Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
Sticking it to the Russians took precedence over all other considerations. That instigating large-scale war in Afghanistan might entail long-term hazards for the United States exceeded the imaginative capacity of U.S. policymakers. After all, as far as Washington was concerned, this was a strictly proxy contest. Money, weapons, ammunition, and training support funneled through Pakistan (which took a generous cut) would sustain members of the Afghan resistance actually doing the fighting and dying.
Intent on turning Afghanistan into a Soviet equivalent of Vietnam, Washington was equally intent on avoiding its own direct involvement in anything remotely resembling another Vietnam.
In the age-old manner of Russian armies, the Soviets employed brute force to suppress the insurgents. In the age-old manner of Afghan warriors, the mujahedin relied on stamina and persistence. The U.S.-led coalition leveled the playing field by providing the poorly armed insurgents with additional firepower.
From the outset, the basic facts of this nominally covert operation were widely reported. As early as July 1981, writing in
The New Republic,
Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame reported on the CIA’s “complex, far-flung program, involving five countries and more than $100 million, to provide the Afghan resistance with the weaponry of modern guerrilla warfare.”
An article in
by the journalist (and future senior State Department official) Strobe Talbott enthused that the United States was “turning the tables on Moscow” by “aiding the mujahedin rebels to the tune of many millions of dollars per year.”
dispatch reported that by 1985 support for Afghan insurgents from the United States alone had reached $470 million per year, albeit with some “seepage” going to Pakistan.
In the self-aggrandizing American narrative of the war, the turning point came the following year when Reagan made the gutsy decision to provide the Afghan resistance with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. By reducing the threat posed by Soviet attack helicopters, the Stingers gave the mujahedin a decisive edge. All of this was supposedly hush-hush and top secret—although readers of
The Washington Post
quickly learned about it over their morning coffee.
Notably, the entire enterprise enjoyed broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Democrats might bridle at the Reagan administration’s efforts to undermine the leftist Sandinistas governing Nicaragua, but they had no objection whatsoever to arming Afghan insurgents.
During the 1980s, U.S. assistance to the mujahedin increased from one year to the next, totaling in all between $4 billion and $5 billion. Although pursuing a different agenda, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia matched this support dollar for dollar.
All of this money provided a basis for flooding Afghanistan with arms and ammunition, mostly old, mostly manufactured within the communist bloc, drawn from stocks held by China, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, and other nations.
Who were the recipients of this largesse? The Reagan administration regarded the insurgents as “noble savages in some sort of a state of purity fighting for an abstract idea of freedom.”
It added Afghanistan Day to the official state calendar, annually observed as an occasion to offer support to the “freedom fighters” who were “defending principles of independence and freedom that form the basis of global security and stability,” those principles including “the right to practice religion according to the dictates of conscience.”
In 1982, Reagan dedicated an upcoming flight of the space shuttle
to the people of Afghanistan, whose resistance to Soviet occupation represented “man’s highest aspirations for freedom.”
The following year, as a further expression of solidarity, the president entertained a mujahedin delegation in the Oval Office.
Reagan’s characterization of the Afghan resistance was, to put it mildly, misleading. In fact, those opposing the Soviet occupation consisted of disparate and mutually antagonistic tribes, many of them deeply anti-American in their outlook.
Willingness to accept U.S. assistance did not imply that xenophobic Afghan leaders shared Washington’s outlook on anything other than a desire to oust the Soviets. In practice, supporting the mujahedin meant promoting a hidebound and intolerant brand of Islamism that viewed non-Muslims with suspicion if not outright contempt. Among many Saudis and Pakistanis, such attitudes resonated with their own. For their part, U.S. leaders appeared oblivious to the actual nature of the struggle, insisting that Afghan jihadists were fighting in pursuit of universal values. We and they were on the same side—so, at least, U.S. policymakers professed to believe.
In his bestselling account of CIA involvement in 1980s Afghanistan, George Crile describes the mujahedin as “in effect, America’s surrogate soldiers.”
By implication, the Afghan fighters served America’s cause, becoming, in Crile’s telling of the tale, little more than extras in a feature film that cast Americans in the starring roles. Indeed, his book yielded just such a film, which depicted the Afghanistan War of the 1980s—“the biggest and most successful CIA campaign in history”—as an epic victory credited to the United States.
Hollywood has long since mastered the art of interpreting history in ways that express the popular mood of the moment. Especially when it comes to war, the packaging typically involves putting the United States at center stage, while marginalizing or distorting the role of others and ignoring details that don’t fit into an America-centric narrative. In this case, the Afghanistan War became “Charlie Wilson’s War,” its outcome determined by the actions of a sybaritic but otherwise undistinguished member of Congress in league with a maverick CIA operative.
Advanced American weaponry in particular had made all the difference. Explaining in a
op-ed “how the good guys won,” Zalmay Khalilzad, a Reagan-era official destined to be the first post-9/11 U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, noted that in early 1986 the war had been going badly for the mujahedin. Then the Stingers arrived, and in short order those “adverse trends were reversed dramatically.”
There was a flip side to this interpretation of the war’s outcome. If the mujahedin had won thanks to U.S. assistance, the Soviets had lost because they had not availed themselves of the opportunity to learn from the American experience in Vietnam. “Soviet failure to learn from the U.S. and other applicable COIN [counterinsurgency] experiences,” the authors of a 1989 U.S. Army study observed, “caused them to make many of the same errors.”
The significance attached to the roughly simultaneous end of the Cold War reinforced this self-congratulatory interpretation. Triumphalism and narcissism fed one another. What ostensibly made Afghanistan a great American (as opposed to Islamist) victory was the conviction that here the United States had inflicted a decisive defeat on the Soviet Union, thereby bringing to a satisfactory conclusion the ideological competition said to define the twentieth century.
not the mujahedin—had prevailed.
So instead of seeing the failure of the Soviet project in Afghanistan for what it was—religious traditionalists emphatically rejecting secular modernity—Washington chose to interpret it as a sign of vindication. If collectivism had lost, democratic capitalism had won. With all the big questions of political economy—the only questions deemed worthy of serious attention—thus settled, the “end of history” itself was thereby at hand.
This was by no means the first occasion on which Americans had succumbed to such delusions of finality. In 1865, they had interpreted Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox as having conclusively resolved fundamental questions of individual freedom. Instead, even with the destruction of slavery, those questions took new form. In 1945, Americans saw in the Axis defeat the prospects of one world united in peace. Instead, competition between rival powers, each seeing the other as bent on achieving global supremacy, resumed.
Similarly, until obliterated by events, belief that the Cold War’s passing constituted not simply a turning point but an end point enjoyed wide sway, especially in Washington. Only in the wake of 9/11 did it become apparent that communism’s collapse notwithstanding, history had all along remorselessly ground onward, not least of all in poor, benighted Afghanistan itself.
From our present vantage point, all of this appears self-evident, just as it now seems obvious that banishing slavery wasn’t of itself going to produce racial harmony and destroying fascism was not going to kindle world peace. Yet the equivalent naïveté that swept post–Cold War Washington is worth recalling because it helps explain why U.S. policymakers were blindsided by what their putative success in Afghanistan actually wrought. A raging bout of victory disease had made them stupid.
Meanwhile, even with outsiders kicking in money and hardware, the Afghans found themselves stuck paying the greater part of the bill. During the Soviet occupation, out of a population totaling approximately 15 million, an estimated 1 to 1.5 million Afghans were killed outright. A comparable number suffered war-related injuries. An additional 6 million Afghans fled to refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran.
Massive violence combined with crude Soviet nation-building initiatives to shatter traditional Afghan society. Offering at least some sanctuary, cities mushroomed in size. In depopulated rural areas, agriculture collapsed, with food production falling by up to 50 percent. Educational and medical systems, never robust in the first place, also fell into disarray, unable to cope with the added strain of protracted war. Corruption and criminality flourished. Smuggling and opium production emerged as the mainstays of a devastated economy.
In the countryside, gun-toting warlords displaced traditional elites as local powerbrokers. In this environment, a radical strain of Islamism spread like a virus. According to Thomas Barfield, a leading scholar of Afghanistan, proponents of revolutionary Islamism saw in the Afghan mujahedin “the vanguard of a transnational jihad.”
Peering through their Cold War–tinted glasses, Americans saw something else: a landmark achievement. So it appeared, at least, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided to throw in the towel and pull out of Afghanistan. “From a taxpayer’s perspective,” one such Cold Warrior has boasted, “there may be no other federal program in history that produced so much historic change in world politics at such a small price”—a judgment that requires ignoring both the price already exacted of Afghans and the downstream costs awaiting the United States. That “the Afghans got little or nothing from the victory in 1989,” Bruce Riedel continued, rates as “a tragedy,” but not one for which Washington felt the least responsibility.
Indeed, victory left Afghanistan bereft of further value to the United States.
On February 16, 1989, as the last Soviet troops left Afghanistan, President George H. W. Bush, who had succeeded Ronald Reagan just the month before, released a statement hailing the “extraordinary triumph of spirit and will by the Afghan people” and promising continued U.S. assistance “to remove mines, resettle refugees, and reconstruct Afghanistan’s war-torn economy.”
Whether Bush actually meant what he said is difficult to say. What ensued, however, was something quite different. “We have to be realistic,” a senior U.S. official told
The New York Times.
“Afghanistan is not Iran. It has no oil reserves and isn’t located on the Persian Gulf. It’s not a particular strategic prize that has to be guarded at all costs.”
However warmly President Bush might express his personal regard for the Afghan people, their substantive value to the United States was nil.
Losing interest in Afghanistan—and also in Pakistan, an ally now once more deemed expendable—Washington wasted little time in turning its attention to quarters of the Greater Middle East deemed more important. As Barfield put it, “The United States wished no further involvement in a resourceless country on the verge of collapse that had become strategically irrelevant.”
Events in Afghanistan provided a convenient excuse to disengage. Although the Soviet-installed regime in Kabul surprised observers by hanging on longer than expected, it finally gave way in the spring of 1992. A civil war immediately ensued, with mujahedin factions now turning on one another with astonishing ferocity. Professing horror, the United States called for an end to the fighting but used the internecine struggle as a pretext to wash its hands of Afghanistan.
That civil war continued until 1996, when the Taliban gained precarious control of the country and imposed an order of draconian severity.