- Guillermo D. Olmo @BBCgolmo
- BBC News World
In the United States, they were even classified as “freedom fighters.” But calling them Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas might be more appropriate.
Afghan rebel groups resisted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan for years with the support of Washington, which provided them with weapons and money aimed at weakening the power of the Soviet Union, their rival superpower.
As revealed by intelligence documents, journalistic investigations and testimonies of protagonists years later, the US strategy was to make the Soviet Union find itself trapped in Afghanistan, in a morass that consumed lives, money and resources.
The purpose was to make the Soviets experience something similar to what the Americans experienced in the Vietnam War.
The American mission was called Operation Cyclone and the press described it as the “greatest covert operation in CIA history.”
In 1996, just eight years after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the Taliban conquered Kabul and imposed an Islamic fundamentalist regime condemned worldwide for its human rights violations.
How did the US contribute to the Taliban’s victory?
the origin of everything
In the spring of 1979, more than 30,000 US military troops, supported by planes and tanks, began their landing in Afghanistan with the support of the “revolutionary” government in Kabul.
A year earlier, the so-called Saur Revolution had established a socialist state in Afghanistan that faced growing resistance from local Islamic militias, formed by mujahedin, as they call, according to Islamic tradition, those who fight in the “holy war”.
Moscow wanted to support the Afghan socialist state and the pro-Soviet government of President Babrak Karmal, which was facing increasingly virulent armed mujahedin resistance.
Robert Crews, a historian specializing in Afghanistan at Stanford University, told BBC World that “the United States has been taken by surprise despite the fact that it has been competing with the Soviet Union for construction and infrastructure projects on Afghan soil since the 1950s” .
In this context, Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Adviser, and other advisers persuaded then-US President Jimmy Carter that a covert operation to equip and arm the insurgency would be a good idea.
Thus began one of the typical conflicts of the Cold War, in which the US and the Soviet Union competed for geopolitical dominance, but without facing each other directly on the battlefield. Each one supported distinct groups in wars of other countries, what in English is known as “proxy wars”.
Murad Shishani, BBC expert on militias and jihadists, explains that, in the conflict in Afghanistan, “the United States supported jihad (holy war) to defeat the Soviet enemy.”
How Operation Cyclone unfolded
At first, Operation Cyclone only supplied the rebels with obsolete Soviet-made weapons, such as AK-47 rifles, and was limited to recruiting volunteer fighters and funding from Arab countries.
“That way, Washington could deny participation,” says Crews. Saudi Arabia was one of the most active funders, but Anwar el-Sadat’s Egypt and other countries also contributed to the effort to support the mujahedin.
The plan called for the collaboration of Pakistan’s intelligence services, where several of the jihadist groups operated. An example of how they operated was given by US lawmaker Hub R. Reese, who revealed in 1988 that he had delivered 700 Tennessee mules to a military base in Kentucky for shipment to Pakistan.
US support for the mujahideen became more open with Ronald Reagan in the White House. An increasingly powerful lobby in Washington advocated stepping up aid to Islamic fighters, who complained that the weapons provided were not enough to rein in the Soviets.
In 1984, the US Congress passed a resolution on Afghanistan that stated that “it would be indefensible to provide freedom fighters with enough help just to fight and die, not to advance the cause of freedom.”
Reagan even welcomed a delegation of jihadist leaders to the White House, and in his 1986 State of the Union address on Capitol Hill, he left a message to the Afghan rebels: “You are not alone, freedom fighters. “.
But Reagan did something far more important. He approved handing over to the guerrillas portable Stinger missile launch units.
Hidden in the Afghan mountains, the guerrillas began shooting down Soviet helicopters and the balance of forces on the ground quickly changed.
Democratic Senator Charles Wilson, one of those who most actively advocated for a greater Washington presence in Afghanistan, said lawmakers were “astonished at Stinger’s success.”
In September 1988, after nine years of intervention, Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, which then went through a civil war between the different factions in the country and a government that , without the support of the Soviet Union, was not long in falling.
But did the Taliban benefit from US support?
“There is a conspiracy theory that says the US supported the Taliban movement to benefit from what came after,” says Murad Shishani. “But that is not the case.”
In fact, the Taliban did not appear until 1994 in the Afghan city of Kandahar, where they soon gained popularity by posing as student-warriors. Its ranks were formed by ethnic Pashtun youth educated in religious schools in Pakistan who preached a conservative interpretation of the Koran.
“When the Taliban emerged, the Soviet government had already fallen, but it is true that some of the leaders who founded it were among the warlords who received US help in the war against the Soviet Union,” says Shishani.
Winning the Soviet Union was the great aim of the United States. As Shishani recalls, the “jihadist term did not have the negative connotations that were later acquired” by the bloody action of groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
“The United States supplied Afghanistan with weapons, but in reality many countries did this,” he said.
Robert Crews of Stanford University recalls that when it emerged in Kandahar, the Taliban presented themselves as “a pure new force that wanted to fight everything that went before.” He says the group’s early leaders were not among the main recipients of US aid.
However, the Taleban’s success came, in part, from its promises to restore order and establish a pure, traditional Islamic regime. Therefore, the group benefited from a climate of insecurity and disorder fueled by American support for Islamist insurgents. And, in the words of Crews, “US aid and victory over the Soviet Union had contributed to creating a kind of jihadist utopia.”
What is the balance of Operation Cyclone?
The withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan was seen as a preamble to the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. And in the 1990s, the United States experienced the heyday of its power as a power, until China’s later rise.
Robert Gates, a former US secretary of defense and a CIA official when Operation Cyclone was conceived, years later wrote a book about presidents who “won the Cold War.”
But as the Cold War drew to a close, the Afghan civil war continued to leave thousands dead in a country that was no longer a priority in US geopolitical plans.
“In the Afghan civil war, Washington opted for silence, including with regard to human rights violations by mujahideen groups that the US had supported,” says Crews.
The expert compares support for the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan to the support given by the US to other armed movements that fought against leftist governments in other countries at the same time, such as the one that fought against the Sandinista Front in Nicaragua.
For Crews, this policy reveals that, “for the elites and Washington, the populations of other countries are just instruments to achieve their interests”.
The originators of Operation Cyclone never showed signs of regret. Former adviser Brzezinski made this clear in an interview with the French newspaper “Le Nouvel Observateur”.
When asked if he regretted supporting the jihadists, he replied with another question: “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire?”
Have watched our new videos on YouTube? Subscribe to our channel!