President Trump’s recent thumbnail historical sketch of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 has been the subject of ridicule in the corporate media. However, not one commentator I’ve seen mentioned the fact that under President Jimmy Carter and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, the U.S. C.I.A. was secretly funding the Mujahideen that was fighting against the Soviet-backed government in Kabul long before the Soviet invasion. In fact, Brzezinski gloated about the operation and welcomed the Soviet invasion saying something to the effect: “Now they’ll have their own Vietnam.” Below is a brief excerpt from my 2013 book, The Eighties (Pearson), where I set the record straight and quote Brzezinski gloating about it.
In 1893, during the period of the British Raj in India, Sir Mortimer Durand had in mind Great Britain’s colonial interests when he drew up a key border of modern Afghanistan. Known as the “Durand Line,” it split roughly in half the territory of the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the country. Traditionally, the region had been a vital passageway on the “Silk Road” linking Asia and the Middle East and consists of thousands of scattered villages and decentralized tribal mini-states. The Afghans’ ability to bury their tribal, ethnic, and sectarian differences to fight against foreign intruders gave the country the reputation of being the “graveyard of empires.” In the nineteenth century, the British fought two inconclusive wars in Afghanistan, and in late 1979, when the Soviets intervened the Red Army became bogged down in a costly guerrilla war.
Adhering to the Kremlin’s own version of the “domino theory,” Soviet leaders feared that if Afghanistan became an Islamic state modeled on the Shia theocracy in Iran the “contagion” might spread to the Soviet Union’s Muslim republics. By controlling the government in Kabul and introducing reforms devised to secularize and modernize Afghan society, KGB Chief Yuri Andropov and other Soviet foreign policy specialists believed they could stem the tide of Islamic fundamentalism. In the late-1970s, the Russians propped up a satellite government, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), and through it a heavy-handed rural development program like the ones then going on in the Soviet Islamic states.
The opening shots of the anti-Russian revolt in Afghanistan were fired in the town of Herat in March 1979 when tribal leaders rebelled against Soviet efforts to dictate compulsory education for girls. When militants in Herat murdered a dozen Russian officials and their families, the Soviet-backed Afghan security services violently repressed the uprising. Thereafter, the regime faced considerable armed opposition from a cross-section of Afghans. That summer President Carter signed an intelligence “finding” authorizing the CIA to give assistance to what became known as the “Mujahideen.” Throughout the Arab world, thousands of young men regarded the Russians as atheistic “infidels” and longed to prove themselves in “jihad” (holy war) against the occupiers. Money and arms from the United States and Saudi Arabia flowed into Afghanistan while the CIA worked closely with Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq and his Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to work out the logistics of what grew into a major U.S. commitment.
During the debates within Carter’s National Security Council (NSC), National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski entertained the idea that arming the Mujahideen might taunt the Soviets to invade. “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene,” he later explained, “but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.” In December 1979, when the Soviet Union poured combat troops over the border into Afghanistan (at the invitation of its client in Kabul), Brzezinski and other foreign policy professionals hoped it would drain resources and preoccupy Moscow. By the time Reagan became president the Soviet occupation had grown to over 100,000 soldiers. Nicaragua and Afghanistan became two fronts in a wider war, and arming anti-communist insurgents engaged in “low-intensity warfare” became known as the “Reagan Doctrine.” By the end of 1981, the Mujahideen had received over $100 million in arms and assistance, mostly from the United States and Saudi Arabia and funneled through Pakistan’s ISI. Cold War imperatives trumped concerns about the extremist religious ideology of what was a network of stateless Islamic fanatics.
At the beginning of his second term, Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive (NSDD)-166 authorizing the transfer of sniper rifles, explosives, TOW anti-tank missiles, and mortar targeting devices linked to U.S. Navy satellites to the Afghan guerrillas and their Arab counterparts. In 1985, the United States supplied $500 million in economic and military aid to the Mujahideen (more than all the previous years combined). The CIA also began outfitting the insurgents with high-tech “Stinger” anti-aircraft missiles. The shoulder-fired Stingers used automated heat-seeking guidance systems to bring down countless Soviet helicopters and transport aircraft that all but neutralized the Russian air advantage. The cost of each missile was about $35,000, and by the end of the war, it was estimated that the CIA had passed on to the insurgents between 2,000 and 2,500 of these weapons. The Democratic Congress, which gave its enthusiastic blessing to the “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan, appropriated $630 million in fiscal year 1987. It was the largest U.S. covert operation of the 1980s, and by the end of the decade, the United States spent over $2 billion on aid and weaponry to the Afghan fighters and Arab volunteers (sometimes called “Afghan Arabs”).
Hollywood got into the act too of pumping up the Afghan cause with the movie Rambo III (1988). This sequel to the Rambo franchise, which at the time was known as the most violent film ever made in terms of body counts and explosions, starred the action hero Sylvester Stallone as “John Rambo,” the lead character in earlier Rambo pictures who played the avenging angel of the Vietnam War. By 1988, Rambo had been enshrined in the popular culture as the personification of a resurgent America after the years of doubts cast by Vietnam and the Iranian hostage crisis. This time around Rambo battles stereotypical Slavic soldiers on Afghan soil while fighting side- by-side with his Afghan and Arab comrades in arms. The celluloid jihadists hold the moral high ground as they battle for human freedom and dignity against the totalitarian inhumanity of the Soviet Empire. The film is dedicated, in the final credits, to “the people of Afghanistan.”
In early 1988, when Gorbachev resolved to pull the troops out of Afghanistan, it marked a tectonic shift in the Soviet Union’s international posture. In late 1988 and early 1989, there were a number of skirmishes between Red Army units and Mujahideen guerrillas, but Gorbachev stuck to his original promise and the last of the Red Army soldiers departed Afghanistan on February 15, 1989. On the day when television cameras broadcast the scene of the final Soviet commander, Boris Gromov of the 40th Army, leaving Afghanistan, CIA Director William Webster threw a party at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. On the walls were large photographs of Afghan and Arab jihadists brandishing their Stinger missiles and standing proudly over downed Soviet helicopters and burned-out tanks.
The war was over but Afghanistan was in shambles. A generation of young Afghans had come of age knowing nothing but war and hardship. The superpowers had abandoned the country to a configuration of tribes and warlords that violently vied for power. Within a few years the country slid into a vicious multi-sided civil war. Gone were the days of Rambo movies describing American volunteers fighting communism alongside their Afghan and Arab brothers. Left to its own devices, the war-ravaged country fell into the hands of some of the most ruthless practitioners of Sharia law. Despite the popular notion that the Russian defeat in Afghanistan had been a stunning U.S. victory, a prelude of things to come occurred a few years later when American authorities in New York arrested Ramzi Yousef for setting off a car bomb inside the parking structure of the World Trade Center. Yousef, a Kuwaiti, had been a Mujahideen volunteer who trained in a camp on the Afghan-Pakistan border. In 1998, Brzezinski was asked by a French journalist if he had any regrets about arming the rebels. “What is more important in world history?” he replied. “The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”