Are We to Blame for Afghanistan?

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Mr. Johnson's latest books are Blowback (Metropolitan, 2000) and The Sorrows of Empire (Metropolitan, 2004), the first two volumes in a trilogy on American imperial policies. The final volume is now being written. From 1967 to 1973, Johnson served as a consultant to the CIA's Office of National Estimates.

Steve Coll ends his important book on Afghanistan -- Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to 10 September 2001--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's 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's 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 U.S. 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. (See Eric Lichtblau, "CIA Officer Denounces Agency and Sept. 11 Report")

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.

Funding the Fundamentalists

The motives of the White House and the CIA were shaped by the Cold War: a determination to kill as many Soviet soldiers as possible and the desire to restore some aura of rugged machismo as well as credibility that U.S. leaders feared they had lost when the Shah of Iran was overthrown. The CIA had no intricate strategy for the war it was unleashing in Afghanistan. Howard Hart, the agency's representative in the Pakistani capital, told Coll that he understood his orders as:"You're a young man; here's your bag of money, go raise hell. Don't fuck it up, just go out there and kill Soviets." These orders came from a most peculiar American. William Casey, the CIA's director from January 1981 to January 1987, was a Catholic Knight of Malta educated by Jesuits. Statues of the Virgin Mary filled his mansion, called"Maryknoll," on Long Island. He attended mass daily and urged Christianity on anyone who asked his advice. Once settled as CIA director under Reagan, he began to funnel covert action funds through the Catholic Church to anti-Communists in Poland and Central America, sometimes in violation of American law. He believed fervently that by increasing the Catholic Church's reach and power he could contain Communism's advance, or reverse it. From Casey's convictions grew the most important U.S. foreign policies of the 1980s -- support for an international anti-Soviet crusade in Afghanistan and sponsorship of state terrorism in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

Casey knew next to nothing about Islamic fundamentalism or the grievances of Middle Eastern nations against Western imperialism. He saw political Islam and the Catholic Church as natural allies in the counter-strategy of covert action to thwart Soviet imperialism. He believed that the USSR was trying to strike at the U.S. in Central America and in the oil-producing states of the Middle East. He supported Islam as a counter to the Soviet Union's atheism, and Coll suggests that he sometimes conflated lay Catholic organizations such as Opus Dei with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian extremist organization, of which Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant, was a passionate member. The Muslim Brotherhood's branch in Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami, was strongly backed by the Pakistani army, and Coll writes that Casey, more than any other American, was responsible for welding the alliance of the CIA, Saudi intelligence, and the army of General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's military dictator from 1977 to 1988. On the suggestion of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organization, Casey went so far as to print thousands of copies of the Koran, which he shipped to the Afghan frontier for distribution in Afghanistan and Soviet Uzbekistan. He also fomented, without presidential authority, Muslim attacks inside the USSR and always held that the CIA's clandestine officers were too timid. He preferred the type represented by his friend Oliver North.

Over time, Casey's position hardened into CIA dogma, which its agents, protected by secrecy from ever having their ignorance exposed, enforced in every way they could. The agency resolutely refused to help choose winners and losers among the Afghan jihad's guerrilla leaders. The result, according to Coll, was that"Zia-ul-Haq's political and religious agenda in Afghanistan gradually became the CIA's own." In the era after Casey, some scholars, journalists, and members of Congress questioned the agency's lavish support of the Pakistan-backed Islamist general Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, especially after he refused to shake hands with Ronald Reagan because he was an infidel. But Milton Bearden, the Islamabad station chief from 1986 to 1989, and Frank Anderson, chief of the Afghan task force at Langley, vehemently defended Hekmatyar on the grounds that"he fielded the most effective anti-Soviet fighters."

Even after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, the CIA continued to follow Pakistani initiatives, such as aiding Hekmatyar's successor, Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban. When Edmund McWilliams, the State Department's special envoy to the Afghan resistance in 1988-89, wrote that"American authority and billions of dollars in taxpayer funding had been hijacked at the war's end by a ruthless anti-American cabal of Islamists and Pakistani intelligence officers determined to impose their will on Afghanistan," CIA officials denounced him and planted stories in the embassy that he might be homosexual or an alcoholic. Meanwhile, Afghanistan descended into one of the most horrific civil wars of the 20th century. The CIA never fully corrected its naive and ill-informed reading of Afghan politics until after bin Laden bombed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on August 7, 1998.

Fair-weather Friends

A co-operative agreement between the U.S. and Pakistan was anything but natural or based on mutual interests. Only two weeks after radical students seized the American Embassy in Tehran on November 5, 1979, a similar group of Islamic radicals burned to the ground the American Embassy in Islamabad as Zia's troops stood idly by. But the U.S. was willing to overlook almost anything the Pakistani dictator did in order to keep him committed to the anti-Soviet jihad. After the Soviet invasion, Brzezinski wrote to Carter:"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 non-proliferation policy." History will record whether Brzezinski made an intelligent decision in giving a green light to Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons in return for assisting the anti-Soviet insurgency.

Pakistan's motives in Afghanistan were very different from those of the U.S. Zia was a devout Muslim and a passionate supporter of Islamist groups in his own country, in Afghanistan, and throughout the world. But he was not a fanatic and had some quite practical reasons for supporting Islamic radicals in Afghanistan. He probably would not have been included in the U.S. Embassy's annual"beard census" of Pakistani military officers, which recorded the number of officer graduates and serving generals who kept their beards in accordance with Islamic traditions as an unobtrusive measure of increasing or declining religious radicalism -- Zia had only a moustache.

From the beginning, Zia demanded that all weapons and aid for the Afghans from whatever source pass through ISI hands. The CIA was delighted to agree. Zia feared above all that Pakistan would be squeezed between a Soviet-dominated Afghanistan and a hostile India. He also had to guard against a Pashtun independence movement that, if successful, would break up Pakistan. In other words, he backed the Islamic militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan on religious grounds but was quite prepared to use them strategically. In doing so, he laid the foundations for Pakistan's anti-Indian insurgency in Kashmir in the 1990s.

Zia died in a mysterious plane crash on August 17, 1988, four months after the signing of the Geneva Accords on April 14, 1988, which ratified the formal terms of the Soviet withdrawal. As the Soviet troops departed, Hekmatyar embarked on a clandestine plan to eliminate his rivals and establish his Islamic party, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, as the most powerful national force in Afghanistan. The U.S. scarcely paid attention, but continued to support Pakistan. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the implosion of the USSR in 1991, the U.S. lost virtually all interest in Afghanistan. Hekmatyar was never as good as the CIA thought he was, and with the creation in 1994 of the Taliban, both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia transferred their secret support. This new group of jihadis proved to be the most militarily effective of the warring groups. On September 26, 1996, the Taliban conquered Kabul. The next day they killed the formerly Soviet-backed President Najibullah, expelled 8,000 female undergraduate students from Kabul University, and fired a similar number of women schoolteachers. As the mujahidin closed in on his palace, Najibullah told reporters:"If fundamentalism comes to Afghanistan, war will continue for many years. Afghanistan will turn into a center of world smuggling for narcotic drugs. Afghanistan will be turned into a center for terrorism." His comments would prove all too accurate.

Pakistan's military intelligence officers hated Benazir Bhutto, Zia's elected successor, but she, like all post-Zia heads of state, including General Pervez Musharraf, supported the Taliban in pursuit of Zia's"dream" -- a loyal, Pashtun-led Islamist government in Kabul. Coll explains:

Every Pakistani general, liberal or religious, believed in the jihadists by 1999, not from personal Islamic conviction, in most cases, but because the jihadists had proved themselves over many years as the one force able to frighten, flummox and bog down the Hindu-dominated Indian army. About a dozen Indian divisions had been tied up in Kashmir during the late 1990s to suppress a few thousand well-trained, paradise-seeking Islamist guerrillas. What more could Pakistan ask? The jihadist guerrillas were a more practical day-to-day strategic defense against Indian hegemony than even a nuclear bomb. To the west, in Afghanistan, the Taliban provided geopolitical"strategic depth" against India and protection from rebellion by Pakistan's own restive Pashtun population. For Musharraf, as for many other liberal Pakistani generals, jihad was not a calling, it was a professional imperative. It was something he did at the office. At quitting time he packed up his briefcase, straightened the braid on his uniform, and went home to his normal life.

If the CIA understood any of this, it never let on to its superiors in Washington, and Charlie Wilson, a highly paid Pakistani lobbyist and former congressman for East Texas, was anything but forthcoming with Congress about what was really going on. During the 1980s, Wilson had used his power on the House Appropriations Committee to supply all the advanced weapons the CIA might want in Afghanistan. Coll remarks that Wilson"saw the mujahidin through the prism of his own whisky-soaked romanticism, as noble savages fighting for freedom, as almost biblical figures." Hollywood is now making a movie, based on the book Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile, glorifying the congressman who"used his trips to the Afghan frontier in part to impress upon a succession of girlfriends how powerful he was." Tom Hanks has reportedly signed on to play him.

Enter bin Laden and the Saudis

Saudi Arabian motives were different from those of both the U.S. and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia is, after all, the only modern nation-state created by jihad. The Saudi royal family, which came to power at the head of a movement of Wahhabi religious fundamentalists, espoused Islamic radicalism in order to keep it under their control, at least domestically."Middle-class, pious Saudis flush with oil wealth," Coll writes,"embraced the Afghan cause as American churchgoers might respond to an African famine or a Turkish earthquake":"The money flowing from the kingdom arrived at the Afghan frontier in all shapes and sizes: gold jewelry dropped on offering plates by merchants' wives in Jedda mosques; bags of cash delivered by businessmen to Riyadh charities as zakat, an annual Islamic tithe; fat checks written from semi-official government accounts by minor Saudi princes; bountiful proceeds raised in annual telethons led by Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh." Richest of all were the annual transfers from the Saudi General Intelligence Department, or Istakhbarat, to the CIA's Swiss bank accounts.

From the moment agency money and weapons started to flow to the mujahidin in late 1979, Saudi Arabia matched the U.S. payments dollar for dollar. They also bypassed the ISI and supplied funds directly to the groups in Afghanistan they favored, including the one led by their own pious young millionaire, Osama bin Laden. According to Milton Bearden, private Saudi and Arab funding of up to $25 million a month flowed to Afghan Islamist armies. Equally important, Pakistan trained between 16,000 and 18,000 fresh Muslim recruits on the Afghan frontier every year, and another 6,500 or so were instructed by Afghans inside the country beyond ISI control. Most of these eventually joined bin Laden's private army of 35,000"Arab Afghans."

Much to the confusion of the Americans, moderate Saudi leaders, such as Prince Turki, the intelligence chief, supported the Saudi backing of fundamentalists so long as they were in Afghanistan and not in Saudi Arabia. A graduate of a New Jersey prep school and a member of Bill Clinton's class of 1964 at Georgetown University, Turki belongs to the pro-Western, modernizing wing of the Saudi royal family. (He is the current Saudi ambassador to Great Britain and Ireland.) But that did not make him pro-American. Turki saw Saudi Arabia in continual competition with its powerful Shia neighbor, Iran. He needed credible Sunni, pro-Saudi Islamist clients to compete with Iran's clients, especially in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have sizeable Shia populations.

Prince Turki was also irritated by the U.S. loss of interest in Afghanistan after its Cold War skirmish with the Soviet Union. He understood that the U.S. would ignore Saudi aid to Islamists so long as his country kept oil prices under control and cooperated with the Pentagon on the building of military bases. Like many Saudi leaders, Turki probably underestimated the longer term threat of Islamic militancy to the Saudi royal house, but, as Coll observes,"Prince Turki and other liberal princes found it easier to appease their domestic Islamist rivals by allowing them to proselytize and make mischief abroad than to confront and resolve these tensions at home." In Riyadh, the CIA made almost no effort to recruit paid agents or collect intelligence. The result was that Saudi Arabia worked continuously to enlarge the ISI's proxy jihad forces in both Afghanistan and Kashmir, and the Saudi Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the kingdom's religious police, tutored and supported the Taliban's own Islamic police force.

By the late 1990s, after the embassy bombings in East Africa, the CIA and the White House awoke to the Islamist threat, but they defined it almost exclusively in terms of Osama bin Laden's leadership of al-Qaida and failed to see the larger context. They did not target the Taliban, Pakistani military intelligence, or the funds flowing to the Taliban and al-Qaida from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Instead, they devoted themselves to trying to capture or kill bin Laden. Coll's chapters on the hunt for the al-Qaida leader are entitled,"You Are to Capture Him Alive,""We Are at War," and"Is There Any Policy?" but he might more accurately have called them"Keystone Kops" or"The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight."

On February 23 1998, bin Laden summoned newspaper and TV reporters to the camp at Khost that the CIA had built for him at the height of the anti-Soviet jihad. He announced the creation of a new organization -- the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders -- and issued a manifesto saying that"to kill and fight Americans and their allies, whether civilian or military, is an obligation for every Muslim who is able to do so in any country." On August 7, he and his associates put this manifesto into effect with devastating truck bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The CIA had already identified bin Laden's family compound in the open desert near Kandahar Airport, a collection of buildings called Tarnak Farm. It's possible that more satellite footage has been taken of this site than of any other place on earth; one famous picture seems to show bin Laden standing outside one of his wives' homes. The agency conceived an elaborate plot to kidnap bin Laden from Tarnak Farm with the help of Afghan operatives and spirit him out of the country but CIA director George Tenet cancelled the project because of the high risk of civilian casualties; he was resented within the agency for his timidity. Meanwhile, the White House stationed submarines in the northern Arabian Sea with the map co-ordinates of Tarnak Farm preloaded into their missile guidance systems. They were waiting for hard evidence from the CIA that bin Laden was in residence.

Within days of the East Africa bombings, Clinton signed a top secret Memorandum of Notification authorizing the CIA to use lethal force against bin Laden. On 20 August 1998, he ordered 75 cruise missiles, costing $750,000 each, to be fired at the Zawhar Kili camp (about seven miles south of Khost), the site of a major al-Qaida meeting. The attack killed 21 Pakistanis but bin Laden was forewarned, perhaps by Saudi intelligence. Two of the missiles fell short into Pakistan, causing Islamabad to denounce the U.S. action. At the same time, the U.S. fired 13 cruise missiles into a chemical plant in Khartoum: the CIA claimed that the plant was partly owned by bin Laden and that it was manufacturing nerve gas. They knew none of this was true.

Clinton had publicly confessed to his sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky on August 17, and many critics around the world conjectured that both attacks were diversionary measures. (The film Wag the Dog had just come out, in which a president in the middle of an election campaign is charged with molesting a Girl Scout stand-in"Firefly Girl" and makes it seem as if he's gone to war against Albania to distract people's attention.) As a result Clinton became more cautious, and he and his aides began seriously to question the quality of CIA information. The U.S. bombing in May 1999 of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, allegedly because of faulty intelligence, further discredited the agency. A year later, Tenet fired one intelligence officer and reprimanded six managers, including a senior official, for their bungling of that incident.

The Clinton administration made two more attempts to get bin Laden. During the winter of 1998-99, the CIA confirmed that a large party of Persian Gulf dignitaries had flown into the Afghan desert for a falcon-hunting party, and that bin Laden had joined them. The CIA called for an attack on their encampment until Richard Clarke, Clinton's counter-terrorism aide, discovered that among the hosts of the gathering was royalty from the United Arab Emirates. Clarke had been instrumental in a 1998 deal to sell 80 F-16 military jets to the UAE, which was also a crucial supplier of oil and gas to America and its allies. The strike was called off.

The CIA as a Secret Presidential Army

Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton administration devoted major resources to the development of a long-distance drone aircraft called Predator, invented by the former chief designer for the Israeli air force, who had emigrated to the United States. In its nose was mounted a Sony digital TV camera, similar to the ones used by news helicopters reporting on freeway traffic or on O.J. Simpson's fevered ride through Los Angeles. By the turn of the century, Agency experts had also added a Hellfire anti-tank missile to the Predator and tested it on a mock-up of Tarnak Farm in the Nevada desert. This new weapons system made it possible instantly to kill bin Laden if the camera spotted him. Unfortunately for the CIA, on one of its flights from Uzbekistan over Tarnak Farm the Predator photographed as a target a child's wooden swing. To his credit, Clinton held back on using the Hellfire because of the virtual certainty of killing bystanders, and Tenet, scared of being blamed for another failure, suggested that responsibility for the armed Predator's use be transferred to the Air Force.

When the new Republican administration came into office, it was deeply uninterested in bin Laden and terrorism even though the outgoing national security adviser, Sandy Berger, warned Condoleezza Rice that it would be George W. Bush's most serious foreign policy problem. On August 6, 2001, the CIA delivered its daily briefing to Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, with the headline"Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.," but the president seemed not to notice. Slightly more than a month later, Osama bin Laden successfully brought off perhaps the most significant example of asymmetric warfare in the history of international relations.

Coll has written a powerful indictment of the CIA's myopia and incompetence, but he seems to be of two minds. He occasionally indulges in flights of pro-CIA rhetoric, describing it, for example, as a"vast, pulsing, self-perpetuating, highly sensitive network on continuous alert" whose"listening posts were attuned to even the most isolated and dubious evidence of pending attacks" and whose"analysts were continually encouraged to share information as widely as possible among those with appropriate security clearances." This is nonsense: the early-warning functions of the CIA were upstaged decades ago by covert operations.

Coll acknowledges that every president since Truman, once he discovered that he had a totally secret, financially unaccountable private army at his personal disposal, found its deployment irresistible. But covert operations usually became entangled in hopeless webs of secrecy, and invariably led to more blowback. Richard Clarke argues that"the CIA used its classification rules not only to protect its agents but also to deflect outside scrutiny of its covert operations," and Peter Tomsen, the former U.S. ambassador to the Afghan resistance during the late 1980s, concludes that"America's failed policies in Afghanistan flowed in part from the compartmented, top secret isolation in which the CIA always sought to work." Excessive, bureaucratic secrecy lies at the heart of the Agency's failures.

Given the Agency's clear role in causing the disaster of September 11, 2001, what we need today is not a new intelligence czar but an end to the secrecy behind which the CIA hides and avoids accountability for its actions. To this day, in the wake of 9/11 and the false warnings about a threat from Iraq, the CIA continues grossly to distort any and all attempts at a Constitutional foreign policy. Although Coll doesn't go on to draw the conclusion, I believe the CIA has outlived any Cold War justification it once might have had and should simply be abolished.

This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.

Copyright C2004 Chalmers Johnson

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Arnold Shcherban - 11/26/2004

One addition:

'Blowback' theory, if born within CIA, is one of a few pieces of accurate and objective analysis that agency
of "experts" contributed to the interpretation of the negative results of American foreign policy in 20th century and today.
In fact, the theory has much wider application than just
Afghanistan, and even the entire Muslim world.
In China, Russia, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Vietnam, Korea, Central and South America, in many African countries, etc. the attitude towards Americans as a nation, is, at the best of the type:
'we-deal-with-you-cause-we-depend-on-and/or-fear-you-not-cause-we-like-you'; at the worst, of the type: 'we-hate-you-your-heartless-mechanical-might-your-ignorant-stupid-megalomaniacal-culture-your-demonstrative-wealth-your-arrogance-and-self-indulgence-your-agressiveness-and-disregard-for-other-nations-life'.
Certainly, those are the opinions of majority of the populus, not local financial, political or technocratic elites, provided the latter exist in a particular country, though occasionally even the elites there feel the same.
Should this super-super-power country care about those?
From the position of military and global strategical strength, most probably - no (for at least another 30-50 years), from the position of humanity and self-respect I think so.
By the way, the growth of Chinese, non-belligerent influence around the world, and within this country should have been the main source of global strategic worry for the US, not self-inflicted Muslim terrorism.
As far as the latter is concerned it can be dealt with (to avoid killing millions in Middle East) only by decisively changing the entire culture and set of basic postulates of the US foreign policy, perhaps an insane
wishful thinking.

Arnold Shcherban - 11/25/2004

Chalmers Johnson's conclusion that Mr. Safranski so passionately objected to might be just one more version
among several existed before on the issue at hand.
(Making no attempt to claim priority on this version, I
would like to mention that this very idea was visiting me repeatedly, for the last couple of years.)
The provocation "conspiracy" is traditionally difficult, almost impossible to prove to any definitive degree.
But certainly, if looked from the motivational point of view, an unbiased observer can easily find strong and several motives USA might have had to provoke Soviet invasion.
Therefore, without detailed and objective analysis the Johnson's conclusion cannot be rejected as meritless.

My personal ideas notwithstanding, about a year ago I happened to read about 80-page combined historical analysis of the situation and events in Afganistan long before and immediately prior to the Soviet invasion compiled by far from liberal kind of experts from some American Institute (the name of which I unfortunately forgot); they apparently had been given wide access
to the American and Soviet information sources.
Though they accompany the main course with the traditional for the American ideological thought gravy,
the intellectual contents of their analysis looked quite solid and balanced.
Briefly speaking, according to that report the wide-spread conspiracy theories and arguments of placing the full burden of guilt for the pre-invasion Afgani history on Soviets are just possible 'versions' existed simultaneously with worthy counter-versions and challenged by not lesser arguments.
For example, the report came to the conclusion that though the Soviets, did traditionally support Afgani Marxists, the claim that they were behind the Parcham-Khalq Communist coup that toppled President Daoud was just a version, not being sufficiently confirmed by double-nation information the authors' had access to at the time.
The analogous conclusion was made about "the Daoud's earlier toppling of King Zahir Shah and establishing the Republic that legitimized Marxist party activity". It was quite natural for the Soviets to support favored "activity" in the neighboring country (many other states, including the US would and did act the same way in the analogous circumstances), but they were hardly pushing for it, just on the reason that Zahir Shah maintained quite friendly and good trading relations with Soviet Union and wasn't Western ally, the latter condition having been always the most strategically important for the Soviets from the national security point of view.
There was also mentioned in the report series of major economic and social progressive reforms promoted at the time by Afgani communists that being implemented on the land of the US loyal ally and moreover - neighbor, most likely could have been supported by the American democratic majority (but of course - not on the land of the Soviet ally.)

The main point, however, and the one most relevant to the issue in question came with the report's estimate on the role the Carter's secret directive authorizing
covert operations to topple the nationalistic Marxist regime in Kabul, that had only limited control over the Afghani territory, played in triggering the Politbureau decision to invade. The estimate came out as "major".
It was confirmed then and more recently by the information drawn from the KGB and Politbureau archives and the reminicences of some Soviet officials involved.
The Soviet political leadership rejected 20(!) requests for the direct wide-scale military interference coming from both communist Afghani fractions and all three leaders: Taraki, Amin and Karmal.
Meanwhile Soviet intelligence became very suspicious of
the Amin's unusually frequent conversations, or consultations(?) with the US Ambassodor in Kabul.
It seems like the that broke the camel's back was the report/letter forwarded by then KGB's chief to Brezhnev
in which the first advised the General Secretary on the likelihood of the US military intervention in the very nearest future.
Whether Amin actually were asking for or discussing such intervention with the US Ambassodor in Kabul is not publicly known up to these days, and won't be known until the respective records will be made accessible to the historians.
But we have every reason to believe that the Soviet political leadership felt extremely threatened by
the possibility of such development in the closest proximity to its borders. So, it acted accordingly, and ... in severe violation of international laws.

Summarizing all I heard, read and know now about the relative Soviet-USA-Afghanistan history I cannot make
judgement in anyone's favor, if I care enough about the status of impartial analyst.
At the same time, put on the scale of the merits of the formal "excuses" for the Vietnam and Afgahanistan invasions forwarded by the respective parties, I would judge in favor of Soviets, since they at least invaded the country having many hundreds of miles of common border with their own, the future developments where might have possibly caused IMMEDIATE threat to the Soviet national security, while the Americans did it to the country that was situated thousands of miles away from their territory, and under no reasonable future development could have presented any, comparable to the first case, threat, not mentioning IMMEDIATE one.

mark safranski - 11/22/2004

Hi Michael

I will take a look at Blum. Ghost Wars is already in my " to be read" book pile, about three books down

I did some research in this area though of course it will be quite some time before most of the documentation becomes available. It is entirely possible that the chronology at the time of the Carter PDD authorizing covert aid was kept secret and altered for public consumption until Brzezinski's announcement.

Arnold Horelick, if I recall properly, was the National Intelligence Officer in charge of the NIE that predicted a Soviet invasion. There was considerable SIGINT/IMINT showing the disposition of troop movemnts on the border long before the invasion. There were also very senior Soviet Red Army personages ( including the architect of the Czechoslovakian invasion) touring Afghanistan in the year prior to the coup/invasion.

From the Soviet perspective the problem was the PDPA regime's combination of provocation of conservative tribes, general incompetence and infighting between Parcham and Khalq and Taraki and Amin ( who attempted to kill each other) - sounding not unlike the problems the U.S. had with Diem's regime in Vietnam.

Kalugin reports that Kryuchkov had convinced himself that Amin was a CIA agent as well as a homosexual - instead merely a bloodthirsty Afghan general finishing off a hated rival.

Personally, I see the GRU chief at the time and the Party ideologues ( Suslov, Ponomarev) as the original advocates of invasion, partly acting from reasons of internal Soviet politics and the deteriorating situation in Kabul - who then revved up conservative figures like Ustinov, Andropov, Gromyko and Brezhnev. More documents though - a lot more- need to come out on the American and Russian sides to get the full picture of what happened.

Michael Barnes Thomin - 11/22/2004

I believe Johnson answers this in the article. As he wrote:

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."

Other than that, I am not aware of any U.S. involvment in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion of the country.

Michael Barnes Thomin - 11/22/2004


"If U.S. inspired trauma was the source for Islamist terror, why don't we have a flood of Afghani terrorists showing up around the globe ?"

You offer a fair question that I can only give you an opinion on. My guess is that they have had their hands full in Afghanistan for the past few decades. You will note, however, that Afghanistan is not the focal point of Islamism. I think that the "blowback theory" does have much weight to it- not only for the U.S. but also for many other countries that have been or are involved in imperial endeavors. CIA involvement has not been solely localized to the confines of the Afghani borders. You will note that Usama bin Laden is a Saudi not an Afghani- point being, the U.S. has had a heavy hand in Saudi affairs and for the entire region of the Mid East for about sixty years.

As for Blum, he definitely has his bias, but you should check out the sources he cites. Most of what I have cross referenced in his book check out, and a good part of what he cites in his chapter on Afghanistan comes from the work of the same gentleman you recommended.

mark safranski - 11/22/2004


I was more or less hoping for a specific example of an event rather than a book title.

Blum is of course a well known progressive-radical - which doesn't make his book worthless but it doesn't make him a specialist on Afghan history either. Or likely to be particularly objective. He's a polemical writer, which is also fine but you have to take him for what he is - an advocate of a strong point of view.

Obviously, most of the mujahedin who fought the Soviets were Afghans of Pushtun, Tajik and Uzbek stock. Foreign volunteers came but their contribution was marginal compared to the blood shed by native Afghanis.
"10,000" is an oft cited estimate of the number of non-Afghan, non-Pakistani mujahedin. It's more expansive the the conservative estimates but not the most generous either. Here are some links citing various estimates of "Afghan Arabs":



and so on.

Basically, my point is that to pick up and go to Afghanistan to fight the Russiansusually involved Muslims whose perspective was already Islamist or inclined to Islamism. If U.S. inspired trauma was the source for Islamist terror, why don't we have a flood of Afghani terrorists showing up around the globe ?

Michael Barnes Thomin - 11/22/2004


"Fifth, if you have evidence of " previous American meddling" in Afghanistan, let's hear it. I'm not sure what you're talking about."

It is actually well documented and not a big secret. Try reading Ghost Wars to begin with. There are several other books, newspaper articles, academic journals, etc. that discuss that very subject. Or you might want to check out the book, "Killing Hope" by William Blum; this is the chapter that might interest you: http://members.aol.com/bblum6/afghan.htm

Right or wrong, like it or not, indeed, there was "previous American meddling in Afghanistan" (primarily CIA but also SAS operatives from the UK).

"Seventh, If Johnson's " Blowback" theory holds water, why are so few Islamist terrorists Afghans ?"

I will only comment that I am interested in where exactly got this "tid bit" of information from. Secondly, the "Blowback" theory is not Johnson's theory. It is actually a term coined and often used by the CIA.

"A tiny fraction of the Mujahedin were Arabs - at most 10,000, likely less- yet the " Arab Afghans" are the disproprtionate number of internationasl terrorists while hundreds of thousands of Afghans fought the USSR and almost none of them became professional terrorists. Why is that Chris ?"

I have no idea where you found this information from and I have doubts about it's accuracy, though you could very well prove me wrong. From what I have come to understand, many of the "Mujahedin" that fought the Soviets in the late 1970's and throughout the 1980's picked up their AK's and simply moved wherever the "infidels" took them, which, to the present day includes Afghanistan. Besides, Johnson's theory is not really centered on Islamist's but just those with harsh grievances against the U.S. in general (which encompasses quite a few groups outside of fundamental Moslems).

The rest of your arguments are all opinions and do not really concern any of us outside the two of you(in your second post), therefore I need not comment on them.

mark safranski - 11/22/2004


First of all, I am capable of spelling, as are most readers of HNN, without a string of capital letters and hyphenation.

Secondly, abuse is not an argument. A lawyer like yourself should be capable of something more sophisticated than a string of ad hominem invective descriptors.

Third, determining causation is important in history as a field - I thought much like the practice of law ;o) It's also a separate issue from moral argument.

Fourth, Mr. Johnson is not a " balanced" critic on the Afghan war or much else, IMHO. If you want someone who is Left and critical of both sides as well as being a decent researcher I recommend Selig Harrison.

Fifth, if you have evidence of " previous American meddling" in Afghanistan, let's hear it. I'm not sure what you're talking about.

Sixth, in terms of ideological preconceptions, good grief, look at the log in your own eye Chris. The fact that I draw different moral conclusions from the same events- and think that your entire philosophy of International Law jurisprudence is radical and counterproductive in terms of bettering mankind- that you do is not evidence that I am disregarding atrocities committed by the USG. Or arguing that historians should.

Seventh, If Johnson's " Blowback" theory holds water, why are so few Islamist terrorists Afghans ?

A tiny fraction of the Mujahedin were Arabs - at most 10,000, likely less- yet the " Arab Afghans" are the disproprtionate number of internationasl terrorists while hundreds of thousands of Afghans fought the USSR and almost none of them became professional terrorists. Why is that Chris ?

Richard Henry Morgan - 11/22/2004

The choice of starting point for an analysis is often revealing. And Chris' point demonstrates the problem of international law -- it is so often toothless, that it puts the self-imposed law-abider at a disadvantage, in parallel with the paradox of the tolerant being destroyed by the intolerant (witness the muder of Pim Fortuyn by a leftist environmentalist, and now the murder of Theo van Gogh by by an islamofascist).

chris l pettit - 11/22/2004

god forbid both countries were wrong...darnit...I forgot about US omnipotence and always being right again...

if we are dealing in cause and effects, why don;t we delve back further before the Soviet intervention to US meddling before that...or maybe whoever did something before that...

mark...you are engaging in the same exercise you accuse Johnson of. In most dictionaries that would be found to be defined as H-Y-P-O-C-R-I-S-Y. Just a thought.

Both parties were complicit...both committed war crimes and crimes against humanity...both need to be decried as destroying peace and encouraging fundamentalism. Both you and Johnson are correct...but Johnson does not deny Soviet atrocites...you conveniently justify US atrocites and illegal actions while trying to place the blame swuarely on someone else. this is the difference between your ideological stance that gets us nowhere but deeper in the pit, and Johnson's much more balanced analysis that actually works to display the atrocities of all involved. You would do to learn something here...I would also point out how convenient it was for you to impose your ideological perception on what was written instead of taking it at face value. Did the US provoke the Soviets? Yes. Did the Soviets have imperialistic plans regarding Afghanistan? Yes. Were both absolutely wrong and in violation of international law? Yes. The US has done the most to provoke extremist Islam to combat extremist Christianity like that which flourishes in the ignorant cesspool that is the majority of the US at the moment. To try and blame it all on the Communists, whatever role they played, is infantile at best. For as much as the USSR was meddling...so was the US. Two idiotic and failed ideological viewpoints based on power, Machiavellianism and the denial of fundamental human rights to peace, life and equality raging a silly worldwide conflict to prove whose god, ideology, and military has the bigger male genitalia...


mark safranski - 11/21/2004

Chalmers Johnson wrote:
"It should by now be generally accepted that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979 was deliberately provoked by the United States"

Has Mr. Johnson looked at the records of the Soviet archives to determine when the Politburo began discussions of direct intervention in Afghanistan ?

Or when such preliminary discussions were occuring among policy principals such as Andropov's deputy, Kryuchkov, the GRU chief, CC Secretary Boris Ponamarev and the Red Army general staff ?

No ?

How about the Soviet intelligence role in aiding the Parcham-Khalq Communist coup that toppled President Daoud and brought Afghanistan's fratricidal Marxists to power ? Forget the archives, KGB General Oleg Kalugin has some interesting things to say about the Taraki-Amin regime in his memoirs. So have former Soviet officials.

For that matter, how about the Soviet role in supporting Daoud's earlier toppling of King Zahir Shah and establishing the Republic that legitimized Marxist party activity and brought the Soviets as advisers deeply into the Afghan Army ? The late monarchy period saw an Afghanistan that was at peace, slowly liberalizing and nonaligned. No threat to the USSR and friendly to Russia's ally, India due to contention with Pakistan over the Pushtunistan border region.

In writing history you can either look for the facts or look for those facts that fit your hypothesis. Even if Dr. Brzezinski's claim is verifiable- and I think it's reasonable because it comes around the time the CIA issued a NIE predicting a Soviet invasion- US aid to the mujahedin would come very, very late in a longstanding acceleration of Soviet intervention in Afghan affairs. Long after, I might add, that the Kabul regime provoked a rebellion with radical Marxist policies in the countryside.

If you want to see who hit the hornet's nest of radical Islam, look to the old USSR, not the US.