The Roots of the Afghanistan War

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After completing a controversial withdrawal from Afghanistan in late August, the United States is facing valid questions about the legitimacy of its foreign escapades launched in the last twenty years under the banner of fighting terrorism.

It would be wishful thinking to assume that the architects of the prolonged occupation of Afghanistan recognize the error of their ways. Nevertheless, the record should be set straight on how the nation-building project in Afghanistan was ill fated from the jump. On top of that, it would behoove us to understand the factors that drew the US into this conflict in the first place. Rewinding the tape back to the Cold War provides a nuanced perspective on what propelled the US to intervene in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan against the Backdrop of the Cold War

During the Cold War, Afghanistan initially maintained equidistance from the two superpowers—the US and the Soviet Union. Though the game changed after the Saur Revolution, a revolution where the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew the Republic of Afghanistan, led by then president Mohammed Daoud Khan. PDPA member Hafizullah Amin ordered the coup that resulted in the slaughter of Khan and most of his family. Once the dust settled, PDPA general secretary Nur Muhammad Taraki assumed the role of president of the newly formed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA). Once settled down, the DRA quickly aligned itself with the Soviets.

Despite its pro-Soviet alignment, the DRA was mired in internal intrigue from the outset, which the Soviets watched with unease. The DRA’s repressive nature provoked massive resistance from the Afghan population as well—another factor that raised eyebrows in Moscow. As the two most prominent leaders of the DRA, Taraki and Amin were constantly jockeying for power, with the latter’s faction subsequently overthrowing Taraki and assassinating him in September 1979.

Even after taking the reins of power, Amin’s position was precarious, as he continued meting out repressive measures against the Afghan population. A controversial crackdown on the city of Herat a few months earlier had sparked a national insurrection, and the DRA was faced with the prospects of a civil war. The resistance to the DRA was diverse, although an Islamist element became the prevailing force of the anti-DRA coalition.

The Soviets were already perturbed by the growing Islamist movements in Afghanistan’s neighborhood, namely, the Iranian Revolution (1979) next door. In the Soviets’ view, the downfall of Afghanistan to Islamist movements could put the central Asian Soviet republics in jeopardy due to the large Islamic populations that lived in these regions. A potential jihadist pipeline going straight into its central Asian subdivisions was something the Soviets were not going to tolerate. Add in the Soviets’ anxiety over Amin’s harsh rule of Afghanistan, and the idea of intervening in the embattled South Asian nation became a matter of stabilizing the Soviets’ periphery. In late December 1979, Soviet forces pulled the trigger and invaded Afghanistan.

The US Enters the Afghan Picture

Throughout Afghanistan’s descent into chaos, the US was had been preparing plans to take the side of the insurgents. Following the humiliations of the Vietnam War and the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, American foreign policy strategists were looking for a quick win. Salivating at the conflict unfolding in Afghanistan, National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski convinced then president Jimmy Carter that the US could bait the Soviet Union into a Vietnam-style quagmire in Afghanistan. Carter signed off on Operation Cyclone toward the end of 1979. Operation Cyclone would become the best-funded and lengthiest CIA operation in American history. In total, the Carter administration and the succeeding Reagan administration allocated $20 billion to train and equip Afghan insurgents to fight Soviet forces.

The Afghan Conflict Heats Up

Although the Soviets invaded to ostensibly stabilize the Afghan government, Soviet agents stormed the Afghan presidential palace and assassinated Amin on December 27, 1979. The Soviets viewed the Amin regime as an errant client and used the country’s internal strife to justify their intervention. Babrak Karmal, who was exiled to Prague during the purge Amin launched against dissenting factions of the PDPA, would be installed as the general secretary of the PDPA and would remain in that position until 1986. With Karmal’s installation as the head of the Afghan state, the Soviet-Afghan war (1979–89) began in earnest. 

The Soviet-Afghan war turned out to be a harrowing endeavor for the Soviets. The mujahideen (holy warriors) insurgents they faced were a formidable force. While decentralized and made up of numerous competing factions, these rebels were united by their hatred of the Soviet invasion of their homeland.

Throughout the Soviet-Afghan conflict, the mujahideen received plenty of assistance from abroad. Outside of American military and intelligence support, the mujahideen also counted on aid from China, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, and Israel, among other states. Furthermore, the mujahideen’s ranks began to be filled with Islamist fighters from Gulf Arab states who were keen on dishing out massive pain against the godless Marxist invaders from the Soviet Union.

In particular, countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had strong geopolitical interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency poured millions into the country to not only push back the Soviets but also extend Pakistan’s influence over Afghanistan. Likewise, the Saudis saw the Soviet-Afghan war as an opportunity to spread their fundamentalist Wahhabi sect of Islam.

The Strange Bedfellows Formed in Afghanistan

Some of the big names we have grown accustomed to hearing about since the US’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 cut their teeth in this Cold War battle zone. Of those holy warriors who were lavished by foreign funds were future president of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai and al-Qaida mastermind Osama Bin Laden. The latter was one of the significant Afghan Arabs who joined the jihadist frenzy in Afghanistan. These Arab Muslim fighters took advantage of the foreign largesse bequeathed to the mujahideen and used the funds to start building their own networks.

While the mujahideen were coming to blows with the Soviets, the American regime ran an effective PR campaign to portray the mujahideen as unsullied “freedom fighters.” One of the most glowing depictions of these freedom fighters can be found in Rambo III, starring internationally recognized action movie star Sylvester Stallone, which takes place in a fictionalized version of the Afghan conflict.

For those who lived through the war on terror, it would almost seem unimaginable to ponder the idea of the US making common cause with Islamists. During this era, it was commonplace to hear about a conflict of civilizations taking place between Islam and the West.

But as geopolitics has repeatedly shown, forging alliances of convenience is the norm, especially when the interests of two unrelated parties converge. In the twilight years of the Soviet Union, the goal was to present Islamism as a viable alternative to communism.

That said, foresight has never been a strong suit of US strategists. Few of them could have predicted that a significant minority of the Islamic radicals involved in the 1980s Afghan campaign would end up turning against the West slightly over a decade later. As long as the weapons and intelligence poured in to give the Soviets a headache in Afghanistan, everything was A-OK.

While the US was able to give the Soviets a bloody nose by pouring billions into the mujahideen, it’s undeniable that it created a Frankenstein that ended up turning on its American creator. Americans would learn this the hard way on 9/11, which will be discussed in the next part of this series.

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