Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 7: Afghanistan

Our October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, less than a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, might seem like an unavoidable war because the Taliban had sheltered Osama bin Laden, and we could not afford to risk a repeat of that disaster. But a more careful analysis shows that our Afghan war, like the others examined in this series, could have been avoided. The trick is not to start the analysis on September 11, 2001, but on July 3, 1979, when President Carter started to arm jihadists who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. One of them was Osama bin Laden.

In a 1998 interview claiming partial credit for the downfall of the Soviet Union, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, made a startling admission:

According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the mujahideen began … after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan [on December 24, 1979]. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was [six months earlier, on] July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

Brzezinski goes on to describe our covert aid as having “the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap” which would mire them in their own “Vietnam war” and lead to their downfall. [1]

Although President Reagan referred to the mujahideen as “courageous Afghan freedom fighters” and armed them with deadly Stinger missiles, many – particularly those who became al Qaeda – hated America just as much as the Soviet Union. But our fear of Soviet expansionism, and anger at earlier Soviet support for North Vietnam which led to our humiliating defeat, coalesced into hatred which blinded us to the fact that these Soviet enemies were also our own.

Instead, many Americans mistakenly saw the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as threatening our national survival, transforming the mujahideen into seeming saviors. In February 1980, less than two months after the Soviet invasion, a New York Times article noted, “The Russians’ move into Afghanistan … is seen as a real threat. Over and over, the move is compared to the early aggression of Nazi Germany.” [2]

If we had thought things through more carefully in 1979, we would have seen the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in a very different light. [3] More importantly, we would have avoided the twin catastrophes of 9/11 and our own Afghan war.

Our needless war in Afghanistan also created needless nuclear risks, only two of which will be explored here. The first involves covert actions taken by the CIA inside the Soviet Union. According to Steven Coll’s Ghost Wars (pages 104-105):

[The Pakistani] ISI’s Afghan bureau selected small teams among the mujahedin who would be willing to mount violent sabotage attacks inside Soviet Central Asia. KGB-backed agents had killed hundreds of civilians in terrorist bombings inside Pakistan [as we are now doing in our own Afghan war], and ISI wanted revenge. Mohammed Yousaf, the ISI brigadier who was the Afghan operations chief during this period, recalled that it was [CIA Director William] Casey who first urged these cross-border assaults. [4]

The second connection to nuclear risk involves Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. As a result of that program, we cut off aid in April 1979. But on December 26, two days after the Soviet invasion, Brzezinski wrote a now declassified memo to President Carter saying:

… we must both reassure Pakistan and encourage it to help the rebels. This will require a review of our policy toward Pakistan, more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a decision that our security policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our nonproliferation policy. [5]

With many Taliban and al Qaeda sympathizers within the Pakistani military, that nation’s roughly 100 nuclear weapons pose a significant threat to our national security. Was ejecting the Soviets from Afghanistan (and, worse, taking their place) worth that risk?

Again, we see the need to be much more careful in using American military power, both covertly and overtly, to make sure we are improving our national security, not hurting it. It’s time to stop getting into needless wars!

Martin Hellman

[1] Brzezinski’s interview appeared on page 76 of the January 15-21, 1998, edition of the French magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur. While the original French version is no longer on line, an English translation is, which I confirmed was accurate to the original French.

Brzezinski’s claim that the CIA started aiding the mujahideen six months prior to the Soviet invasion is corroborated in former Secretary of Defense Robert Gate’s memoirs, From the Shadows, page 146, and there are indications of even earlier aid. However, Brzezinski’s claim that we set a trap which he foresaw might lead to the downfall of the Soviet Union is more questionable.

Brzezinski himself disclaimed saying that in a 2010 interview, but both his (alleged) 1998 and (on camera) 2010 statements are open to question because both were in his self-interest at the time they were made.  All of our memories (mine included) have a tendency to emphasize facts which are in our self-interest, which makes it harder to determine what actually transpired in 1998.

The first interview was pre-9/11, so taking credit for the downfall of the Soviet Union  at the expense of creating the Taliban could well have been a positive in Brzezinski’s mind — and certainly comes across that way in the interview as published (which Brzezinski might dispute). Post-9/11, creating the Taliban would be seen in a very different light.

Robert Gates’ book From the Shadows (pp. 144-145) indicates that the idea was present in one form or another when it quotes from an even earlier, March 30, 1979 meeting, in which DoD representative Walt Slocombe “asked if there was value in keeping the Afghan insurgency going, ‘sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire?'”

For more details, see John Bernell White, Jr.’s May 2012 thesis, which brought some of these issues into clear focus for me.

[2] William K. Stevens, “Crises Pose Harsh Questions for Americans,” The New York Times, February 03, 1980, Pages 1, 14.

[3] It was possible, even in the early 1980s, to see the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in a different light. At that time, I co-edited the Beyond War Handbook, which included the following question and answer:

What about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan?  Doesn’t that show they are bent on world domination?

No. To understand why, we must better understand the Soviet view of the world. We need not agree with that view, but we must understand it. Over the centuries, Russia has been invaded by the Mongols, the Moslems, the Turks, the Swedes, the Poles, the Austrians, the French, and the Germans. During World War II alone, twenty million Soviet citizens were killed. With this history, the Soviet Union has an understandable, deep-seated fear concerning unrest near its borders.

With this background, we must then remember that the USSR shares uneasy borders with three Moslem countries, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan; that there is significant minority unrest within the Soviet Union; that twenty percent of the Soviet population is Moslem; that a militant Moslem regime has come to power in Iran; and that the insurgents in Afghanistan are fighting to establish a similar regime there.

Seen in this light, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is analogous to our own reaction to unrest in Latin America. Since 1846 the United States has intervened militarily more than sixty times in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. We have assisted in the overthrow of governments in Guatemala and Chile and occupied the Dominican Republic for eight years and Nicaragua for seven. We abetted an attempted invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. And, today, American aid is being used for the declared purpose of destabilizing the government of Nicaragua.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is not some aberration committed by a nation bent on world domination; it is the inevitable consequence of the current mode of thinking found throughout the world. This thinking justifies military intervention, however brutal and dangerous, whenever a nation believes its national security might be diminished by unrest in another country. To avoid future Afghanistans, Czechoslavakias, Viet Nams, and Nicaraguas we must lead the way to a new mode of thinking which recognizes that in the nuclear age military intervention is an obsolete mode of behavior. We must put both sides’ past mistakes behind us and look to the future for new and better possibilities

[4] Coll notes that some colleagues of Casey’s at the CIA questioned the accuracy of Yousaf’s recollection, but Coll was able to corroborate that Casey encouraged mujahideen attacks on Soviet territory from the manuscript (but not the published version) of former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ memoirs, From the Shadows. The published version does note:

What truly set Bill Casey apart from his predecessors and successors as DCI, though, was that he had not come to CIA with the purpose of making it better, managing it more effectively, reforming it, or improving the quality of intelligence. What I realized only years later was that Bill Casey came to CIA primarily to wage war against the Soviet Union.

[5] Brzezinski’s declassified memo is accessible on line as part of a larger collection. Search on “we must both reassure Pakistan” to find the quoted text.

Links to all posts in this series on Avoiding Needless Wars
Part 1: The First Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Part 2: The Second Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Part 3: Are We About to Repeat the Mistakes of Vietnam?
Part 4: Nixon’s Madman Nuclear Alert
Part 5: Operation Northwoods
Part 6: North Korea
Part 7: Afghanistan
Part 8: Syria
Part 9: Iraq
Part 10: Iran

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website: https://anewmap.com.
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4 Responses to Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 7: Afghanistan

  1. I have written quite a bit on this, & am planning to ready a paper for publication, & I hope I can footnote perceptions Dr. Hellman has given me through this blog & our private correspondence.
    At the time(1979), I supported Jimmy Carter’s support for the Afghani people when the Soviet Army initially invaded Afghanistan in support of the faltering Communist government there, but, when the Reagan Administration imported Arab fighters, the resistance changed from an indigenous to a mercenary one — who held values quite different from the Islam of the Hindu Kush.
    I have written more than once that the current G.W.O.T..(the Global War on Terrorism’s) roots lie within the Reagan post-1989 failure to institute a Marshal-like Plan for the Mountains and for Pakistan. The withdrawal of the U.S.S.R. led to a five-prong civil war of the warlords. A group of Madrassa students (i.e., the Taliban) arose with the support of the citizens for peace and security pushed the contending “Armies” into the Northwest corner of Afghanistan.. Unfortunately, many of the Arab mercenaries remained under the tribal laws of hospitality.
    When the non-national al-Quaida declared War on the United States, the Taliban head of State, Mullah Ummar, was furious because he knew his Administration was doomed.
    Back to the nuclear aspects of the situation, after the victory of the mercenaries, they, then were looking for further battles against the “infidels.” They found it first in Kashmir’s struggle for self-agency against India.
    I have written on Kargil, & my take on it is different than most historians. My research shows that it was probably a group of Arab irregulars who took the Kargil heights overlooking the Vale during the winter. The Pakistanis only became involved in reaction to the defense of the mercenaries from Afghanistan.
    A potential nuclear confrontation.was brewing, and Pakistan, a state where the military with the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) dominate the political discourse, the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, did not perceive the danger of nuclear war; so,.Bill Clinton dragged him into Washington on the fourth of July that year. Under the .guidance of the U.S. President, with the Prime Minister of Pakistan a South Asian conflagration was avoided at that time.
    Shortly after, on December 13th, 2001, a group of sub-nationals attacked the Indian Parliament. In the Indo-Pakistani theater each side almost immediately accuses the other of any political political violence within the other borders. The Indian BJP, the political wing of the RSS — who gave us the assassination of Gandhi, accused Pakistan of the act when it seems that it was an independent organization seeking independence for Kashmir although rogue elements of the ISI might have been aware & encouraged it.
    Anyway, this lead to he 2001-2002 Indo-Pakistani nuclear crisis, which if all weaponry were successfully employed might have led to a nuclear winter in the Northern Hemisphere.. During this period, sub-national and non-State actors were encouraging the State actors to use their atoic capabilities accomplishing an Armageddon-like goal of the Islamic far religious right..
    The real hero in diffusing this situation was Pervez Musarreff.

  2. Nuclear Risk says:


    Thanks for your insights.

    I hadn’t heard the theory that it was Arabs, not Pakistanis, who instigated the Kargil crisis. Very interesting.

    As to supporting the local Afghan resistance against the Soviet-backed government, while there were positives, there were also negatives. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was a local resistance fighter, but had a horrible record on his treatment of women. A 1987 NY Times article said in part:

    “At Kabul University, where today 55 percent of the 7,000 students are women, many women recall that one of the insurgent leaders, Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, is an Islamic fundamentalist who used to oppose women’s removal of their veils when he was a student there more than 20 years ago.

    ”’His people used to throw acid at women,” said Jamila Takhari, a 19-year-old student. ”They don’t want women to have an equal role in society.’

    “She and her friends agreed that if Mr. Hekmatyar were to ever come to power in Afghanistan, women would have to struggle to retain their rights.”

    Thanks again for your comment.


  3. dh says:

    Dr Hellman, I am interested in your risk analyses on weapons systems and sympathetic towards antiwar ideas. But I am curious: do you have opinions on nuclear power, and reprocessing (of Pu)?

    Personally I think non-weapons nuclear power is useful and can be managed, including proliferation risks. I’m not worried about CO2 but I think U is much much cleaner, esp. with various recycling processes.

    Myself, I’ve taken my kid to a small abandoned U mine in the Mojave and brought my geiger counters and some mild safe sources to a public school a month or two after Fuku. Also wrote and freed software that turns a CDV700 into a digitally logged instrument, using a soundcard, for yucks. I’m cool with ambient rad.

    It is of course much more relaxing to have a bunch of internal combustion generators working (perhaps some distance away)
    than a gent strapped with a suicide vest, even if the total energy
    in generators’ fuel tanks is much more than that in a brisant vest.
    (Power != energy)


  4. Nuclear Risk says:

    DH: Nuclear power is a divisive topic, and I don’t want to splinter support for a saner nuclear weapons policy. However, there is an underlying issue, covered on one page of my web site: http://nuclearrisk.org/6global_warming.php

    While that talks more about the relationship between the nuclear threat and global warming, the same applies to the relationship to nuclear power.

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