They terrorized all of Afghanistan, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and resistance fighters. And the sons and grandsons of those dead warriors are killing Americans today, 17 years after we invaded to go after the terrorists who planned the 9/11 attacks.
By occupying their nation for a generation, we have in one sense become the Soviets in Afghan eyes.
Trump says he wants out. He decided at least 18 months ago that the American war in Afghanistan was “a disaster” and that “we ought to just exit completely,” according to Bob Woodward’s book “Fear.”
It’s true that the United States has been in the Afghan jihad for a very long time — so long that we sometimes forget we became part of the war precisely 40 years ago — 10 months before the Soviets blundered into Kabul.
The CIA smuggled billions of dollars in weapons into the hands of the Afghan resistance. That bled the Red Army, leaving at least 15,000 soldiers and commandos dead on the battlefield. The United States thought it had won the last great battle of the Cold War. Victory has proved fleeting.
A thousand-page trove of just-declassified White House, CIA and State Department documents adds significantly to our knowledge of what happened before and after the Soviet invasion. It shows that in 1980, President Carter’s CIA spent close to $100 million shipping weapons to the Afghan resistance.
Carter’s global gun-running was more aggressive than we knew. He aimed to oust the Soviets. The United States even enlisted revolutionary Iran, which held American hostages. In the 1980s, it grew to become the biggest American covert action of the Cold War. President Reagan eventually upped the ante to $700 million a year.
One moral of the story: When we walked away from our Afghan allies at the end of the Cold War, we created a vacuum. And that vacuum became a whirlwind. It spawned the Taliban and al-Qaeda. And then the war came home.
The documents detail the start of a road to hell.
The American ambassador in Kabul, Adolph “Spike” Dubs, was kidnapped and killed on Valentine’s Day 1979. He had been the American charge d’affaires in Moscow. The killing bore the hallmarks of a political murder. “His death certainly seemed to involve the responsibility of the Afghan government, and probably the Soviets,” Bruce Flatin, the embassy’s political counselor, reported to Washington. As with the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo 1914, a handful of bullets sparked a great conflagration.
The White House, propelled by national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, began thinking about covert action to support the armed Afghan resistance, which was three months old. Brzezinski knew the CIA’s ability to do that was “extremely limited.” It had the barest grasp on who the resistance leaders were and what they thought. It also believed strongly that the Soviets “would be most reluctant to introduce large numbers of ground forces into Afghanistan.”
The CIA nonetheless proposed on Feb. 28 that it could buy “lethal military equipment” for the mujahideen, the holy warriors of Afghanistan — or spark “a lightning coup d’etat.” Six weeks later, the CIA started “a series of black propaganda operations designed to support the tribal revolt in Afghanistan.”
Carter moved cautiously at first. He signed a secret order on July 3 authorizing CIA “support to Afghan insurgents, either in the form of cash or nonmilitary supplies.” The modest initial sum — $695,000 — reflected the agency’s limited capabilities. Through the summer and fall, political chaos engulfed the pro-Moscow regime. The Afghan insurgency grew. So did the number of Soviet military advisers. But the CIA reported that its analysts “continue to feel that the deteriorating situation does not presage an escalation of Soviet military involvement in the form of a direct combat role.”
They thought Moscow feared “the grave and open-ended task of holding down an Afghan insurgency in rugged terrain” — a task that had defeated Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and the British. They held that thought until Christmas, when the first wave of 100,000 Soviet combat troops and commandos poured south to begin the occupation. The CIA sent a flash bulletin to the president: U.S. spy satellites were watching “the first significant use of Soviet ground forces outside the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe since the end of World War II.”
Douglas J. MacEachin, later the chief of CIA’s intelligence analysts, remembered: “One of the dark humor jokes circulating around CIA in the months after the invasion was that the analysts got it right, and it was the Soviets who got it wrong.” In fact, Soviet leaders had been marching in lockstep toward an invasion for months, as the minutes of a March 1979 Politburo meeting show. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko insisted that “under no conditions can we lose Afghanistan.” KGB chairman Yuri Andropov: “We cannot lose Afghanistan.” Premier Alexei Kosygin: “We must not lose Afghanistan.” They feared that an Islamic government might inflame 40 million Muslims living in the Soviet Union.
The Soviet attack brought a similar solidarity to the White House. After an emergency National Security Council meeting on Dec. 27, Carter signed a secret order: “Our ultimate goal is the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Even if this is not attainable, we should make Soviet involvement as costly as possible.” The battle was on.
By Jan. 21, 1980, the CIA was shipping at least 16 tons of guns, grenades and mines to Pakistan’s intelligence service, which delivered them to the Afghan rebels. The Saudis began buying millions of dollars of Soviet-bloc arms from Egypt, and the CIA flew them into battle. The Chinese trucked missiles for the Afghans over the world’s highest mountain pass. Two thousand Soviets and tens of thousands of Afghans were dead before winter’s end.
The declassified documents also include a warning Brzezinski received from an NSC staffer, Thomas Thornton, about the Afghan holy warriors: “They tend to be a pretty ugly bunch. I shudder to think of the human rights problems we would face if they came to power.” The CIA nonetheless singled out the grim-faced Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as the most effective killer of communists. He would receive a huge share of the CIA’s guns and money over the next decade. The United States and its allies gave him more than $1 billion in armaments.
I met him in Afghanistan in 1992. “We have already had one and a half million martyrs,” Hekmatyar told me. “We are ready to offer as many to establish a true Islamic republic. We are ready to remain in the mountains for another 14 years.” His acolytes are still out there, killing Americans.
On June 2, 1980, Brzezinski gave the green light to a remarkable CIA proposal. Iran — which had seized 52 American hostages, including four CIA officers — would join the secret arms-smuggling network. The United States would procure the weapons, the Pakistanis would fly them into Iran, and the Iranians would help truck them into western Afghanistan. The national security adviser noted “the extreme importance of the Afghanistan resistance effort” in approving the plan.
The Iran deal was done because the Pakistani pipeline was full. By summer’s end, the CIA had delivered, in addition to millions of dollars in cash, 10,000 AK-47s with 13 million rounds of ammunition, 720 antitank rocket launchers and 14,000 rockets, 15,000 land mines, 158 surface-to-air missiles, 200 heavy machine guns and 800,000 rounds of ammunition, along with other weaponry and nonlethal aid.
With the arrival of Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office, everyone knew the operation would expand. The week of the November 1980 election, in a meeting in Saudi Arabia, Gen. Akhtar Abdul Rahman, the Pakistani intelligence chief, told John McMahon, director of the CIA’s clandestine service, that the Pakistanis would ship to Afghanistan as many weapons as the United States could provide. Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi spy chief, reaffirmed he would match the CIA’s spending dollar for dollar. Soon Afghanistan was awash with billions of dollars in weapons.
But when the Soviets left, the Americans left the field of battle, too.
I traveled through Afghanistan again in 1994. Jihadis from all over the world were gathering there. The first World Trade Center bombing was on their minds. The talk was that they’d knocked off one superpower — the Soviets — and they could knock off the next. America was nowhere to be seen. Not a penny of its aid was to be had.
I sat by the banks of the Kunar River, listening to Haji Rahmat Khan, a once-prosperous farmer whose groves of oranges and pomegranates had been destroyed in the fight against the godless communists. He was an old man with a long gray beard and glittering eyes. And he saw the next war coming. “There is a fire burning in Afghanistan,” he said. “Now, if there is a fire in my house, and my neighbor won’t help put it out, what kind of neighbor is he? Doesn’t he understand that his own house may burn?”