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Analyzing proxy war: America’s perspective in Afghanistan, 1979-89

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The anarchical structure of international politics has forever encouraged “states to look for opportunities to maximize their power.”[1]

On the night of 24th December 1979, the Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan and later assailed the massively fortified Taj-Bek Palace to assassinate Hafizullah Amin, the chief organizer of the 1978 communist Saur Revolution. This invasion was launched partly due to Amin’s purge of pro-Soviet communists in the ruling party and largely owing to his overtures towards the US. The Soviet intent was to secure Saur revolution’s goals and control Afghanistan through a puppet government headed by their Afghan Parcham allies.[2] American response was inevitable. What followed was a decade-long brutal war with the Afghanistan government, backed by the Soviet Union, pitted against insurgents identified collectively as the Mujahideens who were buoyed by various external actors.

This essay will scrutinize the reasons that pushed America to covertly collaborate with allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to support the Mujahideens in the anti-Soviet insurgency. It will shed light on how the US objectives alongside their modus operandi evolved with time. Then it seeks to elucidate the goals that America achieved and the long-term implications on their interests.

Why the Surreptitious Meddling? 

Strategy, according to Freedman, is “getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest.”[3]  This gain, Sun Tzu says, can be best attained by vanquishing the enemy without even sending a soldier across the border.[4] Thus, policymakers may try to secretly intervene with “the use of force by a politically motivated, local actor to indirectly influence political affairs in the target state.”[5]

Underscoring the threat of nuclear altercation during the Cold War, Towle asserts that “strategy of war by proxy or vicarious belligerency” was necessary for the superpowers to prevent a direct conflict with one another.[6] Mumford echoing a similar view says, “nuclear weapons-induced stability-instability paradox caused nations to find alternative outlets for their strategic ambitions, where the consequences were contained yet the rewards tangible.”[7] Besides the nuclear menace, the vastly increased deadliness and costliness of conventional modern war[8], lessons from Vietnam and the ensuing revulsion of the public towards overt engagement[9] ensured that the American leaders resorted to war by proxies in Afghanistan.

With the utility of covert engagement for the US been has underpinned, the essay now looks at various factors that necessitated American involvement.   

Thwarting the growing bear

Towards the end of the 1970s, Moscow was widely thought to be in the prime of its powers and aspirations. In 1975, communist North Vietnam accomplished its victory over South Vietnam undermining American interests. Meanwhile, Laos and Cambodia decisively became a part of the communist camp. The U.S.S.R expanded its military footing in Angola and Mozambique with pro-Soviet regimes coming to power.[10] Historian Gaddis remarked that these developments, alongside ignominious American withdrawal from Vietnam, made it seem “as though Washington was on the defensive everywhere, and Moscow was on a roll.”[11]

The Afghan-Soviet Friendship Treaty of December 1978, signed nine months after the communist revolution, exacerbated American suspicions about Moscow’s Afghanistan plans. The murder of the American Ambassador Adolf Dubs in Kabul in February 1979 forced a reorientation of policy; the US started aiding the Afghan proxies against the communists sometime in July 1979, much before the official invasion. But this aid, aimed primarily at propaganda warfare, remained “extremely limited and largely non-lethal.” When the CIA approached Riyadh and Islamabad, both of whom dreaded further Soviet aggression, there was still incertitude regarding what more to do next.[12]

However, the invasion allayed all the indecision as NSA Brzezinski compared the situation to Vietnam to instigate a belligerent, yet covert, American intervention. He urged Carter to recognize that Afghanistan could become the U.S.S.R’s South Vietnam, but that would not happen without external support to the Afghan rebels who, unlike the North Vietnamese, “have no sanctuary, no organized army, and no central government.”[13] Later, a consensus was reached that America had to “make this a costly effort for the Soviets” by ensuring “covert arms supply to Afghan insurgents.”[14]

Persian Gulf Conundrum

Since WWII, the American strategic calculi in the Persian Gulf was aimed at ensuring an unrestricted flow of oil and preserving the US military domination over the region.[15] The 1979 Soviet invasion overlapped with a largely harrowing period for US interest in the Gulf and its proximity. First, the advancement of Soviet Marxist interests in South Yemen had put the US in a quandary. Later, the Islamic Revolution in Iran transformed it from a US ally to an adversary ruled by hard-liner Khomeini thereby drastically wearying American superpower influence in the Gulf. It led to traditionally pro-US allies like Saudi to be on the fence regarding American intentions and capabilities in the region.[16]

The Soviet troops in Afghanistan positioned them “within aircraft striking range of the vital oil resources of the Persian Gulf,” and “increased Soviet pressure on Iran and other nations in the Middle East.”[17] A military exercise during the summer of 1980 to practice an invasion of Iran only exacerbated these fears.[18] All these worries necessitated an aggressive American response, and it was expected from the Americans, especially by the Saudis, that they tie the “Gulf regional security to US global security.”[19] Thus, three weeks after the invasion, the world heard President Carter affirm that America would respond, even using force, any outside attempt to antagonize the Persian Gulf.[20]

Pakistan’s Predicament

Time and again during the Cold War, Pakistan was perceived by America as a treasured strategic asset, whether used as “a military springboard against the U.S.S.R and the new China” in the 1950s or to usher in a US-China rapprochement in the 1970s.[21] Afghanistan’s turmoil necessitated wakeful attention as it was rumored that the Soviets could invade Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, where Afghan communists had stoked ethno-nationalist sentiment for decades. The leader of the Soviet-backed ruling Communist Party, Babrak Karmal, was particularly “eager to repudiate and erase the Durand Line.” Baluchi groups in Afghanistan had rekindled contacts with Pakistani separatists through Karmal’s intelligence agency, the KHAD.[22]

America had to inescapably respond to this situation on two counts:

1. Control over Afghanistan and promotion of a separate Baluchistan, in any form, would have been the Soviet’s “major step toward overland access to the Indian Ocean and domination of the Asian sub-continent.”[23]

2. The US-Pakistan security agreement of 1959 puts an obligation on Washington to take appropriate action, even the usage of armed forces, in the case of aggression against Pakistan.[24]

How it transpired

On 29th December 1979, President Carter signed a presidential finding permitting the CIA to work with Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) to send lethal assistance covertly to the mujahedeen. In addition to Pakistan’s persistence, the wish to avoid the burden of logistics led America to delegate to ISI the responsibility of channeling all aid, first of which reached the Mujahideens two weeks after the invasion.[25] The presidential document stated that “harassing the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan” was the then objective of the US administration.[26]

“Effective secrecy” defined the first few years of the war.[27] As the US did not want to blatantly confront the Soviets and risk retaliation, the agency went in favor of “plausible deniability” and only provided weapons operated “by the Soviets or their East European satellite countries.” Correspondingly, the proxies executed “urban guerrilla tactics” true to the American strategy of “low-intensity warfare.”[28]

By mid-1980, the Saudis agreed to match the US funding of the operation. More importantly, the royal house of Saud, alongside other Gulf states, mobilized volunteers to fight alongside Mujahideen as they legitimized a jihad against the atheist U.S.S.R occupation of largely Muslim Afghanistan. Pakistan served as a hotbed for training the mujahideen where the Gulf countries expended billions annually to fund madrassas of northern Pakistan.[29]

Reagan, who inherited the covert program in 1981, vowed to support “those who are risking their lives on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua to defy Soviet-supported aggression” and the mujahideen became the cornerstone of his doctrine.[30] Although he did not expand the scope of operations initially, by 1985, due to increased congressional pressure, the covert aid that started at $30 million in 1979 increased to $250 million annually. Meanwhile, National Security Decision Directive-166 ensured that the US aid was not limited to the rebels “harassing” the Soviets but would enable them to force a Soviet withdrawal. Thus, advanced intelligence and sophisticated weaponry like plastic explosives and high-powered sniper rifles were delivered to the Mujahideen.[31] By the mid-1980s, the American intervention was an “open secret” due to recurring leaks, but the administration snubbed any acknowledgment of its part. Carson underscores that “covertness in an intervention can take on symbolic meaning that is relevant even after wide exposure.”[32]

For six years, Afghan skies were dominated by Soviet helicopters that wreaked havoc on the rebels. As the Soviets intensified their counterinsurgency measures in 1985, the US qualitatively shifted their policy to an overt engagement by arming the rebels with American hand-held anti-aircraft Stinger missiles in 1986 that efficiently shot down the helicopters and improved Mujahideen outcomes. The US assessment of the new general secretary, Gorbachev, as a moderate leader and war-weariness of the Red Army convinced the Americans that the Red Army would not respond to overt American arms supplies with any offensive against ally Pakistan, a fear the US had in 1983-84.[33] 

Within two months of Stinger’s introduction, the Soviet Politburo decided on a deadline for its troop withdrawal. But there was no explicit causal relation between Stingers and this decision; this strategic choice follows from Gorbachev’s view that the Afghan war was unyielding and continued occupation was a major hindrance for his goal of domestic economic restructuring and political reform.[34]

 

Endgame

The Soviet withdrawal that started in 1988 was immediately followed by the unraveling of communism in Eastern Europe. The Afghan experience, which Gorbachev called a “bleeding wound,” expedited the Soviet disintegration and the end of the Cold War. Thus, the covert Afghanistan intervention earned America unequivocal success over its superpower adversary.[35]  The US successfully curtailed communist expansion into the Gulf and prevented any destabilization of Pakistan. Moreover, the US alliance with the Gulf nations, consequent to the Soviet invasion, increased American strategic presence in the Persian Gulf. In 1979, there were three US ships and minimal military personnel in Gulf waters, but it expanded to “30-35 US warships and 25,000 personnel” by 1987.[36]

Come undone

Geraint Hughes reproaches proxy warfare as “anti-strategic” claiming that the intervening states, by supporting proxies, “effectively abandon any control over the means by which strategic goals should be attained.”[37] Further, Groh asserts that “without control, the proxy will likely pursue its own agenda with little regard for the costs to the intervening state.”[38] Pakistan’s ISI, which oversaw the funneling of aid, gave most of the weaponry to Afghan fundamentalist factions, like the one commanded by Hekmatyar. Islamabad was privately strengthening its strategic depth in Kabul by supporting such groups, but these factions were discernibly interested in establishing an Anti-American regime at the conclusion of the Soviet occupation.[39] The blowback commenced when America took off from Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. The ensuing vacuum spawned “a dynasty of warlords” who fought a bloody civil war that occasioned the rise of the Taliban. This very Taliban later provided a sanctuary for al Qaeda that culminated in the 9/11 attacks.[40]

Inadvertent Costs

As the US covert work primarily relied on Pakistan, guaranteeing Zia’s cooperation was imperative. This constrained American actions vis-a-vis Islamabad’s expanding nuclear weapons program and the US had to turn a blind eye to it, which otherwise would have attracted sanctions under their non-proliferation law.[41] 

Equally, gross misjudgment regarding weapons accountability was another American setback. Pakistan snaffled part of the Stingers for itself and many of them turned up on the black market. Likewise, not all the stingers that reached the Mujahideen were employed for the intended purpose. Thus, a global proliferation of Stingers was seen in the 1990s with many being seen with terrorists in Bosnia, Kashmir, Libya, et al.[42]

This essay illuminated the rationale for the American intervention in Afghanistan post the Soviet invasion. It was imperative to turn what seemed like a strategic defeat to an assertion of American superpower and an eventual victory in the Cold War. The proxy war was essential to avoid a risk of escalation, surmount the lack of domestic support, and an overall cost/benefit analysis. America stayed out, followed the strategic dictum that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ and ‘took the means to wage war, put them in the hands of people who could do so.”[43] After America extracted as many geostrategic goals as possible, including the end of the U.S.S.R., they discovered enemy’s enemy does not always remain a friend. Finally, the Afghanistan proxy war’s aftermath has not only affected that country, but its unintended consequences have also defined much of the world politics in the 21st century, in particular America’s war on terror and its eventual Afghanistan exit in 2021.

Nitin Menon is an engineer by education and an educator by passion with a keen interest in geopolitics and diplomacy. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

BOOKS

Carson, Austin. Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Feifer, Gregory. The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

Gaddis, J. L. The Cold War. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
Groh, Tyrone L. Proxy War: The Least Bad Option. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2019.

Hughes, Geraint. My Enemy’s Enemy : Proxy Warfare in International Politics. Brighton: Sussex Academic, 2012.

Kux, Dennis, The United States and Pakistan, 1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2001.

Freedman, Lawrence. Strategy: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2014.

Mitchell, Timothy. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. London: Verso, 2011.

Mumford, Andrew. Proxy Warfare. War and Conflict in the Modern World. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

Riedel, Bruce. What We Won: America's Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-89. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2014.

Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. Dover: Dover Publication, 2002.

JOURNALS

Cogan, Charles G. ‘Partners in Time: The CIA and Afghanistan since 1979’. World Policy Journal 10, no. 2 (1993): 73–82. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40209308

Hartman, Andrew. ‘“The Red Template”: US Policy in Soviet-Occupied Afghanistan’. Third World Quarterly 23, no. 3 (2002): 467–89. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3993537.

Kuperman, Alan J. ‘The Stinger Missile and U.S. Intervention in Afghanistan’. Political Science Quarterly 114, no. 2 (June 1999): 219–63. doi:10.2307/2657738.

Tobin, Conor. ‘Myth of the “Afghan Trap”: Zbigniew Brzezinski and Afghanistan, 1978–1979’. Diplomatic History 44, no. 2 (1 April 2020): 237–64. doi:10.1093/dh/dhz065.

Yetiv, S. A. ‘Persian Gulf Security: A Bivariable Analysis’. Defense Analysis 6, no. 3 (1 September 1990): 289–98. doi:10.1080/07430179008405458.

WEBSITES

‘Soviet Union - The Brezhnev Era.’ Britannica. Accessed 11 December 2021. https://www.britannica.com/place/Soviet-Union/The-Brezhnev-era.

‘Timeline: U.S. War in Afghanistan.’ Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed 19 December 2021, https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-war-afghanistan.

 


[1] John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton,2014), 26.

[2] Gregory Feifer, The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan (New York: Harper Perennial,2010), 24-77.

[3] Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), xii.

[4] Sun Tzu, The Art of War (Dover: Dover Publication, 2002),40.

[5] Tyrone Groh, Proxy War: The Least Bad Option (Cham: Springer, 2019), 2-3.

[6] Philip Towle, ‘The Strategy of War by Proxy’, The RUSI Journal 126, no.1(1981): 21.

[7] Andrew Mumford, Proxy Warfare (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013).

[8] Austin Carson, Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 93-94.

[9] Groh, Proxy War, 58.

[10] ‘Soviet Union -The Brezhnev Era', Britannica, accessed 11th December 2021, https://www.britannica.com/place/Soviet-Union/The-Brezhnev-era.

[11] J. L. Gaddis, Cold War (London: Penguin Books, 2007), 212.

[12] Conor Tobin, ‘Myth of the “Afghan Trap”: Zbigniew Brzezinski and Afghanistan,1978–1979’, Diplomatic History 44, no.2(2020): 237–64.

[13] Carson, Secret Wars, 248.

[14] Ibid, 267.

[15] Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso,2011), 208.

[16] S. A. Yetiv, ‘Persian Gulf Security: A Bivariable Analysis’, Defense Analysis 6, no.3(1990): 292.

[17] White House Office of President James Carter, “President Carter’s Response to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan,” 1980, 1, Digital National Security Archive- Item #AF00799.

[18] Bruce Riedel, What We Won (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2014),107.

[19] S. A. Yetiv, ‘Persian Gulf Security: A Bivariable Analysis’, 290.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Dennis Kux, The United States and Pakistan, 1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2001),40 and 207.

[22] Riedel, What We Won, 26.

[23] Andrew Hartman, ‘“The Red Template”: US Policy in Soviet-Occupied Afghanistan’, Third World Quarterly 23, no. 3(2002): 471.

[24] Kux, The United States and Pakistan, 102.

[25] Ibid, 252.

[26] Riedel, What We Won,103.

[27] Carson, The War in Afghanistan, 261.

[28] Hartman, ‘The Red Template’, 475.

[29] Feifer, The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan, 130-272.

[30] Hartman, ‘The Red Template', 474.

[31] Carson, The War in Afghanistan, 263.

[32] Ibid, 241.

[33] Alan J. Kuperman, ‘The Stinger Missile and U.S. Intervention in Afghanistan’, Political Science Quarterly 114, no.2 (1999): 219–63.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Carson, The War in Afghanistan.

[36] Yetiv, ‘Persian Gulf Security: A Bivariable Analysis’, 290.

[37] Geraint Hughes, My Enemy’s Enemy: Proxy Warfare in International Politics (Brighton: Sussex Academic, 2012), 144.

[38] Groh, Proxy War, 8.

[39] Charles G. Cogan, ‘Partners in Time: The CIA and Afghanistan since 1979’, World Policy Journal 10, no.2(1993): 78.

[40] Riedel, What We Won, 41-50.

[41] Riedel, What We Won, 70.

[42] Kuperman, ‘The Stinger Missile and U.S. Intervention in Afghanistan’, 252–253.

[43] Mumford, Proxy Warfare, 72-78.

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