Julian Assange has done America a service by releasing the new "Pentagon Papers" on Afghanistan. He reveals to a citizenry that has been left in the dark about the true nature of the war just what is going on. To the historian, the American predicament (and inevitable defeat) is foreshadowed by the Soviet experience. That the Obama administration "surged" this losing battle, embraced a two-faced Pakistan, and kept the Bush-era nation-building going (to the tune of $7 billion/month) despite all of the sobering news delivered by Wikileaks is astounding.
To see how this draggletailed war will end, let us consult the Soviet playbook, which has become ours. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979. The invasion was designed to place Moscow closer to the Persian Gulf oil fields, but also -- in common with US efforts today -- to strike a mortal blow against Islamic fundamentalism, which had begun to creep into Russia's southern 'stans. Like us, the Soviets pushed modern ideas: they abolished sharia, unveiled women, introduced co-ed classrooms, redistributed land, built schools and medical clinics, and expanded roads and infrastructure. They abolished the Afghan tricolor flag because it was striped with Muslim green.
The Afghan provinces rebelled against this assault on tradition. Mujahideen (read Taliban) fled across the 1,400-mile border with Pakistan and armed themselves in safe havens staked out by the I.S.I. Pakistan's leader, General Zia-ul-Haq (read Musharraf) considered the insurgency a marvelous opportunity to rake in American dollars ($3.2 billion after the Soviet invasion), prove his Islamic credentials to Pakistan's Muslims, and create strategic depth against the surrounding Soviets and Indians. Riven between rich and poor, Pakistan might be reinvented on a more enthusiastic basis by the embrace of "political Islam" and holy war.
Four years later, C.I.A. Director Bill Casey briefed President Reagan on the progress of the Afghan insurgency. The mujahideen had surpassed all expectations. They had clawed back 62 percent of Afghanistan, killed and wounded 17,000 Soviet troops, shot down 400 Soviet aircraft, destroyed 2,750 Soviet tanks and armored vehicles, and torched 8,000 Soviet trucks and jeeps. At a conservative estimate, the war had cost Moscow about $45 billion (in 2010 dollars) in direct costs alone; its price would surge if the Kremlin tried to reverse the skid. Casey told Reagan that the Red Army would have to triple or quadruple its troop deployments in Afghanistan to have any hope of beating the mujahideen.
The Soviet war in Afghanistan was essentially over by 1985. American and Saudi aid to the mujahideen had stymied the Red Army, and a surging heroin and opium trade was filling the coffers of the mujahideen with home-grown revenues as well. Fifty-four year-old Mikhail Gorbachev (read Obama) downgraded Afghanistan from a "socialist country" to a "developing" one, and vowed to get out. At a Kremlin meeting in November 1986, he voiced his exasperation: "People ask, 'what are we doing there?' Will we be there endlessly? Or should we end this war?" Even with 115,000 troops in Afghanistan, there was no end in sight. Gorbachev impatiently lowered the bar for success in Afghanistan. Moscow would now be content with a "neutral country" on its southern border. There would be no more talk of "democratic republics." Gorbachev set a timeline for withdrawal, a year, or two at the most, and then "get out of there," as he put it. Since the mujahideen refused to negotiate with Babrak Karmal (read Karzai) -- a discredited puppet figure -- the Soviets brusquely demoted him and installed thirty-nine year-old Muhammed Najibullah in his place. "Najib the Bull" -- twenty years younger than Karmal -- was ordered to get the Afghan house in order with an energetic program of "national reconciliation" and prepare for life without Soviet Special Forces and occupation troops. Gorbachev resented the continuing American aid to the insurgents. Instead of recognizing that the Soviets -- who had rotated a million troops through Afghanistan -- would naturally insist on stability in their southern regions, the Reagan administration seemed determined to continue and even intensify the jihad. "The U.S. has set itself the goal of disrupting a settlement in Afghanistan by any means," Gorbachev protested in December 1986.
Casey was hell-bent on disruption. If the Soviets were trying to secularize the Afghans (or the Yemenis or any of their other clients), the U.S. would counter by funding religious zealotry. Casey increasingly outsourced the war to the Pakistani I.S.I. Director: "he is completely involved in the war and certainly knows better than anyone else about his requirements. We simply have to support him." It was an eyes-tight-shut strategy, which the Pakistanis exploited by inserting silver-tongued I.S.I. "barbarian handlers" between the Americans and their mujahideen clients. When Casey insisted in 1984 that he be taken to the Afghan frontier to look at mujahideen camps, the I.S.I., fearing the impression the real camps would make on Casey, hurriedly built a fake one in the hills behind Islamabad, staffed it with model freedom fighters, then drove Casey around in circles all night -- simulating a drive to the tribal areas -- before depositing him in the bogus camp before daybreak. Casey was impressed, his belief in the efficacy of jihad confirmed. Congressman Charlie Wilson and Casey secured a stunning expansion of funding for the mujahideen by reaching into the Pentagon budget and diverting unused dollars. When matched by the Saudis, the annual aid surged to $700 million in 1986. Historians looking back for the roots of the Taliban and al-Qaeda can find some in that flood of cash, which armed and empowered the proselytizing I.S.I. generals, as well as jihadis like Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The last has been extensively exposed in the newly released Wikileaks papers. Hekmatyar - sustained by Iranian and Pakistani money -- drifts today between Iran and Pakistan, and coordinates the purchase and delivery of North Korean and Iranian weapons that the Taliban uses to kill U.S., coalition and Afghan troops.
As Gorbachev admitted defeat and prepared to leave Afghanistan, a younger Robert Gates warned that the country was going to implode into civil war and extremism. "No one should have had any illusions about these people coming together -- before or after a Soviet defeat," he wrote. The mujahideen armies were girding for civil war -- and the failed state that would fledge the Taliban -- even as they administered the death blows to the Soviet army in Afghanistan.
Bin Laden moved his family to Pakistan as the Soviets loosened their grip. He rented a two-story house in Peshawar and began organizing in a way that alarmed even his Pakistani mentors. He and his Egyptian sidekick, Ayman al-Zawahiri, now denigrated the Afghan war as a mere "incubator" for bigger campaigns to come in Europe and the U.S. As a parting gift to Najibullah, the Soviets launched a sequence of attacks in 1987 (read Kandahar operation) to rub out as many mujahideen as they could and pinch off the supply lines to Pakistan before they departed. One of their offensives - with 200 ground troops supported by airstrikes and a hailstorm of cluster-bomblets -- struck at Jaji, Osama bin Laden's Arab-only redoubt near Khost. There, in a week of combat, the legend of Osama was born. Although bin Laden, with his soft hands and weak smile, had been late into combat (visiting the front for the first time in 1984), he and fifty Arab fighters held off four times as many Red Army regulars and Spetsnaz operators for a week before retiring. Fortified with regular insulin injections for his diabetes, bin Laden fought and was wounded in the foot. Though sheltered by a massive C.I.A.-funded tunnel complex fitted with bunkers and hospital beds, he sedulously manufactured the cult of personality that would make him a household name. When the smoke cleared over Jaji, Osama produced a fifty-minute video, showing him leading troops, directing fire, briefing Arab volunteers, and scampering along mountain tracks on horseback. Bin Laden distributed the video to sympathetic Arab journalists, and posted copies around the Arab world. He twinned this media strategy -- to leverage his little Afghan militia into a worldwide movement -- with a chilling new goal. He would, as his Egyptian follower Zawahiri put it, "hit the snake on the head," which was to say, move past the fading Russians to strike the Americans.
At this critical juncture, Washington lost control of bin Laden forever. With Reagan aging and losing his grip on affairs, Casey dead from a stroke, Congress and the press asking awkward questions about about Iran-Contra, Zia's martial law regime reluctantly liberalizing and shuffling I.S.I. directors, the Afghan portfolio flopped open and scattered its pages. Najibullah had made a good faith effort to bind up Afghanistan's wounds, erase the Soviet experiment (and presence), bring home the 2 million refugees in Pakistan and Iran, and blend the traditional and fundamentalist strains in Afghan society to restore "normal political life." Washington took no hand in that all-important end game other than to cast a distracted glance -- in 1987 -- at Reagan's radical protegés in Afghanistan. Although the Arab Afghans -- the "brigade of strangers" circulating in Peshawar -- were still a relatively unknown danger, many analysts and congressmen were incensed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's refusal to travel to Washington to sit down with Reagan and the other American "infidels" who had been bankrolling and arming him for seven years. Milton Bearden, who ran the C.I.A. field office in Afghanistan, defended the tilt toward the Islamists -- which was much more pronounced than revealed in congressional audits because of all the secret Saudi funding -- in the usual way. The Islamists -- Hekmatyar and the Arabs -- killed Russians, and the secularists didn't. The C.I.A., Bearden fumed, was not going to entrust its jihad "to some liberal arts jerkoff."
In September 1987, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze had a remarkable meeting with his American counterpart -- George Shultz -- in Washington. "We will leave Afghanistan," Shevardnadze conceded. The Soviets had poured scarce billions into the country; they admitted to 20,000 dead, but the real number was probably four times that. The timeline to leave was five to twelve months. Gorbachev had authorized Shevardnadze to "associate the United States with the political solution" for Afghanistan, to help build a successor government that would hold back the Pakistani-fostered Islamists. Shultz did nothing with the offer. When Gorbachev invited Vice President Bush to co-write the last act in Afghanistan -- to "avoid a bloody war in the country" -- Bush too failed to stir. Both Bush and Shultz were hemmed in by Reagan administration "group-think" on the Soviets, and did not want to appear "soft." Soviet warnings about the dangers of Islamic radicalism and the global threat posed by Afghanistan's mujahideen armies were discounted in the White House and the C.I.A. Inside Afghanistan, the mujahideen cemented their victory not by joining Najibullah's Commission for National Reconciliation, but also by assassinating its leaders and delegates.
Lunching with K.G.B. Director Vladimir Kryuchkov in December 1987, acting C.I.A. Director Robert Gates heard Kryuchkov's warning that the U.S. was holding the stirrups in Afghanistan for the rise of a Sunni equivalent of the Shiite regime in Iran. Because two-thirds of the mujahideen had been fundamentalists, they had received most of the billions in U.S. and Saudi subsidies delivered over the course of the struggle. Killers and bigots like Hekmatyar and bin Laden had used that money not only to kill Russians, but also to build networks for the future. That explained their unwillingness to join Najibullah in reconciling the Afghan factions. They had no interest in Najibullah's moderate vision -- a return of King Zahir Shah from exile, a separation of religious and political Islam, private enterprise, women's rights, a jihad against illiteracy, and land reform -- they wanted a jihad against Westerners, Najibullah's overthrow, and an Islamic republic where sharia would be strictly observed. "You seem fully occupied in trying to deal with just one fundamentalist Islamic state," Kryuchkov said, alluding to Khomeini's Iran. Another one, in Afghanistan, could be just as dangerous, or even more so. Bin Laden and the other Arab jihadis were inculcating a weird cult of death and martyrdom in Afghanistan that frightened even the war-calloused Afghans. With the Soviets beaten, the Arab Afghans were stockpiling unused cash and arms, and -- under bin Laden and Zawahiri -- creating "the base" -- al-Qaeda -- for a worldwide assault on the West, "to lift the word of God and make His religion victorious."
Al-Qaeda, formally created in 1988 as a conglomerate of Islamist terrorist cells in twenty-six countries, planned "to establish the truth, get rid of evil, and establish an Islamic nation." Bin Laden considered the U.S. a "crocodile," the Arab world "a helpless child." By the late 1980s, he spoke publicly of killing Americans. Vietnam had killed nearly 60,000 Americans and provoked anti-war demonstrations. To get the Americans out of Arab affairs -- in Lebanon, Palestine and the Persian Gulf -- bin Laden proposed more killing: "the Americans won't stop... until we give them a lot of blows." But Washington still took little notice of apparent lunatics like bin Laden, and Gates considered Kryuchkov's offer of cooperation in Afghanistan to be a deception, and brushed it off. Washington was busy managing the collapse of Soviet power in Europe, owed in no small part to Moscow's investment in the fruitless Afghan War, as well as the end of the Iran-Iraq War in the Persian Gulf. Afghanistan seemed like a sideshow by comparison. Moreover, with its seven warring political parties and innumerable sects and factions, Afghanistan was just too complicated. It was also a mess: 1.3 million Afghans had died in the nine-year war with the Soviets, 1.5 million had become disabled (by landmines and promiscuous Soviet fire) a third of the population had migrated to refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran, and much of the remaining population had flooded into relatively safe cities like Kabul, which filled up with slums and shanties. Ten years of Soviet attacks had smashed roads, schools and houses, and poisoned wells, irrigation systems and farmland. With other matters to deal with and the Soviets gone, Washington defaulted to the strategy that had rooted out the Soviets -- Saudi subsidies and "the de facto promotion of Pakistani goals as carried out by Pakistani intelligence." No one in Washington gave Afghanistan much thought as the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Those who did generally reckoned that even if Afghanistan did fall apart, it would make sense to let the U.N., the Saudis and the Pakistanis -- regional experts and U.S. allies -- put the country back together.
The smash-up of Soviet hopes is now our smash-up. The bloody denouement of the 1990s is well-known. With no superpower holding the bag, Afghanistan collapsed into a vicious sectarian war that was eventually won by the Taliban. President Clinton briefly favored the Taliban as the only force capable of uniting Afghanistan and walling it off from Russian or Iranian influence. The Taliban were Sunnis, efficient, anti-Iranian, anti-Russian, and only too willing to authorize the construction (by the Union Oil Company of California) of a $2.5 billion gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, across Afghanistan to Pakistan. Unocal's 900-mile pipeline would have given U.S. investors access to Turkmenistan's gas (11 percent of world reserves), powered the Indian subcontinent, and sneaked the rich prize of what Turkmen were calling "the second Kuwait" onto world markets without a single dollar sticking to Russian or Iranian fingers. But even with rich incentives like that, the pro-Unocal Taliban regime became too hot to handle in the 1990s by its massacres and ethnic cleansing, its links to transnational terrorists, and its repression of women. The last offense was by no means trivial in American eyes; Clinton had appointed Madeleine Albright secretary of state for his second term and pledged that "concerns related to women will be incorporated into the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy." The Taliban, who liked to say that "the only two places for an Afghan woman are in her husband's house and the graveyard," were certainly going to lose Albright's fight, with or without a pipeline. Still safe in his Afghan redoubt, bin Laden began to plan the attack on the U.S.S. Cole as well as the 9/11 operation.
Just as the Soviets had no appetite and cash for peacekeeping after their departure, we'll have none either. It will be like the retreat from Vietnam -- weakness magnified by humiliation and anger -- and the Taliban will rapidly consolidate their victory. It's time for President Obama to start planning for that outcome. Vice President Biden was not so foolish after all when he pushed back against the Pentagon and the cabinet and called for mere counter-terrorism operations instead of the counter-insurgency and continued investment in Karzai's hated, rotten state. The Afghan security forces will fall apart after we leave, and the weapons we have provided them will fall into Taliban hands. We need to bypass Karzai and begin looking for capable allies in Afghanistan. The war will go on, but without the happy ending of the Bush "freedom agenda." Afghanistan will be another Somalia or Yemen: a sanctuary for terrorists. Iranian Shiite influence will wane, as will Pakistan's, as Pakistani Taliban attacks on Islamabad accelerate. This will be one more front for us to manage, not master. Afghanistan is a place to watch, not transform.
Dr. Geoffrey Wawro is the General Olinto Mark Barsanti Professor of Military History and Director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas. He is the author of Quicksand: America's Pursuit of Power in the Middle East (Penguin Press, 2010.)