The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
47. Afghanistan

Copyright 2001     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
An Afghan resistance fighter

On Christmas Eve, 1979, Soviet Antonov transport planes began landing  at the airport in Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, disgorging tanks and trucks and thousands of troops. Meanwhile, MI-6 and MI-8 helicopters ferried in several thousand elite commandos, some of whom, led by Colonel Boyarinov, head of the KGB's Department 8 (Special Ops), stormed the presidential palace. President Hafizullah Amin was entertaining a young lady in a sitting room; both Amin and his guest were gunned down. Within hours the entire city was under Soviet control. The radio station, airport, and other key locations had been secured. Four motorized infantry and armored divisions crossed the Afghan-Soviet border, negotiating the Hindu-Kush, a formidable range of mountains that for centuries had been a barrier to invasion from the north -- until the Soviets built the Salang Highway through it. In a matter of days all the major Afghan towns had been seized by the Soviet invaders.
Barbak Karmal was installed as the new president, and the USSR quickly executed numerous trade and economic agreements with the puppet government. The KGB revamped the Afghan secret police, renamed the KHAD, which promptly embarked on a bloody reign of terror in which torture and mass executions became commonplace. By early 1980 nearly 30,000 people had been killed in the Poli Charki concentration camp alone -- many of them doctors, teachers, diplomats and other members of the educated elite. Soviet troops and units of the Afghan army committed untold atrocities in the years to come in order to cement their control over a rebellious populace. The result: By 1986 over four million Afghans had fled the country, an almost unprecendented mass exodus. (One study shows that since there were 10 million displaced persons worldwide, this meant that nearly one out of every two refugees on the planet at that time was an Afghan.) By mid-decade, only 10 million people remained in Afghanistan, a nation of 15 million back in 1978.
Russian imperialism in that region had a long history. In the 19th century, Czarist Russia competed with its chief rival, Great Britain, for control of the area, a rivalry historians have described as The Great Game. The British sought to protect their rich Indian empire. The Czars wanted to expand their empire to the shores of the Indian Ocean. After World War II the task of curtailing Russian expansionism fell to the United States. In the early decades of the Cold War, the U.S. and the USSR competed for Afghanistan's favor with economic aid and development. "The Russians built an airport for Kabul, the Americans one for Kandahar," wrote journalist Anthony Paul. "The Russians raised a massive grain elevator in Kabul, the Americans filled it with wheat. The Russians built the 66-mile Salang Highway through the Hindu Kush, the Americans countered with aid for the national airline."
But in the Sixties and Seventies, while the U.S. was bogged down in the Vietnam quagmire, the Soviets gained the upper hand. They trained young Afghan officers -- training that incorporated indoctrination in Marxist-Leninist tenets. The USSR supported the communist People's Democratic Party (PDP) in Afghanistan, and backed the April 1978 coup that ousted the neutral government of Mahammed Daoud, which was replaced by a PDP government headed first by Mohammad Taraki and then Hafizullah Amin. But Afghan mullahs (religious leaders) declared a jihad (holy war) against the pro-Soviet regime. The mujahedin resistance to communist control grew ever stronger. When it appeared that Amin would lose control of Afghanistan, the Soviets launched the invasion -- though of course they claimed an invitation had been extended by the Karrmal puppet government they installed. The mujahedin proved to be redoubtable guerrilla fighters while the Afghan regular army, weakened by several purges and riddled with pro-mujahedin factions, became a liability for the USSR, which had to commit more and more military assets to the struggle. In just 15 months the Soviet occupation force had grown to 85,000. (In a few years that number would increase to 120,000.) Arrayed against them were as many as 500,000 holy warriors. The mujahedin were poorly armed and segmented into rival factions. And yet the Russians could never legitimately claim to control more than half the country.
The Carter administration responded to the invasion with a grain embargo and a boycott of the upcoming Summer Olympics in Moscow. The president complained that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had deceived him, but pundits suggested that the administration had deceived itself into believing that the Kremlin was committed to the "peaceful coexistence" premise of detente. The U.S. had turned a blind eye to Russian adventurism in Africa and the Mideast that resulted in pro-Soviet regimes in Angola, Ethiopia and South Yemen. Carter had challenged the presence of a Soviet combat brigade in Cuba -- and then backed down. He had initially urged cuts in defense spending in spite of an unprecedented military buildup by the USSR, while curtailing military and economic aid to friendly countries threatened by Soviet-backed Marxist insurgencies. Experts feared that the Afghanistan invasion was just the first step in a Soviet campaign to control the approaches to the oil-rich Persian Gulf, with an eye to executing a stranglehold on oil exports essential to Western industry. (In addition, Moscow predicted that by the mid-Eighties its own oil production would be insufficient to meets its demands as well as those of its Eastern Block satellites.) Members of Saudi Arabia's royal family were not alone in their conviction that the next target of the Soviets after Afghanistan was Iran.
Although the CIA and the Pentagon believed that the Afghan resistance would eventually be crushed by the Soviet military, the Reagan administration was far more active in support of the mujahedin than the Carter team had been. CIA Director William Casey took the lead. (The State Department lagged behind in its enthusiasm for the Afghan cause; though the courage of the mujahedin was admired, said one diplomat, it was "like being a fan of the Cleveland Indians -- why get your hopes up?") Casey and the CIA became active in providing logistical and economic support to Pakistan, which struggled to provide for 3.5 million Afghan refugees. While the CIA did not usually get involved in humanitarian efforts, Casey's theory was that the Afghan men would not fight the Soviets unless they knew their families were being provided for. The British (Afghan Aid UK) and the French (Medicin Sans Frontier) helped with food, medicine, shelter -- and intelligence links for the resistance. But by 1988, 90 percent of the funding for all foreign aid groups was being provided by the U.S., funneled through the United Nations or the United States Agency for International Development.
The U.S. was also engaged in providing weapons to the mujahedin. In 1980-81 the CIA purchased Soviet weapons from the Egyptians -- some $50 million worth -- and funneled them to the resistance groups with Pakistan's cooperation. This armament proved to be of poor quality, so the CIA found new sources. By 1985 the agency was supplying the mujahedin via three conduits: Arms purchased on the international market with Saudi funds were flown into Islamanad, Pakistan; more weapons were airlifted in from China; contributions from Egypt, Britain and Israel arrived by sea at the port of Karachi. Moving 65,000 tons of war materiel annually, the CIA operation became, according to Peter Schweizer, "one of the most extensive and sophisticated covert operations in history." It was also the largest covert war in American history, costing $100 million a year. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Casey, heavier weapons, including 122-mm rocket launchers and SAM-7 (surface-to-air) missiles went into the pipeline, while the CIA supplied spy satellite images to assist the mujahedin in their campaigns. The CIA encouraged the resistance to focus their efforts on northern provinces, in particular to target the oil and gas facilies as well as copper, iron and gold mines the Russians were exploiting, extracting those resources and transporting them to the Soviet Union while paying ridiculously low prices -- or nothing at all -- for them. The CIA also tried to pave the way for increased cooperation between the rival resistance groups. The agency trained thousands of holy warriors. The American goal was summarized by one Pakistani official who pointed out that the Soviets had "kept the Vietcong supplied with hardware to kill . . . Americans. So the United States would now do the same for the mujahedin so they could kill Soviets. This view was prevalent among CIA officials, particularly William Casey." By early 1983, estimates placed Soviet casualties in Afghanistan at between 12,000 and 15,000.
In time the Kremlin began to contemplate dividing Afghanistan, annexing the northern half. Casey proposed turning the situation to the West's advantage by stirring up ethnic dissent in the heavily -Islamic southern republics of the USSR. The CIA purchased several hundred rubber Zodiak boats to transfer propaganda and mujahedin raiders across the Amu River into Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, CIA-trained resistance fighters conducted bombings and ambushed Soviet leaders in Kabul. The National Security Agency recast its electronic eavesdropping assets to concentrate on Afghanistan. A KH-11 spy satellite was redirected out of standard orbit to gather more intel on Soviet activities, which included night assaults against mujahedin strongholds by elite Spesnatz commandos. The freedom fighters were supplied with advanced burst communicators which enhanced coordination of resistance operations while making their communications virtually undetectable by the enemy.
Despite a Soviet offensive that year, 1985 saw the mujahedin achieve some stunning victories. Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of the Panjshir Valley, seized heavily defended Peshgohor. Mujahedin raids forced the Soviets to abandon Kandahar airfield. A major pipeline moving Afghan natural gas to the USSR was repeatedly sabotaged. Limpet mines supplied by British military intelligence (MI6) were used to send Soviet transport barges to the bottom of the Amu River. And in 1986 the Reagan administration provided the Afghan resistance with Stingers, the best surface-to-air missiles in the world. "When we start knocking $20 million planes out of the sky," Casey assured his aides, "the Kremlin will get nervous." Soviet pilots surely did -- the mujahedin became so skilled in the use of the Stingers that Russian airmen sometimes refused to fly combat missions. The CIA-mujahedin operation designed to encourage anti-Soviet nationalism in the USSR's Central Asian republics met with success, too. On 8 February 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev announced that Soviet forces would be withdrawn from Afghanistan. An aggressive American policy and the daring of defiant Afghan freedom fighters had turned the tide. Afghanistan had become the Soviet Union's Vietnam -- and the ten-year debacle contributed in no small measure to the collapse of the USSR.

Atrocities in Afghanistan
"There are no human rights in Afghanistan." This was the conclusion of a team from the U.S. Helsinki Watch Committee that interviewed more than 100 Afghan refugees in September 1984. "They tied them up and piled them like wood," said a  doctor who saw the Soviets punish an entire village after Afghan troops defected. "Then they poured gasoline over them and burned them alive. They were old and young, men, women and children. Forty people were killed." A resistance leader spoke of two old, blind men who stayed behind when a village was abandoned. "The Russians tied dynamite to their backs and blew them up." Another described how Russians held a child over a fire while questioning Afghan villagers about the mujahedin. In 1985, Soviet troops encircled five villages in northern Afghanistan, entered every house, and killed 600 civilians, including women and children, before putting the houses to the torch. Such atrocities were commonplace, and the devastation wrought by the Soviets resulted in near-famine conditions in many provinces; infant mortality caused by malnutrition reached 85 percent in the Panjsher Valley in 1985.

Soviet tanks rolling into Afghanistan


"Agony in Afghanistan"
Jean-Francois Revel & Rosanne Klass, National Review (4 October 1985)

"The Real Stakes in Afghanistan"
William E. Griffith, Reader's Digest (June 1980)

"Report From Afghanistan: Will We Hear Their Cry?"
Anthony Paul, Reader's Digest (April 1981)

Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam
Vladislav Tamarov (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1992)

Among the Afghans
Arthur Bonner (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987)

Caught in the Crossfire
Jan Goodwin (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1987)

Holy War, Unholy Victory:Eyewitness to the CIA's Secret War in Afghanistan
Kurt Lohbeck (Washington DC: Regnery Gateway, 1993)

Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State
George P. Shultz (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993)

Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union
Peter Schweizer (new York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1984)