Five key reasons America began its decades-long involvement in Afghanistan
1) Iran's independence – The Iranian revolution was a leading factor which set Jimmy Carter's government to incite division and conflict in Afghanistan, which shares an extensive western border with Iran.
From the spring of 1979, plans were developing in Washington to surround, isolate and overthrow the new Islamic Republic of Iran. Afghanistan was an important piece on the chess board in this imperialist game. Iran had made the remarkably swift transformation from US client state to staunch enemy of America.
Carter's successor as US president, Ronald Reagan, said that “Iran encompasses some of the most critical geography in the world”, of which Afghanistan is interlinked with. Reagan noted also that Iran occupies “a critical position from which adversaries could interfere with oil flows from the Arab states that border the Persian Gulf. Apart from geography, Iran's oil deposits are important to the long-term health of the world economy”. (1)
As the Americans knew too well, their old enemy the Soviet Union was in early 1979 watching Iran's independence with glee – while US allies in the region, like the dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, were hardly reassured. Of further concern to president Carter was that, in late April 1978, a Marxist-Leninist government had taken power in the Afghan capital Kabul.
On 30 April 1978 Harold Saunders, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, warned that Washington should “seek to avoid driving the new regime [in Afghanistan] into a closer embrace with the Soviet Union than it might wish”. (2)
On 17 May 1978, an unspecified number of Soviet Communist Party advisers arrived in Kabul, so as to assist the Afghan communist leader Nur Muhammad Taraki in safeguarding his government (3). President Taraki's position was vulnerable, as his rapid and progressive reform measures faced resistance from fundamentalist and conservative muslims. Among those Russians arriving in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) on 17 May were Yuri Gankovsky and Nikolai Simonenko, the latter holding the status of head of the Afghanistan sector for the Soviet Union.
On 27 June 1978, a group of 48 Soviet officials landed in the Afghan capital, in order to provide advice to Taraki's cabinet.
In mid-July 1978 David D. Newsom, the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, said that the US should continue a “monitoring action” on Afghanistan. According to president Taraki following a meeting with Newsom, the American official said he felt there was a “new chill” in US-Afghan relations. (4)
On 23 August 1978 Taraki, reflecting on anti-communist skirmishes in Afghanistan which had occurred that summer, told the Soviet representative in Kabul, Alexander Puzanov, that he had freshly uncovered “an anti-government plot” (5). Taraki claimed it involved the US, West Germany, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and also China.
In January 1979 on the recommendation of the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph Dubs, the US State Department proposed a $310,000 program for 1979-1980, in order to train Afghan officers. (6)
2) Prestige – The presence of a new far-left government in Afghanistan was, from the American point of view, serious enough, while Iran's revolution was especially grating with the power brokers in Washington.
Dean Acheson, former US Secretary of State, said in 1962 that a reaction by America when its “power, position and prestige” are challenged is not a “legal issue”, and that the US should feel no constraints by international law in such circumstances (7). Acheson was a lawyer too one might add.
Meanwhile, on 14 November 1978 the Soviet diplomat in Afghanistan, Puzanov, outlined that “already more than 700 Soviet advisers and experts work on a free-of-charge basis in civil ministries and in the military field in Afghanistan”. (8)
Eight days later on 22 November 1978, the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev said Russian material assistance should go to “such states as the People's Republic of Yemen, Ethiopia, Angola, Afghanistan, and some others”.
On 5 December 1978, presidents Brezhnev and Taraki signed a milestone 20 year Treaty of Friendship centred on “co-operation in the military field”. The treaty stipulated that Taraki could request Soviet military aid, if he felt threatened. The official response in Washington to this deal was apparently that of mild concern, but in private the Carter White House was increasingly disconcerted at the Soviet-Afghan links (9). It was a natural development for Moscow to pursue such relations, considering the close proximity of Afghanistan to the Soviet Union coupled with the political leanings of Taraki's government.
On 17 December 1978, Puzanov informed Taraki of Moscow's decision to furnish the Afghan communists with military supplies and armaments, worth 24 million roubles (10). In addition, Afghanistan would receive a bonus loan of 12 million roubles, with the Kremlin allowing the Afghans 10 years to pay it back, a welcome gift.
3) Strategic importance – By the spring of 1979, the Soviet Union looked to be in a position where it could start making inroads into US hegemony in the Middle East. Were this to unfold, and if Moscow could avoid becoming caught in a spider's web in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the USSR would have collapsed in 1991.
Afghanistan is situated in the heart of the long-coveted Eurasia: lying beside the Middle East, China, South Asia and Central Asia. It can be remembered that close relations, between Afghanistan and Soviet Russia, was not merely a phenomenon that can be recalled in living memory.
The Belarusian-born Soviet diplomat, Andrei Gromyko, wrote that “Shortly after the October 1917 revolution the Soviet Republic and its neighbour, Afghanistan, established diplomatic relations. Soviet political and material support was one of the chief factors in Afghanistan's victory, in its almost 100 year struggle for independence from its British colonisers. It is therefore not surprising that Soviet-Afghan relations have long been of a friendly nature”. (11)
In January 1979 Zbigniew Brzezinski, the powerful National Security Advisor, had gained control over US covert operational planning with president Carter's full support. Brzezinski, born in Warsaw, Poland, was by instinct hostile to the USSR, and it had long bothered him how, in the post-World War II period, Poland was under the Soviet sphere of control. Even the New York Times, continually supportive of aggressive US military interventionism, admitted that Brzezinski had “a rigid hatred of the Soviet Union”. (12)
One of Brzezinski's great hopes was to have a role in harming the Soviets, “of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War”, he insisted to Carter. From the opening weeks of 1979, Brzezinski was pushing for the US to begin clandestine activities in Afghanistan, and to support the Afghan mujahideen jihadists. A US National Security Archive chronology highlighted: “Having control over covert operations enables Brzezinski to take the first steps toward a more aggressively anti-Soviet Afghan policy, without the State Department's knowing very much about it”. (13)
In early February 1979, almost 11 months before the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, moves had already been made by the Americans against the Afghan communists (14). On 2 February 1979, the Washington Post reported on a joint program run by the CIA and Pakistan's ISI, in which at least 2,000 Afghans were being trained in former Pakistani army bases.
4) Overthrowing the USSR – The Carter administration's plan to suck the Russians into the Afghan trap was intent upon delivering a heavy, perhaps grievous blow, to the USSR. Brzezinski said that US covert actions in Afghanistan, which largely enticed the Soviets to engage militarily there, had induced “a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire”. (15)
Yet the West's desire to eliminate communist Russia was by no means a post-1945 reality. At Soviet Russia's founding when World War I was reaching its end, the leading Western states (America, Britain and France) had attempted to oust the Bolshevik government by embarking on an outright invasion of Russia in 1918. Part of the aim was to restore a pro-Western, White Russian outfit in the Kremlin.
Through Winston Churchill's firm support, in autumn 1919 the British deployed poison gas in northern Russia against Bolshevik troops (16); and this despite the horrors of chemical warfare fresh in the memory from the First World War. Scholars and diplomats, like John Lewis Gaddis and George Kennan, traced the Cold War's origins to around 1917-1918.
By 1920, it was clear the Western military attack on Soviet Russia had failed to achieve its objectives. A generation later, with the defeat of Nazi Germany becoming a probability in World War II, the Soviet Union was again identified as the West's principal foe from 1942-1943.
US Brigadier General Leslie Groves assumed control of the Manhattan Project (America's atomic bomb program) in September 1942. In March 1944 Groves confided to the Polish physicist Joseph Rotblat, “You realise of course that the main purpose of this [Manhattan] project is to subdue the Russians”.
On another occasion Groves remarked again on America's atomic bomb development, “There was never, from about two weeks from the time I took charge of the project, any illusion on my part that Russia was our enemy, and the project was conducted on that basis”. (17)
Based on such crucial testimony from a prominent US military official like Groves, as early as October 1942 the Soviets were beginning to be thought of as America's next major adversary.
5) The Domino Theory – In the spring of 1979, the Saudi and Pakistani autocracies were putting out feelers that Washington take the lead in supporting the Afghan mujahideen insurgency. Within a year (1978-79), the Americans had seen both Afghanistan and Iran become independent of US influence.
It set off fears in Washington about the recurring domino theory: that other countries could fall like dominoes outside of US control, with revolution in Iran potentially spreading to nearby Iraq and Saudi Arabia, two further states rich in oil reserves. This was among the worst of scenarios for the White House.
On 15 February 1979, the Carter administration issued an official protest about purported Soviet activity in Iran that was of an “anti-American” nature. (18)
Five days later, on 20 February 1979 president Carter, presumably referring to the Soviet Union, warned “other nations” against meddling in Iran, during a speech he gave at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Carter continued that any such interference “will have serious consequences and will affect our broader relationship with them”. (19)
On 1 March 1979, US government departments conceded that the vital CIA TACKSMAN Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) sites – which had been located in northern Iran – were now closed down by the new Iranian leadership. In the Cold War era, the most important sites operated by the CIA were precisely these TACKSMAN intelligence facilities; which among other things enabled the Americans to secretly monitor Soviet missile tests. (20)
In the spring of 1979, the CIA was surveying Afghanistan as a replacement for its TACKSMAN sites. (21)
In mid-March 1979, an anti-communist revolt erupted around the ancient city of Herat, in western Afghanistan. It lasted for just a few days but resulted in many thousands of deaths. Among the men behind this insurrection was the Afghan-born Ismail Khan, who would later command a large mujahideen force against the Red Army in Afghanistan.
During the Herat revolt, Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid wrote that Khan's forces were responsible for “killing Soviet and communist Afghan officers” and “Hundreds of Russians were killed” (22). Among the dead too were some of the families of Soviet officers and military advisers. Herat's civilian population, caught between the exchanges of gunfire and heavy weaponry, suffered a loss of life running into the low thousands at a minimum.
The 72-year-old Brezhnev was irate when informed about the Russian death toll in Herat. He agreed to increase military aid to the Afghan communists. However, no evidence existed through 1979 that Soviet troops were directly participating in combat operations in Afghanistan (23), until the Russian military offensive was launched in late December that year.
1 Ronald Reagan, “Address to the Nation on the Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy”, The American Presidency Project, 13 November 1986
2 Douglas Rivero, The Detente Deception: Soviet and Western Bloc Competition and the Subversion of Cold War Peace (University Press of America, 19 Dec. 2012) p. 106
3 Malcolm Byrne, Vladislav Zubok (assisted by National Security Archive staff), The Intervention in Afghanistan and the Fall of Detente, The National Security Archive
6 Diego Cordovez, Selig S. Harrison, Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal (Oxford University Press, 29 June 1995) p. 34
7 Paul Craig Roberts, “How America Was Lost”, Foreign Policy Journal, 8 November 2013
8 Byrne, Zubok, The National Security Archive
11 Andrei Gromyko, Memories: From Stalin to Gorbachev (Arrow Books Limited, 1 Jan. 1989) p. 306
12 Bill van Auken, “Zbigniew Brzezinski, architect of the catastrophe in Afghanistan, dead at 89”, World Socialist Web Site, 29 May 2017
13 Byrne, Zubok, The National Security Archive
15 Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Le Nouvel Observateur, Prof. Michel Chossudovsky, “America Initiated the War on Afghanistan 40 Years Ago: U.S. Recruitment of 'Islamic Terrorists' Started in 1979. Zbigniew Brzezinski”, Global Research, 15 October 2001, Republished 22 August 2021
16 Giles Milton, “Winston Churchill's shocking use of chemical weapons”, The Guardian, 1 September 2013
17 Peter Kuznick, “Truman's 'human sacrifice' to subdue Moscow”, newagebd.net, 5 August 2020
18 Byrne, Zubok, The National Security Archive
19 New York Times, “Text of Speech by President Carter at Georgia Tech”, 21 February 1979
20 Jeffrey T. Richelson, The CIA and Signals Intelligence, The National Security Archive
21 Robert M. Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (Simon & Schuster, 1st edition, 7 May 1996) p. 132
22 Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale University Press, 8 Feb. 2001) p. 37
23 Byrne, Zubok, The National Security Archive