Chapter 17 – Taking on Soviet Imperialism in Afghanistan

a callous violation of international law and the United Nations Charter. It is a deliberate effort of a powerful atheistic government to subjugate an independent Islamic people.

We must recognize the strategic importance of Afghanistan to stability and peace. A Soviet-occupied Afghanistan threatens both Iran and Pakistan and is a steppingstone to possible control over much of the world’s oil supplies.3

Carter’s Response Package. In his January 4 address, Carter detailed eight U.S. responsive actions that he had directed to show his administration’s displeasure with the Soviet invasion. He recalled the U.S. ambassador from Moscow; deferred Senate consideration of the pending U.S.-Soviet strategic arms treaty (SALT II); delayed the scheduled opening of new U.S. consular facilities in the Soviet Union; restricted high-technology U.S. trade with the Soviets; curtailed Soviet fishing privileges; stopped U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union; withdrew the U.S. from the 1980 Olympics in Moscow; and provided military and other assistance to Pakistan.

Continued Weakness. In reality, Carter’s responses, individually and as a package, did little to punish the Soviet Union for its blatant aggression or to call the Soviet leaders to account. He failed to push for sanctions or other international actions that might actually constrain Soviet actions in Afghanistan or deter similar Soviet aggression elsewhere. His technology restrictions were taken as largely symbolic, as was his decision to cancel U.S. participation in the Olympic Games. So too was his delay on his proposed SALT II arms control treaty, since the treaty itself was already considered so flawed and controversial that his Democratic Party leader in the U.S. Senate, Majority Leader Robert Byrd, had judged it dead and asked for its withdrawal from Senate consideration for ratification (see Chapter 6). The U.S. grain embargo against the Soviet Union, in turn, appeared to many Americans to hurt U.S. farmers more than the Soviet government, which could readily meet its grain requirements elsewhere.

No “Détente” Reassessments. The U.N. General Assembly now condemned the Soviet invasion, but the Soviet Union in the Security Council on January 7, 1980 vetoed the draft U.N. resolution that required Soviet withdrawal. Carter meanwhile continued both to reject a strong U.S. response and to order vigorous U.S. reassessments of the invasion’s larger meaning for Soviet and U.S. strategy in the Cold War and specifically for the strategy of “détente.”

Carter and Iran—Precedent and Parallel? Carter’s response to the Soviet invasion reminded the American people and others around the world of Carter’s similarly weak reaction to events in Iran just a few weeks earlier. In November 1979, an extremist Islamist revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini violently overthrew America’s staunch long-time ally Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. At a decisive point during the ensuing street battles in Tehran, Carter and senior U.S. officials signaled a loss of confidence in the Shah and appeared to endorse Khomeini’s return from exile in France and the unfolding revolution that could be expected to follow, with severe destabilizing implications for Iran and for the entire Middle East.

     There was no reason to hope that an authoritarian American ally would be replaced by a democratic “Iran Spring” absent U.S. support. The Shah was forced to flee and was replaced by a violently anti-democratic, anti-American regime that rapidly developed into a totalitarian theocracy. The new regime acted with savagery against all opponents, supported terrorist actions abroad, and on November 4, 1979 stood behind the violent crowds that stormed the U.S. Embassy and seized 63 American diplomats as hostages. Carter’s attempted hostage rescue efforts in “Operation Eagle Claw” on April 24, 1980 was a dismal failure in planning and execution and for the next year, Iran proved to be a ticking clock for his presidency. Fifty-two of the original sixty-three hostages were held for 444 days until Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. (Thirteen female and African-American hostages were released after two weeks of captivity.) As in other crises abroad and at home during his term in office, Carter’s weakness triggered dangerously destabilizing consequences in an already volatile region. The result was a precipitous world-wide loss of confidence in his leadership and U.S. reliability, and helped prepared the path for his loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election.

2. Reagan’s Calls for Action and a U.S. Intelligence Report on Carter’s “Surprise”—1979 to 1980

During the 1979–1980 election campaign, Carter and his opponent Ronald Reagan differed sharply in their views on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and other major areas of foreign and domestic policy.

[Book pg. 404]