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The United States will depart Afghanistan on Aug. 31, after almost 20 years of nation-building, the most recent foreign power to surrender that harsh, cold, Himalayan terrain, “the graveyard of empires,” back to the Afghan people.

The British tried three times to tame the poor but fierce Afghan fighters. In the first Afghan War, 1839-1840, the British marched in with high hopes, but suffered one of the worst military disasters of the 19th century, an outright slaughter.

The Afghan people, the British discovered, were not easily subdued.

British soldiers suffered a similar fate in a second Afghan War, 1878-1880, and again in 1919, near the end of World War I, in a third Afghan War.

The Soviet Union tried to take control of Afghanistan throughout the 1980s. Coming from the north, the Soviet Union’s Army pushed across the border into Afghanistan on Dec. 24, 1979, and by a pincer movement swarmed into Kabul in 1980.

Soviet officials claimed that they were there to “secure roads and towns, stabilize a new Afghan communist government, but that they would withdraw in six months to one year.”

U.S. officials read the Soviet Army’s invasion as another of their Cold War aggressive tactics. The U.S. President Jimmy Carter was so dismayed by the blatant aggression that he insisted that U.S. athletes boycott Moscow’s Summer Olympics in 1980, a retaliation that pleased no one.

The Soviets though were soon stunned by the ferocity of the Afghan Mujahideen, guerrilla fighters, who resented the Soviet’s presence on their land, took enormous losses, but refused to surrender.

The Soviet-Afghan War lasted for almost a decade, until Feb. 15, 1989, when the last of the Soviet soldiers departed. The Afghan communist government collapsed three years later, in 1992.

A British journalist, Patrick Brogan, wrote in 1989, “The simplest explanation is probably the best. The Soviets got sucked into Afghanistan much as the U.S. got sucked into Vietnam, without clearly thinking through the consequences, and wildly underestimating the hostility they would arouse.”

Soviet officials dispatched a total of 620,000 soldiers into Afghanistan; of those, 14,453 were killed, 53,753 were wounded, and 415,932 were sick, due to hepatitis and typhoid fever. The broken men returned to their homes, but took with them physical injuries, mental difficulties, as well as alcoholism.

The Afghan people though suffered far worse. The Soviets killed between 562,000 and 2 million Afghans. Best estimate is 800,000. Another 1.2 million were disabled. Millions were turned into refugees. Five million fled the country, mainly into Pakistan, and another 2 million were displaced.

The Soviets were in a vicious fight. Through Operation Cyclone, the U.S.’s CIA funneled funds and arms to the Mujahideen. Then, “volunteers from other Muslim countries, known as ‘Afghan Arabs,’ who wanted to wage holy war, jihad, against the atheist communists,” came swarming in.

One of those Afghan Arabs was Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi, then in his late 20s, who paid for arms, built crude roads, recruited volunteers from Saudi Arabia, and fought alongside Afghan rebels, who numbered between 175,000 and 250,000.

In recent days, the journalist Peter Bergen published a new biography on Osama bin Laden. Bergen writes, “For the Arabs, it was emotional to travel among the Afghans. When villagers heard that there was an Arab outside, they all came out of their homes, because he spoke the language of the Prophet.”

On April 17, 1987, some 200 Soviet Airborne Troops attacked Jaji, Osama bin Laden’s compound, nicked-named al-Masada, meaning “the Lion’s den,” a training facility. The fight lasted into May. Osama bin Laden fought alongside Afghan rebels, suffered a foot injury, and may have breathed in napalm.

In 1988, he established al-Qaeda, meaning “the base,” an organization designed to inflict terror.

An elated Osama Bin Laden witnessed the Soviet Union Army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

What drove him towards terrorism? Possible answers: His religious nature. His frantic need to copy and emulate the Prophet’s thoughts and actions. His disgust for Western powers’ cultural and military influence upon Islamic nations. His refusal to listen to others. His scant regard for innocent people.

But, the fact that the Mujahideen had driven out the Soviet Union, a superpower, was convincing proof that he and his fellow Muslims could win, that Europe and the United States were weak, that he and al-Quaeda would drive all the western powers out of Islamic countries.

Henceforth, he would live to strike terror in the hearts of Americans.

On Feb. 22, 1998, Osama bin Laden issued his first of two fatwas, a declaration. “The United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula. The ruling to kill Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is a duty for every Muslim.”

Next time in these pages: “9-11.”