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