Former head of Saudi intelligence recounts America’s longstanding ties to Afghanistan

It's been three months since the U.S. withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, but America's involvement there didn't begin after Sept. 11, 2001. It began decades earlier, after the Soviet Union invaded that country in 1979 and the U.S. began working with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to counter its rival's influence. Nick Schifrin spoke with one of the key architects and partners in that effort.

Read the Full Transcript

  • William Brangham:

    It's been three months since the U.S. withdrew its forces from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, but America's involvement there didn't begin after September 11, 2001. It began decades earlier, after the Soviet Union invaded that country in 1979.

    The U.S. wanted to do everything it could to counter the Russians during the Cold War. And so, at that time, the U.S. worked with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to arm Afghan Islamist fighters known as the mujahideen.

    Nick Schifrin recently talked with one of the key architects and partners in that effort.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    From the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the 9/11 al-Qaida attacks plotted in Afghanistan, few people have been focused on the country and the battles its people waged on behalf of world powers than Prince Turki Al-Faisal, whose term as Saudi intelligence head coincided almost exactly with those years.

    He's written a new book, "The Afghanistan File."

    Your Royal Highness, welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Prince Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud, Former Saudi Intelligence Director:

    Thank you, Mr. Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's start at the beginning.

    In 1979, the Soviets invade Afghanistan. And the Carter administration decides to fund the mujahideen the Afghan fighters who would fight the Soviet Union.

    There's a formal decision by the middle of 1980 for Saudi Arabia to essentially split the cost with the United States and have the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, funnel weapons to the mujahideen.

    You were, of course, in the middle of that effort. How did it work?

  • Prince Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud:

    The recipients were picked on their ability to harm the Soviets, basically. The Pakistanis and us and the Americans would sit together and see which one was more effective reaching certain targets that were put for them.

    I would say that, on the issue of Afghanistan, from 1979 until I left the intelligence department in 2001, there was, if you like, a good war, and then there was a bad war. The good war is when we got the Soviets out jointly.

    But once that happened the United States, basically, and the other countries in the world turned their back on Afghanistan. And, unfortunately, the mujahideen that had worked so well together to get the Soviets out, they began to fight each other, and there was civil war. And that's what I would call a bad war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In retrospect, do you think, if the international community had stayed focused on Afghanistan, the country could have looked different in the 1990s?

  • Prince Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud:

    I believe so, because remaining in a dysfunctional state, as it happened in the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, allowed for all sorts of developments to take place, including the formation of al-Qaida.

    Its roots began in the late '80s in the refugee camps of Afghans in Pakistan, with bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, who is now the head of al-Qaida.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But is it only what happened there?

    Saudi Arabia itself has been accused of basically sowing the seeds of Islamist radicalism.

    You write in the book — quote — "We simply tolerated Saudis to fight in Afghanistan if they wished, and we had never thought, when we encouraged young men to go to Pakistan in the 1980s, it might change their political ideas."

    In retrospect, do you think that was naive?

  • Prince Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud:

    Well, it was naive.

    But, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, everybody supported the mujahideen. When, finally, al-Qaida established itself in Afghanistan, and bin Laden in 1989 came to me to inform me that he would like, as he said, to bring his mujahideen to go and fight the communist regime in the Arabian Peninsula, South Yemen, at the time, and I told him, we don't need your mujahideen, basically, so, don't call us, we will call you.

    The same year, 1990, the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, and bin Laden didn't come to me, but he went to another Saudi official, the late defense minister, basically repeated what I had told him before: Thank you very much. Don't interfere.

    And I think that's when he began his enmity, if you like, to the kingdom.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the book, you call bin Laden — quote — "ill-informed, naive, a believer in the most simplistic solutions."

    But you also admit in the book how the expansion of religious influence in Saudi's education system, in the media played a role in creating people like bin Laden.

    Do you believe the kingdom has a part to blame?

  • Prince Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud:

    There was this growth of extremist opinion in Saudi Arabia.

    So, yes, we're — definitely. And we rued the day afterwards, when we were — became even more of the targets of these people inside the kingdom. And that's why the kingdom went through a soul-searching procedure and process, not just by the government, but by the people in general.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Which brings us to today and the kings and crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's efforts to modernize, to diversify the economy.

    For every major announcement, such as buying Newcastle Football Club, hosting Formula 1, there are still condemnations from human rights groups.

    Do you believe it would be wise for Saudi Arabia to change its positions on human rights, if for no other reason than self-interest?

  • Prince Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud:

    Well, it's not a matter of self-interest. It's a matter of being human beings and holding high principles and high ideals.

    It is unacceptable for anybody, and not just Saudi Arabia, to stay rigid on a course and not reform and evolve. And the kingdom has chosen evolution. And the kingdom is, I think, rightfully proud that it has managed in a very short time space to come from, I would say, the 17th century until the 21st century in a period of 60 to 70 years.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Saudi Arabia's critics say it's less a question of whether the kingdom is moving fast enough than the motivations, frankly, of Mohammed bin Salman himself to persecute his critics, not only Jamal Khashoggi, but also with widespread detentions inside the kingdom.

  • Prince Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud:

    Welcome to criticism, if it is fair.

    In every case that they mention about arrests and things like that, they are taken to court. And, in the court, with sentences and with accusations and so on, the process is done, as happened with the killers of Jamal Khashoggi, who were identified and were brought to justice in the kingdom.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's end by bringing this back to Afghanistan.

    In a speech in early November, you said that the U.S. withdrawal would lead U.S. allies to contemplate — quote — "a future away from the Western-dominant paradigm."

    Why?

  • Prince Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud:

    Well, if you can't depend on your friends, who can you depend on?

    I don't think there is anybody that can replace the United States and its — with its military power, its economic power and its diplomatic capabilities and so on. So, we're not seeking to replace the United States.

    But, definitely, I think we are seeking to have friends, more friends. We should not turn our back on Afghanistan. We should hold the Taliban to task to see that they perform on what they said that they will do, an inclusive government, issues of human rights, women's rights, education, et cetera, et cetera, and that they're not going to allow anybody to use Afghan soil to harm others.

    All these things have — the Taliban have to account for. And I don't think we should offer them diplomatic recognition until and unless they do that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Prince Turki Al-Faisal, thank you very much.

  • Prince Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud:

    Thank you, Mr. Schifrin.

Listen to this Segment