A prominent feature of President Reagan’s foreign policy objectives involved the massive amount of funding that went to supporting the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in a covert proxy war against the former Soviet Union during his time in office. This action had two main deleterious consequences. The first was the possibility of escalating the cold war with the Soviet Union to an actual "hot" war. The second is that this funding sewed the seeds for the rise to power of the Taliban and the presence and rise to prominence of Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan.
Covert actions in Afghanistan had begun under the Carter Administration in 1979 but there was a steep escalation in support to the Mujahideen, the so-called freedom fighters, provided under the Reagan Administration. Under the direction of then CIA director William Casey the United States began funneling billions of dollars to these resistance fighters in Afghanistan, initially to disrupt the Soviet efforts, but ultimately to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan and drive them out. This became a very tenuous situation because it could have elicited a strong response from the Soviet Union, particularly because of how far the CIA began to take their efforts. In Steve Coll’s 1992 piece Anatomy of Victory: CIA’s Covert Afghan War, he describes:
“Pakistani intelligence officers -- partly inspired by Casey -- began independently to train Afghans and funnel CIA supplies for scattered strikes against military installations, factories and storage depots within Soviet territory”
The italics are mine to emphasize the significance. If the Soviets took this for what it was, an indirect attack on them within their borders by the Unites States, the consequences could have been far reaching. President Reagan could have been known as the President that brought on thermonuclear war.
What President Reagan should be known for, however, is the fact that these efforts, including billions in funding and military equipment, did in fact sew the seeds for the rise of the Taliban, and later the presence of Al Quaeda, in the power vacuum that ensued after Soviet withdrawal. Of these funds, Steve Coll writes:
“In all, the United States funneled more than $2 billion in guns and money to the mujaheddin [sic] during the 1980s, according to U.S. officials. It was the largest covert action program since World War II.”
Once President Gorbechev took power in 1986, he apparently wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan and wanted to strike a deal with the Reagan Administration to help him do so. According to Fred Kaplan in his 2004 article in Slate, Reagan’s Osama Connection, the Reagan administration was unwilling to negotiate such a deal. What resulted was not a draw down but an escalation in which the Soviets attacked a group of fighters led by Osama Bin Laden. The following occurred as recounted by Steve Coll in his book Ghost Wars (as quoted by Fred Kaplan in Reagan’s Osama Connection):
“The battle lasted for about a week. Bin Laden and 50 Arab volunteers faced 200 Russian troops. … The Arab volunteers took casualties but held out under intense fire for several days. More than a dozen of bin Laden's comrades were killed, and bin Laden himself apparently suffered a foot wound. … Chronicled daily at the time by several Arab journalists … the battle of Jaji marked the birth of Osama bin Laden's public reputation as a warrior among Arab jihadists. … After Jaji he began a media campaign designed to publicize the brave fight waged by Arab volunteers who stood their ground against a superpower. In interviews and speeches … bin Laden sought to recruit new fighters to his cause and to chronicle his own role as a military leader. He also began to expound on expansive new goals for the jihad.”
Fred Kaplan sums up what this meant to the long-term situation in Afghanistan. He writes:
“Reagan can't be blamed for ignoring the threat of Osama Bin Laden. Not for another few years would any analyst see Bin Laden as a significant player in global terrorism…However, Reagan—and those around him—can be blamed for ignoring the rise of Islamic militancy in Afghanistan and for failing to see Gorbachev's offer to withdraw as an opportunity to clamp the danger”
Even if one does not want to assign direct culpability for Osama Bin Laden to the Reagan Administration, one can be sure that the rise of the Taliban was a direct result of the Reagan administration’s policies. The Taliban was extremely ruthless to the people of Afghanistan, particularly the women who were often publicly flogged or executed for minor infractions of the Talban’s draconian gender policies. Either way, the policy of the Reagan Administration in the Middle East can be considered remarkably cavalier and extremely careless in its myopia.