On an August afternoon in a city thousands of miles from home,
a U.S. diplomat sat within the secure confines of his Embassy office preparing
to write up his weekly summary report, while sounds of sporadic gunfire
reverberated from the surrounding mountains into the bustling streets and
bazaars outside. It was a typical scene, except this time the diplomat
decided to include in his communiqué‚ a rather provocative idea
that would capture more attention than usual back in Washington, D.C. It
would, in fact, help push his obscure, low-level assignment all the way
to the forefront of the Cold War. The overthrow of the country's communist
leadership, he wrote, "could well have positive repercussions for the U.S.
throughout the Third World by demonstrating that our adversaries’ view
of the ‘inevitable course’ of history is not necessarily accurate."(1)
The year was 1979. The country, of course, was Afghanistan.
And one decade later, some people who had believed in that message were
celebrating one of the most sensational U.S. victories in the history of
the Cold War: the withdrawal of 100,000 demoralized Soviet troops from
Afghanistan, marking the first time that the Red Army had withdrawn under
fire from a nation it had occupied since World War II. The Afghan socialist
revolution, it seemed, had failed.
At the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA), Director William Webster and his euphoric "Afghan Team" toasted
ten years of effort and a multi-billion dollar project to support the anti-communist,
Muslim Afghan rebels, in what had become the CIA’s largest and "most successful"
covert operation ever. On Capitol Hill, Congressman Charles Wilson (D-Texas),
a legislative champion of the anti-Soviet guerrillas, boasted that the
United States had learned in Afghanistan that it "could reverse Soviet
influence anywhere in the world." And at the White House, President George
Bush hailed the withdrawal as a "watershed" in U.S.-Soviet relations.
Six thousand miles away from the celebrations, however,
the war in Afghanistan raged on. Washington and Moscow’s clients, using
U.S. and Soviet-supplied weapons, continued their internecine struggle
for power, adding more civilian casualties to the 1 million who had already
died. Although peace had broken out between the superpowers, the legacy
of their long and bitter rivalry lived on in the rocket-prone city of Kabul,
Pakistan’s crowded refugee camps and the war-ravaged villages in the Hindu
The Relevance of Afghanistan
How is it that this underdeveloped, tribal-based country, tucked deep
inside the rugged crossroads of Asia and deemed strategically insignificant
by the United States for decades, became a battleground for the bloodiest
superpower proxy war of the 1980s?
What stimulated the United States to develop a sophisticated
insurgency support operation for a rebellion led by Islamic religious leaders
and fought by mountain tribesmen? What was the nature of the debate among
U.S. officials and congressmen as to what the rebels, beset with ethnic,
tribal and personal rivalries, could accomplish against the armed forces
of the Soviet Union? What effect did this war have on Pakistan, the most
important U.S. ally in South Asia, which played a crucial role in the war
by providing sanctuary for the rebels and 3 million Afghan refugees? And
what lessons have the U.S. intelligence and defense communities drawn from
the Afghan conflict and applied to the emerging U.S. strategic doctrine
of "Low-Intensity Warfare"?
Why did the Soviet Union spend ten years, billions
of dollars and 15-20,000 lives trying to prop up a government that seemed
constantly on the verge of collapse? Was Moscow’s intervention, as some
have claimed, originally part of a grand design to seize oil fields and
warm water ports in the Persian Gulf region, or merely a move to protect
a new socialist government in a country contiguous to its sensitive southern
border? Why did Mikhail Gorbachev eventually call the Red Army home, leaving
the Afghan government to fend for itself against formidable odds? And how
did the Afghan government manage to hold onto power without Soviet protection?
No student, professor or journalist trying to answer
these and the many other questions related to the Afghan war can do justice
to their research without reviewing some of the thousands of pages of State
Department cables from Kabul, Peshawar, Islamabad and Washington; intelligence
reports from the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA); correspondence
between Congress and the executive branch; field reports from Agency for
International Development (AID) officials in Pakistan; and other previously
classified materials found in this document set.
An overview of U.S. policy during Afghanistan’s last
17 turbulent years both provides some context for approaching these questions
and demonstrates the usefulness of these materials to those trying to answer
The Tenets of U.S. Policy
Although Afghanistan experienced massive changes between 1973 and 1990--four
coups, the intervention and withdrawal of the Soviet armed forces, the
exile of one-third of its population as a result of the war, and one million
deaths—U.S. policy toward Afghanistan throughout this period actually remained
the same: to prevent "excessive" Soviet influence. Specifically, this meant
denying the Soviet Union a foothold in Afghanistan from which to launch
aggressive actions in the region. Afghanistan by itself was of little importance
to the United States. But the area around it—the Persian Gulf and the sea
lines and ports of the Indian Ocean—was deemed critical, and U.S. policy
toward Afghanistan consistently reflected a regional policy that sought
strong and friendly ties with Iran and Pakistan. Hence, the two factors
shaping U.S. policy in Afghanistan also remained consistent: the U.S. perception
of Soviet goals in Afghanistan, and the balance of power in the region.
Until the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, the United
States was able to project its power into South Asia and protect its interests
there with confidence. In exchange for massive military assistance, the
Shah provided the United States with access to military bases and intelligence
facilities, helping to safeguard the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf
to the "free world" while preventing potential Soviet advances toward the
Gulf or Indian Ocean.
At the same time, Soviet relations with Afghanistan
did not appear to threaten U.S. interests. Since the USSR shared a long
border with Afghanistan and because the United States enjoyed friendly
ties with the other states in the region, U.S. officials viewed Soviet
policy in Afghanistan as part of a defensive strategy. A National Intelligence
Estimate written in 1954--one year after the United States helped restore
the Shah to his throne in Iran—stated that "Soviet attention to Afghanistan
is part of a general effort to counter recent Western (particularly US)
gains in the Middle East-South Asia area."(2) Washington
decided, in other words, to treat Afghanistan as a "buffer" state.
Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, relations between
Moscow and Kabul grew stronger, as the USSR became one of Afghanistan’s
largest sources of foreign aid. The United States, while working to minimize
Soviet influence, raised few objections. In 1962, the State Department
reasoned that "US fostering of active hostility toward the USSR [could]
only serve to weaken Afghanistan’s ability to survive."(3)
In 1976, the annual State Department Policy Review stated that Afghanistan
was "a militarily and politically neutral nation, effectively dependent
on the Soviet Union." Still, it concluded that the United States "is not,
nor should it become, committed to, or responsible for the ‘protection’
of Afghanistan in any respect."(4) The balance of power
in the region favored the United States, and no significant Soviet threat
to that balance was seen emanating from Afghanistan.
This set of circumstances—which in U.S. policy parlance
is described as "regional stability"—changed dramatically in 1979. The
Shah of Iran abdicated his throne in January, allowing an anti-American,
Islamic government to take power. Ten months later, the Soviet Union deployed
100,000 troops to Afghanistan, putting the Red Army within striking distance
of both Pakistan and a potentially vulnerable Iran. The balance in the
region had shifted. Soviet policy in Afghanistan, which was previously
perceived as benign, was suddenly described by the White House as "the
gravest threat to world peace since World War II."
The Early Years: 1973-1978
To gain a full understanding of these changes, one needs to go back
to the early 1970s when the power of Afghanistan’s monarchy was waning.
Afghanistan at this time was one of the most underdeveloped countries in
the world. In 1974, the World Bank estimated Afghanistan’s per capita GNP
to be $70, ranking it 73rd among a list of 83 underdeveloped countries.(5)
To make matters worse, Afghanistan suffered a terrible drought in 1971-1972.
Foreign aid, from such countries as West Germany, Iran, the United States,
and especially from the USSR, helped alleviate the country’s economic woes.
Foreign aid alone, however, could not resolve Afghanistan’s
emerging political conflicts. Many Afghans, particularly the progressive
urban elite, had grown impatient with the country’s leader, King Zahir
Shah. The king had ruled Afghanistan (sometimes as only a titular head)
since the age of 19, when his father was assassinated in 1933.
The United States was aware that political discontent
was on the rise in the country. In 1971, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul reported
that "[t]here has been increased leftist activity which can be attributed
to increased disillusionment and frustration with the existing social/economic
conditions and the apparent inability or unwillingness of the leadership
to tackle boldly the nation’s problems."(6) Perhaps the
most disgruntled and organized of the country’s leftist groups was the
People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).
The PDPA had been founded in 1965 by a group of 30
Afghans in Kabul. Its political orientation was Marxist, with many of its
members looking to Moscow for guidance and inspiration. Many PDPA members,
in fact, had studied or received military training in the USSR.
During its early years, the PDPA was torn by quarrels
and plots between its two leaders, Nur Mohammad Taraki and Babrak Karmal.
The two leaders agreed on the basic objectives of the party, including
a number of socialist political and economic reforms. They both also complained
of Afghanistan’s backward nature, pointing not only to its underdeveloped
infrastructure but also to a maldistribution of wealth and land which,
they claimed, was perpetuated by traditional tribal and religious customs.
Taraki and Karmal disagreed, however, over how to remedy these problems.
Taraki and his followers argued for radical socialist reforms using whatever
means necessary to implement them; Karmal and his supporters advocated
the gradual introduction of socialist change, working within the state
system, incorporating along the way different elements of Afghan society.
Karmal and several colleagues had even served as parliamentary members
during the king’s rule, earning themselves the nickname "royal communists."
In 1967, Karmal split with the party and formed his
own faction, also called the PDPA, but usually identified by the name of
its newspaper, Parcham (banner). Parcham continued to strive for the same
kinds of socialist reforms pursued by Taraki’s rival PDPA faction, Khalq
(masses), also named for its newspaper, but the two competed for power
By the early 1970s, Karmal had all but abandoned
his non-confrontational, almost cooperative approach toward the government.
The Zahir Administration had shut down the Parcham newspaper, quashed Parcham
demonstrations, and arrested party members and put them in jail. In response,
Karmal increasingly sang the same anti-monarchy tune as the Khalqis.
Parcham and Khalq were not the only groups opposed
to the Zahir Shah Administration. The king’s cousin and former prime minister,
Mohammad Daud, had his eyes on the royal palace, as did several other former
officials and relatives of the king. Realizing that a race was on to replace
Zahir Shah, Daud, along with members of the military and Parcham, coordinated
a takeover attempt. On July 17, 1973, while the king was vacationing in
Italy, Daud, along with key military officers and the minister of interior,
who was a Parcham sympathizer, launched a successful, nearly bloodless
coup, declaring an end to the monarchy and the beginning of a republican
The exact nature of Daud’s relations with Parcham
during this time is still not clear. Did the two agree on political objectives
for Afghanistan, or did they merely create a marriage of convenience? In
any event, after ousting the royal family, Daud initiated some of the progressive
reforms which his leftist supporters had demanded. His commitment to a
reformist program and to his early backers was shortlived, however. Over
time, Daud consolidated his personal power by purging the government of
leftists, replacing them with members of his own powerful Mohammadzai clan.
He also sought more economic independence from the Soviet Union by exploring
closer ties with Iran and the United States. He was careful, however, never
completely to shun the Soviet Union. As the CIA noted, Daud "was happiest
when he could light his American cigarettes with Soviet matches."(7)
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul observed that Daud, in
his changes, was leaning neither left nor right, but "Daudward." In pursuit
of personal power and a more independent foreign policy, Daud managed to
alienate Afghanistan’s socialists, moderates and religious fundamentalists.
It was the latter which initially proved to be Daud’s most militant opponents.
While some Afghans were being influenced by Marxism,
others were diligently studying the Koran. Many of these Afghans entered
Kabul University’s faculty of Islamic law, while others pursued their Islamic
studies in Egypt where they came into contact with and were influenced
by the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization which seeks the imposition of
strictly Islamic governments in all Muslim countries. Some of those Afghans
who studied in Cairo, such as Burhanuddin Rabbani, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi
and Abdul Rabb-ur-Rasul Sayyaf, came back to Kabul determined to galvanize
opposition first to Zahir Shah and then Mohammad Daud, both of whose governments
they criticized as corrupt and un-Islamic. This group of Afghans wanted
to integrate modernization and Islam to counter the "disruptive" influence
of both capitalism and communism.
Rabbani recruited from Afghanistan’s Muslim Youth
Organization and helped form the Islamic Society party, Jamiat-i Islami.
Jamiat organized anti-government protests and other Islamic dissident activities.
When Daud cracked down on Jamiat activists, Rabbani and other Muslim leaders
fled for the Afghan countryside and eventually to Pakistan where they received
arms to fight the Daud government. U.S. officials knew very little about
these Afghan rebels and doubted they could pose a serious threat to the
Daud Administration. Some of the names listed in State Department cables
were those of people who, years later, would receive covert aid from the
United States in their jihad, or holy war, against the Soviet Union.
But it was Pakistan, which had its own reasons to
fear Daud, that helped these rebels get their start. Especially alarming
to the Pakistanis was Daud’s pursuit of a popular cause called Pashtunistan.
Roughly half of Afghanistan’s population are ethnic Pashtuns, including
Daud and practically every other leader in Afghanistan’s history. Millions
of Pashtuns also lived on the other side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border,
an artificial line drawn by the British during the height of their colonial
rule in India. These Pashtuns, living in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier
Province (NWFP), looked forward to the day when they would join their ethnic
brethren in controlling their own homeland, Pashtunistan. Since Pashtuns
dominated Afghan politics, they could only gain from pursuing such a goal,
and Afghan leaders, in turn, won favor among Afghan Pashtuns for pursuing
What was appealing to Daud and other Afghan leaders,
however, represented a real threat to Pakistan. Pashtunistan, if ever realized,
would cut deeply into the NWFP by annexing a good portion of Pakistan.
Even if the border with Afghanistan remained intact, calls in Kabul for
Pashtunistan always had the potential for stirring unrest in Peshawar and
other parts of Pakistan’s frontier. Expatriate leaders such as Rabbani,
an ethnic Tajik, and Hekmatyar, an Islamist who sought to unite Afghans
belonging to all ethnic groups through Islam, provided Pakistan with a
minor tool for keeping Daud off balance if he chose to pursue an aggressive
Meanwhile, as Islamic fundamentalists rebelled against
Daud’s "atheistic" reforms, Daud continued to purge more leftists from
the government, banned political opposition in 1975, and strengthened ties
with Iran and the United States. The United States welcomed and encouraged
Daud’s new foreign policy moves. In 1977, the State Department, remarking
on Daud’s closer ties to Iran, stated that he had "made significant contributions
to the improvement of regional stability—thereby helping to fulfill another
principal U.S. objective."(8)
The Saur Revolution
Despite U.S. approval, Daud’s authoritarian rule had alienated too many
at home. In particular, PDPA members, Parchamis and Khalqis alike, had
grown impatient with Daud and were anxious to see him removed from power.
Khalq members criticized their Parcham rivals for having deluded themselves
into thinking that the PDPA could have worked with Daud after supporting
his takeover. By 1977, Khalq and Parcham formally agreed to bury their
differences and united to form one People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan;
Soviet pressure reportedly played a role in the unification. Further PDPA
infiltration of the military, especially by Khalqis, put the party in a
good position to influence events if and when Daud lost his grip on power.
That day came on April 17, 1978, when Mir Akbar Khaibar,
a member of the PDPA and a vocal critic of Daud, was assassinated, possibly
by Daud’s minister of interior. Thousands of mourners turned Khaibar’s
funeral into an anti-government rally which prompted Daud to clamp down
further on the PDPA, arresting numerous party members. His response provoked
PDPA supporters in the military to take action. On April 27, the military
in collaboration with the PDPA overthrew Daud, executed him, and replaced
his republican government with a socialist one, which proclaimed the coup
as the beginning of the "Saur [April] Revolution."
Prelude to Intervention
The socialist and pro-Soviet bent of the new government caused U.S.
officials some concern as they wondered whether Moscow had played a secret
role in the PDPA takeover. U.S. Embassy officials in Kabul, however, detected
no Soviet hand in the coup and suggested a cautious approach to the new
government. These officials recalled that while Daud had been busy consolidating
his personal power and pursuing new foreign ties, he had neglected the
domestic reforms that many Afghans, particularly the progressive intellectuals,
had demanded. Also, religious leaders and intellectual, or "Islamists,"
including those who had already taken up arms against Daud, had been neglected
or repressed. The PDPA was in a better position than the Islamicists to
seize power because of its stronger influence over the military and within
the capital city, Kabul.
The Khalq-Parcham unity was apparently not very solid.
The new government, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), was dominated
by Khalqis, due mostly to Khalq control of the military. Soon after the
April takeover, Khalq’s two main leaders, Nur Mohammad Taraki and Hafizullah
Amin, quickly consolidated Khalq rule by imprisoning a number of their
Parcham rivals while sending others off to foreign diplomatic posts. Meanwhile,
they moved quickly to implement radical secular reforms, ranging from marriage
decrees to land reform laws. A treaty of "friendship" between Afghanistan
and the Soviet Union was signed in December 1978, which brought more Soviet
aid and advisors to Kabul.
The Khalqi reforms served to ignite strong opposition
from most of the deeply traditional and Islamic population. The security
of rural women, for example, often depended on a sizable dowry, which was
significantly reduced under new marriage laws. The land reforms, which
were meant to help small farmers, were opposed by many for having alienated
them from their former landowners, on whom they had always relied for help
in growing and selling their crops. A number of disenfranchised landowners
along with many religious leaders either took up arms against the Taraki-Amin
government or left the country.
Some Afghans fled to Pakistan to join the Islamic
Afghan dissidents such as Rabbani and Hekmatyar. Some of the more prominent
new rebels included: Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, who came from a well-known
family of Sufi leaders, had ties to the royal family, was related to a
prominent PDPA official (a valuable connection for most rebels), and formerly
Islamic law in Kabul; Sayyid Ahmad Gailani, who was also tied to the royal
family, was a Pir, or spiritual leader, and who until his departure from
Kabul owned a Peugeot car dealership; Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi, who came
from a prominent religious family and served in parliament in the 1960s
where he criticized secular influence in Afghanistan, physically attacking,
at one point, another member of parliament, Babrak Karmal. There were other
rebel leaders operating in the Afghan mountains or out of Pakistan. An
important one, Yunus Khales had escaped from Afghanistan in 1974 after
writing a book that criticized the Daud Administration. Unlike some other
rebel leaders, Khales depended more on his genuine tribal support than
his religious aura to galvanize Afghans in his home province of Nangarhar
to oppose the new government in Kabul.
These leaders, along with Rabbani, Hekmatyar, and
another who joined in 1980, Abdul Rabb-ur-Rasul Sayyaf, formed their own
parties and would eventually unite to form the Sunni Islamic Afghan rebel
alliance, or the "Peshawar Seven" as they would later become collectively
known as. These party leaders called for a jihad, or holy war, against
Many other Afghan dissidents helped lead the charge
against the Kabul government, including numerous commanders in the Afghan
mountains, like Ahmad Shah Masoud. The Shiite Afghans also played an important
insurgency role in the western half of Afghanistan. Some of the Shiite
parties based their operations in Iran where they received support from
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s government. It was the Peshawar Seven, however,
who would grab the world’s attention, partly because the government of
Pakistan, the host to most rebels and refugees and the foreign journalists
writing about them, chose to recognize their parties as the only legitimate
ones in Pakistan.
The United States, in the meantime, had found itself
facing a policy dilemma with the PDPA’s ascension to power in Afghanistan.
This dilemma was summed up in a secret memorandum to Secretary of State
Cyrus Vance following the April takeover: "We need to take into account
the mix of nationalism and communism in the new leadership and seek to
avoid driving the regime into a closer embrace with the Soviet Union than
it might wish...."
Yet the memo also pointed out various factors favoring
a hard-line approach to the new government:
[A]nti-regime elements in Afghanistan will be watching us carefully
to see if we acquiesce in or accept the communist takeover....Pakistan,
Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others of our friends in the area will see the
situation clearly as a Soviet coup. On the domestic front, many Americans
will see this as an extension of Soviet power and draw the parallel with
Angola, Ethiopia, etc.(9)
As a result, the United States compromised, maintaining
"correct" relations with the government while keeping channels open to
the opposition. As dissatisfaction with the PDPA mounted within Afghanistan,
however, the United States grew increasingly uncomfortable with the new
government and its radical reforms. To make matters worse, in February
1979, the U.S. ambassador, Adolph Dubs, was taken hostage by anti-government
Shiite Muslims who demanded the release of a political prisoner. Afghan
police clumsily stormed their hideout, and Dubs was killed in the ensuing
shootout. Afghan authorities stonewalled U.S. requests for an independent
investigation of the killing. Congress in turn refused to replace Dubs
with another ambassador and threatened to cut aid to the DRA.
In March 1979, Afghans in the western city of Herat
responded to rebel calls for a jihad by massacring hundreds of DRA officials
and Soviet advisors who were in charge of introducing the women’s literacy
program there. Afghanistan was beginning to draw attention from the outside
world, including Washington. At the White House, National Security Advisor
Zbigniew Brzezinski warned President Carter that the Soviet Union, with
its hundreds of advisors in Afghanistan to assist in reforms and counterinsurgency
operations, had territorial designs on Afghanistan and possibly the whole
South Asia region. Brzezinski and others worried that the USSR might take
advantage of its presence in Afghanistan in order to influence events in
neighboring Iran or Pakistan, two traditionally pro-American countries
that for years had helped safeguard U.S. interests in the region, namely
access to oil and the containment of the Soviet Union.
If the DRA were able to consolidate its power, Brzezinski
argued, then the Soviet Union might turn Afghanistan into a launching pad
for aggression in the region. Weeks after the Herat uprising and while
President Carter was absorbed by the Iran hostage crisis, Brzezinski pushed
a decision through the Special Coordination Committee (SCC) of the National
Security Council (NSC) to be, as he put it, "more sympathetic to those
Afghans who were determined to preserve their country’s independence."(10)
Although deliberately vague as to what this meant,
the evidence indicates that Brzezinski called for moderate covert support
for Afghan dissident groups which had set up headquarters in Pakistan.
Some, such as forces under the command of Rabbani and Hekmatyar, had been
operating out of Pakistan without much outside aid for years. According
to a former Pakistani military official who was interviewed in 1988, the
U.S. Embassy in Islamabad had asked Pakistani military officials in April
1979 to recommend a rebel organization that would make the best use of
U.S. aid. The following month, the Pakistani source claimed, he personally
introduced a CIA official to Hekmatyar who, while more radically Islamic
and anti-American than most Afghans, headed what the Pakistani government
considered the most militant and organized rebel group, the Hizb-i Islami
Freedom of Information Act requests for records describing
these meetings have been denied. But CIA and State Department documents
seized by Iranian students during the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran
in November 1979, reveal that, starting in April 1979, eight months before
the Soviet intervention and immediately following Brzezinski’s SCC decision,
the United States had, in fact, begun quietly meeting rebel representatives.
Although most of the cables and memoranda released to date show that U.S.
officials politely turned down rebel requests for U.S. assistance, others
reveal CIA support for anti-DRA demonstrations and close monitoring of
Pakistani military aid for rebel parties based in Pakistan’s NWFP.
Brzezinski’s decision to help the rebels was curious
in light of Soviet activities in Afghanistan at the time. According to
declassified documents and this author’s interviews, Soviet officials thought
the Khalqi leadership was moving too fast with its reforms and urged Taraki
and Amin to moderate the pace of change and broaden their political base
by including non-communists in the government. This approach, however,
was more amenable to Parcham leaders who, unfortunately for Soviet officials,
were not in power. When Khalq leaders sidestepped Soviet advice, Moscow
sought other means to induce political change, meeting with former members
of the monarchy and other non-communists to seek their participation in
the DRA government. Soviet and other East bloc diplomats in Kabul kept
the U.S. Embassy informed of their efforts.
The ruling Khalqis, particularly Hafizullah Amin,
had little use for Soviet counsel. The government responded to the growing
opposition with increasing brutality, and the PDPA’s base continued to
narrow. Amin, who as the defense minister was in charge of the failed counterinsurgency
operations, became the focus of Soviet frustrations. State Department intelligence
learned that, in August 1979, Moscow had decided there was no practical
alternative in Afghanistan to the rule of Taraki and Amin but that Soviet
officials had resolved to support the more moderate Taraki against Amin.
In the same month, a high-ranking Soviet military
official, General Ivan Pavlovskiy, led a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan
to assess the stability of the government. In September, Taraki, on his
way home from a Nonaligned Movement conference in Cuba, stopped in Moscow
where he and Soviet officials reportedly discussed Amin’s future. Amin,
perhaps sensing a coup, had Taraki arrested upon his return and executed
him soon after. In October, General Pavlovskiy returned to Moscow and presented
the Politburo with a grim picture of the situation below their border.
The Khalqi government had lost control of 23 of Afghanistan’s 28 provinces
to various rebel forces. Left with Amin, the Soviets drew up plans for
By late November 1979, Soviet forces were moved to
the Soviet Union-Afghanistan border. Warsaw Pact forces were also placed
on an advanced state of readiness. Two Soviet battalions were quietly flown
into an airbase near Kabul during the first week of December, laying the
groundwork for what was to follow. On Christmas Eve 1979, tens of thousands
of Soviet troops riding in tanks and armored personnel carriers stormed
across the Amudarya River into the rugged Afghan countryside, while thousands
more flew into the Kabul, Bagram and Shindand air bases, bringing with
them exiled Parcham leaders, including Babrak Karmal, who had been hiding
in Moscow. Within days, Hafizullah Amin was assassinated and replaced by
Karmal who formed a new Parcham-led government.
Superpowers and Doctrines
The Soviet invasion symbolized, ironically, the limits of Soviet influence
in Afghanistan. Unable to stabilize the government through political means,
Moscow attempted to do so with military force, much the same as the United
States had done years before in Vietnam. To many observers in Washington,
D.C., however, Afghanistan was beginning to look like another pawn on the
Kremlin’s chessboard. The invasion coincided with the decline of U.S. influence
in Iran and other Third World countries such as Angola and Mozambique in
1975, Ethiopia in 1977 and Nicaragua in 1979 where "pro-Soviet" governments
had seized power. It also coincided with an election year in which President
Carter was coming under attack from conservatives for failing to prevent
these "Soviet gains."
Many of these U.S. observers argued that the global
balance of power, particularly the geostrategic balance in South Asia,
had shifted in favor of the Soviet Union. The new dominant U.S. perception
of Soviet foreign policy, as "evidenced" by Afghanistan, was that it was
expansionist in nature: the Brezhnev Doctrine of protecting socialist allies,
U.S. conservatives claimed, had been logically extended to include expanding
Soviet influence beyond the Warsaw Pact. This view was best summed up in
a Defense Intelligence Agency report issued days after Soviet troops entered
Afghanistan: "The key motivation that propelled Moscow’s move was to bring
its long-standing strategic goals closer within reach. Control of Afghanistan
would be a major step toward overland access to the Indian Ocean and to
domination of the Asian sub-continent."(12)
Reasoning that "aggression unopposed becomes a contagious
disease," President Carter warned the Soviet Union on January 23rd, 1980,
that "[a]n attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian
Gulf region [would] be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of
the U.S. and [would] be repelled by any means necessary, including military
force."(13) Journalists labeled this powerful warning
the Carter Doctrine. Since, however, the United States was neither interested
in nor prepared for a war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan or the Persian
Gulf, Carter looked for alternative ways to slow down a potential Soviet
drive and make Moscow pay a heavy price for its intervention. He called
for international economic sanctions against the USSR and a boycott of
the Olympic games being held in Moscow, sought military access agreements
with several South and Southwest Asian countries, and provided more covert
aid to the mujahidin.
Not all U.S. officials believed that the Soviet intervention
was part of an expansionist drive. While no declassified documents reveal
any criticism of rebel military aid, some officials subsequently recalled
in this author’s interviews that they had advocated quiet diplomacy with
the Soviet Union in order to provide the Kremlin with a way out of what
they believed was a political and military miscalculation.(14)
Moscow had its own critics as well. According to interviews with Soviet
officials, days after the intervention, Soviet foreign affairs advisors
pleaded with the Kremlin leadership to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
These advisors did not believe the intervention was worth ruining d‚tente
with the United States, Europe and China. What is more, the deeply traditional
and Islamic Afghans, in their opinion, were not yet prepared for socialism.(15)
Cold War attitudes, however, prevailed in both Moscow and Washington.
A combination of fear, pride and superpower obligations
caused the leader of the "free world" and the "vanguard of socialism" to
struggle violently over a destitute country the size of Texas for the next
Political vs. Military
Carter’s reaction to the Soviet invasion received widespread approval
among policy-makers. Hard-liners, including Carter’s opponent in the 1980
presidential elections, Ronald Reagan, had warned numerous times that the
Soviet Union was "on a roll" in the Third World and had to be "rolled back."
Moderates thought the intervention, regardless of its purpose, was an egregious
act for which the USSR should pay a price. All agreed that the Soviet Union
should withdraw from Afghanistan. The question was how to convince Moscow.
Congressional conservatives opposed negotiations,
distrusting the Soviet Union’s willingness to negotiate in good faith.
According to their view, the USSR would not withdraw unless and until it
felt the costs of its occupation. Most U.S. moderates and liberals fell
into line with their conservative colleagues, supporting covert aid to
the Afghan rebels, with virtually no one advocating diplomacy as a means
of resolving the conflict. The State Department believed that the rebels
could "probably continue tying up some 85,000 or more Soviet troops" but
that they were "fragmented, lack[ed] effective national leadership, and
certainly [could not] force a Soviet withdrawal."(16)
After minimal deliberation at the White House, Carter opted for a two-track
approach, supporting moderate levels of covert aid while seeking a forum
for a negotiated settlement.
Carter’s loss to Reagan in the 1980 presidential
election signalled the end of the negotiation track. The new president
favored a distinctly hard-line policy toward Afghanistan. Reagan sought
to make the Afghan rebels and other anti-communist insurgencies the centerpiece
of the "Reagan Doctrine," an aggressive initiative designed to increase
the cost of Soviet support for Third World socialist governments. While
few believed that the Afghan rebels could force a Soviet withdrawal, Reagan
and his advisors hoped to tie Soviet troops down in Afghanistan’s Hindu
Kush mountains until the cost of occupation became unsustainable.
The key to this objective was Pakistan. Since the
overthrow of Mohammad Daud, Pakistan had played host to thousands (and
eventually millions) of Afghan refugees and rebels who had fled their war-torn
country for make-shift tent villages in the Northwest Frontier Province
and Baluchistan. Without the cooperation of Pakistan’s military government,
led since 1977 by Gen. Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, the rebels would have had no
sanctuary from which to launch their operations.
The Carter Administration had cut aid to Pakistan
in 1977 because of concerns about its nuclear program and General Zia’s
disdain for human rights and democracy. There was ample evidence to suggest
that Pakistan was actively developing an atomic bomb. In addition, the
Carter White House, with its public emphasis on respect for human rights
as a precondition for foreign aid, was forced to respond to Zia’s well-known
history of brutal and dictatorial actions. The general had originally attained
power by overthrowing Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. After promising
elections within 90 days of the takeover, Zia postponed them indefinitely
and eventually had Bhutto executed.
To the United States, however, Zia’s record of human
rights abuses paled in significance when compared to the Soviet move into
Afghanistan. Literally days after the Soviet invasion, Carter was on the
telephone with Zia offering him hundreds of millions of dollars in economic
and military aid in exchange for cooperation in helping the rebels. Zia
accepted this quid pro quo, but his government remained wary of Washington’s
stated commitment to protect Pakistan from possible Soviet strikes across
The Reagan Administration was able to gain Pakistan’s
confidence by offering a huge, six-year economic and military aid package
which elevated Pakistan to the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign
aid. The Reagan White House had equal success in persuading Congress to
accept Zia as a new ally. The conservative, Islamic general who was still
pursuing a nuclear weapons program and seemed uninterested in ever holding
elections was now a fellow "freedom fighter" boldly in charge of a front-line
Although Zia spoke in concert with U.S. objectives
of supporting Afghan "self-determination" and opposing the Afghan "puppet"
government, he and his military had their own agenda in Afghanistan. Zia
chose to favor the more radically Islamic rebel groups who, in some cases,
were no more popular or representative than the PDPA. He was able to divert
a disproportionately large share of U.S.-supplied weapons to these groups,
especially the most radical one, Hizb-i Islami (Hekmatyar). Later in the
war, this would cause significant problems for the rebel movement.
Whether the United States blindly yielded to Zia’s
favoritism of the fundamentalists or was in connivance with it is still
in question. The relationship between the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services
Intelligence Directorate (ISI), the arm of the military responsible for
distributing CIA-purchased weapons to the rebels, is not well-documented.
This author’s interviews with Pakistani officials indicate that U.S. officials
in Pakistan were continually advised by ISI officials that Hekmatyar’s
Hizb-i Islami was the most effective rebel organization, although some
officials from Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry apparently differed with that
assessment. Many secular Pakistanis outside of the government worried that
foreign aid for Afghan fundamentalists such as Hekmatyar also served to
bolster the conservative Islamic forces in Pakistan, including the military.
Available documents and chronology show that during the ten-year Soviet
occupation of Afghanistan, U.S. officials developed a stronger relationship
with Pakistan’s generals than with either the foreign ministry or the civilian
Congress and Covert Aid
Afghanistan presents a unique case of congressional involvement with
a covert aid program. Whereas a divided Congress often impeded the Reagan
Administration’s efforts to aid the contras in Nicaragua, congressional
hard-liners, riding a wave of bipartisan support, consistently and successfully
pushed for more covert funding for the Afghan rebels than the White House
Hence, the debate regarding Afghan aid was relatively
narrow in scope although not without tension. While everyone seemed to
support "Afghan self-determination" and a Soviet-free Afghanistan, several
members of Congress, backed by conservative lobbying groups, criticized
the administration for not pursuing vigorously enough a mujahidin military
victory over the PDPA. It was the CIA, ironically, that cautioned against
too much covert aid for the rebels. Officials from CIA headquarters in
Langley, Virginia, including Deputy Director John McMahon, warned Congress
that too large a military support operation for the rebels might provoke
Soviet retaliation against Pakistan and would certainly be subject to "leakages"
The CIA was especially resistant to calls for providing
the mujahidin with U.S.-made weaponry. Traditionally, the Agency purchased
foreign, usually Soviet-styled, weaponry in order to "plausibly deny" U.S.
involvement if the need arose. Throughout the Afghan war, the CIA purchased
Soviet-designed weapons from Egypt, China and elsewhere and transported
them to Pakistan. Cables reveal that Chinese and Egyptian AK-47 rifles
and SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles arrived in Pakistan as early as 1980. This
covert purchasing process not only covered U.S. tracks, but ensured the
availability of weapons that were compatible with the kind captured by
the rebels from their Soviet-supplied enemies.
In 1984, Congress passed a resolution, introduced
by Senator Paul Tsongas (D-Massachusetts) and Congressman Don Ritter (R-Pennsylvania),
which called for "effective" U.S. material aid for the rebels "in their
fight for freedom from foreign domination." Several legislators, particularly
Congressman Charlie Wilson (D-Texas) and Senator Gordon Humphrey (R-New
Hampshire), tried to use the Tsongas-Ritter resolution to increase the
size and quality of the rebel covert aid program.
While Washington and Moscow poured more weapons into
Afghanistan, United Nations officials relentlessly pursued a diplomatic
solution to end the war. In 1982, the U.N. Secretary-General, Javier P‚rez
de Cuellar tasked Diego Cordovez to find a way for the United Nations to
mediate a political settlement in Afghanistan. For the next six years,
Cordovez shuttled back and forth from New York to South Asia to the Soviet
Union and to Geneva. He tried to convince the numerous parties to the conflict—the
Afghan government, the various rebel groups, the Soviet Union, Pakistan,
the United States and Iran—to narrow their differences so that they could
agree on a set of principles or conditions under which the Soviet military
would withdraw from Afghanistan. Cordovez and his U.N. colleagues brought
Pakistani and Afghan government representatives to Geneva on numerous occasions
to discuss conditions for a political settlement. Since Pakistan did not
recognize the Afghan government as legitimate, Cordovez literally had to
move back and forth between hotel rooms because Pakistani officials refused
to sit at the same table with the DRA representatives.
Compounding Cordovez’s difficulties was a strong
sense of mistrust between the superpowers. On a number of occasions it
appeared that Pakistan and Afghanistan were ready to sign an agreement
that would prohibit Pakistan from allowing material aid for the rebels
to pass through its territory in exchange for a Soviet withdrawal. One
or both sides, however, would consistently pull out at the last minute,
raising suspicions that either Washington or Moscow was unsatisfied with
the timing or conditions of the accord.
To most U.S. officials, these U.N.-sponsored "proximity
talks" looked hopeless or even frightening. In March 1983, Under Secretary
of State for Political Affairs Lawrence Eagleburger reportedly expressed
alarm at the prospect that the following round of Geneva negotiations might
result in a settlement. About the same time, Charles Cogan, then the CIA’s
official in charge of covert operations in Afghanistan, told a journalist
that Pakistan was not about to sign Cordovez’s proposed "Geneva Accords"
at the next round "or ever." He added that President Zia accepted the U.S.
view that "Pakistan’s security is best assured by keeping the Russians
tied down [in Afghanistan]."(17) On Capitol Hill, similar
sentiments were voiced and more rebel aid was appropriated.
Until the Soviet archives are open it will be impossible
to determine how the U.S. hard-line approach affected Soviet policy toward
Afghanistan. Was Moscow supporting U.N. efforts as a smokescreen for its
strategy of subjugating the mujahidin, as Wilson, Humphrey and others argued?
Or did increased U.S. aid for the rebels cause the USSR to dig in deeper,
suspecting that the United States was not interested in a political solution?
Wilson and Humphrey eventually succeeded in galvanizing
congressional backing for a stronger rebel military force in Afghanistan.
Despite signs of corruption in both the military and humanitarian aid programs
as early as 1982, Congress ultimately provided nearly $3 billion in covert
aid for the mujahidin, more than all other CIA covert operations in the
1980s combined. By 1987, the United States was providing the rebels with
nearly $700 million in military assistance a year, more than what Pakistan
itself was receiving from Washington.
In 1984, Wilson used his powerful position on the
House Intelligence Committee to tack on an additional $50 million for Afghan
covert aid and convinced the CIA to purchase high-quality, Swiss-designed
Oerlikon anti-aircraft missiles, which could pierce the heavy armor of
the USSR’s most formidable counterinsurgency machine, the Hind Mi-24 helicopter.
The CIA went even further in 1985, purchasing the sophisticated British-made
Blowpipe anti-aircraft missiles. And in 1986, due to pressure from several
congressmen and a number of bureaucrats at the State and Defense departments,
the CIA provided the mujahidin with U.S.-made Stinger missiles, the most
effective shoulder-held anti-aircraft weapon in the world. It was the first
time the CIA had provided U.S.-made weaponry as part of a covert insurgency
support operation, and the legislative branch was largely responsible.
As a congressional staffer later put it: "We finally broke the Agency’s
Refugees and U.S. Policy
The dislocation of 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan—one of the
most tragic results of the war—was something Congress, the White House
and the international community could all agree on: they needed massive
assistance. Ultimately one-third of Afghanistan’s pre-war population fled
the country, testifying to the destruction and chaos caused largely by
heavy Soviet/Afghan government aerial bombing.
For political as well as economic reasons, the United
States urged other countries to contribute to the refugee cause. In 1981,
the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad asserted that if funding for the refugees
were too visible, it "would damage the credibility of the mujahidin by
focusing attention on U.S. influence in the Afghan insurgency."(18)
Dozens of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were willing to help the
refugees and rebels as long as they were provided with the necessary resources
to do so. The United States channeled a significant amount of aid through
favored NGOs and urged other countries to either aid the same organizations
or to contribute to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
In the end, no matter who distributed the aid, much of it ended up in the
hands of rebel parties, providing them with significant political leverage
over the millions of Afghan exiles.
In addition to the humanitarian grounds for providing
aid to the refugees in Pakistan, the United States also sought to alleviate
political and economic pressure on Islamabad and to help maintain a support
structure for the rebels. In 1982, the CIA predicted that the presence
of Afghan refugees in Pakistan would help "generate political unrest and
retard economic development until the end of the century."(19)
While many Pakistanis demonstrated great hospitality and tolerance for
the refugees, others despised their presence. Cables from Pakistan reveal
violent clashes between Pakistani border tribes and Afghan refugees over
scarce resources and political, religious and personal differences. Some
disgruntled tribes even took weapons and money from the Afghan government
to disrupt rebel supply lines into Afghanistan.
In fact, the Afghan government’s infiltration of
Pakistan and the rebel parties was extensive and proved key to its survival.
The government’s ministry of state security, known as KHAD, sought to buy
or rent the loyalty of Pashtun tribes who inhabited the Afghanistan-Pakistan
border area (the tribes often inhabited both sides of the border). Weapons
and money were doled out to tribal militia who in turn interdicted rebel
supply operations based in Pakistan. Some tribal leaders responded to Kabul’s
material aid with political support, attending government jirgahs (assemblies)
and other PDPA-sponsored activities. President Zia tried to undercut the
Pakistan-based tribes’ support for the Afghan government by, among other
means, conducting selective anti-narcotics sweeps through their home areas.
Kabul’s strategy, however, continued to be successful, and ultimately contributed
to the rise of Najibullah, the KHAD’s director and the man responsible
for this counterinsurgency campaign, to the leader of the DRA in 1986.
Other kinds of counterinsurgency operations, including
Soviet/Afghan government aerial search-and-destroy missions, as well as
insurgency tactics, such as the mujahidin’s hit-and-run attacks on government-held
garrisons and cities, were some of the principal causes of the refugee
flow into Pakistan. But it was the aerial bombing that inflicted the most
damage. Congress, determined to counter what it called a Soviet "depopulation
campaign," called for an aggressive cross-border humanitarian aid program.
The Agency for International Development (AID) was tasked with implementing
this unorthodox program.
The objective of AID’s Cross-border Humanitarian
Assistance Program (CBHA) was to provide Afghans inside Afghanistan—civilians
and rebels alike—with the means to survive without having to flee to Pakistan.
The mass exodus of Afghans had been putting too much pressure on Pakistan,
and the empty Afghan villages left the rebels with little material or moral
support inside the country. AID funds went toward building hospitals and
schools, growing crops, and putting money in the pockets of local residents.
The AID reports are actually some of the richest
documents in the collection, describing the situation inside the normally
inaccessible parts of war-torn Afghanistan and illustrating some of the
bizarre politics of the mujahidin. As part of a pro-insurgency operation,
the program was unique and controversial. AID was being used to maintain
and build up the rebels’ infrastructure. As one U.S. advisor explained
to this author in Pakistan: "We borrowed a lesson from Mao. The Soviets
were trying to drain the sea to kill the fish [rebels], so we’re trying
to keep the sea filled."(20)
Public Diplomacy and the
First Casualty of War
In addition to providing the rebels with military and humanitarian aid,
the United States provided "psychological" support. In 1983, a unique National
Security Decision Directive, number 77, was signed into action to coordinate
U.S. government agencies to enhance U.S. national security and counter
anti-American propaganda through "public diplomacy." U.S. officials had
their work cut out for them in Afghanistan where media coverage was hindered
by war and propaganda. To overcome these obstacles, the National Security
Council, in keeping with NSDD 77, formed the inter-agency Afghan Working
Group, which met twice a month to discuss ways of increasing media coverage
of the war and generating sympathy and support for the mujahidin.
News coverage of the war was indeed limited, especially
when one considers that this was the longest war in Soviet history, the
largest CIA paramilitary operation since Vietnam, and, with 1 million dead
Afghans, the bloodiest regional conflict in the world at the time. Nevertheless,
no major American newspaper saw fit to station a reporter in Peshawar,
Pakistan, the base of rebel political and military operations, and American
television crews rarely ventured up to the Khyber Pass for a glimpse of
the war. A major reason for this, of course, was the risk involved in reporting
a guerrilla war, especially this one. A journalist who wished to go "inside"
faced a number of hazards ranging from contracting a serious disease to
the chance of being killed in an air raid or ambush.
What coverage there was tended to be biased toward
the mujahidin. Several factors explain this. Foreign correspondents and
stringers who did go to Peshawar or managed to go "inside" with the rebels
encountered thousands of uprooted Afghans who all had horrific stories
to tell about losing homes and relatives to Soviet/Afghan government counterinsurgency
operations. Indeed, craters from Soviet bombs marked the landscape, villages
were often emptied of their inhabitants, and many Afghans who found their
way to Pakistan walked the streets with artificial limbs, victims of land
In addition, the Afghan government often proved to
be an unreliable source of information, causing Western journalists to
rely heavily on U.S. officials for details of the war. The DRA in 1980,
for example, reported how "Walter Cronkite" (apparently confusing him with
Dan Rather) on a visit into Afghanistan had ordered the execution of two
Afghans—"Islamic style." That same year the DRA expelled 18 Western journalists
for "biased" coverage. When the government allowed journalists to return
to the country in 1986, the journalists discovered in Kabul another side
to the story: victims of rebel land mines and indiscriminate mujahidin
rocket attacks on the capital.
Thus, for much of the war most reporters found it
physically and journalistically safer to rely on "Western diplomatic sources
in Pakistan," the cover for U.S. officials at the Consulate in Peshawar
or the Embassy in Islamabad.
Despite the pro-mujahidin slant of Western news coverage,
however, U.S. officials still complained of its limited nature. In 1985,
Senator Humphrey sought to remedy that problem. He pushed legislation through
Congress that tasked the United States Information Agency (USIA) to teach
Afghan rebels how to film and write about their jihad. The USIA subcontracted
Boston University’s School of Communications to train Afghans in Peshawar
to become television and newsprint journalists. This program stirred controversy,
drawing criticism from professors at the university and several American
journalists who called the exercise in "public diplomacy" a government
propaganda operation. Documents on the project, which went forth despite
the criticism, show how the United States worked with rebel parties, Pakistan,
a CBS cameraman and several private organizations to increase and "improve"
coverage of the war.
The United States was also able to influence coverage
by taking advantage of Western journalists’ inability to cover the war
extensively first-hand. Once a week, a USIA officer in Islamabad would
read to foreign journalists portions of a Situation Report originating
from the Embassy in Kabul. These "Sitreps" were to serve two purposes.
They provided U.S. officials at home and abroad with detailed information
on the political and military situation in Afghanistan. They also formed
part of the Afghan Working Group’s press and public information strategy
to "punch holes in the Soviet news blackout." The press, however, was usually
allowed to hear only the first several pages of the Sitrep, which gave
a relatively simplistic overview of the situation in the country, paying
special attention to government human rights abuses and mujahidin military
gains. The following 20-25 detail-filled pages of the many now declassified
Sitreps depicted a much more complicated and bizarre war being fought on
more levels than just that of Soviet-backed communists against freedom-fighting
The Real War
Beyond the refugee camps and press conferences in Pakistan, a real and
very destructive war was going on inside Afghanistan. Cables from Kabul,
AID cross-border reports, DIA summaries and journal articles by the few
reporters who bravely ventured into war zones reveal how pockets of mountain
tribesmen, toting Chinese automatic rifles and U.S. Stinger missiles, went
up against well-armed Soviet and Afghan government forces. Rebel hit-and-run
attacks, assassinations of PDPA members, car bombs, rocket attacks on government-held
garrisons and cities and other guerrilla tactics were met with massive
aerial bombardments, mine-sowing operations, bribes and civic action campaigns
from Kabul. Places like Paghman, Khost, the Panjshir Valley, Sarobi, and
Jalalabad, where the mujahidin continually bogged Soviet forces down, became
familiar names to observers of this war just as Hue and Khe Sanh had in
Vietnam, where for years Viet Cong rebels tied down U.S. and South Vietnamese
But as fierce as they were, the "Muj" were not the
Viet Cong. It is true that U.S. military aid improved the rebels’ battlefield
performance. One Pentagon report claimed that Stingers forced "more tactical
and air support changes in the last quarter of 1986 and the first quarter
of 1987 than in the previous 7 years of the conflict."(21)
Also, more and better land mines allowed the rebels to disrupt Soviet supply
lines and ground communications, which were already hampered by the lack
of railways and good roads. No matter how much military, humanitarian,
or psychological support the United States provided them, however, the
mujahidin remained fractious. It was not uncommon for one rebel group to
turn its guns on another.
The United States was well aware of rebel infighting
even before the Soviet intervention. In 1979, rebel leaders confided to
U.S. officials that they likened the idea of a dissident provisional government
to "putting five different animals in the same cage."(22)
Saudi Arabia managed to stimulate some rebel unity by withholding aid from
the various mujahidin parties until they agreed to coalesce and form a
united opposition front. Yet foreign aid often did more to divide the rebels
than to unite them. The Saudi government, which deposited many of its contributions
into a CIA Swiss bank account, also gave direct support to several fundamentalist
groups. Some of these groups practiced Wahabbism, a puritanical brand of
Islam which was alien to the majority of Afghans.
Iran supported the Shiite rebels, who played an important
military role in the western part of the country but were left out of power-sharing
arrangements made by the Sunni alliance in Peshawar. For its part, the
Pakistani military doled out a disproportionate amount of CIA-purchased
weapons to Hekmatyar’s radical Hizb-i Islami party, which often used the
arms against rival rebel groups.
The lack of unity impeded rebel attempts to overthrow
the PDPA. The more moderate, or "traditionalist," rebel groups, such as
those led by Sibghatullah Mojaddedi and Sayyid Ahmad Gailani, proposed
finding a unifying leader, and they had a candidate: former king Zahir
Shah. In July 1987, a poll conducted among Afghan refugees by the independent
Afghan Information Center indicated popular support for Zahir Shah as an
alternative head of state for Afghanistan. Hekmatyar and other leaders
denounced the poll as propaganda by the "monarchists." But U.S. officials
had evidence from their own observations and conversations that many Afghans
might unite around the former king for an interim period if only to help
find a more expedient way to negotiate a Soviet withdrawal and an end to
the war. Many Afghans also believed that the king, who they conceded could
have been a stronger leader during his 40-year reign, was someone they
could rally around to oppose the unpopular, but powerful, Hekmatyar. Diego
Cordovez and his U.N. team also recognized the king as a potential key
to a settlement and kept in regular contact with Zahir Shah’s representatives
at his Rome residence.
Pakistan, however, refused to grant Zahir Shah a
visa and kept a close eye on pro-Zahir activities. Pakistan’s President
Zia and his supporters in the military were determined to put a conservative
Islamic ally in power in Kabul. U.S. officials and private experts yielded
to the Pakistani military’s objective, some supporting it, others rationalizing
that the king’s return would do little good.
Some of these officials argued that as a result of
the war, Afghanistan had experienced a social change: political power,
they claimed, had shifted away from the tribal leaders, the maliks, and
the king’s Mohammadzai clan and toward the mujahidin commanders and their
political/religious leaders in Peshawar. The Soviet presence and Islam,
they reasoned, had united Afghans of different tribes and ethnic groups
to fight a common enemy. That unity was soon put to a test.
On February 8, 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev surprised
the world by announcing that the Soviet Union would withdraw its 100,000
troops from Afghanistan. Three days later, in the midst of celebrations
in Peshawar, Professor Sayyid Majruh, the man responsible for conducting
the controversial Afghan Information Center poll that had shown substantial
support for Zahir Shah, was assassinated in his office. His death, still
a mystery, was soon followed by a string of assassinations and acts of
intimidation against other Afghan intellectuals who shared one basic sentiment:
they were almost as opposed to a fundamentalist government in Afghanistan
as they were a communist one. Divisions among anti-government Afghans would
only widen further.
The Geneva Accords and
the Soviet Withdrawal
In some ways the fragmented nature of the rebel movement worked to its
advantage for much of the war. The USSR could find no central rebel base
of operations to bomb, no one strategy planning meeting to infiltrate,
no single popular leader to negotiate with—or eliminate. The mujahidin’s
steady harassment came from all directions in this war without borders.
Gen. Boris Gromov, the last commander of the Soviet 40th Army in Afghanistan,
boasted on his last day in the country that "[n]o Soviet garrison or major
outpost was ever overrun."(23) In this guerrilla war,
however, that proved irrelevant.
By late 1986, the Kremlin decided that the war had
become too costly. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet men had rotated in and
out of service in Afghanistan and brought home all the signs of a losing,
unpopular struggle: low morale, criticism of the government’s Afghan policy,
drug and alcohol abuse, and more. The war also hit home in other ways.
Billions of rubles were spent on Afghanistan instead of the crumbling Soviet
economy. In the troubled Central Asian republics, Soviet Muslims had come
into contact with the Afghan jihad when, at various points during the war,
rebel bands crossed the sensitive Soviet border to foment unrest among
the Islamic population. The impact of the Afghan war on Soviet Muslims’
later demands for independence remains unclear.
The Soviet Union was also changing its approach toward
the Third World. Gorbachev and his advisors, faced with staggering economic
problems, thought that previous Soviet administrations had given too much
unconditional support to Third World governments, some of which seemed
to rely more on Soviet aid than broadly based domestic support. Gorbachev
decided to tie future foreign assistance to certain understandings, one
being that the recipient government had to concentrate on building a broad
base of support before implementing social and economic reforms.
Afghanistan, which enjoyed a special position in
Moscow’s strategy to protect the Soviets Union’s sensitive southern border,
was no exception to Gorbachev’s new Third World policy. In December 1986,
Gorbachev informed Afghan President Najibullah in Moscow that the Soviet
military commitment to his government was "limited."(24)
Najibullah returned to Kabul and immediately launched a policy called "national
reconciliation," an effort to broaden the government’s political support
base. He announced a cease-fire and an amnesty for armed oppositionists.(25)
But the war went on.
Documents show that some U.S. officials in Moscow,
Washington, D.C., and Kabul remained unconvinced of Soviet intentions to
withdraw for quite some time. In some cases, suspicions of Moscow’s ultimate
objectives lingered until the very end of the Soviet pull-out. In November
1988, three months before the withdrawal was to be completed, a top official
in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul claimed that the Soviet leadership might cancel
their pull-out to prevent Najibullah’s government from unraveling. Although
most of his colleagues disagreed, the diplomat’s suspicion illustrates
a point: U.S. policy toward Afghanistan right up to the end of the Soviet
occupation was based on a deep mistrust of Moscow’s goals, a mistrust which
continued well after the withdrawal. Policy-makers argued that if Moscow
succeeded in keeping the PDPA in power, then "excessive" Soviet influence
in Afghanistan would continue. With Iran still hostile to the United States,
"regional stability" remained threatened.
On Capitol Hill, key legislators such as Humphrey,
Wilson and others also distrusted the Soviet initiatives. Months before
the U.N.-sponsored Geneva Accords were to be signed in April 1988, they
galvanized enough congressional support to stop the White House from guaranteeing
the agreement until President Reagan had promised to continue arming the
mujahidin even after the USSR had withdrawn. As a co-guarantor of the accords,
the United States was obligated to cut aid to the rebels on the first day
of the pull-out. Humphrey and others protested that this would leave the
rebels at a military disadvantage since Kabul would continue receiving
aid from Moscow. Secretary of State George Shultz took this matter up with
Soviet officials suggesting that both sides cease supplying their respective
clients when the withdrawal began, a proposal he called "negative restraint."
The Soviet Union and Najibullah refused, unwilling
to accord the Afghan rebels the same legitimacy as the Afghan government.
Soviet and Afghan officials, however, fearing a possible rebel onslaught
following the Soviet withdrawal, tried desperately to negotiate a power-sharing
agreement with the mujahidin leaders. The rebels refused, calling the offer
a ploy to keep the PDPA in power. Due to congressional pressure and over
Soviet objections, the United States created a separate, unwritten "clause"
to the Geneva Accords which stipulated that Washington could aid the rebels
as long as the Soviet Union aided Kabul. The United States called this
stipulation "positive symmetry."
Other complications almost prevented the signing
of the accords. At the last minute, after the United Nations had convinced
the Soviet Union to drop its demand for a coalition government as a precondition
to signing, Pakistan insisted on the formation of a rebel-dominated interim
government, made up largely of rebel and other non-PDPA elements, before
it would sign. President Reagan called President Zia and assured him that
the United States would stand by the rebels until they seized power, and
that since the USSR was probably going to withdraw with or without an agreement,
Pakistan ought to sign. Besides, the White House had been advised that
the PDPA would fall to the rebels shortly after Soviet troops had gone.
On April 14, 1988, the governments of Afghanistan
and Pakistan agreed—with the USSR and the United States acting as their
co-guarantors—to refrain from any form of interference in each other’s
territory, and to give all Afghan refugees the opportunity to return voluntarily
to their homeland. For their part, the superpowers pledged to stop interfering
in Afghanistan, with the USSR agreeing to withdraw its troops. Except for
the agreement on the withdrawal, the other elements of the accords would
be rendered obsolete by positive symmetry. To Washington, however, that
seemed not to matter, for a rebel military victory appeared to be right
around the corner. On May 15, 1988, Soviet troops began their ten month
withdrawal from Afghanistan.