Foreign Policy Essay

The Foreign Policy Essay: Afghan Lessons Learned

By Bruce Riedel
Sunday, August 10, 2014, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The United States is supporting the Afghan government with troops and other military assistance in the fight against Islamist radicals based in Pakistan. As the United States ponders its policy options, it would do well to heed lessons from a time when the situation was reversed. In one of America’s biggest Cold War successes, the Carter and Reagan administrations supported the anti-Soviet mujahedin in Afghanistan and helped them defeat the Soviet Union. Bruce Riedel, author of the newly released What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, identifies lessons from the anti-Soviet struggle and contends that the United States risks repeating some of Moscow’s many mistakes.


Twenty five years ago, after 3,331 days of war, the Soviet 40th Red Army retreated in defeat from Afghanistan. An American-led coalition had orchestrated support for the Afghan mujahedin that shattered the myth of Red Army invincibility. The CIA had won the last and decisive battle of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall fell within months of the Soviets’ defeat in Afghanistan and the Warsaw Pact disintegrated. The danger of nuclear war between the two super powers, which had terrorized the world for generations, vanished overnight.

This secret war a quarter century ago holds many lessons for Americans considering how to react to crises in 2014. At a cost of roughly $3 billion and without a single American casualty, the secret American war in Afghanistan may have been the most successful covert action in our nation’s history. It was a bipartisan victory. President Jimmy Carter created the coalition of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Britain and others that secretly backed the mujahedin in just a few weeks after the Russian invasion in early 1980. President Ronald Reagan continued the covert campaign and then escalated it in 1986 to victory. The Congress was not only kept fully informed on the war, it was an enthusiastic supporter.

Riedel photo with borderCovert actions can produce significant policy successes if they are well planned, have achievable goals, are supported by robust coalitions, and exploit enemy weaknesses. But they inevitably have unforeseen consequences which must be understood in real time, not after the fact.

Days after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979, Carter told the CIA to turn Afghanistan into Russia’s Vietnam, a quagmire that would bog Moscow down in an endless insurgency. The goal was simple and clear cut. The Afghans were eager to fight the Russians; all they needed was weapons. In 1986, at the prompting of Pakistan’s dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, Reagan gave the mujahedin Stinger surface-to-air missiles. In less than six months, both the Russians and Iranians had captured Stingers, but Reagan did not stop supplying them. He was not paralyzed by fear of weapons falling into the wrong hands; it was a price worth paying for victory.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security advisor, traveled in early 1980 to Asia to assemble the alliance that defeated Russia. Bill Casey, Reagan’s CIA director, guided it to victory. Zia was the keystone of the alliance. Carter and Reagan both put aside their concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear program to focus on the more immediate goal.

From Margaret Thatcher to King Fahd, the Soviet Union had lots of enemies eager to help defeat the 40th Army. The Russians made many grievous errors that the allies exploited; the most important one was that Moscow never resourced the war sufficiently. It sent fewer troops to control Afghanistan than it had sent to conquer Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Russian commanders never had enough manpower to police the border with Pakistan where the mujahedin had their base camps.

The American secret war in Afghanistan has important lessons for how America leaves the current war in Afghanistan. Washington has been even slower than Moscow to send the resources necessary to fight the Taliban, especially in the early years of the war when Iraq took the higher priority. Also like Moscow, Washington has had no success in curbing Pakistani support for the insurgents. Rarely in one generation does a country fight the same war twice from opposite sides of the border, but we have now done that in Afghanistan. And we have learned that it was much easier to prevail in Afghanistan in 1989 when we were on the same side as the mujahidin being supported by Pakistan instead of fighting against the groups being supported by Pakistan (which today provides sanctuary to the Haqqani network and Mullah Omar’s Quetta shura, the twin bases of the Afghan Taliban).

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan sparked a firestorm in the Muslim world—as many as 20,000 volunteers from Morocco to Indonesia flocked to Pakistan to join the mujahedin. Osama bin Laden was one of them. American intelligence was largely oblivious to the role of these fighters in the conflict and the consequences that began to flow from it. No one paid much attention to the so-called Arab Afghans until years after the war when they had gone home to spread extremism in Algeria, Egypt, and elsewhere. So as the Cold War was ending, the global jihad was starting.

Washington abandoned Afghanistan in 1990, leaving behind a shattered country and a radicalized Pakistan. Other pressing issues like German reunification and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait consumed Washington. Little effort was made to try to manage the civil war that continued in Afghanistan for another decade or to help Pakistan restore stable civilian rule after Zia died. Al Qaeda and 9/11 emerged from this neglect.

Today, Iraq is a fresh reminder that wars don’t end when America leaves them. President Obama won’t end the Afghan War in 2016, and he may leave a dangerous combustible mix behind if he leaves as precipitously as America left Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1990. He should rethink his announcement that all American forces will leave by December 2016 and let conditions on the ground determine what U.S. military and intelligence capabilities will remain in 2017 and beyond. His successor should not be boxed in by a decision made in mid-2014 about what Afghanistan needs in 2017. To do so would ignore one of the most important lessons of the secret war.

The danger in Afghanistan and Pakistan tomorrow is the same as the danger in Iraq today. Without a unilateral counterterrorism capability in Afghanistan, al Qaeda may regenerate in South Asia as quickly as it has regenerated in Iraq. In fact, al Qaeda is likely to regenerate faster in Pakistan given the allies it has there once drone operations from bases in Afghanistan cease. No U.S. military force in Afghanistan means no unilateral counterterrorism capability. The President should keep his (and his successor’s) options open for the future in Afghanistan, not close them prematurely or precipitously.


Bruce Riedel is the author of What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989, published by Brookings in July. After thirty years of service in the CIA, he joined Brookings where he is director of the Intelligence Project.