FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Cheney’s Bagram Ghosts

by ROGER MORRIS

“I heard a loud boom,” Vice President Dick Cheney remembered of the suicide bomb at Bagram air base outside Kabul where he stopped over this week. Said to be aimed at Cheney himself, the attack left him untouched while killing twenty-one Afghan workers and two Americans-still more casualties in Afghanistan’s thirty-year, million-and-a-half-dead civil war.

In that setting, one hopes Cheney heard symbolically more than a “boom.” Bagram thunders with relevant ghosts, many of them American.

In the fourth century B.C. it was a fort in one of the first of so many ill-fated attempts to subdue the Afghans. Even Alexander’s campaign-hardened Macedonians were shocked when the local insurgents left battlefield dead to devouring wild dogs. For ancient Afghans it was religious practice, but for invaders a telling mark of a people capable at once of tender poetry and chivalrous hospitality along with the most ferocious, indomitable resistance to conquest.

Bagram was a mocking ruin as Britain came and went in the nineteenth century to parry imperial Russia in the Great Game. The English killed, tortured, bribed, and subverted the Afghans, and in the end, like Alexander’s legions, left their bones to bleach at Gandamak and on the stony plain of Maiwand west of Kandahar. They left, too, the Durand Line dividing Afghanistan from the subcontinent. Cut for colonial convenience through the heart of Pashtun tribal lands, the fateful boundary with its separatist ambitions and fears still makes Pakistan the furtive nemesis of Afghan stability, and the inconsolable frontier now a sanctuary for the resurgent Taliban.

Cold War brought Bagram back to life in the mid-1950s as an air base of the old Afghan royal regime. Having begged in vain for U.S. help-Washington at the time thought the Hindu Kush of no strategic value and preferred as clients the crisp military dictators in Pakistan-the Afghans turned to Russia to modernize their antique armed forces.

As Bagram hummed with Soviet advisors and MIGs, America took up the competition, albeit on the cheap. Over a quarter century U.S. aid to Afghanistan would be only a fraction of Moscow’s. All the while, the Great Game continued. Whatever the visible policy, the CIA relentlessly used Afghanistan to spy on Soviet Central Asia, feeding perennial Russian fears and the inevitable counter intrigues.

Intent on each other, both superpower rivals dispensed their foreign aid wares-and a corrupt Kabul oligarchy took them-heedless of the impact. As aid spawned an educated class without jobs, as the army grew better armed but no better paid, as grinding poverty only worsened, the turmoil built that would plunge Afghanistan into unimaginable disaster, and haunt the world into the next century.

Bagram was always emblematic. The neutrality of its officers allowed strongman Mohammad Daoud to overthrow the venal monarchy of King Zahir in 1973. It was from Bagram five years later that a leftist commander launched his jet fighters with withering effect on Daoud’s presidential palace in the 1978 communist coup neither Russia nor the U.S. expected-and Moscow soon regretted more than Washington.

Into Bagram then poured Soviet advisors and materiel in the Kremlin’s vain attempt to shore up a weak, divided communist rule in Kabul that remained typically Afghan, and thus fiercely independent of its patrons. The regime’s reforms were now crudely anti-religious and culturally insensitive, now laudably democratic in land reform and the education of women. Change in any case ignited a reactionary Islamic revolt which the U.S., Pakistan, China, and briefly the tottering Shah of Iran quickly moved to foment with covert arms and training.

Results were horrific. When a CIA- and Iranian-instigated Islamic uprising in Herat massacred hundreds of Russian aid workers and their families in March 1979-the bloodiest episode in the history of foreign aid-sorties from Bagram indiscriminately bombed monuments, homes and schools of the ancient capital even after rebels had left, killing as many as 20,000.

In the face of a deliberate U.S. policy to provoke an invasion of Afghanistan-“giving to the USSR its Vietnam War,” as National Security Advisor Zbigniev Brzezinski told President Jimmy Carter-we know from the post-Soviet release of Politburo minutes the Kremlin warily resisted what some knew would be a disaster.

When that trap was sprung by self-deception and fear on all sides, it was Bagram that saw the elite KGB unit who killed Afghan President Hafizullah Amin in a December 1979 coup to replace his regime with a more agreeable puppet. It was Bagram’s runways that took wave after wave of Soviet invasion forces whose masters expected a victorious, low-casualty show of force lasting only months. It was Bagram that saw the last Russian troops more than nine years later after some of the most savage warfare in history and twice as many casualties as the Kremlin admitted.

Over a decade of carnage the base was a center of war and portent. Trained by the Americans and Pakistanis with the latest explosive devices and eventually Stinger missiles, the Mujahideen, as the Islamic radicals were known, constantly stalked Bagram. Tuesday’s attack was in a tradition begun by U.S.-directed car-bombing squads sent to terrorize not only Soviet or Afghan military, but also civilians, including Kabul’s intelligentsia and university professors at sites like movie theaters and cultural events.

After the fall of the USSR and the Kabul communist regime, the base was a shifting prize between Mujahideen factions abandoned to the chaos of further civil war and then the bloody Pakistani-sponsored rise of the Taliban. With the U.S. occupation in 2002, Bagram was expanded as never before as a hub of the NATO war, including conversion of one of its cavernous hangers into most notorious prison in Afghanistan, eclipsing even the infamous Pul-i-Charki outside Kabul where the Mujahideen, and the communists, Daoud regime and monarchy before them, jailed and tortured thousands.

Did Cheney hear any of it? In the 1970s as Afghanistan slid to calamity, he was a rising young aide to Don Rumsfeld in the Nixon and Ford Administrations. In 1978 as the communists seized power and the U.S. began its covert intervention, he was maneuvering for a Wyoming congressional seat. In 1979 as Washington provoked and Moscow invaded, he was finishing his first year in the House, positioning for the leadership he gained a decade later. In the 1980s as the Mujahideen attacked Bagram, he ardently supported the Reagan Administration’s covert wars in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Iran, though he took no interest in places or issues-like his colleagues, looking the other way amid questions about the drug trade, atrocities, terrorism..

It was all there at Bagram-the consummate folly of corrupt clients, the false valor of historical ignorance, and the presumption once again to conquer the unconquerable in what the Greeks called the “land of the bones.”

A “loud boom” indeed.

ROGER MORRIS, who served in the State Department and on the Senior Staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, resigned in protest at the invasion of Cambodia. He then worked as a legislative advisor in the U.S. Senate and a director of policy studies at the Carnegie Endowment, and writes this Rumsfeldian history from intimate firsthand knowledge as well as extensive research. A Visiting Honors professor at the University of Washington and Research Fellow of the Green Institute, where his work originally appears. He is an award-winning historian and investigative journalist, including a National Book Award Silver Medal winner, and the author of books on Nixon, Kissinger, Haig, and the Clintons. More recently, he co-authored with Sally Denton The Money and the Power, a history of Las Vegas as the paradigm of national corruption. His latest work, Shadows of the Eagle, a history of U.S. covert interventions and policy in the Middle East and South Asia over the past half-century, will be published in 2007 by Knopf.

 

 

More articles by:
February 22, 2018
Jeffrey Sommers
Bond Villain in the World Economy: Latvia’s Offshore Banking Sector
Mark Schuller
Haiti’s Latest Indignity at the Hands of Dogooders, Oxfam’s Sex Scandal
T.J. Coles
How the US Bullies North Korea, 1945-Present
Ipek S. Burnett
Rethinking Freedom in the Era of Mass Shootings
Manuel E. Yepe
Fire and Fury: More Than a Publishing Hit
Patrick Bobilin
Caught in a Trap: Being a Latino Democrat is Being in an Abusive Relationship
Laurel Krause
From Kent State to Parkland High: Will America Ever Learn?
Terry Simons
Congress and the AR-15: One NRA Stooge Too Many
George Wuerthner
Border Wall Delusions
Manuel García, Jr.
The Anthropocene’s Birthday, or the Birth-Year of Human-Accelerated Climate Change
Thomas Knapp
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Russiagate
February 21, 2018
Cecil Bothwell
Billy Graham and the Gospel of Fear
Ajamu Baraka
Venezuela: Revenge of the Mad-Dog Empire
Edward Hunt
Treating North Korea Rough
Binoy Kampmark
Meddling for Empire: the CIA Comes Clean
Ron Jacobs
Stamping Out Hunger
Ammar Kourany – Martha Myers
So, You Think You Are My Partner? International NGOs and National NGOs, Costs of Asymmetrical Relationships
Michael Welton
1980s: From Star Wars to the End of the Cold War
Judith Deutsch
Finkelstein on Gaza: Who or What Has a Right to Exist? 
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
War Preparations on Venezuela as Election Nears
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Military Realities
Steve Early
Refinery Safety Campaign Frays Blue-Green Alliance
Ali Mohsin
Muslims Face Increasing Discrimination, State Surveillance Under Trump
Julian Vigo
UK Mass Digital Surveillance Regime Ruled Illegal
Peter Crowley
Revisiting ‘Make America Great Again’
Andrew Stewart
Black Panther: Afrofuturism Gets a Superb Film, Marvel Grows Up and I Don’t Know How to Review It
CounterPunch News Service
A Call to Celebrate 2018 as the Year of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois by the Saturday Free School
February 20, 2018
Nick Pemberton
The Gun Violence the Media Shows Us and the State Violence They Don’t
John Eskow
Sympathy for the Drivel: On the Vocabulary of President Nitwit
John Steppling
Trump, Putin, and Nikolas Cruz Walk Into a Bar…
John W. Whitehead
America’s Cult of Violence Turns Deadly
Ishmael Reed
Charles F. Harris: He Popularized Black History
Will Podmore
Paying the Price: the TUC and Brexit
George Burchett
Plumpes Denken: Crude thinking
Binoy Kampmark
The Caring Profession: Peacekeeping, Blue Helmets and Sexual Abuse
Lawrence Wittner
The Trump Administration’s War on Workers
David Swanson
The Question of Sanctions: South Africa and Palestine
Walter Clemens
Murderers in High Places
Dean Baker
How Does the Washington Post Know that Trump’s Plan Really “Aims” to Pump $1.5 Trillion Into Infrastructure Projects?
February 19, 2018
Rob Urie
Mueller, Russia and Oil Politics
Richard Moser
Mueller the Politician
Robert Hunziker
There Is No Time Left
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Decides to Hold Presidential Elections, the Opposition Chooses to Boycott Democracy
Daniel Warner
Parkland Florida: Revisiting Michael Fields
Sheldon Richman
‘Peace Through Strength’ is a Racket
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail