratic. and thereby in, in, in their minds, just, um, states or just political formations in the world a shot against this encroaching empire.

And so that, that is why America is in his sights by the time you get to the bombings in Africa. Uh, in the late 1990s, and that is why he is kicked out of [00:33:00] Sudan. Um, one former c i a guy said we basically told him to go to Afghanistan because we, we didn't let him stay in Sudan. The, the Sudanese claimed that they were gonna hand him over and the Americans claim that was never even on the table.

Another example of, uh, a disputed example, but another example of Osama possibly being acquired by the US long before nine 11 and us. Uh, putting the kibosh on it. Anyway, to, to answer your question, there was a post Soviet reorganization of power in the world that put American troops in even more places that the, co religionists of Osama bin Laden thought was going to get worse and worse and worse, and that something had to be done about it.

David Sirota: So I want to end with a, uh, two very big questions. Um, they're probably hard to answer in, in, in a short period of time, but I want to throw them out there. One of the questions is looking back on this 50, 70 year, a hundred year history, uh, that you, that blowback looks back on in Afghanistan. [00:34:00] What are. In your mind, the big lessons for the United States.

That's one question. And the second question is what about Afghanistan? I feel like outsiders look at, at that country as a perpetually failed state. Racked with civil wars. It's basically, uh, you know, from the great game onward, it's been a, it's been a battlefield and sometimes a warlord state, but, but, but, but basically a battlefield.

And the presumption is that it will never be able to be fortified as a functioning modernized nation. Is that true in your mind? Is that. Not true.

Noah Kulwin: I, I'm skeptical of that as a kind of fait accompli just because there was a functioning state that sought to grant women the right to vote that sought to teach, you know, Uh, girls to read and, you know, believed in electrification and, uh, you know, rural, rural advancement, [00:35:00] not, you know, for private profit, but for public benefit.

It just so happens, though, that we funded the guys who blew that government up. So to the extent that it's true that it has, you know, that it is just an objective truth that yeah, this country is a battlefield, it's not because it is, you know, drawn up to be that way. The legacy of, you know, lines on a map, even stuff as powerful as the Durand line separating, you know, cleaving Afghanistan from Pakistan, uh, you know, that, that, that isn't perhaps as powerful, I think our show demonstrates at least, as what happens when you wage a multi billion dollar campaign over many, many years to modernizing government.

And then what it really shows, of course, is that after you've successfully destroyed such a government, it's incredibly difficult to pick the pieces back up, and, you know, it's, it remains to be seen, you know, how that can happen.

Brendan James: I would say to take the question about Afghanistan first and then U. S. lessons, although of course they're very, they're intertwined, uh, the two questions. [00:36:00] Um, I agree with Noah, um, Afghanistan at several moments, and this is to give that country and its history the full agency that any country, you know, should be recognized as having.

They, they were unfortunately up against an empire at almost every single moment of their existence, including what the period we focus on, the modern period. And, um, Before the Americans, before the Soviets, the British waged three different wars against Afghanistan. We don't have to go into all of it, but suffice to say that there was a progressive reformer, uh, who was talking everything the West likes to talk about now, with regard to human, human rights, education, modernizing the economy, and of course women's rights.

Um, this guy was doing all of it. And the British made sure that he was placed into exile and had to run out. And they sponsored religious revolts, um, in order to achieve that, in part. So... There is a, a pattern that repeats over and over again of the West, using puppets to undermine [00:37:00] progress in that country that it was very interested in achieving, you know, that leaders at least were interested in achieving.

You also do have to take into account, however, that it was a society that was very hard to organize. Um, because of lines drawn on a map by, by British imperialists, there was an, there was a, a ethnic, uh, conflict that was baked into the existence of, of Pakistan, Pakistan being a, a neighbor to Afghanistan, and, um, there were times when the Afghans themselves really were warring with each other as much as anyone was making war against them, so it's a very complicated and unfortunately tragic, uh, story, but I think the thing to underline is it was never, Uh, something that was simply inherent in Afghanistan that they had to become the unfortunate case that that that they've become.

any country goes through. things from civil war to, you know, um, political confusion, our country certainly has. But they were never allowed to make mistakes. They were never allowed to pick up their own pieces again. Whereas a place like America, being the big dog, you know, there's a [00:38:00] freedom of movement and a freedom, uh, to shape one's own destiny that we never allowed them.

And certainly the British never allowed them. And I'm sure to a certain degree they felt the Soviets did not allow them. So, that's the, that's the best thing I can, I can put together about how to think of Afghanistan as its own country. But the lessons for America, I mean, we're, I'm sure we don't need to tell your listeners that we're still engaged in proxy wars all over the world.

Some are, uh, occupying more headlines than others, but I think there is a commonality to all of them that can be seen in the substance of this season we've done on Afghanistan. And, one thing I would stress is that, The PR machine for these conflicts is very, very good and the Afghanistan, the war against the Soviets, not even getting to our war after 9 11, was a very, very powerful and state directed, PR program that, uh, the American media was happy to, uh, join in on, and so however black and white a conflict is made to appear, however, um, easy or, um, Um, [00:39:00] Uh, on its face, good, a conflict is painted to appear, you really must consider the source and you really must always conclude that, uh, this is not a charity organization, you know, the, the, the State Department or the CIA or the Defense Department, uh, and, and I think that Afghanistan was a case in which in the 1980s, your average American thought, of course, we're supporting democracy in Afghanistan, those are religious patriots, freedom fighters, it's almost a punchline now, but at the time, it was taken very seriously.

And there was really no room for moral ambiguity. That was reserved for another conflict, the Contras. Um, just to say the Iraq War was used as kind of the bad war, where Afghanistan could be the good war. And so even today, when we've withdrawn from Afghanistan, there are other conflicts, like Ukraine, like things that we're doing in Africa already, like our war with China, our undeclared, you know, economic, and in some ways, um, Cold War with China that's going on right now.

There is an immense amount of propaganda. That is deployed daily in the same way there was in Afghanistan in the 1980s and onward. So that's what I would say is [00:40:00] worth looking at when you listen to our our show.

David Sirota: I mean, there is an amazing review of a Dan Rather segment special about Afghanistan in blowback that I had never heard of that is just so kind of mind blowing in support of what you're saying, illustrating, the kind of propaganda, how powerful it really is, how, how, persuasive it is. If you're not really paying attention, and asking real questions.

Brendan James and Noah Cohen are the producers and hosts of Blowback, probably my favorite, or at least one of my favorite podcasts. Their new season covers the history of foreign intervention in Afghanistan. You can find it at blowback. show. That's just, put it right into your browser, blowback. show.

Brendan and Noah, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

Brendan James: Thank you, David.

Noah Kulwin: Thank you.

David Sirota: That's it for today's show. As a reminder, our paid [00:41:00] subscribers who get lever time premium, you get to hear our interview earlier this week with attorney Jeffrey Simon, who's part of the legal team suing 17 fossil fuel companies for their contributions to a 2021 heat wave that killed 69 people in Oregon.

To listen to LeverTime Premium, just head over to levernews. com to become a supporting subscriber. When you do, You also get access to all of the Lever's premium content, including our weekly newsletters and our live events. And that's all for just 8 a month or 70 for the year. One last favor. Please, please, please be sure to like, subscribe, and write a review for Lever Time on your favorite podcast app.

And check out all of the incredible reporting our team has been doing over at LeverNews. com. Until next time, I'm David Sirota. Rock the boat.

The Lever Time Podcast is a production of the Lever and the Lever Podcast Network. It's hosted by me, David Sirota. Our producer is Frank Capello with help from Lever producer, Jared Jacang Mayor. [00:42:00]