Blasts from the past

The weaponry the Taliban could turn on us may be our own, the relics of a $7 billion Cold War campaign.

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In January of 1980, just weeks after the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan in support of a puppet government, U.S. intelligence agencies were quietly working with international arms brokers to set up a weapons pipeline to back rebels fighting the government in Kabul.

One top-secret memo sent to the CIA from a team of London-based dealers at the time proposed a worldwide hunt for arms, and the establishment of a “Rear Base Area” outside Afghanistan from where they would be ferried to the insurgents as needed.

“The Sponsor’s role must be held in complete confidence and utmost security must be exercised in all aspects of the proposed operation,” reads the six-page memo, heretofore unpublished. And this memo marked the start of what would become the biggest covert operation in American history: the arming of the mujahedin guerrillas that drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.

Between 1979 and 1991, the United States and a few foreign collaborators spent some $7 billion on the Afghan program, much of it to buy arms. The money also helped train 80,000 fighters, including radicals from the Middle East who came to join the jihad against the Soviet Union.

Now, as the U.S. prepares for war, American troops may face one-time allies armed in part with weapons sent to them by the U.S. government, as they have in the past in places such as Somalia, Panama and Iraq. How dangerous are these weapons that may be turned around to face us? Military and intelligence experts say it’s difficult to tell, and much will depend on what sort of military operation the government undertakes. But particular weapons — such as U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles — that made it impossible for the Soviets to dislodge Afghan fighters from their mountainous retreats could prove just as threatening now.

The covert arming of the mujahedin began under President Jimmy Carter, who argued that Russian control of Afghanistan threatened the Arabian Sea, the oil lifeline of the West. U.S. Army Intelligence took the lead role, as the CIA was still reeling from revelations about its involvement in the coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile, its attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro and its illegal spying on U.S. citizens. In response, Carter’s CIA director, Stansfield Turner, had fired 800 agents, thereby leaving the agency badly uninformed about the international arms market.



Under Army auspices, arms dealers linked to the U.S. bought the mujahedin land mines, grenades, machine guns and thousands of Russian-made surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), the latter of which were acquired from Poland by bribing military officials who oversaw defense stocks.

By 1982, the year after Ronald Reagan took office, the CIA had already taken over the program from the Army. Though Reagan called the rebels “freedom fighters,” few within the government had any illusions about the forces that the United States was backing. The mujahedin fighters espoused a radical brand of Islam — some commanders were known to have thrown acid in the faces of women who refused to wear the veil — and committed horrific human rights violations in their war against the Red Army. (Of course, neither were the Russians zealous adherents to the Geneva Convention. They razed entire villages, burned crops and liberally targeted civilians.)

In the Machiavellian world of national security, though, little thought was given to the morality of our allies. “No one expected we were going to be great buddies with the muj,” says a former CIA officer involved in procuring weapons for the rebels. “They were the best means to an end, which was to bleed the Soviet Union.”

One former Army officer turned arms dealer who helped supply the rebels is equally forthright. “We didn’t care about Afghanistan itself — it was just a bunch of rocks up there in the desert,” says John Miley. “Arming the mujahedin was an opportunity to give the Russians a black eye, and their victory hastened the downfall of the Soviet Union. No one could have foreseen that the Taliban would end up running the place.”

The CIA helped set up an elaborate covert arms pipeline to support the rebels. The agency and the Saudi government paid for the weapons, which were shipped to supply depots in Pakistan. From there, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), the powerful Pakistani intelligence agency, sent the weapons across the border for distribution to the rebels.

The Afghan opposition ranged from the moderate to the militant, and the latter received the bulk of the military aid. The reason, says Charles Norchi, an Afghanistan expert and professor of international law at Sarah Lawrence College, is that Pakistani intelligence had a central role in doling out the arms. “Americas policy interests were Soviet-focused,” he says. “Pakistans were India-focused, favoring a strong Islamic state on its northern border.”

The largest recipient of covert U.S. aid was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was described in a 1985 congressional study as “a relatively young leader often compared to the Ayatollah Khomeini in his intense ideological fundamentalism.” Hekmatyar was virulently hostile to the West as well as to the Soviets. It was obvious that the people we were supporting were fanatics but nobody wanted to hear it because we were winning the war,” says Jack Blum, special counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee between 1987 and 1989.

The Pakistanis also handled military training and political indoctrination for the rebels, including large numbers who came from the Middle East. Among them was the wealthy Saudi Osama bin Laden, who eventually raised substantial funding for the anti-Soviet forces.

During the course of the Afghan war, the CIA sent the rebels billions of dollars worth of weapons. That included Russian assault rifles (about 400,000), Italian anti-personnel mines, Swiss anti-aircraft guns, Egyptian mortars, British surface-to-air missiles, Chinese rockets — even pack mules from Tennessee, used to help transport the arms to the mujahedin over the mountainous terrain.

The Red Army’s most important weapons in the war were helicopter gunships, which allowed the Russians to attack guerrilla forces even in remote strongholds. After much debate, the CIA in 1986 shipped the rebels hundreds of portable U.S.-made Stinger missiles, which ultimately changed the course of the war by giving the mujahedin the ability to challenge the previously impervious Russian helicopter pilots.

In February of 1989, the Russians were finally driven out of Afghanistan and three years later the mujahedin overthrew the government the Soviets left in place. It wasn’t long, however, before the various rebel factions turned on each other, and the country fell into complete chaos. By now, though, the United States was no longer interested in Afghanistan. “Once the Soviets left, we walked away,” says Norchi. “We left behind a failed state and a terrible human rights situation, which set the stage for what followed.”

What followed was a steady string of military victories by the Taliban — an organization that arose in the vacuum created by American withdrawal, and who received that support from the Pakistanis and the Saudis — culminating in its capture of Kabul in September of 1996. The Taliban currently control about 90 percent of the national territory — the Northern Alliance, a rebel group that may prove vital to the Bush administration’s military plans, controls the rest — and enforce their rule through the Department for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice.

Since driving out the Russians, mujahedin alumni have staged various attacks on American targets. These include Mir Aimal Mansi, who in 1993 killed two CIA employees outside the agency’s headquarters; Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the alleged mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center; and three of the four Saudis who used a truck bomb to blow up a U.S. Army building in Riyadh in 1995. Jihad veterans — and guerrilla fighters trained at camps established by the Taliban in Afghanistan — have also been active in at least a dozen other countries, ranging from Algeria and Bosnia to Uzbekistan and Yemen.

U.S. officials and covert operators who planned and carried out the Afghan operation offer no apologies for their activities. Milt Bearden, a former CIA officer who worked from Pakistan during the Afghan war, belittles the idea that the U.S. created the problem that it now confronts. “Theres always ‘blowback,’ if that means unintended consequences,” he says. “Assisting Joe Stalin fight the Third Reich also had unintended consequences, but we’d do the same thing again. In Afghanistan, we helped people who were being systematically slaughtered by the Soviets, and that was a good thing to do.”

And what of all the weapons the CIA poured into Afghanistan during the 1980s? Jane’s, the British defense publication, estimates that the Taliban has 45,000 armed men, 650 tanks, 76 aircraft and large quantities of small arms. Much of their arsenal was captured from the Soviet army as it retreated from Afghanistan. The Taliban have also bought significant amounts of new weaponry since then, much of it obtained on the international black market — with the help of Pakistani middlemen buying arms from Chinese manufacturers in Hong Kong and from dealers in Dubai, according to a recent report from Human Rights Watch. (The same report says that Pakistan’s ISI, our old Cold War friend, “contribute to making the Taliban a highly effective military force” by bankrolling its operations, helping train its fighters and planning and directing offensives.)

At the same time, the Taliban has certainly ended up with large amounts of the small arms that the CIA sent during the war years. Tara Kartha, an arms specialist at the New Dehli-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, wrote a paper last year in which she said that Afghanistan was flooded with so much weaponry during the Cold War — she estimates that it currently has more light weapons flowing within its borders than India and Pakistan combined — that it has become a “weapons warehouse” for much of South Asia.

In particular, U.S. military planners are highly concerned about the Stinger missiles that the mujahedin used so successfully against Soviet pilots. Indeed, the CIA was so worried that the Taliban might use a Stinger — or sell one to a terrorist organization — to shoot down a civilian plane, that in the mid-1990s it allocated $55 million to try to buy them back on the international black market. For the same reason, commercial airlines have avoided flying over Afghanistan for years.

The CIA’s program has reportedly not had much success, though it’s not clear just how many Stingers the Taliban might have, at least operational models. Even if stored correctly, the missile’s battery pack only lasts for five or six years, which means that the Taliban would have needed to find replacement packs through the black market, or improvised, in order to have any that can now be used.

Jane’s magazine estimates that the Taliban have at least a few functional Stingers, an assessment shared by independent sources, including Andrew Gembara, a former U.S. Army special forces officer who is familiar with Afghanistan. He fears that mujahedin veterans may have already smuggled Stingers — or old Russian SAMs, which are of limited use against modern military aircraft but deadly against a 747 — into the United States. “The missile for a SAM is slightly bigger than a baseball bat,” he says. “The Stingers are somewhat larger but you could put one in a car trunk or a truck.”

A final problem for any invasion force involves the CIA-sponsored guerrilla instruction provided to Afghan rebels during the 1980s. “We trained them to take out Russian helicopters in the mountains and also how to set up launchers around Russian airfields, and shoot down aircraft as it took off,” says Gembara. “That sort of knowledge could prove very useful to them now.”

Perhaps the larger problem stems from the broader issue of the legacy of our Cold War policy in Afghanistan, and its sole preoccupation with “bleeding” the Soviets. “The Afghans are a wonderful people and they really could have been our friends, but in a way we used them,” says Gembara. “That’s what is going to come back to haunt us.”

Ken Silverstein is a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine and an Open Society fellow. Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

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