The Best Defense

Riedel: The war against the Soviets in Afghanistan was run by Zia, not by us

By Haley Parsons

Best Defense guest reporter

CIA veteran Bruce Riedel's new book What We Won: America's Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-89, is long in title and short in length. In 156 pages, Riedel lays out the story of a war that was fought entirely by other people and secretly supported by the CIA. In the time that it took to drive the Soviet 40th Red Army out of Afghanistan, the Agency suffered no casualties because no CIA officers ever operated inside the country.

During a recent discussion at the Brookings Institution between Riedel and Strobe Talbott, the Institution's president, Riedel elaborated on the CIA's role as "the quartermaster of the war," a categorization made by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. What We Won outlines the roles of the different participants in the conflict, from the Soviet Union to the United States, Pakistan, and other countries supportive of the mujahideen, the Afghan Muslims who rebelled against Afghanistan's Soviet-controlled government.

Riedel emphasized that the CIA never went into Afghanistan and did not train any of the mujahideen. "We had no casualties because we took no risks," he stated, adding that the principle risks and sacrifices were taken by the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service, provided the leadership, tactics, and strategy for the mujahideen. "I know you all think this was 'Charlie Wilson's War,' but it wasn't," Riedel said, "It was Zia-ul-Haq's." Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the sixth president of Pakistan, was described by Riedel as a fervent, true believer of Islam. Zia trained and armed the mujahideen because of his conviction that it was "every Muslim's duty to fight the godless, atheist, Communist menace and to drive it out of Afghanistan."  Along with Pakistan, deeply Islamic Saudi Arabia was heavily involved in the war effort and matched the United States' contributions dollar-for-dollar in public funds. Saudi Arabia also gathered an enormous amount of money for the Afghan mujahideen in private donations that amounted to about $20 million per month at their peak. 

Riedel drove home the scope of the CIA's involvement in Afghanistan order to emphasize another point: according to him, the notion that the CIA created al Qaeda is "bad history." The war against the Soviets in Afghanistan "created the intellectual environment in which the global jihad emerged," he explained, and al Qaeda did not receive training or financing from Americans. In his book Riedel describes key figures in the early global jihad, including Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian who wrote the religious edict Defense of the Muslim Lands. During the discussion at Brookings, Riedel called Azzam's edict the functional equivalent for the global jihad what Thomas Paine's Common Sense was for the American Revolution. The edict was written in 1979 and urges Muslims to wage violent jihad against non-Muslim, occupying forces in Afghanistan and Palestine. Riedel also discussed Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi Arabian who directly supported the mujahideen in the 1980s. With the ISI's help, he built the mujahideen a state-of-the-art base inside of Afghanistan that included a hospital and miles of underground tunnels stocked with ammunition.

Of course, after the 40th Red Army was driven out of Afghanistan, bin Laden and Azzam founded al-Qaeda in order to continue their jihad. That the United States did not see the global jihad coming is in retrospect a clear failure, according to Riedel, but he tempered the statement by adding that taking a backward-looking approach is unfair to the people who were examining the situation at the time.  "We were lucky in the 1980s," he said, "There was a bigger evil than America for true believers to fight."

Haley Parsons is an intern with the New America Foundation's International Security Program and a rising 3L at the Syracuse University College of Law. 

The Best Defense

Iraq: the unraveling?

Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on March 30, 2009.

I thought some of the surge-era deals in Iraq would unravel but I didn't think that would begin happening this quickly. It's only March 2009, and already Awakening fighters are fighting U.S. soldiers in the streets of Baghdad.

Anyone who tells you that the Iraq war is over should be forced to memorize this paragraph from the Sunday edition of the Washington Post:

"As Apache helicopter gunships cruised above Baghdad's Fadhil neighborhood, former Sunni insurgents fought from rooftops and street corners against American and Iraqi forces, according to witnesses, the Iraqi military and police. At least 15 people were wounded in the gunfights, which lasted several hours. By nightfall, the street fighters had taken five Iraqi soldiers hostage."

That is Iraq 2009. Does it sound peaceful to you? Does it seem like the political questions vexing Iraq have been solved?

Here is a quote of the day:

"If they don't release Adil Mashadani, all the Awakening in Iraq will rise up like our uprising today," he [a local Awakening Council spokesman] added.

Along with the bombings in west Baghdad lately, the street fighting over the weekend doesn't quite form a trend. But it points toward one possible series of events. That is, the Maliki government is putting the screws to the Awakening movement (for those who just arrived, that's a mainly Sunni group of about 100,000 people, many of them former insurgents, who in late 2006 and 2007 arrived at ceasefires with the U.S. military presence in Iraq). The American plan was to integrate about 20,000 members of Awakening groups into Iraqi security forces, and help the rest find other work. Meantime, the Baghdad government was supposed to take over the payments to the groups, which when I last checked totaled about $30 million a month.

But the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government never really liked the idea. Indeed, the first deals were cut by U.S. officials behind the back of the Iraqi government. So Maliki's guys are:

-Arresting some leaders of the "Sons of Iraq" (the American term for Awakening forces)

-Attacking others

-Bringing only 5,000 of the ex-insurgents into the Iraqi security forces

-And stiffing others on pay,with some complaining they haven't been paid in weeks or even months

I think Maliki's gambit is to crack down on the Sunnis while American forces are still available in sufficient numbers to back him up. This is a turning into a test of strength, Sunni vs. Shiite.  

There's more. If the Awakening fighting spreads, I wouldn't be surprised to see Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia re-emerge. I've always thought the Sunni Awakening forced him to go to ground, because he didn't want to be the only guy taking on American forces. But if the Sunnis are on the attack again, it might be game on for him as well. I am reminded of Ambassador Ryan Crocker's worry, expressed in my new book and elsewhere, that the future of Iraq was something like Lebanon. That is, it has a government, but it is shaky, and there is violence in the streets, with some political parties having armed wings that are outside the control of the government.

The Washington Post's Anthony Shadid calls this all "potentially worrisome." When Shadid begins to worry, we all should. He's the guy who back in early 2004 used to encourage me to take taxis around Baghdad.

Proven provider John McCreary of NightWatch fame is even more emphatic:

"This is a pre-cursor of the second round of the Sunni-Shia civil war to follow."

Question of the day: What should I say the next time someone tells me the surge "worked"?