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30 Years of US Mistakes in Afghanistan

By James A. Lucas
March 13, 2010

Editor’s Note: America’s historical amnesia – compounded by the pleasant myth-telling of the U.S. news media – has obscured the reality that Washington's misjudgments over the past 30-plus years have contributed significantly to today’s tragedy in Afghanistan.

The initial errors can be traced to Democratic Cold Warriors under Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, but the missteps worsened during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and were capped off by George H.W. Bush’s rejection of a negotiated settlement in 1989, a decision that opened the door to a Taliban victory in the mid-1990s.

In effect, U.S. policy under Carter and Reagan exaggerated the geopolitical importance of the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979. To counter the Soviets, the CIA promoted Islamic extremism without recognizing its blowback potential against the United States.

The Reagan administration also let Pakistan develop a nuclear bomb as part of the deal to get Islamabad’s support for aiding the Islamist Afghan rebels. Then, after the Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, Bush-41 got carried away with U.S. triumphalism rather than accepting a coalition government that could have ended the fighting.

At, we’ve dealt with these misguided policies and this misunderstood history many times – such as former CIA analyst Peter Dickson’s “Reagan’s Bargain/Charlie Wilson’s War” and Bruce Cameron’s “Why Afghanistan Really Fell Apart.”

However, in the following article, James A. Lucas of Peace Action and Veterans for Peace looks at another cost of these misjudgments: how U.S. policy helped reverse important social progress in Afghanistan:

More than three decades ago, there were social movements in Afghanistan to improve the standard of living of its people and to provide greater equality for women. There was even a functioning, if imperfect, democracy. 

But the U.S. government – using subversion, weapons and money – contributed to the halt in progress in these areas of human welfare. Indeed, many gains that had been made were reversed.

By 2010, the economic and social status of Afghans had been set back generations; women’s status had deterioriated to such an extent that the prevalence of self-immolation has increased among discouraged women; and there is no real democracy now, with the U.S. making the major decisions as an occupying power.

Now, with President Barack Obama’s recent military buildup, U.S. leaders are on the verge of making the situation even worse.
Afghanistan in the late 1970s was a predominantly poor, rural and moderate Muslim nation. Although treated as second-class citizens, women were allowed to unveil and had the right to vote. From 1933-1978, women were entering the workforce and becoming teachers, nurses and even politicians.

Women worked to end illiteracy and forced marriages. Most of these advances were in Kabul, the most modern and populous city in Afghanistan, although in most rural areas women were still treated as property.

Among broader social-economic reforms, labor unions were legalized, a minimum wage and a progressive income tax were established, and a separation of church and state was adopted.

However, in the 1970s, Afghanistan still had serious economic problems, one of which was the concentration of ownership of most of the land in the hands of tribal and religious leaders (mullahs). Only 3 percent of the rural population owned 75 percent of the land, and there were very high rates of illiteracy.

In the latter part of that decade, progressive and communist groups struggled over how to modernize Afghanistan and resolve these inequities. Their sometimes-zealous efforts to introduce change involved a degree of coercion and violence directed mainly toward those living in areas outside of Kabul, where the vast majority of Afghans lived in mountainous, rural and tribal areas.

Steps to redistribute land were initiated but were met by objections from powerful landed interests.
But it was the central government’s granting of new rights to women that pushed orthodox Muslim men in the Pashtun villages of eastern Afghanistan into picking up guns. Even though some of those changes were made only on paper, opponents said that the reforms were being made too quickly.

According to these opponents, the government insisted that women attend meetings and that children go to school. Since these Islamic traditionalists believed that these changes threatened their religion, they were convinced that they had to fight.

Rural Uprising

So an opposition movement started, which became known as the Mujahedeen, an alliance of conservative Islamic groups. By the spring of 1979, rebellion had spread to most of the country's 29 provinces. On March 24, a garrison of soldiers in Herat killed a group of Soviet advisers (and their families) after the advisers had ordered Afghan troops to fire on anti-government demonstrators.

From this point on, the Kabul regime was no longer merely isolated from peasants in the countryside, but divided by open hostility from a majority of the people. [For more details, see Willian Blum’s Killing Hope.]

To counter this Islamist movement, the government’s secret police and a repressive civilian police force went into action across Afghanistan, and army troops were sent into the countryside to subdue "feudal" villagers.

The situation was very grave in Afghanistan at that point, but the initial conflict might have been resolved far short of a civil war if the U.S. had refrained from fostering the uprising.

Even if the situation had deteriorated into a civil war, the nation might eventually have recovered and moved ahead. Civil wars are disastrous for nations, but after great pain and suffering countries can reconcile as the U.S. did after its Civil War.

However, the United States saw opportunity in the divisions that not only had put a Soviet-backed government on the defensive but offered an opportunity for the CIA to present itself as a friend to militant Islamists whose movement could reach beyond Afghanistan into the neighboring Muslim-dominated southern republics of the Soviet Union.

The U.S. involvement in Afghanistan dated back to the 1950s and 1960s, when the CIA used bribes and other means to support a growing Islamist opposition to progressive changes. The CIA also recruited Afghan students in the U.S. to act as agents when they returned home.

During this period at least one president of the Afghanistan Students Association (ASA), Zia H. Noorzay, was working with the CIA in the United States and later became president of the Afghanistan state treasury.

One of the Afghan students whom Noorzay and the CIA tried in vain to recruit, Abdul Latif Hotaki, declared in 1967 that a good number of the key officials in the Afghanistan government who studied in the U.S. “are either CIA-trained or indoctrinated.” [Ramparts Magazine, April 1967, cited in Blum’s Killing Hope.]

According to Roger Morris, a former National Security Council staff member, the CIA started to offer covert backing to Islamic radicals as early as 1973-1974.

Other U.S. officials also were eager to exploit the Afghan divisions to advance U.S. geopolitical interests, even though the increasing American interference along the southern border of the Soviet Union ran the risk of a big-power showdown while also undercutting desperately needed social and economic progress in Afghanistan.

In August 1979, a classified State Department report stated: “the United States larger interests …would be served by the demise of the [Soviet-backed] Taraki-Amin regime, despite whatever setbacks this might mean for future social and economic reforms in Afghanistan.” 

One senior official said, "The question here was whether it was morally acceptable that, in order to keep the Soviets off balance, which was the reason for the operation, it was permissible to use other lives for our geopolitical interests." Carter’s CIA Director Stansfield Turner answered the question: "I decided I could live with that."

Brzezinski’s Admission

Almost two decades later, in 1998, Carter’s National Security Adviser Zigniew Brzezinski admitted that U.S. assistance to the Islamic opposition helped provoke the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.

Le Nouvel Observateur in Paris carried the account of an interview with Brzezinski in which he was asked if he had played a role in providing intelligence to the Mujahedeen before the Soviets invaded. He replied:

“Yes, according to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahedeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 December 1979.  But the reality secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise.

“Indeed, it was July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day I wrote a note to the President in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.” 
Since the region of the Soviet Union most in proximity to Afghanistan – the current nations of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – had large Muslim populations, Moscow feared that the Afghan revolt by Islamist fundamentalists could spread to within its own borders.

Soviet leaders also were unable to convince the factions of the communist government in Kabul to resolve their differences and to proceed more slowly with their modernization program. Finally, in December 1979, the Soviets invaded to quell the growing uprising and take tighter control in Kabul.

The Soviet invasion was widely interpreted by the U.S. press corps as an act of unprovoked Soviet aggression. Republicans – especially Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign – blamed the Soviet attack on Carter’s supposed weakness on defense and his geopolitical naïvete.

By February 1980, the Washington Post reported that the Mujahedeen were receiving arms from the U.S. government.  

Reagan’s Escalation

After Ronald Reagan became President in 1981 and denounced the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire, the covert operation supporting the Afghan rebels expanded dramatically. Many congressional Democrats got onboard in order to look tough against Moscow.

Purchasing weapons mainly from China, the CIA supplied grenade launchers, mines and SA-7 light anti-aircraft weapons. The CIA arranged the shipments into Afghanistan via Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI.

The amounts were significant:10,000 tons of arms and ammunition in 1983, which rose to 65,000 tons annually by 1987, according to Mohammad Yousaf, the Pakistani general who supervised the covert war from 1983-87. [Washington Post, July 19, 1992]

To counter the Soviet invasion, the U.S. deliberately chose to give most of its support to the most extreme Islamist groups. A disproportionate share of U.S. arms went to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a particularly fanatical fundamentalist and woman-hater.

According to journalist Tim Weiner, "[Hekmatyar's] followers first gained attention by throwing acid in the faces of women who refused to wear the veil. CIA and State Department officials I have spoken with call him 'scary', vicious', a fascist', definite dictatorship material."

In October 1984, CIA Director William Casey, who wanted to keep abreast of the CIA operation in Afghanistan, went by plane to the military air base south of Islamabad, Pakistan. Helicopters lifted Casey to three secret training camps near the Afghan border, where he watched Mujahedeen training.

Pakistani officers also traveled to the U.S, for training on the Stinger missile launcher in June 1986 and then set up a secret Stinger training facility. [Washington Post, July 19, 1992]

Between 1986 and 1989, the Reagan administration escalated the covert war by providing the Mujahedeen with more than 1,000 of these state-of-the-art, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile launchers which, by some accounts, prevented a Soviet victory.

Milton Bearden, CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1986-1989 who was responsible for arming the Mujahedeen, commented, “The U.S. was fighting the Soviets to the last Afghan.” [Bearden’s “Afghanistan Graveyard of Empires,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2001]

During this anti-Soviet war, the United States and Saudi Arabia also subsidized Mujahedeen recruitment by helping to fund fundamentalist Islamic religious schools for boys, called madrassas, which were established in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Many students came from refugee camps and were orphans of the war.

Poverty-stricken families often had no other way to provide their boys with an education, so they tolerated the fundamentalist teachings designed to develop an anti-Soviet fervor.

The young refugees usually had not learned any farming or other skills from their fathers, nor did they have other job opportunities. They were only trained for fighting in wars and how to handle guns. Some boys who were as young as 13 or 14 saw a future stint in the military as a steady source of income.

On several occasions, madrassas were closed down so that all the students could join the troops on the battlefront.

The other source of additional recruits for the Mujahedeen was from a variety of Muslim nations around the world. These were males who wanted to fight the “godless Russians,” and some expected to be martyrs in a holy war.

According to Central Asia specialist and journalist Ahmed Rashid:

“Between  1982 and 1992 some 35,000 Muslim radicals from 43 Islamic countries in the Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia and the Far East would pass their baptism under fire with the Afghan Mujahedeen.

“Tens of thousands more foreign Muslim radicals came to study in the hundreds of new madrassas that [Pakistani President] Zia’s military government began to fund in Pakistan and along the Afghan border. Eventually more than 100,000 Muslim radicals were to have direct contact with Pakistan and Afghanistan and be influenced by the jihad.” [Rashid’s Taliban, p. 130]

According to John Ryan, senior scholar at the University of Winnipeg:

“As for the Mujahedeen that this conflict created, they took on a life of their own, and have now spread throughout the Muslim world and are apparently in cells everywhere. About 5,000 of them were brought into Bosnia to fight the Serbs – even Osama bin Laden may have visited Bosnian president Izetbegovic in 1992. The Mujahedeen later helped the Kosovo Albanians.” [See Dianna Johnstone’s Fools Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions.]

Soviet Withdrawal

In 1989, the Soviet Army finally withdrew Afghanistan, leaving behind an estimated 1.5 million dead Aghans and 14,000 of its own dead.

But soon a new proxy war took over, this time between the CIA- and Pakistani-backed Mujahedeen and the Soviet-supported Afghan government. It lasted for three years, until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Afghan government finally fell in 1992. 

Mujahedeen extremists took their revenge against progressive-minded people, especially those suspected of being socialist or Marxist. Many were killed or forced into exile, stripping the country of much of its professional class and destroying the last hopes of any progressive secular form of government.

Edmund McWilliams, who was sent to Afghanistan in 1989 as a semi-independent analyst of U.S. policy regarding the Afghan jihad, discovered that Hekmatyar, in his alliance with the ISI, moved to eliminate rivals by kidnappings and murder. [Steve Coll, Ghost Wars, p. 181]

The competing armies of  the Mujahedeen fought among themselves to control Kabul, using stockpiles of weapons that had been provided by the U.S. to fight the Soviets. About 50,000 people were killed and much of the city was left in shambles. Hundreds of thousands were driven into squalid refugee camps.

With the Mujahedeen in charge, there also was a severe erosion of women’s rights. The Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice was set up to control women’s dress codes and the length of men’s beards. Rape was a common tool of war for the fundamentalists.

As one man said, “young women who did not want to be raped by these zealots threw themselves off the top floors of tall buildings and preferred death to rape… Many families who had daughters didn’t want fundamentalists to rape them. So when the fundamentalists attacked their homes, they would kill their own daughters, because it was better for them to die than to be raped by these criminals.” [Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls’s Bleeding Afghanistan]

Despite this brutality, women were still allowed to work, and get an education under the Mujahedeen government. In Kabul, about half of the working population was women who were employed as teachers, doctors and other professionals. 

The Rise of the Taliban

Pakistan’s ISI, however, had been molding a new group of Afghan boys into a fighting force, which promised to eliminate Afghanistan’s rampant corruption and lawlessness. This new group, known as the Taliban, eventually emerged victorious, taking over Kabul in 1996.

Initially, many Afghans welcomed the Taliban in hopes that they would end the Mujahedeen’s corruption and brutality. But it turned out that the Taliban imposed their own fiercely fundamentalist Islamist policies.

The Taliban declared a virtual war on women, who were not allowed to participate in the work force or even have doctors treat them (without a male relative present). Girls were forbidden to go to school. Women couldn’t leave the house without a male escort and were forced to cover themselves from head to toe, even covering their eyes.

Women who had been doctors and teachers before, suddenly were forced to be beggars and even prostitutes in order to feed their families.

Trying to understand the mindset of how such injustices could take place is not easy. But one thing is obvious: U.S. policy was a key factor in creating the conditions that allowed first the Mujahedeen and then the Taliban to come to power. However, that history is little known to the American public.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush reacted by bombing and then invading Afghanistan, although none of the 9/11 hijackers were Afghans. The U.S. rationale was that training and organization for the attacks took place in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.

The U.S. assault essentially replaced the Taliban with a Mujahedeen remnant known as the Northern Alliance. Eight years later, U.S. and allied military forces continue to occupy Afghanistan with President Obama having increased U.S. troop levels to around 100,000 soldiers and escalated Predator drone attacks on insurgent targets.

So, what do the Afghan people have to show for the past three decades of various Big Powers using Afghanistan as a venue for their geopolitical rivalries? In terms of democracy, women’s right, and economic and social progress, essentially nothing. In fact, by most measures, the Afghan people are worse off.

Despite U.S. claims that it is trying to create an Afghan democracy, the past three decades have seen the hopes of a meaningful democracy fade as progressive leaders and well-educated bureaucrats were killed or forced into exile by warlords backed by the U.S. during and after the war with the Soviets.

Last year, President Hamid Karzai was “elected” through what was widely condemned as massive fraud. Karzai’s new government includes warlords who were deposed by the Taliban and who, in the minds of many Afghans, should be prosecuted as war criminals.

War-Torn Nation

Today, the ordinary Afghan is caught between three forces: the U.S., the Taliban, and Karzai’s puppet regime. Also, the Upper House of Parliament is not a democratic institution, its members being appointed by the president.

The Afghan constitution, although it proclaims equality for men and women, is secondary to the supremacy of Islamic law, which can be used to squash dissent and human rights, including the rights of women.

Under the U.S.-imposed government in 2001, women were allowed to once again work and go to school. Nevertheless, the abuse of women continues, since the government is too weak to enforce many of the laws, especially in the rural areas.

According to Human Rights Watch, "The law gives a husband the right to withdraw basic maintenance from his wife, including food, if she refuses to obey his sexual demands. It grants guardianship of children exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers. It requires women to get permission from their husbands to work. It also effectively allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying ‘blood money’ to a girl who was injured when he raped her."

Malalai Joya, a young Afghan woman who was elected to the Lower House of Parliament but was later barred because of her criticism of some of its members, has estimated that up to 60 percent of the deputies in the Lower House are directly or indirectly connected to current and past human rights abuses. Regarding the plight of women, Joya said:

“Women’s conditions in some cities have slightly improved since the Taliban regime. But if we compare it with the era before the rule of the fundamentalists in Afghanistan, it has not changed much.

“Afghan women had more rights in the 1960s to 1980s than today. Rapes, abductions, murders, violence, forced marriages, and violence are increasing at an alarming rate never seen before in our history.

“Women commit self-immolation to escape their miseries, and the rate of self-immolations is climbing in many of the provinces. Afghanistan still faces a women’s rights catastrophe.”

The broader economic and social welfare of Afghans today is abysmal. Afghanistan suffers from an unemployment rate of 40 percent and most who have jobs earn meager wages. Many youth joined the Mujahedeen or Taliban in order to receive some food, shelter and income.

The average educational level of Afghans is 1.7 years of schooling, which severely limits their job opportunities. As many as 18 million Afghans still live on less than $2 a day.

An estimated seven million people remain susceptible to hunger throughout the country, and Afghanistan is also vulnerable to natural disasters as well as a high risk of diseases.  

The human toll from three decades of war has been staggering. An estimated 1.5 million died in the war with the Soviet Union and tens of thousands more died in subsequent civil wars. Some 600,000 have been wounded.

About one in 10 Afghans is disabled, mostly due to the wars and landmines. An Afghan’s life expectancy is about 43 years. There are reportedly about 400,000 orphans.

Many Americans explain this internal strife in Afghanistan by saying that “they have always been fighting among themselves.” But the truth is that United States contributed to the past three decades of warfare, a process that continues to this day with U.S. ordnance claiming the lives of Afghan civilians as the “collateral damage” of American attacks on the Taliban.

Clearly, Afghanistan is in desperate need of economic development, health care and educational assistance – not more killing.

When U.S. officials talk about their desire for nation-building in Afghanistan, they neglect to mention that in the eyes of many Afghans, Washington has done just the opposite.

James A. Lucas is a member of  Peace Action and Veterans for Peace.  He can  be reached at [email protected]

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