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.
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 Qaeda.
Bin Laden and his lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, were convinced that they were the protagonists in a world historical drama, when in fact they were more like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, jabbering outside of the limelight.
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.
Today, a new "blowback" thesis is in the works. The Washington Post, Time magazine and the Associated Press are just a few of the news outlets that have asserted the U.S. is arming the Sunnis in Iraq. This is simply not true, Gen. David H. Petraeus insisted in congressional testimony Monday. But it's no surprise that so many people are leaping to that conclusion because the familiar "blowback" story line is the only plausible one for millions of people who've made up their minds that the war is, was and forever shall be hubristic folly.
Similarly, opponents of the war denounced Petraeus' testimony before he said a single word, not because they know the facts better than Petraeus -- please -- but because anything that doesn't fit the narrative of an ever-worsening quagmire must be a lie of some kind. MoveOn.org even seems willing to suggest that Petraeus' personal motives are perfidious.
Now, many war supporters have certainly forced reality to kneel before faith in recent years. But reality can't stay on bended knees for very long, so those running the Iraq project have had to change course and give facts the respect they deserve.
Many Democrats too have been grudgingly breaking from their base's otherworldly narrative of late, though they continue to insist that a "political solution" can be had in Iraq without a concomitant military one. Even the Sunni insurgents are coming to grips with the fact that Al Qaeda doesn't have Iraq's best interests at heart.
But there is one group that is under no inclination to nod to reality: Al Qaeda. The jihadis' mission, as always, is to create a new reality.
If the Bin Laden of the late 1980s could convince himself that his motley crew delivered the death blow to the Evil Empire, leading to the formation of Al Qaeda, one can only imagine what lesson he and the Bin Ladens of tomorrow would take from America's defeat in Iraq. That's a story line we should all hope won't be written.