Chapter 17 – Taking on Soviet Imperialism in Afghanistan

On U.S. Intelligence Warning Capabilities. Having excluded such vital intelligence and strategic policy issues from their analysis, the NIIM authors note without apparent irony that the invasion “provided a rare opportunity to test the efficacy of the U.S. warning system in situations involving substantial movements of the Soviets’ armed forces outside their borders.” They project a feel-good attitude that U.S. intelligence got “important essentials” correct as “the Soviets’ behavior was essentially in keeping with U.S. estimates of their doctrine for mobilization and the initiation of hostilities.” Thus “the system of warning indicators that is set up to detect potentially important changes in the Soviet/Warsaw Pact military posture . . . worked,” it “proved equal to the task,” and it “provides increased assurance of its usefulness in other theaters.”5

The NIIM report lists a remarkable range of warnings on potential Soviet invasion contingencies to be addressed by the U.S. intelligence community. These include: a range of Soviet attacks on NATO (two-, three- and five-front attacks) with warnings ranging from three to twelve weeks and possible Soviet or Warsaw Pact assaults on Finland, Austria, Yugoslavia, Iran, Pakistan, and China. Yet neither the likelihood nor the implications of such contingencies are evaluated in the report and there is no evidence of follow-up tasking to update the assessments of such contingencies (and U.S. contingency plans) in light of the Afghanistan experience.

3. Carter’s Covert Action Programs in Afghanistan—1979 to 1980

At this writing, few of the secret U.S. government intelligence and decision documents on U.S. policy and programs involving Afghanistan have been listed or declassified by the U.S. National Archives including records from the Carter Administration. The document collections of private educational institutions also contain relatively little, if any, declassified official information about covert U.S. programs in Afghanistan or matters involving the potentially relevant Afghanistan/Pakistan and U.S./China relationships. Researchers must generally rely on unofficial sources like those of the experts and former officials cited below.

Robert Gates. An important authoritative source on Carter’s (and Reagan’s) covert programs dealing with Afghanistan is Robert Gates’ From the Shadows, a memoir presumably cleared by the U.S. intelligence community, which was published in 1996. Gates was the CIA’s National Intelligence Officer (NIO) for the Soviet Affairs on the date of the Soviet invasion; before that he was a senior member of Carter’s National Security Council staff. (Gates subsequently served as Director of the CIA under President George H.W. Bush and as Secretary of Defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama). In his memoir, Gates confirms the NIIM 10–80 document’s record of pre-invasion warnings sent by the CIA to President Carter. On issues of U.S. covert action programs for Afghanistan, Gates provides no details and references no documents, but notes that the “Carter administration began looking at the possibility of covert assistance to the insurgents opposing the pro-Soviet Marxist government of President Taraki at the beginning of 1979.”6

Steven Coll. A further unofficial source on Carter’s (and Reagan’s) covert programs can be found in the journalist Steven Coll’s Ghost Wars, published in 2004. Coll references a December 26, 1979 memo to Carter from Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski. He indicates that Brzezinski’s memo drew on secret plans developed earlier in the year by the White House and CIA and cites Brzezinski as asserting that: “It is essential that Afghanistan’s resistance continues. . . . This means more money as well as arms shipments to the rebels and some technical advice . . . [to] reassure Pakistan and encourage it to help the rebels.”7

4. Reagan’s Secret Correspondence with Soviet Leaders on Afghanistan—1981

Afghanistan was a regular topic in Reagan’s private correspondence with Soviet leaders throughout both of his terms in office, and readers will note the congruence of Reagan’s private and public positions in pressing the Soviet Union and linking Afghanistan to broader East-West issues. Three early examples follow.

Reagan’s First Letter to a Soviet Leader was Reagan’s Letter to Brezhnev—April 24, 1981, written shortly after Reagan’s recovery from the March 31 assassination attempt on his life. It includes the following salvo, responding to an earlier letter from Brezhnev that proposed Afghan/Pakistan talks.

I was disappointed that in your treatment of Afghanistan, the most important element in the situation was not mentioned—the prompt withdrawal of Soviet forces from that country. There is wide international agreement that the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan is a major source of tension in the area. Proposals for dealing with this by initiating a dialogue between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been firmly rejected by the Pakistanis themselves and by virtually all concerned nations since they fail to deal with the central issue of Soviet with-

[Book pg. 406]