The Soviet Vietnam:
An Analysis of CIA Intervention in the Soviet-Afghan War
Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.
– Zbigniew Brzezinski, interview with Le Nouvel Observateur in 1998
Operation Cyclone was a covert CIA operation implemented during the Soviet-Afghan War that sought to arm and train indigenous Afghan guerilla insurgents in order to maximize costs for the Soviet invaders. The goal was to escalate the situation and thus create a Vietnam-like quagmire for the USSR, as Mr. Brzezinski explained. The CIA-led program would become the largest covert operation in U.S. history. It also included British, Chinese, Pakistanis, Saudis, Iranians, and thousands of other foreign Islamic fighters motivated to join the jihad. In the end, the massive flow of materiel, training, and intelligence proved too much for the limited war efforts of the Soviet Union. Demoralized abroad and under pressure at home, the USSR would cease to exist by 1991.
The decade-long war in Afghanistan assuredly played an important role in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Empire, but ambiguity persists regarding the extent of the effect Operation Cyclone had on the fragility of the Soviet state and the potential rise of Islamic terror. Brzezinski’s assertion that U.S. operations were crucial for propping up Afghan guerrillas and creating a Vietnam-type situation for the Soviets is supported by many experts. Yet, the Soviet Union entered the war constrained by domestic considerations and a “limited war” strategy that was dubious from the beginning. It can also be argued that the largest covert operation in history was unnecessarily expanded to the point where, disastrously, the United States would indirectly fuel the rise of Islamic fundamentalists and global jihad in the decades to come. Operation Cyclone was ultimately successful in raising the costs for Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, but the indirect support for jihadism during the war would generate significant backlash for U.S. foreign policy and national security in the current era.
Origins of Operation Cyclone
At first glance Operation Cyclone appears to be a reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, but further examination reveals a more concerted effort to draw the USSR into a protracted and costly conflict. In fact, the CIA assistance program started six months prior to invasion, as then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted in a 1998 interview:
The reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.
Brzezinski explained how the Carter administration understood the risk that American intervention in Afghanistan might escalate the conflict. He claimed that U.S. actions were not intentionally meant to provoke the Soviets to further action, but by engaging in covert operations, the Carter administration knowingly increased the probability. This admission was also promulgated by Robert Gates in his memoir. Such a revelation coming from the highest circles of U.S. foreign policymaking provides a clear understanding of the mindset and purpose of the administration in launching Operation Cyclone. The United States was in fact poking the bear in Afghanistan, prior to the Soviet invasion, to deliberately craft a situation in which “for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war that was unsustainable for the regime, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.”
Another consideration for U.S. policymakers was the geostrategic importance of Afghanistan. The country was a key access point for the USSR to reach multiple strategic targets in South Asia and the Middle East. The vital role of Afghanistan was explained by a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report issued days after Soviet troops entered the country: “The key motivation that propelled Moscow’s move was to bring its long-standing strategic goals closer within reach. Control of Afghanistan would be a major step toward overland access to the Indian Ocean and to domination of the Asian sub-continent.” In addition, President Carter warned the Soviet Union on January 23, 1980, that “[a]n attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region [would] be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States and [would] be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Faced with criticism by Cold War hawks and in the midst of a presidential campaign, the President espoused what would become known as the “Carter Doctrine.” Building on the popular appeasement argument that “aggression unopposed becomes a contagious disease,” he pursued a strategy to confront Soviet aggression while avoiding a large-scale American military intervention. But in time, the covert operation would become, in the words of CIA officer Gust Avrakotos, the “equivalent of a presidential declaration of war.”
As a secondary goal of Operation Cyclone, U.S. policymakers were also confident that demonstrating support for the Mujahideen would improve relations with the wider Islamic world, especially in the wake of the Iranian revolution hostage crisis and the 1982 Beirut Marine barracks bombing. Panagiotis Dimitrakis explained how CIA officials “saw this arms program as a unique opportunity for the U.S. to be viewed as a friend of the Islamic world.” A majority of Congress and the foreign policy establishment in Washington, D.C. supported the cause of the Afghan insurgents, most notably Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, a self-described “Afghanophile” who was crucial in the public campaign to increase support for the Mujahideen. Ronald Reagan was also a strong supporter of the effort, declaring that “the Mujahideen were the moral equivalent of our own Founding Fathers.” Whether Afghanistan was the Soviet Vietnam, a strategic imperative, or a public relations campaign to Muslims, the CIA had already embarked on path that would prove decisive to the balance of the Cold War and have significant implications for U.S.-Islamic relations in the coming decades. The Carter and subsequent Reagan administrations were convinced of the efficacy and importance of arming anti-Soviet forces for both inflicting harm on the Soviet Union and improving U.S.-Muslim relations.
Nature of CIA Operations
The covert assistance program was not as covert as originally envisioned: by 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan had publicized the U.S. role in arming the Mujahideen, in addition to initiating a discussion of whether to provide Stinger missiles to the insurgents. Assistance was initially rather modest, as the CIA and some members of the upper echelons of the Carter administration were skeptical of the ability for covert actions to yield intended results. Robert Gates warned of the absence of high-quality intelligence from the ground in Afghanistan and specific information on the insurgent groups they would be supporting. Nevertheless, by January 1980 the CIA began sending light Russian-made arms and ammunition to their connections in Pakistan. Pakistan and their Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) would become the central cog in Operation Cyclone, on whom the CIA depended almost entirely for channeling assistance to the Afghan Mujahideen.
Until the mid-1980s, the CIA avoided transferring American-made weapons to the Afghans, preferring instead to use Warsaw Pact weapons to match what was captured by the Mujahideen on the battlefield from Soviet troops. In addition, weapons were procured from Egypt, China, Poland, and on the international black market. The global operation to acquire weapons was so extensive that “by late 1986 there were so many agencies spending and distributing so many hundreds of millions dollars for so many countries that no agency could keep track of it all.” All of this weaponry flowed to Pakistan’s ISI, which then had sole responsibility and discretion to distribute it to the leaders of the various Mujahideen tribes. Positive relations with Pakistan became an important aspect of Operation Cyclone, requiring figures like Bill Casey, then-director of CIA, to build personal relationships with General Zia and others in Islamabad to ensure that U.S. assistance reached its destination. Other efforts were made by President Carter to improve relations, who personally phoned General Zia soon after the Soviet invasion to offer $400 million in support. President Reagan went even further by offering a massive six-year aid package to Pakistan, placing them among the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid.
The network that sustained the flow of foreign finances and materiel was an extensive global operation, involving the Saudi Bank for Commerce and Credit International (BCCI), smugglers and international criminals, and drug kingpins. Every dollar spent by the Americans and CIA was matched by the Saudis, and eventually totaled hundreds of millions per year. Mohammad Yousaf, Director-General of ISI in Kabul during the war, explained how “the foremost function of the CIA was to spend money… The CIA supported the Mujahideen by spending the American taxpayers’ money, billions of it over the years, on buying arms, ammunition and equipment.” The entire apparatus was fraught with corruption and waste, as an estimated 70 percent of assistance never made it to the Mujahideen. A Washington Post article from 1987 summed up the situation: “We have found that the CIA’s secret arms pipeline to the Mujahideen is riddled with opportunities for corruption. The losers are the poorly equipped guerrillas fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the American people whose congressional representatives have been betrayed by the CIA.” However, Yousaf excused the CIA for these flaws in the operation when he stated: “As soon as the arms arrived in Pakistan the CIA’s responsibility ended… what happened once the weapons arrived in Pakistan was our responsibility.”
The CIA was not only supporting the Mujahideen with materiel and financial assistance. Another critical aspect of Operation Cyclone was training and intelligence cooperation that turned the tide in the Mujahideen’s favor in many battles with the Soviets. Yousaf stated confidently how “the richest military contribution of the CIA to the Afghan war was in the field of satellite intelligence.” CIA may have lacked knowledge of indigenous conditions in Afghanistan, but they were capable of employing U.S. technological superiority to great advantage for the Mujahideen. Yousaf described his fascination with the CIA’s ability to intercept radio transmissions of Soviet pilots and of American satellites to capture images of the battlefield, no matter the terrain. He surmised that “this information, in conjunction with the local knowledge of the Mujahideen, considerably enhanced our ability to conduct effective operations.” Particularly important was the training for utilizing the new hand-held anti-aircraft Stinger missiles. While Yousaf was often critical of and unimpressed by the CIA, particularly with respect to their limited knowledge of military affairs, he acknowledged the role CIA support played in the Afghan victory:
Notwithstanding all I have said, on balance the CIA’s contributions have played a vital role in the conduct of the Afghan Jehad. Without the backing of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, the Soviets would still be entrenched in that country. Without the intelligence provided by the CIA many battles would have been lost, and without the CIA’s training of our Pakistani instructors the Mujahideen would have been fearfully ill-equipped to face, and ultimately defeat, a superpower.
Implications: The Next Long War
Questioner: And neither do you regret having supported Islamic fundamentalism, which has given arms and advice to future terrorists?
Brzezinski: What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?
Q: “Some agitated Moslems”? But it has been said and repeated: Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today…
From a geopolitical or realpolitik perspective, Operation Cyclone was a tremendous success. The United States limited its costs and worked with partnered governments around the world to defeat their rival superpower in a theater the size of Texas, which worsened Soviet domestic problems and contributed to their eventual downfall. The unipolar moment had finally arrived. Yet, history would reveal the unintended consequences of the U.S. role in that conflict during the coming decades, as global jihad and Islamic terror spread from fighting the Soviet infidel in Afghanistan to fighting the enemy infidels abroad. The Soviets learned this early, as Svetlana Savranskaya explained:
The Soviet decision makers did not anticipate the influential role of Islam in the Afghan society. There were very few experts on Islam in the Soviet government and the academic institutions. The highest leadership was poorly informed about the strength of religious beliefs among the masses of the Afghan population. Political and military leaders were surprised to find that rather than being perceived as a progressive anti-imperialist force, the Afghans regarded them as foreign invaders, and “infidels.” Reports from Afghanistan show the growing awareness of the “Islamic factor” on the part of Soviet military and political personnel.
The formation of the Taliban out of the Mujahideen—and the Afghan civil war that followed Soviet withdrawal—was fueled by the vast network of financial and military support begun by Operation Cyclone. Private Islamist donors around the world had directly supported the Mujahideen during the war, and continued funding them even after the war’s conclusion. Robert Dreyfuss, author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, explained how, “from the start, the Taliban had strong support not only from Saudi Arabia, which financed it, and from Pakistan, whose ISI intelligence service was the primary force behind the Taliban’s conquest of warlord-dominated Afghanistan, but from the United States as well.” Indeed, General Zia supported the more fundamentalist groups and purposely channeled the bulk of CIA assistance to their leadership. A Newsweek article published after September 11 revealed a late-1980s conversation between Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and George H.W. Bush, during which she warned, “You are creating a Frankenstein.” She warned that the U.S. will ultimately be held responsible for the vast amount of financial and material assistance that made its way to jihadist groups. As Dreyfuss explained, this was “a catastrophic miscalculation… it gave rise to a landscape dominated by warlords, both Islamists and otherwise… it created a worldwide network of highly trained Islamist fighters from a score of countries, linked together and roughly affiliated to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.” Such ominous warnings proved incredibly prescient in the coming years. Islamist extremism continues to rise in the world, and though it is difficult to measure, there is little doubt that American support for these groups during Operation Cyclone was significant to its ascendancy. Veteran Middle East and terrorism journalist John K. Cooley’s advice, written in 1999, is especially pertinent: “When you decide to go to war against your main enemy, take a good, long look at the people behind whom you chose as your friends, allies, or mercenary fighters. Look well to see whether these allies already have unsheathed their knives – and are pointing them at your back.”
Rather than an extended cold war with the Soviet Union, the United States now faces a protracted conflict against global jihadism. It is perhaps fitting that the former adversary of the United States experienced its demise in Afghanistan, in the same desolate country where the U.S. witnessed the victory and preeminence of its current adversary. In this vein, it is difficult to examine the scope of the Soviet-Afghan War and the CIA intervention and declare unequivocally its success or failure. While Operation Cyclone was successful in maintaining the Mujahideen insurgency, the U.S. failed to detect the USSR’s limited military intentions and was therefore overly aggressive in the later years of the war. The long-term consequence of the assistance program was the indirect support of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan, which has since extended its influence throughout the world to threaten global peace and security. The United States achieved the goal of creating a “Soviet Vietnam,” but the costs of such an operation are still being quantified.
Brzezinski, Zbigniew. The Brzezinski Interview with Le Nouvel Observateur (1998). Original French version appeared in “Les Révélations d’un Ancien Conseilleur de Carter: ‘Oui, la CIA est Entrée en Afghanistan avant les Russes…’” Le Nouvel Observateur [Paris], January 15-21, 1998, p. 76.
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Cooley, John K. Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, American and International Terrorism. London: Pluto Press, 1999.
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Crile, George. Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2003.
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Dimitrakis, Panagiotis. The Secret War in Afghanistan: The Soviet Union, China and the Role of Anglo-American Intelligence. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013.
Dreyfuss, Robert. Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2005.
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Session of the CC CPSU Politburo, January 17, 1980.
“Soviet strategy on Afghanistan: playing for time.” 15 October 1987.
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Yousaf, Mohammad and Mark Adkin. The Bear Trap: The Defeat of a Superpower. Havertown, PA: Casemate, 2001.
 David Gibbs, “Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Retrospect,” International Politics 37, no. 2 (2000): 241-242, http://dgibbs.faculty.arizona.edu/brzezinski_interview.
 Zbigniew Brzezinski, interview with Le Nouvel Observateur (1998).
 Robert Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 146-147.
 Brzezinski, interview with Le Nouvel Observateur (1998).
 Steve Galster, “Afghanistan: The Making of U.S. Policy 1973-1990,” in Afghanistan: Lessons from the Last War, vol 2. of The September 11th Sourcebooks, George Washington University National Security Archive (Oct 9, 2001), http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB57/essay.html#12.
 George Crile, Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2003), 167.
 Panagiotis Dimitrakis, The Secret War in Afghanistan: The Soviet Union, China and the Role of Anglo-American Intelligence (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013), 153.
 Kurt Lohbeck, Holy War, Unholy Victory: Eyewitness to the CIA’s Secret War in Afghanistan (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1993), 160-61.
 Dimitrakis, The Secret War in Afghanistan, 149.
 Lohbeck, Holy War, Unholy Victory, 182-186.
 Gastler, “Afghanistan: The Making of U.S. Policy 1973-1990.”
 Shuja Nawaz, Crossed Swords (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 8-9.
 Mohammad Yousaf and Mark Adkin, The Bear Trap: The Defeat of a Superpower (Havertown, PA: Casemate, 2001), 81.
 Ibid, 97
 Ibid, 93.
 Yousaf and Adkin, The Bear Trap, 93.
 Ibid, 96.
 Brzezinski, interview with Le Nouvel Observateur (1998).
 Svetlana Savranskaya, “The Soviet Experience in Afghanistan: Russian Documents and Memoirs,” Afghanistan: Lessons from the Last War, vol 2. of The September 11th Sourcebooks, George Washington University National Security Archive (Oct 9, 2001), http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB57/soviet.html.
 Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2005), 326.
 Mark Hosenball, “War on Terror: The Road to September 11,” Newsweek (September 30, 2001), http://www.newsweek.com/war-terror-road-september-11-151771
 Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game, 288.
 John K Cooley, Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, American and International Terrorism (London: Pluto Press, 1999), 241.