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Lessons from the Hidden Afghan War
Most Americans don’t know much about what has been called "Charlie Wilson’s War," America’s secret war in Afghanistan. Engineered by the CIA during the 1980s, the Afghan mujahadeen fought a bloody proxy war against the former USSR after the USSR invaded Afghanistan in the late 1970s when Jimmy Carter was president. President Carter boycotted the 1980 Olympics as a public protest of the invasion, but the real protest was the subsequent secret Afghan war.
The United States saw the Afghan War as a way to suck the Red Army into a quagmire that would become "Russia’s Vietnam," draining the USSR of military capability and human and economic resources.
Colorful Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, a master backroom wheeler and dealer, set up the secret funding for the war, half of which was provided by Saudi Arabia, using Pakistan’s Intelligence Service to launder the US support to the Afghan mujahadeen. The best account of the US’s secret role in the Afghan war is a book by 60 Minutes producer George Crile who details Wilson’s amazing career and influence wielding which ultimately led to the USSR withdrawing from Afghanistan and soon thereafter collapsing with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Crile argues that Charlie Wilson’s war in many ways became the roots of modern terrorism since the Afghan war was fought with not only Afghanis, but a huge influx of Arab freedom fighters from all over the mideast to the jihad against the Russians. The CIA provided huge amounts of military equipment, training, tactics, reconnaissance, intelligence and communications to the Afghan fighters, all the while trying to disguise the support so that the Russians wouldn’t know of the US’s involvement.
At first the Red Army had a huge advantage over the Afghans because of their superior equipment, led by the lethal and heavily armored Hind helicopter gunships. But toward the end of the 80s, after many attempts to combat the Hinds had failed, the US designed and delivered the famous, inexpensive Stinger missiles and the Afghans started bringing down the Hinds in such numbers that their effectiveness was seriously curtailed. The Afghans also learned how to coordinate and conduct explosive ambushes of Red Army convoys, seriously restricting the Red Army’s movement in the already difficult Afghan terrain.
However, Crile’s book covers the Afghan War from only the US logistics and political standpoint, and doesn’t describe much of the fighting.
For the other side of the Afghan War one has to turn to Russian sources. Fortunately, there is at least one, with even a title which parallels Crile’s, "The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist’s Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan," by Artyom Borovik, written in 1990, shortly after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Afghan War was sold to the Russian people as a noble crusade against the "hirelings of imperialism [the Afghan freedom fighters] at the southern borders of our motherland." It was every Russian’s patriotic duty to support the war and to send their sons into battle where they would not only be courageous and brave, but would turn them into "staunch fighters for our communist faith."
There are competing and conflicting stories about why the USSR invaded Afghanistan. Some involve the personal foibles of nearly senile President Leonid Brezhnev, others cite geo-political factors involving extending USSR influence, or keeping Afghanistan from falling under the control of the US or Pakistan. Another theory suggested it was a Red Army and KGB plot to force the country to support the military, to test and demonstrate their weapons. Some US officials thought the USSR invaded to prevent an Islamic revolutionary fervor from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan, and across the USSR’s "southern belt."
Noting that "perestroika and glasnost" (restructuring and openness) became the reformist themes of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 at the height of the USSR’s Afghan war, Borovik quotes a senior Soviet general saying, "All the wars that Russia lost led to social reforms, while all the wars it won led to the strengthening of totalitarianism."
Borovik notes that the USSR’s state propaganda effort constantly portrayed the Afghan War as the country’s patriotic duty. But, slowly, the USSR came to realize that the war was entered into and continued based on lies, undermining the country’s image of itself as moral and upstanding.
"The war itself wasn’t the only thing that chipped away at our morality," says Borovik. "The official lies about the war, in newspapers and on television, also took a heavy toll. I’m not blaming the journalists themselves. Even when one of us tried to report the truth, the military censors masterfully made it into a lie."
Most of Borovik’s book is based on his own time there, along with first-person accounts of the war from soldiers and officers in the Red Army, describing the betrayal, incompetence, fearful, trigger-happy, grinding, violent, heroic, desperate, incompetent, seat-of-the-pants, deadly conditions combined with boredom interspersed with periods of horror, along with atrocities – similar to stories told by US Vietnam veterans – that the USSR leadership not only kept from the public at large in the USSR, but continued to portray in glowing terms.
Borovik describes the four phases that he says every Russian went through when they were sent to Afghanistan:
Phase one (first few months): The war is proceeding at a normal course. If only we can add another twenty or thirty thousand men, everything will be fine.
Phase two (a couple of months later): Since we’ve already gotten ourselves in this jam, we should get the fighting over with as quickly as possible. Adding another thirty thousand men isn’t going to do it. We need at least another army to shut off all the borders.
Phase three (more months later): There is something desperately wrong here. What a mess!
Phase four: We’d be wise to get the hell out of here — and the sooner the better.
In the nine years of war in Afghanistan, half a million Russian soldiers spent extended tours there. More than 15,000 Red Army soldiers died, according to the suspiciously low official estimates, more than 30,000 were permanently disabled. More than a million Afghans were estimated to have died.
Borovik’s book ends with this note from a Russian medical doctor named T.I. Kuznetsova: "The Afghan war was an evil gamble for the USSR. The lads died heroically, they were convinced they were defending the fatherland. They were totally deceived."