Chapter 17 – Taking on Soviet Imperialism in Afghanistan

Following a Campaign Speech in Pensacola, Florida on January 9, 1980, Reagan’s remarks on Afghanistan were cited in the Washington Post the next day as including a call for “shoulder-launched, heat-seeking missiles that can shoot down Soviet helicopter gunships.” He was quoted again later in the campaign as saying: “There’s nothing wrong with giving free people weapons to defend their freedom.” Reagan’s Campaign Platform—1980 of July 15, 1980 demonstrated that Reagan had a global strategic view of the Soviet invasion well before he became president in January 1981. His platform describes the invasion as a brutal example of Soviet imperialism and its violation of international agreements, and characterizes Carter’s response as naïve, unilateral, and futile. Thus:

Republicans believe that the United States can only negotiate with the Soviet Union from a position of unquestioned principle and unquestioned strength. Unlike Mr. Carter, we see nothing ‘inordinate’ in our nations’ historic judgment about the goals, tactics, and dangers of Soviet communism. Unlike the Carter Administration, we are not surprised by the brutal Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or by other Soviet violations of major international agreements regulating international behavior, human rights, and the use of military force. And, unlike the Carter Administration, we will not base our policies toward the Soviet Union on naive expectations, unilateral concessions, futile rhetoric, and insignificant maneuvers. As the Soviet Union continues in its expansionist course, the potential for dangerous confrontations has increased.4

Reagan was not alone in his concerns as they were shared by large sectors of the Congress, the media, and the general public. Much finger-pointing followed about U.S. intelligence warning capabilities and practices, the broader U.S.-Soviet policy implications of the Soviet invasion, and its severe blow to core assumptions of U.S. “détente” strategy about a possible moderation of Soviet behavior. A secret CIA National Interagency Intelligence Memorandum NIIM 10–80—“The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: Implications for Warning, issued in October 1980, is of special interest in this regard. The report was prepared over the course of months of Intelligence Community analysis directed by retired Admiral Stansfield Turner, a Carter appointee as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and a strong supporter of détente policies. The sensitive document was redacted and declassified by the U.S. National Archives only twenty years later in August 2000.

On “Surprise.” The CIA report justified widespread skepticism about Carter’s “surprise.” It provided a detailed record of prior U.S. intelligence warnings coordinated by the CIA with intelligence components of the Department of State (INR) and the Department of Defense (DIA) and forwarded to the White House. It demonstrated that explicit invasion warnings had been presented to senior U.S. National Security Council officials and President Carter himself through the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) and the CIA Director’s National Intelligence Daily (NID). It specifically cited “Alert Memoranda” forwarded to senior NSC officials by CIA Director Turner on September 14 and December 19, 1979, well in advance of the invasion.

A Limited Assessment. U.S. intelligence assessments generally seek to provide policy makers not only with an accurate assessment of the facts, but also with the impact of these facts on U.S. threat assessments, policy assumptions, and options. NIIM 10–80, however, focused only on U.S. pre-invasion intelligence warnings for Afghanistan and on U.S. capabilities to monitor potential comparable Soviet actions directed against NATO Europe. The report’s narrow parameters prevented discussion of the key broader intelligence concerns of importance to U.S. policy makers. Assessments of Soviet intentions, success, or failure; the range of potential U.S. policy responses; and the geopolitical and strategic implications of the invasion’s damage to the U.S. détente strategy were all excluded.

Politicized Intelligence? It appears likely that such fundamental concerns were left out of Carter’s in-house intelligence assessment because senior White House, NSC, and CIA officials considered them too politically sensitive to address in a report that would be sent to the Congress with elements that might eventually reach the media and the American people. The authors of NIIM 10–80 assert that the Intelligence Community issued no general “Strategic Warning” about a change in overall Soviet Cold War strategy and potential Soviet actions beyond Afghanistan because “[no] initiation of hostilities against the United States or in which U.S. forces may become involved” was indicated. This is an unconvincing rationale, especially since the NIIM’s authors do not speculate on why the intelligence warnings forwarded to the NSC and the president had failed to lead to U.S. efforts to deter the Soviet attack or to signal any U.S. concern about an invasion’s impact on détente and U.S.-Soviet relations.

[Book pg. 405]