Commentary: The war in Afghanistan began much earlier

In a recent op-ed on a likely U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Marvin Ott remarks that the origins of our war there go back to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Actually, this date is a bit misleading. U.S. intervention in Afghanistan goes back a lot further, to the summer of 1979. In July of that year, the Carter administration approved covert efforts to destabilize the pro-Soviet government of Afghan President Nur Mohammad Taraki. This was six months before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. U.S. officials expressed concern at the time that U.S. meddling could prompt a Soviet invasion.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates reports in his 1997 memoir that worry about triggering a Soviet invasion surfaced as early as March 30, 1979, at a White House meeting. Gates writes: “Walt Slocombe, representing Defense, asked if there was value in keeping the Afghan insurgency going, ‘sucking the Soviets into a Vietnam quagmire?’” Gates reports another official asking: “Is there interest in maintaining and assisting the insurgency, or is the risk that we will provoke the Soviets too great?” Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security advisor, describes similar concerns in a 1997 interview. He tells the Nouvel Observateur: “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.” He adds: “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.”

The Russians understood that going into Afghanistan might be a huge mistake. Declassified Soviet records reveal that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at first refused Afghan requests for troops to help quell the U.S.-backed insurgency. As Brezhnev informed President Taraki on March 28, 1979: “I will tell you frankly: this should not be done. This would only play into the hands of the enemies — yours and ours.” It is evident from the documents that contrary to U.S. claims, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not part of a broader move on the Persian Gulf region.

During the early 1980s, with the Soviets hoping to exit Afghanistan, U.S. policy makers resisted UN attempts to effect a negotiated withdrawal. Our hope instead was to prolong the war, keeping the Soviets bogged down in Afghanistan. Zbigniew Brzezinski is quite open about this. In the same 1997 interview, he speaks of “drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap.” He claims: “The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.’” Sen. David Durenburger, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is more to the point in a comment from 1985: “My understanding of the current policy is that anything that will keep the Soviets busy in their own Vietnam may well advance our national security … the best you can do is to sort of bog them down and keep them busy there.” Eugene Rostow (later Reagan’s lead arms-reduction negotiator) writes in a Jan. 9, 1980, letter to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance: “It is so important to do everything reasonable to prolong and intensify … the Afghan War.” As is well known, the United States met this aim by arming terrorists like Osama bin Laden.

Ott’s op-ed sidesteps another point of considerable consequence. This concerns the relationship between the Taliban and Bin Laden’s al-Qaida. It is often assumed that the two groups were close allies united in their desire to attack the West. The picture is a bit more complicated.

First, considerable friction existed between Bin Laden and the Taliban prior to Sept. 11. Suspicious that Bin Laden might be planning attacks overseas, some in the Taliban leadership wanted much tighter restrictions on him, if not his outright expulsion from Afghanistan. Second, the Taliban did not possess advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks. They played no role in the planning or execution of the attacks. Third, they rejected Bin Laden’s vision of a global jihad. They let Bin Laden remain in Afghanistan on the condition that he not antagonize the United States or plot terrorist attacks abroad. Bin Laden is reported to have said: “Two entities are against our jihad. One is the U.S., and the other is the Taliban’s own Foreign Affairs Ministry.”

The bottom line: the Taliban did not attack us on Sept. 11. They expressly forbid such action. The Bush claim that the overthrow of the Taliban was justified on self-defense grounds is in this respect questionable. Vengeance may have had more to do with their overthrow — the start of our “longest war” — than prudence or legality.

For every action there is a reaction, as Bin Laden liked to say. It is the innocent who bear the burden.

Hank Davis is a resident of Brooklin. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy and teaches the subject for the University of Maine Augusta. Sources for this op-ed are available

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