Steve Coll ends his important book on Afghanistan by quoting Afghan President Hamid Karzai: “What an unlucky country.” Americans might find this a convenient way to ignore what their government did in Afghanistan between 1979 and the present, but luck had nothing to do with it.
Brutal, incompetent, secret operations of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, frequently manipulated by the military intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, caused the catastrophic devastation of this poor country.On the evidence contained in Coll’s book Ghost Wars, neither the Americans nor their victims in numerous Muslim and Third World countries will ever know peace until the Central Intelligence Agency has been abolished.
It should by now be generally accepted that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979 was deliberately provoked by the United States. In his memoir published in 1996, the former CIA director Robert Gates made it clear that the American intelligence services began to aid the mujahidin guerrillas not after the Soviet invasion, but six months before it.
In an interview two years later with Le Nouvel Observateur, President Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski proudly confirmed Gates’ assertion. “According to the official version of history,” Brzezinski said, “CIA aid to the mujahidin began during 1980, that’s to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. But the reality, kept secret until now, is completely different: on 3 July 1979 President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And on the same day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained that in my opinion this aid would lead to a Soviet military intervention.”
Asked whether he in any way regretted these actions, Brzezinski replied: “Regret what? The secret operation was an excellent idea. It drew the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? On the day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, saying, in essence: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.’”
Nouvel Observateur: “And neither do you regret having supported Islamic fundamentalism, which has given arms and advice to future terrorists?”
Brzezinski: “What is more important in world history? 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?”
Even though the demise of the Soviet Union owes more to Mikhail Gorbachev than to Afghanistan’s partisans, Brzezinski certainly helped produce “agitated Muslims,” and the consequences have been obvious ever since. Carter, Brzezinski and their successors in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, including Gates, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Armitage, and Colin Powell, all bear some responsibility for the 1.8 million Afghan casualties, 2.6 million refugees, and 10 million unexploded land-mines that followed from their decisions. They must also share the blame for the blowback that struck New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. After all, al-Qaida was an organization they helped create and arm.
A Wind Blows in from Afghanistan
The term “blowback” first appeared in a classified CIA post-action report on the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953, carried out in the interests of British Petroleum. In 2000, James Risen of the New York Times explained: “When the Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow Muhammad Mossadegh as Iran’s prime minister in 1953, ensuring another 25 years of rule for Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the CIA was already figuring that its first effort to topple a foreign government would not be its last.
The CIA, then just six years old and deeply committed to winning the Cold War, viewed its covert action in Iran as a blueprint for coup plots elsewhere around the world, and so commissioned a secret history to detail for future generations of CIA operatives how it had been done … Amid the sometimes curious argot of the spy world — ’safebases’ and ‘assets’ and the like — the CIA warns of the possibilities of ‘blowback.’ The word … has since come into use as shorthand for the unintended consequences of covert operations.”
“Blowback” does not refer simply to reactions to historical events but more specifically to reactions to operations carried out by the U.S. government that are kept secret from the American public and from most of their representatives in Congress. This means that when civilians become victims of a retaliatory strike, they are at first unable to put it in context or to understand the sequence of events that led up to it.
Even though the American people may not know what has been done in their name, those on the receiving end certainly do: they include the people of Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1959 to the present), Congo (1960), Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), Vietnam (1961-73), Laos (1961-73), Cambodia (1969-73), Greece (1967-73), Chile (1973), Afghanistan (1979 to the present), El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua (1980s), and Iraq (1991 to the present). Not surprisingly, sometimes these victims try to get even.
There is a direct line between the attacks on September 11, 2001 — the most significant instance of blowback in the history of the CIA — and the events of 1979. In that year, revolutionaries threw both the Shah and the Americans out of Iran, and the CIA, with full presidential authority, began its largest ever clandestine operation: the secret arming of Afghan freedom fighters to wage a proxy war against the Soviet Union, which involved the recruitment and training of militants from all over the Islamic world. Steve Coll’s book is a classic study of blowback and is a better, fuller reconstruction of this history than the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (the “9/11 Commission Report” published by Norton in July).
From 1989 to 1992, Coll was the Washington Post’s South Asia bureau chief, based in New Delhi. Given the CIA’s paranoid and often self-defeating secrecy, what makes his book especially interesting is how he came to know what he claims to know. He has read everything on the Afghan insurgency and the civil wars that followed, and has been given access to the original manuscript of Robert Gates’ memoir (Gates was CIA director from 1991 to 1993), but his main source is some two hundred interviews conducted between the autumn of 2001 and the summer of 2003 with numerous CIA officials as well as politicians, military officers, and spies from all the countries involved except Russia. He identifies CIA officials only if their names have already been made public. Many of his most important interviews were on the record and he quotes from them extensively.
Among the notable figures who agreed to be interviewed are Benazir Bhutto, who is candid about having lied to American officials for two years about Pakistan’s aid to the Taliban, and Anthony Lake, the US national security adviser from 1993 to 1997, who lets it be known that he thought CIA director James Woolsey was “arrogant, tin-eared and brittle.” Woolsey was so disliked by Clinton that when an apparent suicide pilot crashed a single-engine Cessna airplane on the south lawn of the White House in 1994, jokers suggested it might be the CIA director trying to get an appointment with the President.
Among the CIA people who talked to Coll are Gates; Woolsey; Howard Hart, Islamabad station chief in 1981; Clair George, former head of clandestine operations; William Piekney, Islamabad station chief from 1984 to 1986; Cofer Black, Khartoum station chief in the mid-1990s and director of the Counterterrorist Center from 1999-2002; Fred Hitz, a former CIA Inspector General; Thomas Twetten, Deputy Director of Operations, 1991-1993; Milton Bearden, chief of station at Islamabad, 1986 -1989; Duane R. “Dewey” Clarridge, head of the Counterterrorist Center from 1986 to 1988; Vincent Cannistraro, an officer in the Counterterrorist Center shortly after it was opened in 1986; and an official Coll identifies only as “Mike,” the head of the “bin Laden Unit” within the Counterterrorist Center from 1997 to 1999, who was subsequently revealed to be Michael F. Scheuer, the anonymous author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror.
In 1973, General Sardar Mohammed Daoud, the cousin and brother-in-law of King Zahir Shah, overthrew the king, declared Afghanistan a republic, and instituted a program of modernization. Zahir Shah went into exile in Rome. These developments made possible the rise of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a pro-Soviet communist party, which, in early 1978, with extensive help from the USSR, overthrew President Daoud. The communists’ policies of secularization in turn provoked a violent response from devout Islamists. The anti-Communist revolt that began at Herat in western Afghanistan in March 1979 originated in a government initiative to teach girls to read.
The fundamentalist Afghans opposed to this were supported by a triumvirate of nations — the U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia — with quite diverse motives, but the U.S. didn’t take these differences seriously until it was too late. By the time the Americans woke up, at the end of the 1990s, the radical Islamist Taliban had established its government in Kabul. Recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, it granted Osama bin Laden freedom of action and offered him protection from American efforts to capture or kill him.
Coll concludes: “The Afghan government that the United States eventually chose to support beginning in the late autumn of 2001 — a federation of Massoud’s organization [the Northern warlords], exiled intellectuals and royalist Pashtuns — was available for sponsorship a decade before, but the United States could not see a reason then to challenge the alternative, radical Islamist vision promoted by Pakistani and Saudi intelligence … Indifference, lassitude, blindness, paralysis and commercial greed too often shaped American foreign policy in Afghanistan and South Asia during the 1990s.”