What the CIA Did (and Didn’t Do) in Soviet-Occupied Afghanistan

Western leftists think the CIA created al Qaeda by helping the mujahideen shoot down Russian helicopters. They’re wrong

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What the CIA Did (and Didn’t Do) in Soviet-Occupied Afghanistan
Mujahideen soldiers with their tank near the Jalalabad airport/Patrick Durand/Sygma via Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I started reading a new book. It was published last year and became popular in a short amount of time. “The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World,” written by American journalist Vincent Bevins, focuses on the Indonesian mass killings of 1965 and 1966. It describes, harrowingly, how roughly a million people were killed in an effort to destroy the country’s political left in the shadow of the Cold War. According to Bevins and many others, the method was approved and adapted by the United States, which used it in large parts of the world to crush left-wing resistance and dissent in favor of right-wing Contras and fascist dictatorships, especially in Latin America.

I read the book with no specific intention, yet in the back of my mind were the vague expectations I’d gained through numerous interactions with a particular crowd of Western leftists who unabashedly considered themselves progressive and, above all, anti-imperialists. The stated anti-imperialism naturally focuses solely and inexorably on the perceived evils wrought by U.S. foreign policy. It analyzes all post-Second World War developments through an ideological prism that, perhaps ironically, resembles the same Cold War rhetoric that the camp intends to criticize. To be clear, although Bevins faced some criticism before publication, his work was extraordinary and his research on Indonesia exceptional. There is no doubt that the mass killings that occurred in the country were not just horrifying and brutal but also often overlooked and suppressed by many Western observers.

However, it becomes problematic and sometimes even deeply hypocritical when Bevins, like many others, stencils these events in a certain way, pulling certain analogies and transposing them over an array of countries somehow caught in the Cold (tug of) War. What emerges, as a result, is a picture with a defined “bad” guy — the U.S. — and a “good” guy — the Soviet Union — which ignores that the Soviet Union, rather than a progressive and socialist utopia, was itself an empire that oppressed millions of people at home and beyond its borders.

When it comes to the Cold War, it’s almost impossible to not talk about Afghanistan. Bevins mentions it only twice, despite portraying himself as an expert on all affairs pertinent to the Cold War. In one line, Bevins writes, “In Afghanistan, Soviet troops had been trying to prop up a communist ally for nine years, Moscow’s forces retreated, the CIA-backed Islamist fundamentalists set up a fanatical theocracy, and the West stopped paying attention.”

Bevins is not alone with this tired and fallacious analysis of a decadelong occupation that Afghans endured at the boots of Soviet forces. Such statements are widespread among large parts of the Western political left, probably especially in the U.S., but also among the mainstream and the far right. Recently, the CIA shared a tweet about the use of its famous Stinger missiles, stating: “The Stinger missiles supplied by the U.S. gave Afghan guerrillas, generally known as the mujahideen, the ability to destroy dreaded Mi-24D helicopter gunships deployed by the Soviets to enforce their control over Afghanistan.” The tweet caused a backlash among left-leaning ideologues, in many cases reporters, writers, or academics, who responded with the usual flawed tropes. Perhaps unbeknownst to them and unconsciously, the tropes are, rather dryly, often underpinned with the same Islamophobic and racist roots that they themselves are sworn to be opposed to, paired with conspiracy theories.

Often, it becomes obvious that many of these commentators lack even the basic knowledge of events that have plagued Afghanistan over the last four decades. Furthermore, their pretension at analyzing certain events through an ideological prism is often a cover to hide their unfamiliarity with the complexity of the topics at hand. The end product is usually a grand, Western-centric tale, once again with neatly defined lines between good and bad, evil and righteous. To put it plainly, it is not real analysis.

Thus, the ideologically based analysis suggests that the CIA funded the mujahideen, synonymous with al Qaeda, and thereby made 9/11 possible. The Afghan freedom fighters who resisted the Soviets are uniformly either Taliban or al Qaeda, two labels used interchangeably, ignoring not just the distinction between the two groups but also the fact that the Taliban were founded in the mid-1990s, half a decade after the Soviets withdrew. These freedom fighters were typically cast as scary, heavily bearded Orientals, equal to the Nicaraguan Contras. The Kabul-based, Soviet-installed Communist dictatorship was portrayed as actually nothing more than a legitimate, progressive government that was toppled by the evil imperialists.

Indeed, things were more complex.

In April 1978, the Afghan communist party, officially known as the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), conducted a bloody coup, celebrated as the so-called Saur revolution. They murdered Afghanistan’s authoritarian president and founder of the republic, Mohammad Daoud Khan, together with his 18 family members. Shortly thereafter, journalist-turned-dictator Noor Mohammad Taraki and his charismatic apprentice Hafizullah Amin, a Columbia University-educated lecturer, launched their tyrannical rule.

A lot of those who succumbed to their ghastly fates at the hands of the Communists were targeted simply because they prayed five times a day, betrayed any sign of religiosity, were people of some standing and influence, or criticized the mass-murdering regime that was in power.

Within a short time, tens of thousands of innocent Afghans were imprisoned, tortured, and executed by the Taraki regime. Kabul’s Pul-e Charkhi prison, which would later turn into the Communists’ notorious torture hellhole, was massively overcrowded. The regime — thanks to massive Soviet support — extended the building, turning it into a graveyard for many Afghan intellectuals and political activists, while religious and tribal leaders were targeted with ruthless vigor. Even students, peasants, and laborers were not safe. A lot of those who succumbed to their ghastly fates at the hands of the Communists were targeted simply because they prayed five times a day, betrayed any sign of religiosity, were people of some standing and influence, or criticized the mass-murdering regime that was in power.

Taraki’s forces later conducted the massacre of Herat, in the western part of the country, where up to 25,000 Afghan civilians were killed after a city-wide, anti-communist uprising terrified the authorities in Kabul. Some of its perpetrators, like then-Cmdr. Shahnawaz Tanai, are still alive, have never been convicted, and roam freely in Kabul today.

Many mass graves from that era are still lost; family members continue to look for the bodies of victims.

Much of this grim chapter of Afghan history, which affected almost every Afghan across the country, is misunderstood; it does not fit well into the predominant narratives. Many still believe that during the 1970s and 1980s, Afghanistan was “liberal,” “progressive,” and “modern,” since among urban elites alcohol consumption was common and women were free to dress as they wished. Such portrayals of Kabul as a liberal haven, however, were part of a propaganda campaign conducted by the Communist regime in Kabul and its backers in Moscow. The PDPA and its Soviet backers claimed they were upholding women’s rights and secularism, even as they were using rape as a weapon of war in Afghan villages and in the regime’s torture dungeons—much the same way as the Assad regime is doing in Syria now.

Although Taraki’s regime was an ideological ally and received heavy financial support from Moscow, the Politburo became worried about the situation in Afghanistan. The “self-styled grand teacher,” as veteran journalist Steve Coll once described Taraki, was a zealot and believed himself to be on Lenin’s mission. He emphasized to his patrons in Moscow that the Red Terror against “enemies of the revolution” was necessary. Additionally, internal disputes between the Khalq (masses) faction of Taraki and Amin and the Parcham (banner) faction increased. The former was mainly dominated by Pashtuns who had their roots in rural areas, like Taraki and Amin, who mixed their alleged socialism with extreme nationalist views, while the latter was dominated by urbanite men and women from both Pashtun and non-Pashtun classes.

As a result of these divisions, many Parchamis were imprisoned or forced to leave the country. In early 1979, Taraki was murdered by Amin, his own protégé. The mass imprisonment and killings all over the country only escalated. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans became refugees as resistance to the regime grew violent. Many joined anti-regime resistance groups and became mujahideen fighters within various parties and movements, often led by prominent clerics or Islamist figures.

Many of these leaders, like Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, and Ahmad Shah Massoud, followed the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, and their anti-government stances dated to the era of Daoud Khan. They even received some training from the notorious Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, in the 1970s, to conduct a coup. However, they never succeeded. Their own lack of unity was exacerbated by the fact that their standing, and that of their ideology, was generally weak in Afghan society, which already saw itself as sufficiently Islamic. Contrary to the Islamists, the PDPA had a strategy that flourished. Large parts of the Afghan army were dominated by individuals who received military training and education in Moscow and joined the party after their return to Afghanistan.

Last but not least, Amin, who ironically became a radical Marxist during his studies in the U.S., started to brainwash young Afghans by using his position as a lecturer in Kabul’s Dar-ul-Mualimeen, where he educated young teachers before sending them back to their rural villages, indoctrinated with socialist ideology. Three years later, in 1955, Amin became the principal of another teacher training institution, Ibn Sina High School in Kabul, where he continued radicalizing his young students. Many of them would later become a crucial part of the Afghan Communist regime.

According to some sources, the U.S. government started helping mujahideen rebels a few months before the Soviet invasion.

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979. Amin was killed by the Soviet Spetsnaz (special forces), while Babrak Karmal, a Parchami, was installed as Moscow’s puppet ruler. This happened contrary to a widespread and contemporary belief that CIA involvement provoked the invasion. According to some sources, the U.S. government started helping mujahideen rebels a few months before the Soviet invasion. Yet the military intervention was a direct consequence of the actions of the allied Communist regime in Kabul itself, whose unmitigated brutality threatened to destabilize communist rule in Afghanistan, causing problems along the southern and potentially volatile border of the Soviet Union. The invasion was not tied to the rebels in any way. Even today, there are unproven rumors that Amin was a CIA asset who was wreaking havoc on purpose to provoke a Soviet intervention.

To be fair, not all Afghans within the PDPA supported the coup against Daoud Khan. Some of them had probably not imagined a military invasion by the Soviets. One such prominent person was Mir Akbar Khyber, who led the Parcham faction and was mysteriously assassinated a few days before his comrades called for their bloody revolution.

All these events led many Afghans to run into the arms of the mujahideen groups who mostly organized themselves in refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan. They had filled a political vacuum caused by the mass killings of Afghanistan’s intelligentsia by the Communist regime. However, here becomes apparent the next grotesque “mistake” many observers make.

These groups were far from united and followed different ideologies across the Islamic spectrum. None had any connection to al Qaeda, which was formed much later by what was a radical splinter group of the so-called Afghan Arabs. These Afghan Arabs were followers of Palestinian Islamist leader and ideologue Abdullah Azzam, who founded his Maktab al-Khidamat, also known as Afghan Services Bureau, in 1984 in Peshawar. Osama bin Laden joined the war much later, and he never acquired weapons or training directly from the CIA.

The mujahideen were supported by a range of different countries, including the U.S., Western European allies, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf countries. However, this support, including the notorious Operation Cyclone, though one of the largest covert operations of the CIA abroad, mainly designed by President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, was heavily exaggerated. In 1980, the Carter administration provided $30 million in assistance for the mujahideen. During the era of President Ronald Reagan, the financial support from Washington rose to $630 million in 1987. During these years, hundreds of thousands of Afghans were killed because the mujahideen fought for years without any substantial support on the ground.

As many Afghan veterans from these years recall, large chunks of aid went straight into the pockets of their leaders instead of being invested to free the country from Soviet occupation. The mujahideen were losing a war in which the oppressors, the Soviet invaders and their Afghan Communist allies, used the most brutal methods fathomable to wipe out whole villages and deter as many people from the opposition as possible through a campaign of mass killing and torture. This was while the Afghan regime had at their back not just billions of dollars of resources but also arguably the most sophisticated military machine the world had seen until that time.

With or without the CIA, the Soviet war in Afghanistan was genocidal. According to a United Nations report from 1986, 33,000 Afghan civilians were killed between January and September 1985 alone, the vast majority at the hands of the Soviet Army and its allies in Kabul. The report stated that insurgents killed hundreds of civilians, too, but this was not comparable with the organized and sophisticated level of Soviet violence that killed tens of thousands. The report also underlined the fact that the Communist regime in Kabul and its backers in Moscow had a deliberate strategy of mass killings and torturing civilians. Naturally, it was these horrendous atrocities that led to the radicalization of vast parts of Afghan society rather than the distribution of schoolbooks promoting armed jihad through U.S.-funded education programs in Pakistani refugee camps.

While these events occurred, Western leftists and alleged peace activists were on the side of the occupiers, and some of the leading figures started to dehumanize Afghans. The late American Irish journalist and leftist icon Alexander Cockburn bluntly remarked about Afghanistan: “We all have to go one day, but pray God let it not be over Afghanistan. An unspeakable country filled with unspeakable people, sheepshaggers and smugglers, who have furnished in their leisure hours some of the worst arts and crafts ever to penetrate the occidental world. I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it’s Afghanistan. Nothing but mountains filled with barbarous ethnics with views as medieval as their muskets, and unspeakably cruel too.”

The 10-year-long occupation led to the death of 2 million Afghans. Afghan society remains heavily traumatized by the brutalities of this war, which may also explain why no left-wing party would have any chance in a fair democratic election for at least another several decades. Such a party would simply be associated with the past crimes of the PDPA, which never called itself “Communist” in a deeply Islamic society, preferring to brand itself as “socialist” or “left-wing.”

The U.S. Stinger missiles were just a small part of the larger Afghan tale, but they became crucial in saving lives. For some, it might come as a surprise that Soviet helicopters, which destroyed whole villages, irrigation canals, and acres of arable land and waged mass destruction on thousands of Afghans, could not be defeated through peaceful protests or sheer political activism.

Such killer machines must be destroyed to save the lives of families.

For years, the mujahideen looked for a way to destroy the machines of death, which glided across the once-quiet Afghan sky, targeting and killing mujahideen and civilians alike. The world, including alleged mujahideen allies, looked on. Washington, which pumped millions of dollars to support the rebels, became tired of the war. Brzezinski’s alleged plan, often described later as the so-called Afghan trap to create a Vietnam experience for the Soviets, was more myth than reality.

A lot of this imagination was built on American popular culture. Many people still believe that “Charlie Wilson’s War” or even “Rambo III” are firmly rooted in historical reality, not partial or wholesale concoction. Such received wisdom also led to the belief that the U.S. was truly interested in the suffering of the Afghan people instead of just playing their part in the context of the Cold War.

We just wanted something to shoot down those Russian helicopters to protect the villages.

“Just a few politicians showed a genuine will to help us,” said Abdul Qadir Momand, an Afghan American veteran who fought on the side of the mujahideen during the 1980s. After Taraki came to power, Momand fled to the U.S. and started to organize against the war in his home country. He arranged medical treatments for war victims. During his holidays, he traveled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets and their allies. In the mid-’80s, Momand and some other Afghans tried to convince the Reagan administration of the necessity of anti-aircraft weapons. “We did not name the Stinger. We did not even know these models. In fact, we just wanted something to shoot down those Russian helicopters to protect the villages,” he told me.

According to Momand and other veterans from that era, the U.S. started to hand over Stinger missiles after they noticed the rebels’ will to fight, which was revealed again in the mid-1980s during a battle near Tari Mangal, named after the local Mangal tribe, in Pakistan’s Kurram Valley close to the Durand Line. It served as a fundamental mujahideen logistical center. Momand said that between 1986 and 1989, the Afghan mujahideen received 500 Stinger missiles from the U.S. Some other sources claim that the number was much higher, indicating that between 2,000 and 2,500 Stingers reached the Afghan rebels. “They were a game changer against Soviet helicopters. They stopped attacking many areas afterwards. They arrived in the last phase of the war, too late probably, but the missiles saved Afghan lives,” Momand recalled.

U.S. and Soviet, or Russian, accounts shared different opinions on the use of the Stinger. While many of the former described its impact as “unmistakable,” the latter gave little significance to the Stinger, for obvious reasons.

Years later, after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan and the country descended into a civil war dominated by some large, but not all, mujahideen factions, with former communists opportunistically allied with different factions, the U.S. started a campaign to take back the Stingers. They showed more interest in the missiles than in the fate of the Afghan people.

One such scene was described by Coll when a CIA officer met former mujahed Massoud in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul in 1996. Naturally, by this point many missiles were missing. China and Iran had received some of them through black-market deals with various mujahideen commanders. However, and once again contrary to many beliefs, neither al Qaeda nor the Afghan Arabs in general possessed any Stinger missiles. Nevertheless, after having assessed Afghanistan’s situation in the 1990s, the U.S. feared that their planes and helicopters would be vulnerable to the Stinger missiles they themselves had supplied to the mujahideen.

From an Afghan perspective, it is true that Washington never had a genuine interest in Afghan suffering. Otherwise, the U.S. would have probably shown much more interest in the events that took place after the fall of the Iron Curtain or would have supported the Afghan people in the early phase of the war instead of in the late 1980s.

The Cold War took its own course, with the U.S. now finding itself on the side of the mujahideen. Nevertheless, one must imagine how Afghan peasants, many of whom took up arms simply because their village was bombed by the Red Army, must have felt after receiving weapons to defend themselves. The human agenda of such people is often overlooked by cold geopolitical analysis, often manufactured hubristically, especially when coming from the usual suspects.

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