Towards an International History of the War in Afghanistan, 1979-89
29-30 April 2002
What was behind the Soviet decision in December 1979 to invade Afghanistan? And why did Mikhail Gorbachev pull out Soviet troops 10 years later? What was the role of the U.S. covert assistance program, in particular the Stinger missiles? What role did CIA intelligence play?
These were among the questions behind a major international conference organized in April by the Wilson Center's COLD WAR INTERNATIONAL HISTORY PROJECT (CWIHP) in cooperation with the Center's ASIA PROGRAM and KENNAN INSTITUTE, George Washington University's Cold War Group, and the National Security Archive. Designed as a "critical oral history" conference, the discussions centered on newly released and translated U.S., Russian, Bulgarian, German, Czech, and Hungarian documents on the war. Conference participants included former Soviet officials and National Security Council (NSC), State Department, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials from the Carter, Bush, and Reagan administrations, as well as scholarly experts from around the world.
Russian documents reveal how one-sided reporting from Afghanistan severely limited Soviet policy options between March of 1979, when an uprising in Herat and calls for Soviet intervention first surfaced during discussions in Moscow, and autumn of that year.
Russian scholar Svetlana Savranskaya argued that the Soviet leaders' almost exclusive reliance on alarmist KGB assessments of a quickly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan in the fall of 1979—at the expense of more cautious military intelligence and diplomatic channels—constituted a critical factor in the decision to intervene.
That year, Soviet concerns mounted over the possibility of a possible U.S. intervention in Iran following the ouster of the pro-Western Shah. Moscow, moreover, feared that the United States sought a substitute foothold in Afghanistan and worried about maintaining credibility with communist world allies. Soviet leaders were genuinely concerned that Afghan strongman Hafizullah Amin was either a U.S. agent or prepared to sell out to the United States. At the meeting, former U.S. Charge d'Affaires J. Bruce Amstutz as well as other participants forcefully debunked the myth of any Agency links to Amin. Amstutz, who met Amin five times in the fall of 1979, remembered not detecting any hint in his conversations with Amin to suggest that the Afghan leader wanted to ally with the United States.
U.S. relations with successive communist regimes in Afghanistan had been volatile since the 1978 communist coup. The KGB record remains garbled on a key event in the downward spiral in the U.S.-Afghan relationship prior to the invasion, the still-mysterious February 1979 abduction of U.S. Ambassador Adolph Dubs. The materials, provided to CWIHP by defected KGB archivist Vasiliy Mitrokhin, suggest that the Amin regime, against the advice of the U.S. Embassy, had authorized the storming of the hotel where the ambassador was held by three terrorists associated with a radical Islamic group. It remains unclear why the KGB recommended the execution of the only terrorist who survived the hotel storming of the hotel prior to his interrogation by U.S. embassy personnel.
Dubs, a proponent of a wait-and-see policy toward Kabul, favored the resumption of Afghan officer training in the United States, which had been suspended after the communist take-over, eager as other State Department officials to avoid forcing Kabul to rely solely on the USSR. But by early 1979 relations between the two countries were rapidly declining.
Following a meeting with Amin in early 1979, Carter Administration NSC official Thomas P. Thornton recounted providing a negative assessment of the regime that influenced the U.S. to suspend its assistance program to Afghanistan, a decision reinforced by the "Dubs Affair."
In mid-1979, the Carter administration began to provide non-lethal aid to the Afghan resistance movement. The Reagan administration would inherit an active program of covert military aid to the Mujahadeen that had begun in December 1979 (though some suggest that a U.S.-funded arms pipeline was in place as early as August 1979—an assertion repudiated by some of the CIA officials present). Over the next two years, under the leadership of CIA Director William Casey, aid developed into a sophisticated coalition effort to train the Mujahadeen resistance fighters, provide them with Czech and East German arms, and fund the whole operation.
In 1980, the government of Saudi Arabia decided to share the costs of this operation equally with the United States. In its full range of activities, the coalition included the intelligence services of the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and China. At the height of the covert assistance program in 1986-87, the coalition was injecting some 60,000 tons of weapons, ammunition, and communications equipment per year into the Afghan war, according to the former CIA station chief in Pakistan, Milton Bearden.
Nevertheless, Elie D. Krakowski, former special assistant to U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security policy during the Reagan administration, argued that U.S. aid and overall strategy toward Afghanistan was left wanting largely due to the fact that Afghanistan policy derived largely from U.S. relationships with Pakistan and Iran. This, in turn, resulted in allowing the Pakistani ally broad leeway, channeling U.S. aid to radical and, to a lesser extent, moderate Islamic resistance groups. Confronted with allegations that one third of the Stinger missiles alone were kept by the Pakistan intelligence service, CIA officials, by contrast, asserted that oversight over the aid program was tighter and more discriminate than publicly perceived.
London-based Norwegian scholar Odd Arne Westad pointed out that Russian documents reveal how quickly the Soviet leadership grew disenchanted with the intervention in Afghanistan. A narrow circle of leaders had made the decision to intervene, with KGB chief Andropov and Soviet Defense Minister Ustinov playing critical roles. According to Anatoly S. Chernyaev, former member of the Central Committee's International Department and later a key foreign policy adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev, many like him learned of the invasion from the radio. Criticism of the decision was more widespread than often assumed. Not surprisingly, internal discussion of settlement proposals began as early as spring 1980. The proposals bore remarkable similarities to those introduced by the United Nations in 1986.
By the time Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the war in Afghanistan was largely stalemated. The Soviet forces were mainly tied up in cities and in defending airfields and bases, leaving only roughly 15 percent of their troops for operations. According to Lester Grau, a U.S. Army specialist on the war, the Afghan conflict had become "a war of logistics." Grau also emphasized the heavy toll disease took on the Soviet troops; almost 60 percent of them were hospitalized at some point during the war. Some advocates of the U.S. covert aid program, such as Congressman Charles Wilson (D-TX), contend that the U.S.-backed aid program drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan and credit the courageous decision to introduce the shoulder-held Stinger missiles as the basic turning point. Introduced in 1986, this missile was highly effective against Soviet helicopters.
Chernyaev argued that Gorbachev had decided to withdraw from Afghanistan soon after taking power in 1985. The Reagan administration's active program of aid and assistance, in coordination with its coalition partners, played a role in shaping Moscow's decision to end the war and withdraw. But Chernayev pointed to the loss of public support within the Soviet Union—as reflected in demonstrations by the mothers of soldiers, negative press reports on the campaign, and the high number of desertions—as the paramount impetus for the Gorbachev's decision to withdraw.
Gorbachev could not pursue his campaign of reform unless he ended the war in Afghanistan and sharply reduced the arms race. Even then it took the new Soviet leader four years to gain approval from the other members of the Politburo and the leadership of the army and the KGB to withdraw. Eager not to mirror the perceptions stemming from the U.S. pullout from Vietnam a decade earlier and intent on preserving a "neutral" and friendly regime in Afghanistan, Moscow leaders, particularly Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze, sought "Afghanization" without "losing the war" by stabilizing and propping up the last communist regime of Nadjibullah. With the toppling of the last communist regime in 1992, that strategy had failed.
Besides those mentioned above, former officials and policymakers among the conference participants included former RAND analyst Alexander Alexiev, Charles Cogan, Ambassador Raymond L. Garthoff, former Kabul University professor M. Hassan Kakar, Ambassador Dennis Kux, Ambassador William Green Miller, former Carter NSC staffer Jerrold Schecter, Bush Sr. Special Afghanistan Envoy Peter Tomsen, and former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Nicholas A. Veliotes. The COLD WAR INTERNATIONAL HISTORY PROJECT will publish the documents gathered for the conference in its next Bulletin and on its website.