The story of what historians call the second cold war often begins with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, which shocked Americans into their own overreaction in Central America and Africa, as well as into arming the mujahedeen resistance. Today, it is a truth universally acknowledged in the punditocracy that while the United States may have played an indirect role in the creation of the Taliban and perhaps even the bin Laden terrorist network through our support for the radical Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan, we did so only in response to that act of Soviet aggression. As Tim Russert explained on Meet the Press, “We had little choice.” Speaking on CNN, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Peter Tomsen speaks of our “successful policy with the ordnance we sent to the mujahedeen to defeat the Soviets.” Writing on “The ‘Blowback’ Myth” in The Weekly Standard, one Thomas Henriksen of the Hoover Institution rehearses the Soviet invasion and then notes, “First President Carter, then, more decisively, Ronald Reagan moved to support the Afghan resistance.”
The truth is that the United States began a program of covert aid to the Afghan guerrillas six months before the Soviets invaded.
First revealed by former Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates in his 1996 memoir From the Shadows, the $500 million in nonlethal aid was designed to counter the billions the Soviets were pouring into the puppet regime they had installed in Kabul. Some on the American side were willing–perhaps even eager–to lure the Soviets into a Vietnam-like entanglement. Others viewed the program as a way of destabilizing the puppet government and countering the Soviets, whose undeniable aggression in the area was helping to reheat the cold war to a dangerous boil.
According to Gates’s recounting, a key meeting took place on March 30, 1979. Under Secretary of Defense Walter Slocumbe wondered aloud whether “there was value in keeping the Afghan insurgency going, ‘sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire.'” Arnold Horelick, CIA Soviet expert, warned that this was just what we could expect. In a 1998 conversation with Le Nouvel Observateur, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted, “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.”
Yet Carter, who signed the finding authorizing the covert program on July 3, 1979, today explains that it was definitely “not my intention” to inspire a Soviet invasion. Cyrus Vance, who was then Secretary of State, is not well enough to be interviewed, but his close aide Marshall Shulman insists that the State Department worked hard to dissuade the Soviets from invading and would never have undertaken a program to encourage it, though he says he was unaware of the covert program at the time. Indeed, Vance hardly seems to be represented at all in Gates’s recounting, although Brzezinski doubts that Carter would have approved the aid unless Vance “approved, however unenthusiastically.”
No one I interviewed–those who did not mind the idea of a Soviet invasion, and those who sought to avoid it–argues that Carter himself wished to provoke one. Gates, who was then an aide to Brzezinski, says the President did not think “strategically” in that fashion. “He was simply reacting to everything the Soviets were doing in that part of the world and felt it required some kind of response. This was it.” Brzezinski, similarly, says he did not sell the plan to Carter on these terms. The President understood, he explained on the phone, that “the Soviets had engineered a Communist coup and they were providing direct assistance in Kabul. We were facing a serious crisis in Iran, and the entire Persian Gulf was at stake. In that context, giving some money to the mujahedeen seemed justified.” Why Carter actually approved the aid remains unclear, however. Carter, it should be added, does not seem to remember much about the initial finding. Otherwise, he would not have asked his aide to fax me the pages from his memoir Keeping Faith, which ignores it entirely, and like the rest of the pre-Gates memoirs of the period, professes great shock and horror regarding the onset of the Soviet tanks.
The news of the covert program has provoked considerable confusion among those who seek to blame the United States for the September 11 massacre. Proponents of an overly schematic “blowback” scenario, including at least one vocal supporter of the Soviet “rape” of Afghanistan, have seized Brzezinski’s comments to claim that Osama bin Laden is merely one of America’s “chickens coming home to roost.” This is both simplistic and obscene. Blowback exists in absolutely every aspect of life, because nothing comes without unintended consequences. Does it make sense to blame the destruction of the World Trade Center on a $500 million nonlethal aid program that took place more than twenty years ago? We cannot even know for certain why the Soviets decided on their invasion.
Nor can we ever know for certain whether the US officials wished to inspire one. Memories deceive, records get destroyed and even original documents can be written to be deliberately misleading, as were the period’s official memoirs–save, ironically, that of Gates, the former spymaster. The covert action was undoubtedly approved by those involved for a host of reasons, some of which may be contradictory. Helping the Afghans resist Soviet domination was not exactly a controversial policy in 1979, though no one at the time could even dream that it might lead to the evil empire’s eventual disintegration.
Brzezinski argues that even given the 20/20 hindsight after September 11, the covert aid remains justified. He shares the common view that America’s most significant mistake was to abandon the nation to its unhappy fate following the Soviet withdrawal. Our terrorist problem, he insists, would be much worse with the Soviets still around to support their terrorist minions among the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Libyans, the Iraqis, etc.
Certainly this is much too kind to the Reagan-era military aid to Taliban-like elements. But a more accurate historical record can only lead to more intelligent debate about the future.