Abolish the CIA!
- Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to 10 September 2001 by Steve Coll
Penguin, 695 pp, US $29.95, June 2004, ISBN 1 59420 007 6
It should by now be generally accepted that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979 was deliberately provoked by the United States. In his memoir published in 1996, the former CIA director Robert Gates made it clear that the American intelligence services began to aid the mujahidin guerrillas not after the Soviet invasion, but six months before it. In an interview two years later with Le Nouvel Observateur, President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, proudly confirmed Gates’s assertion. ‘According to the official version of history,’ Brzezinski said,
CIA aid to the mujahidin began during 1980, that’s to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. But the reality, kept secret until now, is completely different: on 3 July 1979 President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And on the same day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained that in my opinion this aid would lead to a Soviet military intervention.
Asked whether he in any way regretted these actions, Brzezinski replied: ‘Regret what? The secret operation was an excellent idea. It drew the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? On the day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, saying, in essence: "We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War."’
Nouvel Observateur: ‘And neither do you regret having supported Islamic fundamentalism, which has given arms and advice to future terrorists?’
Brzezinski: ‘What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?’
Even though the demise of the Soviet Union owes more to Mikhail Gorbachev than to Afghanistan’s partisans, Brzezinski certainly helped produce ‘agitated Muslims’, and the consequences have been obvious. Carter, Brzezinski and their successors in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, including Gates, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Wolfowitz, Armitage and Powell, all bear some responsibility for the 1.8 million Afghan casualties, 2.6 million refugees and 10 million unexploded land-mines that followed from their decisions. They must also share the blame for the blowback that struck New York and Washington on 11 September 2001: al-Qaida was an organisation they helped create and arm.
The term ‘blowback’ first appeared in a classified CIA post-action report on the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953, carried out in the interests of BP. In 2000, James Risen of the New York Times explained:
When the Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow Muhammad Mossadegh as Iran’s prime minister in 1953, ensuring another 25 years of rule for Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the CIA was already figuring that its first effort to topple a foreign government would not be its last. The CIA, then just six years old and deeply committed to winning the Cold War, viewed its covert action in Iran as a blueprint for coup plots elsewhere around the world, and so commissioned a secret history to detail for future generations of CIA operatives how it had been done . . . Amid the sometimes curious argot of the spy world – ‘safebases’ and ‘assets’ and the like – the CIA warns of the possibilities of ‘blowback’. The word . . . has since come into use as shorthand for the unintended consequences of covert operations.
‘Blowback’ does not refer simply to reactions to historical events but more specifically to reactions to operations carried out by the US government that are kept secret from the American public and from most of their representatives in Congress. This means that when civilians become victims of a retaliatory strike, they are at first unable to put it in context or to understand the sequence of events that led up to it. Even though the American people may not know what has been done in their name, those on the receiving end certainly do: they include the people of Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1959 to the present), Congo (1960), Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), Vietnam (1961-73), Laos (1961-73), Cambodia (1961-73), Greece (1967-73), Chile (1973), Afghanistan (1979 to the present), El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua (1980s), and Iraq (1991 to the present). Not surprisingly, sometimes these victims try to get even.
There is a direct line between the attacks on 11 September 2001 – the most significant instance of blowback in the history of the CIA – and the events of 1979. In that year, revolutionaries threw both the shah and the Americans out of Iran, and the CIA, with full presidential authority, began its largest ever clandestine operation: the secret arming of Afghan freedom fighters to wage a proxy war against the Soviet Union, which involved the recruitment and training of militants from all over the Islamic world. Steve Coll’s book is a classic study of blowback and is a better, fuller reconstruction of this history than the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (the so-called ‘9/11 Commission Report’).[*]
From 1989 to 1992, Coll was the Washington Post’s South Asia bureau chief, based in New Delhi. Given the CIA’s paranoid and often self-defeating secrecy, what makes his book especially interesting is how he came to know what he claims to know. He has read everything on the Afghan insurgency and the civil wars that followed, and has been given access to the original manuscript of Robert Gates’s memoir (Gates was director from 1991 to 1993), but his main source is some two hundred interviews conducted between the autumn of 2001 and the summer of 2003 with numerous CIA officials as well as politicians, military officers and spies from all the countries involved except Russia. He identifies CIA officials only if their names have already been made public. Many of his most important interviews were on the record and he quotes from them extensively.
Among the notable figures who agreed to be interviewed are Benazir Bhutto, who is candid about having lied to American officials for two years about Pakistan’s aid to the Taliban, and Anthony Lake, the US national security adviser from 1993 to 1997, who lets it be known that he thought the CIA director James Woolsey was ‘arrogant, tin-eared and brittle’. Woolsey was so disliked by Clinton that when an apparent suicide pilot crashed a single-engined Cessna airplane on the south lawn of the White House in 1994, jokers suggested it might be the CIA director trying to get an appointment with the president.
The anti-Communist revolt that began at Herat in western Afghanistan in March 1979 originated in a government initiative to teach girls to read. The fundamentalist Afghans opposed to this were supported by a triumvirate of nations, the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, with quite diverse motives, but the US didn’t take these differences seriously until it was too late. By the time the Americans woke up, at the end of the 1990s, the radical Islamist Taliban had established their government in Kabul. Recognised only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it granted Osama bin Laden freedom of action and offered him protection from American efforts to capture or kill him. Coll concludes:
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.