Bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan from Saudi Arabia in 1979, aged 22. Though he saw a considerable amount of combat – around the eastern city of Jalalabad in March 1989 and, earlier, around the border town of Khost – his speciality was logistics.
From his base in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, he used his experience of the construction trade, and his money, to build a series of bases where the mujahideen could be trained by their Pakistani, American and, if some recent press reports are to be believed, British advisers.
One of the camps bin Laden built, known as Al-Badr, was the target of the American missile strikes against him last summer. Now it is used by Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, a Pakistan-based organisation that trains volunteers to fight in Kashmir.
Some of their recruits kidnapped and almost certainly killed a group of Western hostages a few years ago. The bases are still full of new volunteers, many Pakistanis. Bin Laden was only loosely connected with the group, serving under another Hezb-i-Islami commander known as Engineer Machmud.
However, bin Laden’s Office of Services, set up to recruit overseas for the war, received some US cash.
But according to one American official, concentrating on bin Laden is a mistake. ‘The point is not the individuals,’ he said last week. ‘The point is that we created a whole cadre of trained and motivated people who turned against us. It’s a classic Frankenstein’s monster situation.’
Others point out that the military contribution of the ‘Arabs’, as the overseas volunteers were known, was relatively small. ‘The fighting was done by the Afghans and most of them went back to their fields when Kabul fell to the mujahideen,’ said Kamaal Khan, a Pakistani defence analyst. ‘Ironically, the bulk of American aid went to the least effective fighters, who turned most strongly to bite the hand that fed them.’