The South Asia Channel

The Wars of Afghanistan

Don’tShoot the Mailman "There are three ways to get into Afghanistan: through Russia, through Iran, and through Pakistan. You take your choice." Thesetimeless words were uttered to me by my friend, Frank Anderson, then(1991-1994) chief of the Near East and South Asia Division of the Directorateof Operations of the CIA (the division that ran covert ...

AFP/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Don’tShoot the Mailman

"There are three ways to get into Afghanistan: through
Russia, through Iran, and through Pakistan. You take your choice."

Thesetimeless words were uttered to me by my friend, Frank Anderson, then(1991-1994) chief of the Near East and South Asia Division of the Directorateof Operations of the CIA (the division that ran covert operations inAfghanistan during the Soviet War there) and one of my successors in theposition. His observation was not only his way of saying that this was thepreferred (and only) route for massive shipments of arms to the Afghan mujahideen in their resistance againstthe Soviets in the 1980’s. It also spoke of another verity: that Pakistan andits own intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI),held the high ground in this covert action operation — the CIA was only amailman.

Anumber of U.S. lawmakers, otherwise quite effective in helping provideadditional funding for this operation, were often unsympathetic to the idea ofrelying on Pakistan as the sole channel for arms. Some thought of themanifestly impractical option of air drops. Others, including somepolicymakers, thought that U.S. officials, especially in the CIA, failed to putenough pressure on the Pakistanis to compel them to send more arms to the"moderate" mujahideen and not to more hardline, fundamentalist commanders. Iwill come back to this later.

Pakistan’sIdentity Crisis

Inwhat is appearing more and more to have been an awful mistake, Pakistan wastorn away from the body politic of the Indian sub-continent in the 1947partition. Having rejected its former identity as part of India and itsgovernment institutions (and having to build new ones), and, more generally,having rejected its common Muslim and non-Muslim heritage, Pakistan’s defaultidentity has gradually moved, for many of its citizens, toward radicalIslamism.

Thisrejection of the pre-partition past has become all the more fraught with thesudden ascension of India as a world power while Pakistan has becomeincreasingly engulfed in sectarian and ideological violence. Whatever earlyambition Pakistan may have had of being a part of a group of regional Muslimnations coalescing with the aim of containing India, has long gone away. Thiscontrast with India is all the more poignant for Pakistan’s elites, especiallyits Punjabi elites, who have traditionally regarded themselves, as did many oftheir former colonial rulers, as the cream of the sub-continent’s peoples.

AatishTaseer, son of the former governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province murderedearlier this year by religious extremists, has summedup one of the psychological dynamics operating in Pakistan:

To understand the Pakistani obsession with India, to get a sense of its special edge – its hysteria – it is necessary to understand its rejection of India, its culture and past, that lies at the heart of the idea of Pakistan. This is not merely an academic question. Pakistan’s animus against India is the cause of both its unwillingness to fight Islamic extremism and its active complicity in undermining the aims of its ostensible ally, the United States. 

TheRevenge Factor

Inthe summer of 1979, Pakistan approached the U.S. for aid to the mujahideen intheir uprising against the recently installed Communist government. The resultwas a Presidential Finding of July 1979, signed by Jimmy Carter, authorizingthe CIA to provide non-lethal aid to the mujahideen. Immediately after theSoviet invasion at the end of the year, a new finding authorizing lethal aidwas signed.

Fromthe outset, CIA officers charged with carrying out the operation — at least Ican speak for myself — saw this as a golden opportunity for revenge: a chance toget back at the Soviets for what they had done to us earlier, in Vietnam, withtheir massive arms support to the North Vietnamese. In the end, and from thispoint of view, the operation in Afghanistan was a success: the Soviets, likethe Americans in Southeast Asia a decade earlier, had to leave the country theyoccupied. For the Soviets, it was a "one quarter Vietnam": 14,000 deathsagainst 58,000 American deaths in Vietnam. No American troops were engaged. Theend of the Cold War was hastened.

Whathappened in Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew in February 1989 hassometimes obscured the fact of this operation’s success. What happened in Afghanistanafter the Soviet withdrawal is the main focus of the bookunder review, Peter Tomsen’s The Warsof Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures ofGreat Powers.


Butit is not the only focus of this monumental, deeply pondered, and well writtenstudy. Ambassador Tomsen’s book is an account of the Afghan historicalexperience, with some epochs getting more detailed treatment than others. Asits title suggests, it is first and foremost a study of foreign interference inAfghanistan, from the 19th-century until today . The author getsinto the story himself at the time of the Soviet withdrawal from the country inFebruary 1989, more than half of the way through the book. At Congressional insistence,he is named special envoy to the Afghan mujahideen with the rank of Ambassador.The Embassy in Kabul is closed during the chaotic situation that accompaniedthe departure of the Soviets, leaving Tomsen to operate mainly out of theAmerican Embassy in Islamabad.

AmbassadorTomsen has poured his energy, his taste for research, and his own recollectionsinto an impressive brick of 849 pages, including footnotes and appendices.Anyone who wants to get up to speed on Afghanistan can profit from reading thisbook. It is particularly useful in presenting documentation from the Sovietside of the conflict (Tomsen was a former deputy chief of mission in Moscow andalso in Beijing). The documents show that the Soviets were as unsuccessful inknocking fractious Afghan heads together as the United States has been over thelast decade. The pleas of both superpowers for party unity among their proxiesfell (or have fallen) on deaf ears.

ButTomsen also has a point of view, one that can be quite strident and incessant.Here I would mention two of his contentions: firstly, that the CIA was thehandmaiden of the ISI, and supported Pakistan’s anti-American favorites amongthe mujahideen, notably Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, with the result that the CIA wasat times at cross-purposes with the policy arm of the U.S. Government; andsecondly that Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan was in the straight line offormer president Zia-al-Haq, who Tomsen describes as an out-and-out Islamistwho sought to establish a non-democratic and radically religious regime inKabul. I will treat these assertions one by one.

Asfor the issue of CIA support to anti-American mujahideen, most notablyHekmatyar, though it is repeatedly asserted by Tomsen, it is not in keepingwith the facts. Keeping in mind the CIA’s role as mailman, it is not realistic,as Tomsen asserts, that the U.S. could have put pressure on the Pakistanis tocease such a policy.

Tomsenaccompanies this charge with the repeated assertions of a CIA animus againstAhmad Shah Masood, whose troops, as well as those of Hekmatyar, were doing mostof the fighting among the seven mujahideen groups. Again, the evidence suggestsotherwise. Throughout the U.S. Government, including the CIA, there wasadmiration for Masood and quite the opposite for Hekmatyar, who was consideredunreliable and even treacherous.

Furthermore,Tomsen asserts that, "the United States should have supported its naturalallies, moderate-nationalist Afghans and traditional tribal structure." But theyardstick used was to give much of the weapons to the groups that were doingmost of the fighting. It was logical, at least in principle, that the groupsdoing most of the fighting (Hekmatyar and Masood) should receive the bulk ofthe arms aid, although it was clear that Masood, an ethnic Tajik, was not afavorite of the Pakistanis. The CIA devoted considerable efforts to confirmingwhich groups were doing effective fighting, and to finding ways to support themore moderate factions, especially Masood’s, despite severe logisticaldifficulties. 

CIAofficers, motivated by the revenge factor cited above, were interested inseeing the end of the Soviet protégé Mohammad Najib’s Government, which held onto power following the departure of Soviet troops in February 1989. The surestmeans to this end was to continue to support the joint operation with the ISI.In any event, U.S. military aid from the CIA through the ISI to the mujahideenended on January 1, 1992 with the coming into effect of the "negative symmetry"agreement, whereby the U.S. and the USSR (which had ceased to formally existwhen the treaty went into effect) agreed to stop military assistance to theirrespective proxies in Afghanistan.

Thosewho sought a mediated arrangement with the Soviets, aimed at a democraticsuccessor government to that of Najib, were playing with a weak hand: thepassive former King, Zahir Shah, and the royalist leaders among the mujahideen,Mojaddedi and Gailani. Among them was Peter Tomsen. In addition, this approachwas not generally supported by the Congress and ranking policymakers. In theend, the zero-sum mentality evident through much of the region prevailed, andthe opposing sides in the Afghan struggle for power could not agree on amediated settlement. Chaos ensued, and it was ended in 1996, after thePakistanis switched their sponsorship from Hekmatyar to Mullah Omar and theTaliban (though, as Tomsen points out on page 531, the ISI was involved in thecreation of the Taliban in 1994)

Therewere hardheads on both sides of the State-CIA divide, which Tomsen returns torepeatedly and which he tends to over-emphasize. Perhaps in a reflection of theadage, "where you stand is where you sit," Tomsen has this assessment of  "men of military or intelligence backgrounds,"as he describes the prelude to the most recent invasion of Afghanistan:

When President [George W.] Bush and his advisersgathered at Camp David…to chart America’s post-9/11 attack on the Taliban, theadvantages of exploiting the moderate-nationalist and traditional tribalmainstream in Afghanistan did not enter the discussion. Most of theparticipants were men of military or intelligence backgrounds with little or noknowledge of the Afghan context and the country’s tribal society. They did notcomment on a long-term post-conflict policy vision for Afghanistan or theregion. They stressed direct employment of American military power and covertaction.

Althoughthe moment called for action, it must be admitted that Tomsen was not entirelyoff the mark in his assessment.

Throughoutthe history of American intervention in Afghanistan since 1979, there hasgenerally been good cooperation between State and CIA, in no small measure dueto the fact that all hands at home — the Congress, the State Department, theCIA, Defense, and the White House — favored the covert action operation inAfghanistan against the Soviets. 

Andnow, turning back to Zia. As I indicated at the beginning of this review,Pakistan is a country of special origins, and special problems. As theresolution of the country’s identity conundrum moved it more and more towardIslamism (and quite contrary to the vision of its founder, Mohammad AliJinnah), Zia recognized the trend and went with it, but mainly to shore up hispolitical base. A devout Muslim, he did sponsor the growth of Islamic schools,or madrassas. But he was also just asmuch a Pakistani nationalist.

Theauthor’s disapproval of troubled and troubling Pakistan, and his criticism ofPakistani policy in Afghanistan as "unholy," is patent, and it gives the bookan unfortunate polemic tinge. But overall, this is a useful book, particularlyfor the period when the author describes his own contacts with many Afghanplayers as he tried to bring the conflict in Afghanistan to a negotiatedconclusion. The effort failed, but the account is instructive. The fractioustendencies in Afghan society were too strong. They remain so today.

Charles Cogan spent 37 yearsin the CIA’s operations directorate, and is now an associate at the HarvardKennedy School Belfer Center.