The South Asia Channel

What We Won

Bruce Reidel, What We Won: America's Secret War in Afghanistan 1979-89 (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2014).

Bruce Reidel, a former CIA intelligence officer, has written a very serious book about a critical period in history to which he was an eyewitness. The 1979-1989 Afghan War marks a transition point, though it was not recognized as such at the time, between the end of the Soviet Union as an existential threat to the United States and its allies and the beginning of the struggle against Islamic extremism that has occupied security services since at least the mid-1990s, and decisively so since 9/11.

The book -- What We Won: America's Secret War in Afghanistan 1979-89 -- and this period begin with a new regime in Afghanistan, brought about by the Afghan Communist Party's coup in April 1978. The Communist regime immediately began a transformative project in the country, beginning with marriage (setting minimum ages and restricting the use of dowries) and land reform. But within six months, the Pashtun east, Shiite Hazara center, and Tajik northeast were all in revolt. Open rebellion soon followed with large-scale army desertions, as well as palace intrigue, and the original coup leader, Nur Muhammad Taraki, smothered to death on the orders of the new prime minister, Hafizullah Amin. As the situation continued to deteriorate, the Soviets invaded on Christmas Eve 1979, to the great surprise of the American intelligence community and policymakers.

The Soviet invasion sent shock waves through not one, but two communities. It was seen as yet another example of Soviet expansionism in the West, but also as a war against Islam by many Muslim-majority states, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (the former was also concerned about the Soviets wanting their warm-water port in Baluchistan). The Afghan War would create an unusual coalition between the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in support of the Afghan resistance fighters, soon to be universally known as the mujahideen.

Reidel says up front it was the Afghan mujahideen who "did the bulk of the fighting and the dying." The Pakistanis provided a safe haven for the fighters and a direction for the war, while the Saudis provided funding and volunteers, and the United States provided weapons and public support.

The United States was the "quartermaster" of the Afghan War, in this account, pushing supplies -- most famously Stinger anti-aircraft missiles -- to the mujahideen. Reidel believes the military changes made possible by these missiles were influential in Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to "find a way out" of the conflict. Blunting the Soviet Union's last offensive in 1987 -- just as the Stingers and French Milan anti-tank missiles began arriving in large numbers -- demonstrated to Gorbachev that there was no military solution in Afghanistan.

Riedel also goes into great detail about Pakistan's role as the dominant puppet-master of the war. According to him, only Pakistan's powerful intelligence arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had access to the mujahideen leaders; Americans were simply permitted "photo ops." The ISI "decided the pace of the war, which leaders got what weapons, and what the targets were." Directing a proxy war against the Soviets was not without costs for Pakistan, as they weighed the possibility of their own Soviet invasion, perhaps (they feared) in concert with India. But Pakistan decided to accept the risk. In Reidel's own telling, the war was not so much Charlie Wilson's, but Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq's, Pakistan's military dictator.

Meanwhile the Saudis did provide needed funding -- if from private and not official government coffers -- at a key time. 1979 was a critical year for the kingdom, with its internal stability at a nadir. Providing support to the Afghan War -- portrayed as an attack on Islam by "atheistic communists" -- gave Saudi Arabia added legitimacy against some of its fundamentalist critics.

The role of the foreign volunteers in the Afghan War -- most either Saudi or facilitated by the Saudis -- receives great attention from Reidel. He is quite insistent on fighting what he considers the "bad history" that the 9/11 attacks were an "unintended consequence" of the United States' involvement in the fighting. Instead, if there is causality, Reidel attributes it to the Soviets, stating that the foreign fighters who joined the Afghan mujahideen did so to fight the aforementioned "atheistic communists," and that this phenomenon was totally independent of any decisions made in the United States or Saudi Arabia. That the fighters were drawn by the Soviet invasion may be true, but it still evades the question of why there was a large pool of fairly extreme Islamists to draw from in the first place.

Reidel then goes on to draw a number of lessons from the United States' "Secret War," but eventually boils the key lessons down to three -- have an incompetent enemy (his list of Soviet errors is long), manage your alliances carefully (the United States shared -- and shares -- few common values with either Pakistan or Saudi Arabia), and have a competent and dedicated proxy force. Or, as Reidel restates it: "the right enemy, the right allies, and a determined and patient insurgency."

These may be key lessons as the United States now faces a dissimilar, yet equally imminent threat from the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). That our allies in this fight may share few of our other values is a hard but necessary pill to swallow. While in one case the insurgent group is being supported and in the other opposed, the parallels are nonetheless striking to this reviewer.

The turn to ISIL also reminds us that the Afghan War did indeed mark the transition from the Warsaw Pact to Islamic extremism as the United States' most pressing security threat. If Reidel is correct that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was behind these networked extremists, then we have yet one more item for which to blame the Soviet state. Yet regardless of the causality, the Afghan War remains the transition point between these two critical threats, and to that end, Reidel has done a great service in drawing our attention back to it. We can only hope that further study will bring yet further lessons, particularly as more documents from Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan become available to future researchers.

Douglas A. Ollivant is an ASU Future of War Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, as well as a Managing Partner of Mantid International, LLC.. Follow him on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant.