CWIHP Conference Report: NEW EVIDENCE ON THE 1979-1989 WAR IN AFGHANISTAN

CHRISTIAN OSTERMANN OSTERMAC at WWIC.SI.EDU
Mon May 20 11:47:16 EDT 2002


NEW EVIDENCE ON THE 1979-1989 WAR IN AFGHANISTAN

	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 at http://cwihp.si.edu.


Christian F. Ostermann
Director, Cold War International History Project



Intelligence Forum (http://www.intelforum.org) is sponsored by Intelligence
and National Security, a Frank Cass journal (http://www.frankcass.com/jnls/ins.htm)




More information about the IntelForum mailing list