Interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Le Nouvel Observateur (France), Jan 15-21, 1998, p. 76, translated from the original French by William Blum 1
Question: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs [From the Shadows], that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan six months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?
Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.
Question: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?
Brzezinski: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.
Question: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?
Brzezinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, in substance: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.
Question: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalists, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?
Brzezinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war? 2
Question: Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated: Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.
Brzezinski: Nonsense! It is said that the West had a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid. There isn’t a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries.
There are at least two editions of this magazine; with the perhaps sole exception of the Library of Congress, the version sent to the United States is shorter than the French version, and the Brzezinski interview was not included in the shorter version.
It should be noted that there is no demonstrable connection between the Afghanistan war and the breakup of the Soviet Union and its satellites.
His followers first gained attention by throwing acid in the faces of women who refused to wear the veil. CIA and State Department officials I have spoken with call him “scary,” “vicious,” “a fascist,” “definite dictatorship material”. 1
This did not prevent the United States government from showering the man with large amounts of aid to fight against the Soviet-supported government of Afghanistan. His name was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He was the head of the Islamic Party and he hated the United States almost as much as he hated the Russians. His followers screamed “Death to America” along with “Death to the Soviet Union”, only the Russians were not showering him with large amounts of aid. 2
The United States began supporting Afghan Islamic fundamentalists in 1979 despite the fact that in February of that year some of them had kidnapped the American ambassador in the capital city of Kabul, leading to his death in the rescue attempt. The support continued even after their brother Islamic fundamentalists in next-door Iran seized the US Embassy in Teheran in November and held 55 Americans hostage for over a year. Hekmatyar and his colleagues were, after all, in battle against the Soviet Evil Empire; he was thus an important member of those forces Ronald Reagan called “freedom fighters”.
On 27 April 1978, a coup staged by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) overthrew the government of Mohammad Daoud. Daoud, five years earlier, had overthrown the monarchy and established a republic, although he himself was a member of the royal family. He had been supported by the left in this endeavor, but it turned out that Daoud’s royal blood was thicker than his progressive water. When the Daoud regime had a PDP leader killed, arrested the rest of the leadership, and purged hundreds of suspected party sympathizers from government posts, the PDP, aided by its supporters in the army, revolted and took power.
Afghanistan was a backward nation: a life expectancy of about 40, infant mortality of at least 25 percent, absolutely primitive sanitation, widespread malnutrition, illiteracy of more than 90 percent, very few highways, not one mile of railway, most people living in nomadic tribes or as impoverished farmers in mud villages, identifying more with ethnic groups than with a larger political concept, a life scarcely different from many centuries earlier.
Reform with a socialist bent was the new government’s ambition: land reform (while still retaining private property), controls on prices and profits, and strengthening of the public sector, as well as separation of church and state, eradication of illiteracy, legalization of trade unions, and the emancipation of women in a land almost entirely Muslim.
Afghanistan’s thousand-mile border with the Soviet Union had always produced a special relationship. Even while it was a monarchy, the country had been under the strong influence of its powerful northern neighbor which had long been its largest trading partner, aid donor, and military supplier. But the country had never been gobbled up by the Soviets, a fact that perhaps lends credence to the oft-repeated Soviet claim that their hegemony over Eastern Europe was only to create a buffer between themselves and the frequently-invading West.
Nevertheless, for decades Washington and the Shah of Iran tried to pressure and bribe Afghanistan in order to roll back Russian influence in the country. During the Daoud regime, Iran, encouraged by the United States, sought to replace the Soviet Union as Kabul’s biggest donor with a $2 billion economic aid agreement, and urged Afghanistan to join the Regional Cooperation for Development, which consisted of Iran, Pakistan and Turkey. (This organization was attacked by the Soviet Union and its friends in Afghanistan as being a “branch of CENTO” the 1950s regional security pact that was part of the US policy of “containment” of the Soviet Union.) At the same time, Iran’s infamous secret police, SAVAK, was busy fingering suspected Communist sympathizers in the Afghan government and military. In September 1975, prodded by Iran which was conditioning its aid on such policies, Daoud dismissed 40 Soviet-trained military officers and moved to reduce future Afghan dependence on officer training in the USSR by initiating training arrangements with India and Egypt. Most important, in Soviet eyes, Daoud gradually broke off his alliance with the PDP, announcing that he would start his own party and ban all other political activity under a projected new constitution. 3
Selig Harrison, the Washington Post’s South Asia specialist, wrote an article in 1979 entitled “The Shah, Not the Kremlin, Touched off Afghan Coup”, concluding:
The Communist takeover in Kabul [April 1978] came about when it did, and in the way that it did, because the Shah disturbed the tenuous equilibrium that had existed in Afghanistan between the Soviet Union and the West for nearly three decades. In Iranian and American eyes, Teheran’s offensive was merely designed to make Kabul more truly nonaligned, but it went far beyond that. Given the unusually long frontier with Afghanistan, the Soviet Union would clearly go to great lengths to prevent Kabul from moving once again toward a pro-western stance. 4
When the Shah was overthrown in January 1979, the United States lost its chief ally and outpost in the Soviet-border region, as well as its military installations and electronic monitoring stations aimed at the Soviet Union. Washington’s cold warriors could only eye Afghanistan even more covetously than before.
After the April revolution, the new government under President Noor Mohammed Taraki declared a commitment to Islam within a secular state, and to non-alignment in foreign affairs. It maintained that the coup had not been foreign inspired, that it was not a “Communist takeover”, and that they were not “Communists” but rather nationalists and revolutionaries. (No official or traditional Communist Party had ever existed in Afghanistan.) 5 But because of its radical reform program, its class-struggle and anti-imperialist-type rhetoric, its support of all the usual suspects (Cuba, North Korea, etc.), its signing of a friendship treaty and other cooperative agreements with the Soviet Union, and an increased presence in the country of Soviet civilian and military advisers (though probably less than the US had in Iran at the time), it was labeled “communist” by the world’s media and by its domestic opponents.
Whether or not the new government in Afghanistan should properly have been called communist, whether or not it made any difference what it was called, the lines were now drawn for political, military, and propaganda battle: a jihad (holy war) between fundamentalist Muslims and “godless atheistic communists”; Afghan nationalism vs. a “Soviet-run” government; large landowners, tribal chiefs, businessmen, the extended royal family, and others vs. the government’s economic reforms. Said the new prime minister about this elite, who were needed to keep the country running, “every effort will be made to attract them. But we want to re-educate them in such a manner that they should think about the people, and not, as previously, just about themselves – to have a good house and a nice car while other people die of hunger.” 6
The Afghan government was trying to drag the country into the 20th century. In May 1979, British political scientist Fred Halliday observed that “probably more has changed in the countryside over the last year than in the two centuries since the state was established.” Peasant debts to landlords had been canceled, the system of usury (by which peasants, who were forced to borrow money against future crops, were left in perpetual debt to money-lenders) was abolished, and hundreds of schools and medical clinics were being built in the countryside. Halliday also reported that a substantial land-redistribution program was underway, with many of the 200,000 rural families scheduled to receive land under this reform already having done so. But this last claim must be approached with caution. Revolutionary land reform is always an extremely complex and precarious undertaking even under the best of conditions, and ultra-backward, tradition-bound Afghanistan in the midst of nascent civil war hardly offered the best of conditions for social experiments. 7
The reforms also encroached into the sensitive area of Islamic subjugation of women. A 1986 US Army manual on Afghanistan discussing the decrees and the influence of the government concerning women cited the following changes: “provisions of complete freedom of choice of marriage partner, and fixation of the minimum age at marriage at 16 for women”; “abolished forced marriages”; “bring [women] out of seclusion, and initiate social programs”; “extensive literacy programs, especially for women”; “putting girls and boys in the same classroom”; “concerned with changing gender roles and giving women a more active role in politics”. 8
The People’s Democratic Party saw the Soviet Union as the only realistic source of support for the long-overdue modernization. The illiterate Afghan peasant’s ethnic cousins across the border in the Soviet Union were, after all, often university graduates and professionals.
The argument of the Moujahedeen (“holy warriors”) rebels that the “communist” government would curtail their religious freedom was never borne out in practice. A year and a half after the change in government, the conservative British magazine The Economist reported that “no restrictions had been imposed on religious practice”. 9 Earlier, the New York Times stated that the religious issue “is being used by some Afghans who actually object more to President Taraki’s plans for land reforms and other changes in this feudal society.” 10 Many of the Muslim clergy were in fact rich landowners. 11 The rebels, concluded a BBC reporter who spent four months with them, are “fighting to retain their feudal system and stop the Kabul government’s left-wing reforms which [are] considered anti-Islamic”. 12
The two other nations which shared a long border with Afghanistan, and were closely allied to the United States, expressed their fears of the new government. To the west, Iran, still under the Shah, worried about “threats to oil-passage routes in the Persian Gulf”. Pakistan, to the south, spoke of “threats from a hostile and expansionist Afghanistan.” 13 A former US ambassador to Afghanistan saw it as part of a “gradually closing pincer movement aimed at Iran and the oil regions of the Middle East.” 14 None of these alleged fears turned out to have any substance or evidence to back them up, but to the anti-communist mind this might prove only that the Russians and their Afghan puppets had been stopped in time.
Two months after the April 1978 coup, an alliance formed by a number of conservative Islamic factions was waging guerrilla war against the government. 15 By spring 1979, fighting was taking place on many fronts, and the State Department was cautioning the Soviet Union that its advisers in Afghanistan should not interfere militarily in the civil strife. One such warning in the summer by State Department spokesman Hodding Carter was another of those Washington monuments to chutzpah: “We expect the principle of nonintervention to be respected by all parties in the area, including the Soviet Union.” 16 This while the Soviets were charging the CIA with arming Afghan exiles in Pakistan; and the Afghanistan government was accusing Pakistan and Iran of also aiding the guerrillas and even of crossing the border to take part in the fighting. Pakistan had recently taken its own sharp turn toward strict Muslim orthodoxy, which the Afghan government deplored as “fanatic”; 17 while in January, Iran had established a Muslim state after overthrowing the Shah. (As opposed to the Afghan fundamentalist freedom fighters, the Iranian Islamic fundamentalists were regularly described in the West as terrorists, ultra-conservatives, and anti-democratic.)
A “favorite tactic” of the Afghan freedom fighters was “to torture victims [often Russians] by first cutting off their noses, ears, and genitals, then removing one slice of skin after another”, producing “a slow, very painful death”. 18 The Moujahedeen also killed a Canadian tourist and six West Germans, including two children, and a U.S. military attaché was dragged from his car and beaten; all due to the rebels’ apparent inability to distinguish Russians from other Europeans. 19
In March 1979, Taraki went to Moscow to press the Soviets to send ground troops to help the Afghan army put down the Moujahedeen. He was promised military assistance, but ground troops could not be committed. Soviet Prime Minister Kosygin told the Afghan leader:
The entry of our troops into Afghanistan would outrage the international community, triggering a string of extremely negative consequences in many different areas. Our common enemies are just waiting for the moment when Soviet troops appear in Afghanistan. This will give them the excuse they need to send armed bands into the country. 20
In September, the question became completely academic for Noor Mohammed Taraki, for he was ousted (and his death soon announced) in an intra-party struggle and replaced by his own deputy prime minister, Hafizullah Amin. Although Taraki had sometimes been heavy-handed in implementing the reform program, and had created opposition even amongst the intended beneficiaries, he turned out to be a moderate compared to Amin who tried to institute social change by riding roughshod over tradition and tribal and ethnic autonomy.
The Kremlin was unhappy with Amin. The fact that he had been involved in the overthrow and death of the much-favored Taraki was bad enough. But the Soviets also regarded him as thoroughly unsuitable for the task that was Moscow’s sine qua non: preventing an anti-communist Islamic state for arising in Afghanistan. Amin gave reform an exceedingly bad name. The KGB station in Kabul, in pressing for Amin’s removal, stated that his usurpation of power would lead to “harsh repressions and, as a reaction, the activation and consolidation of the opposition” 21 Moreover, as we shall see, the Soviets were highly suspicious a bout Amin’s ideological convictions.
Thus it was, that what in March had been unthinkable, in December became a reality. Soviet troops began to arrive in Afghanistan around the 8th of the month – to what extent at Amin’s request or with his approval, and, consequently, whether to call the action an “invasion” or not, has been the subject of much discussion and controversy.
On the 23rd the Washington Post commented “There was no charge [by the State Department] that the Soviets have invaded Afghanistan, since the troops apparently were invited” 22 However, at a meeting with Soviet-bloc ambassadors in October, Amin’s foreign minister had openly criticized the Soviet Union for interfering in Afghan affairs. Amin himself insisted that Moscow replace its ambassador. 23 Yet, on 26 December, while the main body of Soviet troops was arriving in Afghanistan, Amin gave “a relaxed interview” to an Arab journalist. “The Soviets,” he said, “supply my country with economic and military aid, but at the same time they respect our independence and our sovereignty. They do not interfere in our domestic affairs.” He also spoke approvingly of the USSR’s willingness to accept his veto on military bases. 24
The very next day, a Soviet military force stormed the presidential palace and shot Amin dead. 25
He was replaced by Babrak Karmal, who had been vice president and deputy prime minister in the 1978 revolutionary government.
Moscow denied any part in Amin’s death, though they didn’t pretend to be sorry about it, as Brezhnev made clear:
The actions of the aggressors against Afghanistan were facilitated by Amin who, on seizing power, started cruelly repressing broad sections of Afghan society, party and military cadres, members of the intelligentsia and of the Moslem clergy, that is, the very sections on which the April revolution relied. And the people under the leadership of the People’s Democratic Party, headed by Babrak Karmal, rose against Amin’s tyranny and put an end to it. Now in Washington and some other capitals they are mourning Amin. This exposes their hypocrisy with particular clarity. Where were these mourners when Amin was conducting mass repressions, when he forcibly removed and unlawfully killed Taraki, the founder of the new Afghan state? 26
After Amin’s ouster and execution, the public thronged the streets in “a holiday spirit”. “If Karmal could have overthrown Amin without the Russians,” observed a Western diplomat, “he would have been seen as a hero of the people.” 27 The Soviet government and press repeatedly referred to Amin as a “CIA agent”, a charge which was greeted with great skepticism in the United States and elsewhere. 28 However, enough circumstantial evidence supporting the charge exists so that it perhaps should not be dismissed entirely out of hand.
During the late 1950s and early 60s, Amin had attended Columbia University Teachers College and the University of Wisconsin. 29 This was a heyday period for the CIA – using impressive bribes and threats – to regularly try to recruit foreign students in the United States to act as agents for them when they returned home. During this period, at least one president of the Afghanistan Students Association (ASA), Zia H. Noorzay, was working with the CIA in the United States and later became president of the Afghanistan state treasury. One of the Afghan students whom Noorzay and the CIA tried in vain to recruit, Abdul Latif Hotaki, declared in 1967 that a good number of the key officials in the Afghanistan government who studied in the United States “are either CIA trained or indoctrinated. Some are cabinet level people.” 30 It has been reported that in 1963 Amin became head of the ASA, but this has not been corroborated. 31 However, it is known that the ASA received part of its funding from the Asia Foundation, the CIA’s principal front in Asia for many years, and that at one time Amin was associated with this organization. 32
In September 1979, the month that Amin took power, the American chargé d’affaires in Kabul, Bruce Amstutz, began to hold friendly meetings with him to reassure him that he need not worry about his unhappy Soviet allies as long as the US maintained a strong presence in Afghanistan. The strategy may have worked, for later in the month, Amin made a special appeal to Amstutz for improved relations with the United States. Two days later in New York, the Afghan Foreign Minister quietly expressed the same sentiments to State Department officials. And at the end of October, the US Embassy in Kabul reported that Amin was “painfully aware of the exiled leadership the Soviets [were] keeping on the shelf” (a reference to Karmal who was living in Czechoslovakia). 33 Under normal circumstances, the Amin-US meetings might be regarded as routine and innocent diplomatic contact, but these were hardly normal circumstances – the Afghan government was engaged in a civil war, and the United States was supporting the other side.
Moreover, it can be said that Amin, by his ruthlessness, was doing just what an American agent would be expected to do: discrediting the People’s Democratic Party, the party’s reforms, the idea of socialism or communism, and the Soviet Union, all associated in one package. Amin also conducted purges in the army officer corps which seriously undermined the army’s combat capabilities.
But why would Amin, if he were actually plotting with the Americans, request Soviet military forces on several occasions? The main reason appears to be that he was being pressed to do so by high levels of the PDP and he had to comply for the sake of appearances. Babrak Karmal has suggested other, more Machiavellian, scenarios. 34
The Carter administration jumped on the issue of the Soviet “invasion” and soon launched a campaign of righteous indignation, imposing what President Carter called “penalties” – from halting the delivery of grain to the Soviet Union to keeping the US team out of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
The Russians countered that the US was enraged by the intervention because Washington had been plotting to turn the country into an American base to replace the loss of Iran. 35
Unsurprisingly, on this seemingly clear-cut anti-communist issue, the American public and media easily fell in line with the president. The Wall Street Journal called for a “military” reaction, the establishment of US bases in the Middle East, “reinstatement of draft registration”, development of a new missile, and giving the CIA more leeway, adding: “Clearly we ought to keep open the chance of covert aid to Afghan rebels.” 36 The last, whether the newspaper knew it or not, had actually been going on for some time.
For some period prior to the Soviet invasion, the CIA had been beaming radio propaganda into Afghanistan and cultivating alliances with exiled Afghan guerrilla leaders by donating medicine and communications equipment. 37
US foreign service officers had been meeting with Moujahedeen leaders to determine their needs at least as early as April 1979. 38
And in July, President Carter had signed a “finding” to aid the rebels covertly, which led to the United States providing them with cash, weapons, equipment and supplies, and engaging in propaganda and other psychological operations in Afghanistan on their behalf. 39
Intervention in the Afghan civil war by the United States, Iran, Pakistan, China and others gave the Russians grave concern about who was going to wield power next door. They consistently cited these “aggressive imperialist forces” to rationalize their own intervention into Afghanistan, which was the first time Soviet ground troops had engaged in military action anywhere in the world outside its post-World War II Eastern European borders. The potential establishment of an anti-communist Islamic state on the borders of the Soviet Union’s own republics in Soviet Central Asia that were home to some 40 million Muslims could not be regarded with equanimity by the Kremlin any more than Washington could be unruffled about a communist takeover in Mexico.
As we have seen repeatedly, the United States did not limit its defense perimeter to its immediate neighbors, or even to Western Europe, but to the entire globe. President Carter declared that the Persian Gulf area was “now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan”, that this area was synonymous with US interests, and that the United States would “defend” it against any threat by all means necessary. He called the Soviet action “the greatest threat to peace since the Second World War”, a statement that required overlooking a great deal of post-war history. But 1980 was an election year.
Brezhnev, on the other hand, declared that “the national interests or security of the United States of America and other states are in no way affected by the events in Afghanistan. All attempts to portray matters otherwise are sheer nonsense.” 40
The Carter administration was equally dismissive of Soviet concerns. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski later stated that “the issue was not what might have been Brezhnev’s subjective motives in going into Afghanistan but the objective consequences of a Soviet military presence so much closer to the Persian Gulf.” 41
The stage was now set for 12 long years of the most horrific kind of warfare, a daily atrocity for the vast majority of the Afghan people who never asked for or wanted this war. But the Soviet Union was determined that its borders must be unthreatening. The Afghan government was committed to its goal of a secular, reformed Afghanistan. And the United States was intent upon making this the Soviets’ Vietnam, slowly bleeding as the Americans had.
At the same time, American policymakers could not fail to understand – though they dared not say it publicly and explicitly – that support of the Moujahedeen (many of whom carried pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeini with them) could lead to a fundamentalist Islamic state being established in Afghanistan every bit as repressive as in next-door Iran, which in the 1980s was Public Enemy Number One in America. Neither could the word “terrorist” cross the lips of Washington officials in speaking of their new allies/clients, though these same people shot down civilian airliners and planted bombs at the airport. In 1986, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose emotional invectives against “terrorists” were second to none, welcomed Abdul Haq, an Afghan rebel leader who admitted that he had ordered the planting of a bomb at Kabul airport in 1984 which killed at least 28 people. 42 Such, then, were the scruples of cold-war anti-communists in late 20th century. As Anastasio Somoza had been “our son of a bitch”, the Moujahedeen were now “our fanatic terrorists”.
At the beginning there had been some thought given to the morality of the policy. “The question here,” a senior official in the Carter administration said, “was whether it was morally acceptable that, in order to keep the Soviets off balance, which was the reason for the operation, it was permissible to use other lives for our geopolitical interests.” 43
But such sentiments could not survive. Afghanistan was a cold-warrior’s dream: The CIA and the Pentagon, finally, had one of their proxy armies in direct confrontation with the forces of the Evil Empire. There was no price too high to pay for this Super Nintendo game, neither the hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives, nor the destruction of Afghan society, nor three billion (sic) dollars of American taxpayer money poured into a bottomless hole, much of it going only to make a few Afghans and Pakistanis rich. Congress was equally enthused – without even the moral uncertainty that made them cautious about arming the Nicaraguan contras – and became a veritable bipartisan horn of plenty as it allocated more and more money for the effort each year. Rep. Charles Wilson of Texas expressed a not-atypical sentiment of official Washington when he declared:
There were 58,000 dead in Vietnam and we owe the Russians one … I have a slight obsession with it, because of Vietnam. I thought the Soviets ought to get a dose of it … I’ve been of the opinion that this money was better spent to hurt our adversaries than other money in the Defense Department budget. 44
The CIA became the grand coordinator: purchasing or arranging the manufacture of Soviet-style weapons from Egypt, China, Poland, Israel and elsewhere, or supplying their own; arranging for military training by Americans, Egyptians, Chinese and Iranians; hitting up Middle-Eastern countries for donations, notably Saudi Arabia which gave many hundreds of millions of dollars in aid each year, totaling probably more than a billion; pressuring and bribing Pakistan – with whom recent American relations had been very poor – to rent out its country as a military staging area and sanctuary; putting the Pakistani Director of Military Operations, Brigadier Mian Mohammad Afzal, onto the CIA payroll to ensure Pakistani cooperation. 45 Military and economic aid which had been cut off would be restored, Pakistan was told by the United States, if they would join the great crusade. Only a month before the Soviet intervention, anti-American mobs had burned and ransacked the US embassy in Islamabad and American cultural centers in two other Pakistani cities. 46
The American ambassador in Libya reported that Muammar Qaddafi was sending the rebels $250,000 as well, but this, presumably, was not at the request of the CIA. 47
Washington left it to the Pakistanis to decide which of the various Afghan guerrilla groups should be the beneficiaries of much of this largesse. As one observer put it: “According to conventional wisdom at the time, the United States would not repeat the mistake of Vietnam – micro-managing a war in a culture it did not understand.” 48
Not everyone in Pakistan was bought out. The independent Islamabad daily newspaper, The Muslim, more than once accused the United States of being ready to “fight to the last Afghan” … “We are not flattered to be termed a ‘frontline state’ by Washington.” … “Washington does not seem to be in any mood to seek an early settlement of a war whose benefits it is reaping at no cost of American manpower.” 49
It’s not actually clear whether there was any loss of American lives in the war. On several occasions in the late ’80s, the Kabul government announced that Americans had been killed in the fighting, 50 and in 1985 a London newspaper reported that some two dozen American Black Muslims were in Afghanistan, fighting alongside the Moujahedeen in a jihad that a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran says all believers in Islam must do at least once in their lives. 51 Several of the Black Muslims returned to the United States after being wounded.
Soviet aggression … Soviet invasion … Soviet swallowing up another innocent state as part of their plan to conquer the world, or at least the Middle East … this was the predominant and lasting lesson taught by Washington official pronouncements and the mainstream US media about the war, and the sum total of knowledge for the average American, although Afghanistan had retained its independence during 60 years of living in peace next door to the Soviet Union. Zbigniew Brzezinski, albeit unrelentingly anti-Soviet, repeatedly speaks of the fact of Afghanistan’s “neutrality” in his memoirs. 52 The country had been neutral even during the Second World War.
One would have to look long and hard at the information and rhetoric offered to the American public following the Soviet intervention to derive even a hint that the civil war was essentially a struggle over deep-seated social reform; while an actual discussion of the issue was virtually non-existent. Prior to the intervention, one could get a taste of this, such as the following from the New York Times:
Land reform attempts undermined their village chiefs. Portraits of Lenin threatened their religious leaders. But it was the Kabul revolutionary Government’s granting of new rights to women that pushed orthodox Moslem men in the Pashtoon villages of eastern Afghanistan into picking up their guns. … “The government said our women had to attend meetings and our children had to go to schools. This threatens our religion. We had to fight” … “The government imposed various ordinances allowing women freedom to marry anyone they chose without their parents’ consent.” 53
Throughout the 1980s, the Karmal, and then the Najibullah regimes, despite the exigencies of the war, pursued a program of modernization and broadening of their base: bringing electricity to villages, along with health clinics, a measure of land reform, and literacy; releasing numerous prisoners unlawfully incarcerated by Amin; bringing mullahs and other non-party people into the government; trying to carry it all out with moderation and sensitivity instead of confronting the traditional structures head on; reiterating its commitment to Islam, rebuilding and constructing mosques, exempting land owned by religious dignitaries and their institutions from land reform; trying, in short, to avoid the gross mistakes of the Amin government with its rush to force changes down people’s throats. 54 Selig Harrison, writing in 1988, stated:
The Afghan Communists see themselves as nationalists and modernizers … They rationalize their collaboration with the Russians as the only way available to consolidate their revolution in the face of foreign “interference”. … the commitment of the Communists to rapid modernization enables them to win a grudging tolerance from many members of the modern-minded middle class, who feel trapped between two fires: the Russians and fanatic Muslims opposed to social reforms. 55
The program of the Kabul government eventually encouraged many volunteers to take up arms in its name. But it was a decidedly uphill fight, for it was relatively easy for the native anti-reformists and their foreign backers to convince large numbers of ordinary peasants that the government had ill intentions by blurring the distinction between the present government and its detested and dogmatic predecessor, particularly since the government was fond of stressing the continuity of the April 1978 revolution. 56 One thing the peasants, as well as the anti-reformists, were undoubtedly not told of was the US connection to the selfsame detested predecessor, Hafizullah Amin.
Another problem faced by the Kabul government in winning the hearts and minds of the people was of course the continuing Soviet armed presence, although it must be remembered that Islamic opposition to the leftist government began well before the Soviet forces arrived; indeed, the most militant of the Moujahedeen leaders, Hekmatyar, had led a serious uprising against the previous (non-leftist) government as well, in 1975, declaring that a “godless, communist-dominated regime” ruled in Kabul. 57
As long as Soviet troops remained, the conflict in Afghanistan could be presented to the American mind as little more than a battle between Russian invaders and Afghanistan resistance/freedom fighters; as if the Afghanistan army and government didn’t exist, or certainly not with a large following of people who favored reforms and didn’t want to live under a fundamentalist Islamic government, probably a majority of the population.
“Maybe the people really don’t like us, either,” said Mohammed Hakim, Mayor of Kabul, a general in the Afghan army who was trained in the 1970s at military bases in the United States, and who thought that America was “the best country”, “but they like us better than the extremists. This is what the Western countries do not understand. We only hope that Mr. Bush and the people of the United States take a good look at us. They think we are very fanatic Communists, that we are not human beings. We are not fanatics. We are not even Communists.” 58
They were in the American media. Any official of the Afghan government, or the government as a whole, was typically referred to, a priori, as “Communist”, or “Marxist”, or “pro-Communist”, or “pro-Marxist”, etc., without explanation or definition. Najibullah, who took over when Karmal stepped down in 1986, was confirmed in his position in 1987 under a new Islamized constitution that was stripped of all socialist rhetoric and brimming with references to Islam and the holy Koran. “This is not a socialist revolutionary country,” he said in his acceptance speech. “We do not want to build a Communist society.” 59
Could the United States see beyond cold war ideology and consider the needs of the Afghan people? In August 1979, three months before the Soviet intervention, a classified State Department Report stated:
the United States’s larger interests … would be served by the demise of the Taraki-Amin regime, despite whatever setbacks this might mean for future social and economic reforms in Afghanistan. … the overthrow of the D.R.A. [Democratic Republic of Afghanistan] would show the rest of the world, particularly the Third World, that the Soviets’ view of the socialist course of history as being inevitable is not accurate. 60
Repeatedly, in the 1980s, as earlier, the Soviet Union contended that no solution to the conflict could be found until the United States and other nations ceased their support of the Moujahedeen. The United States, in turn, insisted that the Soviets must first withdraw their troops from Afghanistan.
Finally, after several years of UN-supported negotiations, an accord was signed in Geneva on 14 April 1988, under which the Kremlin committed itself to begin pulling out its estimated 115,000 troops on 15 May, and to complete the process by 15 February of the next year. Afghanistan, said Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, had become “a bleeding wound”.
In February, after the last Soviet forces had left Afghanistan, Gorbachev urged the United States to support an embargo on arms shipments into Afghanistan and a cease-fire between the two warring sides. Both proposals were turned down by the new Bush administration, which claimed that the Afghan government had been left with a massive stockpile of military equipment. It is unclear why Washington felt that the rebels who had fought the government to a standstill despite the powerful presence of the Soviet armed forces with all their equipment, would now be at a dangerous disadvantage with the Russians gone. The key to the American response may lie in the State Department statement of the prior week that the United States believed that the Kabul government on its own would not last more than six months. 61
By raising the question of an arms gap (whether it was for real or not), Washington was assuring the continuation of the arms race in Afghanistan – a microcosm of the cold war. At the same time, the Bush administration called upon the Soviets to support “an independent, nonaligned Afghanistan”, although this was precisely what the United States had worked for decades to thwart.
Two days later, President Najibullah criticized the American rejection of Gorbachev’s proposal, offering to return the Soviet weapons if the rebels agreed to lay down their weapons and negotiate. There was no reported response to this offer from the US, or from the rebels, who in the past had refused such offers.
It would appear that Washington was thinking longer term than cease-fires and negotiations. On the same day as Najibullah’s offer, the United States announced that it had delivered 500,000 made-in-America textbooks to Afghanistan which were being used to teach Grades one through four. The books, which “critics say bordered on propaganda”, told of the rebels’ fight against the Soviet Union and contained drawings of guerrillas killing Russian soldiers. 62 Since the beginning of the war, the Moujahedeen had reserved its worst treatment for Russians. Washington possessed confirmed reports that the rebels had drugged and tortured 50 to 200 Soviet prisoners and imprisoned them like animals in cages, “living lives of indescribable horror”. 63 Another account, by a reporter from the conservative Far Eastern Economic Review, relates that:
One [Soviet] group was killed, skinned and hung up in a butcher’s shop. One captive found himself the centre of attraction in a game of buzkashi, that rough and tumble form of Afghan polo in which a headless goat is usually the ball. The captive was used instead. Alive. He was literally torn to pieces. 64
Meanwhile, much to the surprise of the United States and everyone else, the Kabul government showed no sign of collapsing. The good news for Washington was that since the Soviet troops were gone (though some military advisers remained), the “cost-benefit ratio” had improved, 65 the cost being measured entirely in non-American deaths and suffering, as the rebels regularly exploded car bombs and sent rockets smashing into residential areas of Kabul, and destroyed government-built schools and clinics and murdered literacy teachers (just as the US-backed Nicaraguan contras had been doing on the other side of the world, and for the same reason: these were symbols of governmental benevolence).
The death and destruction caused by the Soviets and their Afghan allies was also extensive, such as the many bombings of villages. But individual atrocity stories must be approached with caution, for, as we have seen repeatedly, the propensity and the ability of the CIA to disseminate anti-communist disinformation – often of the most far-fetched variety – was virtually unlimited. With the Soviet Union the direct adversary, the creativity lamp must have burning all night at Langley.
Amnesty International, with its usual careful collection methods, reported in the mid-’80s on the frequent use of torture and arbitrary detention by the authorities in Kabul. 66 But what are we to make, for example, of the report, without attribution, by syndicated columnist Jack Anderson – who had ties to the American Afghan lobby – that Soviet troops often marched into unfriendly villages in Afghanistan and “massacred every man, woman and child”? 67 Or the New York Times recounting a story told them by an Afghan citizen of how Afghan soldiers had intentionally blinded five children with pieces of metal and then strangled them, as a government supporter he was with just laughed. To the newspaper’s credit, it added that “There is no way of confirming this story. It is possible that the man who told it was acting and trying to discredit the regime here. His eyes, however, looked like they had seen horror.” 19 Or a US congressman’s charge in 1985 that the Soviets had used booby-trapped toys to maim Afghan children, 69 the identical story told before about leftists elsewhere in the world during the cold war, and repeated again in 1987 by CBS News, with pictures. The New York Post later reported the claim of a BBC producer that the bomb-toy had been created for the CBS cameraman. 70
Then there was the Afghan Mercy Fund, ostensibly a relief agency, but primarily in the propaganda business, which reported that the Soviets had burned a baby alive, that they were disguising mines as candy bars and leaving other mines disguised as butterflies to also attract children. The butterfly mines, it turned out, were copies of a US-designed mine used in the Vietnam war. 71
There was also the shooting down of a Pakistan fighter plane over Afghanistan in May 1987 that was reported by Pakistan and Washington – knowing with certainty that their claim was untrue – to be the result of a Soviet-made missile. It turned out that the plane had been shot down by a companion Pakistani plane in error. 72
Throughout the early and mid-’80s, the Reagan administration declared that the Russians were spraying toxic chemicals over Laos, Cambodia and Afghanistan – the so-called “yellow rain” – and had caused more than ten thousand deaths by 1982 alone, (including, in Afghanistan, 3,042 deaths attributed to 47 separate incidents between the summer of 1979 and the summer of 1981, so precise was the information). Secretary of State Alexander Haig was a prime dispenser of such stories, and President Reagan himself denounced the Soviet Union thusly more than 15 times in documents and speeches. 73 The “yellow rain”, it turned out, was pollen-laden feces dropped by huge swarms of honeybees flying far overhead. Then, in 1987, it was disclosed that the Reagan administration had made its accusations even though government scientists at the time had been unable to confirm any of them, and considered the evidence to be flimsy and misleading. 74 Even more suspicious: the major scientific studies that later examined Washington’s claims spoke only of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand; no mention at all was made of Afghanistan. It was as if the administration – perhaps honestly mistaken at first about Indochina – had added Afghanistan to the list with full knowledge of the falsity of its allegation.
Such disinformation campaigns are often designed to serve a domestic political need. Consider Senator Robert Dole’s contribution to the discussion when he spoke in 1980 on the floor of Congress of “convincing evidence” he had been provided “that the Soviets had developed a chemical capability that extends far beyond our greatest fears … [a gas that] is unaffected by … our gas masks and leaves our military defenseless.” He then added: “To even suggest a leveling off of defense spending for our nation by the Carter administration at such a critical time in our history is unfathomable.” 75 And in March 1982, when the Reagan administration made its claim about the 3,042 Afghan deaths, the New York Times noted that: “President Reagan has just decided that the United States will resume production of chemical weapons and has asked for a substantial increase in the military budget for such weapons.” 76
The money needed to extend American propaganda campaigns internationally flowed from the congressional horn of plenty as smoothly as for military desires – $500,000 in one moment’s flow to train Afghan journalists to use television, radio and newspapers to advance their cause. 77
It should be noted that in June 1980, before any of the “yellow rain” charges had been made against the Soviet Union, the Kabul government had accused the rebels and their foreign backers of employing poison gas, citing an incident in which 500 pupils and teachers at several secondary schools had been poisoned with noxious gases; none were reported to have died. 78
One reason victory continued to elude the Moujahedeen was that they were terribly split by centuries-old ethnic and tribal divisions, as well as the relatively recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism in conflict with more traditional, but still orthodox, Islam. The differences often led to violence. In one incident, in 1989, seven top Moujahedeen commanders and more than 20 other rebels were murdered by a rival guerrilla group. This was neither the first nor the last of such occurrences. 65 By April 1990, 14 months after the Soviet withdrawal, the Los Angeles Times described the state of the rebels thusly:
they have in recent weeks killed more of their own than the enemy. … Rival resistance commanders have been gunned down gangland-style here in the border town of Peshawar [Pakistan], the staging area for the war. There are persistent reports of large- scale political killings in the refugee camps … A recent execution … had as much to do with drugs as with politics. … Other commanders, in Afghanistan and in the border camps, are simply refusing to fight. They say privately that they prefer [Afghan President] Najibullah to the hard-line Moujahedeen fundamentalists led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. 80
The rebel cause was also corrupted by the huge amounts of arms flooding in. Investigative reporter Tim Weiner reported the following:
The CIA’s pipeline leaked. It leaked badly. It spilled huge quantities of weapons all over one of the world’s most anarchic areas. First the Pakistani armed forces took what they wanted from the weapons shipments. Then corrupt Afghan guerrilla leaders stole and sold hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of anti-aircraft guns, missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47 automatic rifles, ammunition and mines from the CIA’s arsenal. Some of the weapons fell into the hands of criminal gangs, heroin kingpins and the most radical faction of the Iranian military. … While their troops eked out hard lives in Afghanistan’s mountains and deserts, the guerrillas’ political leaders maintained fine villas in Peshawar and fleets of vehicles at their command. The CIA kept silent as the Afghan politicos converted the Agency’s weapons into cash. 81
Amongst the weapons the Moujahedeen sold to the Iranians were highly sophisticated Stinger heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles, with which the rebels had shot down many hundreds of Soviet military aircraft, as well as at least eight passenger planes. On 8 October 1987, Revolutionary Guards on an Iranian gunboat fired one of the Stingers at American helicopters patrolling the Persian Gulf, but missed their target. 82
Earlier the same year, the CIA told Congress that at least 20 percent of its military aid to the Moujahedeen had been skimmed off by the rebels and Pakistani officials. Columnist Jack Anderson stated at the same time that his conservative estimate was that the diversion was around 60 percent, while one rebel leader told Anderson’s assistant on his visit to the border that he doubted that even 25 percent of the arms got through. By other accounts, as little as 20 percent was making it the intended recipients. If indeed there was a deficiency of arms available to the Moujahedeen compared to the government forces, as George Bush implied, this was clearly a major reason for it. Yet the CIA and other administration officials simply looked upon it as part of doing business in that part of the world. 83
Like many other CIA clients, the rebels were financed as well through drug trafficking, and the Agency was apparently as little concerned about it as ever as long as it kept their boys happy Moujahedeen commanders inside Afghanistan personally controlled huge fields of opium poppies, the raw material from which heroin is refined. CIA-supplied trucks and mules, which had carried arms into Afghanistan, were used to transport some of the opium to the numerous laboratories along the Afghan-Pakistan border, whence many tons of heroin were processed with the cooperation of the Pakistani military. The output provided an estimated one-third to one-half of the heroin used annually in the United States and three-quarters of that used in Western Europe. US officials admitted in 1990 that they had failed to investigate or take action against the drug operation because of a desire not to offend their Pakistani and Afghan allies. 84 In 1993, an official of the US Drug Enforcement Administration called Afghanistan the new Colombia of the drug world. 85
The war, with all its torment, continued until the spring of 1992, three years after the last Soviet troops had gone. An agreement on ending the arms supply, which had been reached between the United States and the Soviet Union, was now in effect. The two superpowers had abandoned the war. The Soviet Union no longer existed. And the Afghan people could count more than a million dead, three million disabled, and five million made refugees, in total about half the population.
At the same time, a UN-brokered truce was to transfer power to a transitional coalition government pending elections. But this was not to be. The Kabul government, amidst food riots and army revolts, virtually disintegrated, and the guerrillas stormed into the capital and established the first Islamic regime in Afghanistan since it had become a separate and independent country in the mid-18th century.
A key event in the downfall of the government was the eleventh-hour defection to the guerrillas of General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum, who previously had been referred to in the US media as a “Communist general”, now metamorphosed into an “ex-Communist general”.
The Moujahedeen had won. Now they turned against each other with all their fury. Rockets and artillery shells wiped out entire neighborhoods in Kabul. By August at least 1,500 people had been killed or wounded, mostly civilians. (By 1994, the body count in this second civil war would reach 10,000.) Of all the rebel leaders, none was less compromising or more insistent upon a military solution than Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Robert Neumann, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, observed at this time:
Hekmatyar is a nut, an extremist and a very violent man. He was built up by the Pakistanis. Unfortunately, our government went along with the Pakistanis. We were supplying the money and the weapons but they [Pakistani officials] were making the policy.
Washington was now very concerned that Hekmatyar would take power. Ironically, they were afraid that if he did, his brand of extremism would spread to and destabilize the former Soviet republics of large Moslem populations, the same fear which had been one of the motivations behind the Soviets intervening in the civil war in the first place. 86 It was to the forces of Hekmatyar that the “Communist general” Dostum eventually aligned himself.
Suleiman Layeq, a leftist and a poet, and the fallen regime’s “ideologue”, watched from his window as the Moujahedeen swarmed through the city, claiming building after building. “Without exception,” he said of them, “they follow the way of the fundamentalist aims and goals of Islam. And it is not Islam. It is a kind of theory against civilization – against modern civilization.” 87
Even before taking power, the Moujahedeen had banned all non-Muslim groups. Now more of the new law was laid down: all alcohol was banned in the Islamic republic; women could not venture out in the streets without veils, and violations would be punished by floggings, amputations and public executions. And this from the more “moderate” Islamics, not Hekmatyar. By September, the first public hangings were carried out. Before a cheering crowd of 10,000 people, three men were hung. They had been tried behind closed doors, and no one would say what crimes they had committed. 88
In February 1993, a group of Middle Easterners blew up the World Trade Center in New York City. Most of them were veterans of the Moujahedeen. Other veterans were carrying out assassinations in Cairo, bombings in Bombay, and bloody uprisings in the mountains of Kashmir.
This, then, was the power and the glory of President Reagan’s “freedom fighters”, who had become yet more anti-American in recent years, many of them backing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf conflict of 1990-91. Surely even Ronald Reagan and George Bush would have preferred the company of “communist” reformers like President Noor Mohammed Taraki, Mayor Mohammed Hakim or poet Suleiman Layeq.
But the Soviet Union had bled. They had bled profusely. For the United States it had also been a holy war.