On April 17, 1987, Osama bin Laden led 120 of his most fierce Arab mujahedin into battle. The attack was planned for months and billed as a major offensive for the warriors of God against the atheistic Soviet Red Army and its apostate Afghan puppets. The target: an Afghan government position on the outskirts of Khost.
Things went so poorly one wonders what "FUBAR" is in Arabic. None of the mujahedin positions had been supplied with ammunition, which was stuck in a car far from the battle scene. Men were so exhausted from carrying their own rockets and mortars - they didn't have enough mules - that some went back to their cave and passed out from exhaustion before the battle even started. And nobody remembered to pack those pesky wires used for connecting rockets to detonators. A lone government soldier heard the racket bin Laden's men made and kept the entire force pinned down with a machine gun until bin Laden ordered a retreat.
This sort of thing was typical among the so-called Arab Afghans, a few thousand ragtag religious misfits imported from the Arab world, interested not so much in Afghan liberation as global jihad. The real Afghans considered the Arab forces clownish and lousy fighters. They were more like the Keystone Cops than battle-hardened mujahedin.
But the following month, Bin Laden helped lead the Arab Afghans in their most successful military effort: defending their mountain lair, the so-called Lion's Den. The battle was militarily successful in the sense that the already retreating Red Army was held at bay on its way out of Dodge.
"From the Soviet perspective the battle of the Lion's Den was a small moment in the tactical retreat from Afghanistan," wrote Lawrence Wright, my source for all of this, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Looming Tower." But for bin Laden and his followers, it was divine proof that the mujahedin crushed the mighty Soviets. There was, according to Wright, "a dizzying sense that they were living in a supernatural world, in which reality knelt before faith. For them, the encounter at the Lion's Den became the foundation of the myth that they defeated the superpower."
Armed with this useful myth, the Arab Afghans became the core of a new global jihadist insurgency called al-Qaida.
For years, some of the shriller voices on the left have argued that 9/11 was a classic example of "blowback" from our support of the mujahedin's struggle against Afghanistan. But the fact is, we didn't "create bin Laden" - he largely created himself. And to the extent that any superpower can claim credit for him, it's the Soviets. It was their withdrawal, not our support, that convinced the foreign fighters that their pinpricks felled the Soviet bear.