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Riedel: The war against the Soviets in Afghanistan was run by Zia, not by us

Riedel: The war against the Soviets in Afghanistan was run by Zia, not by us

By Haley Parsons

Best Defense guest reporter

CIA veteran Bruce Riedel’s new book What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-89, is long in title and short in length. In 156 pages, Riedel lays out the story of a war that was fought entirely by other people and secretly supported by the CIA. In the time that it took to drive the Soviet 40th Red Army out of Afghanistan, the Agency suffered no casualties because no CIA officers ever operated inside the country.

During a recent discussion at the Brookings Institution between Riedel and Strobe Talbott, the Institution’s president, Riedel elaborated on the CIA’s role as “the quartermaster of the war,” a categorization made by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. What We Won outlines the roles of the different participants in the conflict, from the Soviet Union to the United States, Pakistan, and other countries supportive of the mujahideen, the Afghan Muslims who rebelled against Afghanistan’s Soviet-controlled government.

Riedel emphasized that the CIA never went into Afghanistan and did not train any of the mujahideen. “We had no casualties because we took no risks,” he stated, adding that the principle risks and sacrifices were taken by the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, provided the leadership, tactics, and strategy for the mujahideen. “I know you all think this was ‘Charlie Wilson’s War,’ but it wasn’t,” Riedel said, “It was Zia-ul-Haq’s.” Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the sixth president of Pakistan, was described by Riedel as a fervent, true believer of Islam. Zia trained and armed the mujahideen because of his conviction that it was “every Muslim’s duty to fight the godless, atheist, Communist menace and to drive it out of Afghanistan.”  Along with Pakistan, deeply Islamic Saudi Arabia was heavily involved in the war effort and matched the United States’ contributions dollar-for-dollar in public funds. Saudi Arabia also gathered an enormous amount of money for the Afghan mujahideen in private donations that amounted to about $20 million per month at their peak. 

Riedel drove home the scope of the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan order to emphasize another point: according to him, the notion that the CIA created al Qaeda is “bad history.” The war against the Soviets in Afghanistan “created the intellectual environment in which the global jihad emerged,” he explained, and al Qaeda did not receive training or financing from Americans. In his book Riedel describes key figures in the early global jihad, including Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian who wrote the religious edict Defense of the Muslim Lands. During the discussion at Brookings, Riedel called Azzam’s edict the functional equivalent for the global jihad what Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was for the American Revolution. The edict was written in 1979 and urges Muslims to wage violent jihad against non-Muslim, occupying forces in Afghanistan and Palestine. Riedel also discussed Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi Arabian who directly supported the mujahideen in the 1980s. With the ISI’s help, he built the mujahideen a state-of-the-art base inside of Afghanistan that included a hospital and miles of underground tunnels stocked with ammunition.

Of course, after the 40th Red Army was driven out of Afghanistan, bin Laden and Azzam founded al-Qaeda in order to continue their jihad. That the United States did not see the global jihad coming is in retrospect a clear failure, according to Riedel, but he tempered the statement by adding that taking a backward-looking approach is unfair to the people who were examining the situation at the time.  “We were lucky in the 1980s,” he said, “There was a bigger evil than America for true believers to fight.”

Haley Parsons is an intern with the New America Foundation’s International Security Program and a rising 3L at the Syracuse University College of Law.