Century of U.S. Meddling in the Middle East

Post 12. 1978 – 1989: Afghanistan, Soviet Union and Jihad

July 22, 2020

Featured Photo: Sovfoto

Polytechnic University – Kabul, 1977 [Hulton]

Notwithstanding the idyllic Kabul described in the opening pages of The Kite Runner, an island of privilege and modernity with prosperous businessmen in western suits, educated women with their hair uncovered, meticulously kept parks, even an American school, pre-1978 Afghanistan was mostly a very backwards place, with 90 percent illiteracy, 25 percent infant mortality, life expectancy 40 years.

The government was a constitutional monarchy, and Mohammed Daoud, a member of the royal family and first President of Afghanistan, famously said, “I feel happiest when I am lighting American cigarettes with Russian matches.” He had no clue it would turn out to be such a deadly combo.

The Soviet Union, which shares a 1000-mile border with Afghanistan, was its largest trading partner, aid donor and military supplier, but the U.S., using the Shah of Iran as its proxy, had long tried to undercut Soviet influence. In 1975, the Shah, at our behest, conditioned a $2 billion aid package on Daoud dismissing Soviet-trained military officers and joining an economic development consortium of Iran, Turkey and Pakistan – which, with the British, were the four principals in the Bagdad Pact, our “northern tier” defense alliance against the Soviets.  

[Getty Images]

Three years later, in April 1978, the leftist People’s Democratic Party ousted Daoud in a coup. The new government had a reform agenda, including breaking up large land holdings, outlawing usury that left peasants in perpetual debt to landlords, legalizing unions, building schools and medical clinics in the countryside, starting a poppy eradication program, and abolishing forced marriages and purdah, literally, “curtain,” the seclusion of women from public view. The PDP was doing nothing more or less than trying to drag Afghanistan out of the 15th century into the 20th.

As for the traditional Afghan elites, e.g., large landowners, businessmen, tribal chiefs and the royal family, the new PDP Prime Minister, novelist and poet Noor Mohammed Taraki, explained, “Every effort will be made to attract them, but we need them . . . [to] think about the people and not just about themselves – having a good house and nice car while other people die of hunger.” 

Mujahideen 1980 [Steve McCurry]

But Afghan clergy and village chiefs who were rich landowners pushed back against the PDP’s land reform, and fundamentalist mullahs and tribesmen in the countryside vehemently opposed equal rights for women and schools for girls. So they picked up their guns as “mujahideen,” those who wage jihad, holy war, in a guerrilla campaign against the PDP and its patron, the “godless” Soviet Union. 

Taraki asked the Soviet Union to directly intervene, but Premier Alexei Kosygin at first refused, saying, “[I]t would be a fatal mistake to commit ground troops . . . the situation in your country would not improve . . . it would get worse. Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a significant part of your own people. And the people would never forgive such things.” Smart guy. 

But in September 1979, as mujahedeen fighters got closer to Kabul, Taraki was ousted and killed by his deputy and erstwhile friend, Hafizullah Amin, who was much more Islamist than socialist. On December 8, fearing an Islamic state on its southern border or that Amin might be too easily influenced by the U.S., or both, Leonid Brezhnev ordered Soviet special forces into Afghanistan.

Whether invited or not, but Amin welcomed them. “The Soviets,” he said, “supply my country with economic and military aid, but . . . do not interfere in our domestic affairs.” Whistling past the graveyard. The very next day Amin was assassinated by Russian special forces and replaced by Babrak Karmal, a more reliable former PDP deputy prime minister the Russians had been keeping on ice in Czechoslovakia. 

Sovfoto / UIG / Getty Images

President Jimmy Carter called the “Soviet invasion” the “greatest threat to peace since World War II” – hyperbole for sure, but it was an election year – and boycotted the Moscow Olympics, cut off Salt II talks and reinstituted the draft. Carter’s rationale was that a Soviet military presence in Afghanistan, cheek by jowl with Iran, threatened vital U.S. interests, i.e., the shipment of oil in the Persian Gulf, especially after the Shah was replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini.  

But even before Soviet forces entered Afghanistan, in June 1979, Carter had secretly authorized Operation Cyclone, a CIA program to finance and arm the mujahideen, some of whom, including future members of al-Qaeda, would be taught sabotage skills at the CIA training facility in Virginia.

Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, told Carter, “[I]n my opinion, this . . . would induce a Soviet military intervention. . . . We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased [the odds].” Interview in Le Nouvel Observateur (January 1998).  

Why? Brzezinski and others in the U.S. defense establishment saw it as a golden opportunity, a proxy war to “bleed” the Soviet Union. The day the Soviets crossed the border into Afghanistan, Brzezinski boasted to Carter, “We just gave the Soviets their own Vietnam.” 

Charlie Wilson in mufti [Mother Jones]

Texas congressman Charles Wilson, lionized in Charlie Wilson’s War, who was played by Tom Hanks and got the girl, Julia Roberts, put it more colorfully: “[We lost] 58,000 dead in Vietnam and we owe the Russians one . . . I thought the Soviets ought to get a dose of it. . . . and I’m of the opinion that this money was better spent to hurt [the Russians] than any other money in the Defense budget.” 

Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 and quickly ramped up Cyclone, with the CIA funneling weapons and tons of money, three billion dollars in just eight years, plus hundreds of millions more from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, most of it through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). 

Why the ISI? Reagan was wary after Vietnam of again trying to micro-manage conflict in a culture we did not understand. Pakistan and the ISI were happy to oblige, doling out cash and weapons to rebel groups while as middle man skimming between 20% and 40%, depending on who does the math, off the top. 

Ali Bhutto at the U.N. [AP]

In the 70’s the U.S. had a mostly adversarial relationship with Pakistan and President Ali Bhutto, who nationalized heavy industry, banks and even flour mills with the goal of giving workers a bigger share. He was, in our eyes, a “commie.”

He had also taken Pakistan out of SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, which included the U.S. and other “anti-communist” countries, Australia, New Zealand, etc., and supported Egypt and Syria during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Definitely not our guy.  And he had made clear, “We [Pakistan] will eat grass if we have to, but we will make the nuclear bomb.” 

By 1978, Bhutto was widely unpopular even in Pakistan. His pie-in-the-sky economic plan had crashed and burned, and he was easily ousted in a bloodless coup by General Zia-ul Haq. Well, not entirely bloodless. One year later, after declaring marital law, Zia had Bhutto tried on a trumped-up murder charge and hung him. 

Zia-ul Hoq with Reagan [AP]

Be careful what you wish for. Zia was an avowed anti-communist, but more than anything else he was an Islamist. He “sharized” – no, not a real verb – Pakistan’s secular British-based legal system, including replacing parts of the Penal Code with the Hudood Ordinance, which added adultery and fornication as criminal offenses and, as punishments, whipping, amputation and stoning. And he established hundreds of religious schools, madrasas, financed by Saudi Arabia and run by Wahhabi fundamentalists who indoctrinated thousands of boys on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border – mostly Pashtuns, the largest tribal group in Afghanistan and second largest in Pakistan – who would become the Taliban, literally, “the students.”  

[Getty Images]

With CIA cash from Cyclone, the ISI set up dozens of camps to train mujahideen in guerrilla warfare, e.g., bomb-making, sabotage, etc., and, most critically, the operation of U.S. Stinger and Redeye anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down Russian helicopters. Zia even sent his ISI chief to foment jihad in the “stans,” the six Soviet republics in South Central Asian, e.g., Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, etc., with large Muslim populations. 

[Dennis Young / AP]

It did not matter that the mujahideen burned down schools and set off bombs in airports and public markets; today we would call them terrorists, but to Ronald Reagan, who welcomed mujahideen leaders into the Oval Office, they were “freedom fighters.” A truly surreal photo. 

Nor did it matter that Zia and his ISI gave the lion’s share of CIA money and weapons to extreme fundamentalists like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-e Islami political partyNor that among the 100,000 mujahideen trained in ISI camps were an estimated 15,000 Arabs from Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, including a wealthy Saudi businessman, Osama bin Laden.

[Sue Ann Kime & Paul Stich, Global History]

All that mattered to the U.S. was that Afghanistan become the Soviet’s Vietnam. And it did. 70,000 casualties in 10 years, 15,000 went home in body bags. In 1985 Brezhnev died, replaced by Mikhail Gorbachev, who called Afghanistan “our bleeding wound” and quickly initiated the withdrawal of Soviet forces, formalized in the 1988 Geneva Accords with Pakistan, Afghanistan and the U.S. The last Russian soldier was gone by February 1989, and in 1991 the Soviet Union broke up and sank.

Cause and effect? A big factor, to be sure. Mighty Russia invading a small neighboring country, Soviet soldiers killing civilians they were supposedly there to protect, returning soldiers dishonored and marginalized, thousands of mothers demanding to know why their sons died, and in the end the defeat of the once invincible Red Army – yes, there were clear parallels to the U.S. experience in Vietnam – all combined to delegitimize Communist Party rule, especially in the restive eastern and southern Soviet republics. At the same time, Reagan had been ramping up U.S. military spending to unprecedented levels, and when the Russians tried to keep up, their sclerotic economy collapsed and with it the Soviet Union. 

Afghanistan itself was left a bloody, fractured mess. At least 850,000 Afghans died. More than five million, one-third of the pre-war population, fled to Pakistan and Iran, and by the mid-80’s half the world’s refugees were Afghan. It was now even poorer, ranked 171 out of 174 countries on the U.N.’s Human Development index. And it didn’t end there.

Ahmad Massoud (1997)
[Emmanuel Dunand / Getty Images]

The Afghan government under Mohammed Najibullah, who replaced Karmal in 1986, held on for three more years, only to collapse in 1992 when the Soviets cut off fuel supplies.

In April 1992, the main rebel groups, including Ahmad Massoud, “the Lion of Panjshir,” and Burhanuddin Rabbani, both Tajiks, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, and a number of Pashtun and Hazara tribal leaders, came together in a loya jirga, a traditional conclave of Afghan leaders, and crafted a peace and power-sharing deal, the Peshawar Accord, creating a new government, the Islamic State of Afghanistan. As Massoud put it, “All the parties had participated in the war, . . . so they had to have their share in the government . . . . We were worried about a national conflict between different tribes and different nationalities.”

Kabul business district 1994
[Robert Nickelsberg]

But Hekmatyar, even though given the Prime Minister post, wanted sole power and, backed by the ISI vowed to take Kabul “with our naked sword.” Even bin Laden, no fan of Massoud’s benign brand of Islam, urged Hekmatyar “to go back with your brothers” and accept the compromise, but he refused and began bombarding Kabul with artillery and rockets.

Hekmatyar was ultimately defeated by Massoud, Dostrum, Rabbani, et al., but not until 80% of Kabul was destroyed, an estimated 50,000 residents were killed and 70% fled, cutting the city’s population from more than two million to less than 500,000. 

Massoud tried again to initiate a broad-based political process that would lead to nationwide reconciliation and democratic elections. But the Taliban, who had overrun most of southern and eastern Afghanistan, refused. With money, weapons and fighters from Pakistan – an estimated 20% to 40% of the Taliban were Pakistani nationals – continued their northward advance, taking Kabul and establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in late September 1996, leaving only the northern third of the country defended by Massoud and Dostrum as what one refugee called “the last tolerant corner of Afghanistan.” The Taliban regime did not end until October 2001, when it was routed by Massoud’s Northern Alliance supported by U.S. Special Forces.

Tragically, Massoud had been assassinated one month earlier on September 9, 2001, two days before 9/11, during an interview with two Moroccans masquerading as Belgian journalists from Molenbeek, a Brussels municipality with a well-deserved reputation as a terrorist breeding ground. They set off a bomb hidden in their video camera, killing Massoud. Ironically, just five months earlier in a speech to the European Parliament, Massoud had warned of an imminent major terrorist attack by al Qaeda. CIA analysts believe that Osama bin Laden ordered his murder to be carried out on the very eve of the attacks on the World Trade Center

So what did we learn? Was provoking the Soviets into invading Afghanistan and arming and training the mujahideen to fight them a good idea? Incredibly, Zbigniew Brzezinski believed so right up until he died in 2017. Here is Brzezinski interviewed in the influential French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur – now known as L’Obs – in January 1998, 20 years after the start of Operation Cyclone

Question: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a 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? And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

Brzezinski  [Jim Young / Reuters]

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?

Question:  Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated many times that Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.

Brzezinski:  Nonsense! There isn’t a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner, 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.

David N. Gibbs, “Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Retrospect,” International Politics 37 – No. 2 (2000) (translated from the French by William Blum and David N. Gibbs)


”Stirred-up Moslems”? To say the least. Less than four years after the Brzezinski interview, two hijacked airliners brought down the World Trade Center, a third crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth into a Pennsylvania field killing everyone on board. The world has not been the same since, and U.S. forces have now been in Afghanistan for 19 years, the Soviets were there less than 10. Vietnam redux. 



Seymour Hersh, The Other War: Why Bush’s Afghanistan Problem Won’t Go Away  [Annals of Nationol Security – April 2004]

Stephen Marche, Al Qaeda Won [Foreign Policy – September 2018]


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We live in perilous times, democracy is under attack, rationality and compassion are in short supply, and our planet, our home for 200,000 years, is burning up. We must resist, we must work for a better world. MacLeod Post is my voice in that struggle.

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