“We Don’t Need a Smoking Gun”: U.S. Provocations and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

By Gunar Olsen

During the Cold War, U.S. interventions in the Global South often transformed local issues into geopolitical pieces on the grand chessboard with grave humanitarian consequences for those in targeted states, whether Vietnam or El Salvador. The same remains true in the post-Cold War world, as Washington’s crusades into the Balkans, Iraq, Libya, and Syria have uprooted societies and made a new cold war more likely.

One string of U.S. interventions has outlived the passing of the Cold War like no other: Afghanistan. For critics of U.S. global supremacy, Jimmy Carter’s decision to initiate a CIA program of nonlethal aid to the mujahedin in July 1979 ranks among Washington’s most disastrous and consequential gambits in modern history. They argue that the CIA program provoked the Soviet invasion six months later, making the United States significantly responsible the humanitarian catastrophe that unfolded during the next nine years of war, the constant instability in Afghanistan for the past four decades, and the proliferation of Islamic extremism.

Often cited in this argument is an interview that Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, gave to the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur in 1998. “That very day [July 3, 1979], 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 said. “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would,” he added, asserting that the CIA program “had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap.”

A recent article in the academic journal Diplomatic History by the historian Conor Tobin challenges this criticism by arguing that the so-called “trap thesis”—that Brzezinski convinced Carter to provide assistance to the mujahedin in July 1979 with the express purpose of trapping Moscow in an “Afghan quagmire”—is a myth, one that has “filtered uncritically into the works of several reputable historians.” As a result, Tobin laments, “much criticism has been levied on the Carter administration,” especially after al-Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, for the chaos unleashed in Afghanistan. By contrast, he writes, “some historians have taken a more prudent approach by dismissing Brzezinski’s claims as ‘an example of self-ingratiation run amuck’ and ‘after-the-fact boasting designed to advance his own reputation.’”

To dispel criticism of the Carter administration, Tobin argues that not only does Brzezinski’s interview with Le Nouvel Observatuer have “significant problems… as an historical source,” but also that many of its claims are unsupported by the historical record. These facts should pose a problem for the legitimacy of the trap thesis, Tobin claims, especially given that the French interview been “used as the almost sole basis to prove the existence of a concerted effort to lure Moscow into the ‘Afghan trap.’”

Tobin largely succeeds in discrediting the idea that the Carter administration intended to draw in Moscow. The diplomatic record and the domestic political atmosphere as presented by Tobin suggest that over the course of 1979, Carter administration officials, including Brzezinski, did not want the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, Tobin’s evidence is insufficient to counter critics who hold Washington ultimately responsible for the bloodshed in Afghanistan, regardless of intentions. One can still argue that U.S. actions prior to the invasion greatly influenced and exacerbated the string of events that unfolded over the course of the next decade and beyond. This piece does so.

Active Build-Up, Passive Threats

Tobin argues that “U.S. policies, including the small-scale covert aid program, were peripheral to Moscow’s decision to intervene.” An alternative look at the historical record shows otherwise. In fact, concern over American presence in Afghanistan and the broader Persian Gulf was at the top of Soviet officials’ minds throughout 1979. David Gibbs writes that insider accounts of the Soviet decision-making process show that “toward the end of 1979, Soviet fears of growing U.S. influence in the region… were considerable” and that “this fear weighed heavily in the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan.”

As early as September 1978, prior to Carter’s expansion of the CIA’s role in Afghanistan, the KGB’s main motivation for signing an intelligence-sharing agreement with the government in Kabul was “to fight the growing CIA presence” in the country, according to a former KGB official.

Stemming from Brzezinski’s belief that “the only way to deter Soviet aggression was to signal concern and show that Washington was prepared to act in response,” Tobin builds a case that the national security advisor’s “actions through 1979 exhibited a meaningful effort to dissuade Moscow from intervening.” Tobin cites a New York Times article in August 1979 that reported on the Carter administration’s efforts to put “indirect pressure on the Soviet Union to end its intervention [in the form of assistance to the Kabul government] in Afghanistan.”

But Tobin does not mention that those efforts, according to the Times, also incorporated “a more assertive strategic posture in the Middle East‐Indian Ocean region,” including a plan to “augment [U.S.] military capabilities and ‘nearby military presence’” as part of the emerging, so-called “Carter Doctrine” articulated in the State of the Union address the following January. Whatever the professed intentions of administration officials, escalating military presence in the Soviet Union’s “underbelly” was not likely to produce Soviet restraint, but rather the opposite: increased anxiety and responsive escalation.

Case in point: In November 1979, the deployment of U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf in response to the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran “alarmed” Soviet officials, Vladislav Zubok writes, causing top foreign policy officials in Moscow “to think about Afghanistan exclusively in the light of Soviet-American zero-sum competition.” The Soviet defense minister reportedly wondered, “If Americans do all these preparations under our noses, why should we hunker down, play cautious, and lose Afghanistan?” The “last straw” that pushed Moscow to invade, Zubok argues, was NATO’s decision in December to deploy Pershing and cruise missiles in Western Europe, which contributed to the “worsening strategic situation.”  

All the while, Soviet officials suspected—falsely, as it turned out—that the leader of the Afghan communist party, Hafizullah Amin, was “doing a Sadat on us,” referring to how Egyptian president Anwar Sadat defected from the Soviet camp to align with the United States not even a decade prior. For Odd Arne Westad, the “perceived US challenge… increased the urgency of a solution to the Afghan crisis,” pushing the Soviet leadership to see “no other way to respond than through a military intervention.”

As for the CIA aid program itself, as Gibbs notes, “Though the size of the aid program was small, only several hundred thousand dollars, the program focused on a border area of long-standing interest to the Soviets.” While the aid program did not single-handedly provoke the Soviet invasion, it fueled the fire by empowering the insurgency, despite the fact that it was, as Tobin observes, “not designed to induce an intervention.”

Despite Carter administration officials’ clear preference that Moscow not invade, their actions inadvertently increased the likelihood of a Soviet invasion. If the goal of U.S. policy throughout 1979 was, in Tobin’s words, “to dissuade intervention” and “to prevent the consolidation of the Sovietization of Afghanistan,” the aid program and broader strategic maneuvers in the Gulf proved counterproductive in the end. Tobin’s analysis falls short because it fails to properly account for the effects of U.S. policy.

Threat is in the Eye of the Beholder

Tobin’s article also downplays the threat posed by the insurgency and the degree to which Moscow feared it. He argues that Moscow invaded not “due to any immediate insurgent threat” but rather “largely for defensive and political reasons related to the need to strengthen the Afghan revolution and the Soviet investment by replacing the unpredictable Amin with a more compliant leader.”

In reality, these motives were one and the same. While it is certainly true that Moscow invaded to replace the Khalqi faction of the Afghan communist party, led by Hafizullah Amin, with its favored Parcham faction led by Babrak Karmal, this move reflected not merely ideological disagreements with the former, but also a belief that the latter could more effectively secure Afghan communism in the civil war.

What began as a rebellion in Herat in March 1979 soon turned into a full-blown civil war that the Afghan army was struggling to win. “From the start the war went badly for the government forces,” Westad writes. By October and November, the rebels were getting closer and closer to Kabul, plunging the country into chaos. Soviet military advisors in Afghanistan were sending reports to Moscow on “how bad the situation actually was.” “Confronted by a far more potent and popular revolutionary force—the Afghani adherents of political Islam—and unable to reshape its domestic and foreign policies in such a way to gain stable alliances of any kind,” Westad writes, “the regime could not win the civil war.”

As Gibbs writes, Moscow’s “aim was to restrain what Soviet leaders regarded as an irresponsible [party] leadership, which risked destabilizing the USSR’s southern frontier” [emphasis mine]. Above all, Moscow wanted to “replace the unpredictable Amin with a more compliant leader” to preserve the existence and stability of a communist government in Kabul, which was under major—though perhaps not “immediate”—threat from a U.S.-backed insurgency.

As it should be clear now, even if “U.S. policies, including the small-scale covert aid program were,” as Tobin claims, “peripheral to Moscow’s decision to intervene,” the main effect of U.S. policies—namely, a strengthening of the insurgency—significantly contributed to the decision to invade.

A (Long) History of Violence

Lastly, a broader historical view than the one Tobin uses reveals a long history of destabilization efforts in Afghanistan by the United States, Pakistan, and Iran. These began in the wake of Mohammed Daoud’s coup in 1973, not the summer of 1979; the consequences of those interventions undoubtedly set the stage for the eventual Soviet invasion. 

To be sure, as Robert Rakove has noted, while the available diplomatic record “does not refute” the claim that the U.S., Pakistan, and Iran sought to undermine Daoud’s government by arming fundamentalists, “neither does it support it directly.” But given what we know about the extensive efforts of the leading foreign policy official at the time, Henry Kissinger, to operate covertly, “we don’t need a smoking gun to appreciate the larger context, to consider the negative consequences of his initiatives,” as Greg Grandin has argued.

Still, at least one of the program’s operational architects—William Lewis, director of the Office of Security Assistance in the State Department’s Bureau of Political and Military Affairs from 1974 to 1976—acknowledged the existence of such a program. “Through a discreet form of covert paramilitary assistance to groups opposed to [the governments in Afghanistan and Iraq], Washington hoped to keep Baghdad and Kabul—and by extension Moscow—off balance,” Lewis and his coauthor Michael Ledeen wrote in 1981. “These programs included clandestine support for Kurdish independence movements, and arms to dissident groups in Afghanistan.”

Although these groups did not pose a major threat to Daoud’s government, the influx of weapons in the mid-1970s to Islamic fundamentalists set the stage for their insurgency in 1979. This early lethal assistance cannot be ignored as a casual factor for the Soviet invasion.

* * *

In getting the story right on the Carter administration’s intensions, Tobin’s article overcorrects in a way that whitewashes American responsibility for the chaos unleashed in Afghanistan and decenters U.S. influence over events, turning Washington into an “empire of innocence.” Had Carter firmly decided against aiding the mujahedin and refrained from initiating a military build-up in the Persian Gulf, it is possible that the Soviet Union would have never invaded. Carter’s policies were not the reason for the invasion, but they undoubtedly made it more likely, despite his administration’s intentions otherwise.

Along the same lines, had Carter not decided to arm the mujahedin three days after the Soviet invasion, it is possible that the insurgency would have been crushed early on—forestalling a devastating nine-year war. While counterfactuals certainly cannot be proven, it is worth entertaining the idea that there were options available that did not fan the flames of war. Carter did not take those options. Instead, he chose escalation.

Scholarly criticisms of the Carter administration, while perhaps not as tailored as Tobin sees fit or as clean as the diplomatic record allows, nevertheless still sing the right tune. The United States still bears a great deal of responsibility for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the resulting violence and instability there. Without a proper reckoning of the Carter administration’s culpability at this watershed moment in superpower relations, what’s to prevent the United States from repeating its escalatory behavior elsewhere?

Not much, apparently. A similar dynamic emerged decades later when, during the early years of the Syrian civil war, the United States began facilitating weapons transfers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to the so-called “moderate rebels” in Syria, before it ultimately initiated its own covert arm-and-equip program. As Aaron Stein notes, this intervention prompted Russia to begin its counter military intervention in October 2015 to shore up the Assad government against a fanatical insurgency. Just like in 1979, Obama administration officials did not deliberately attempt to provoke a Russian intervention in Syria, but their policies ultimately produced that result anyway. Similarly, the “quagmire” justification was grafted on to both cases only after the fact.

Pinning some of the blame on the Carter administration for Afghanistan’s destruction prompts readers of history and international relations to consider what the goals of U.S. foreign policy should be. Pounding the nail in détente’s coffin, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provoked a strong international backlash at a moment when Moscow was already the primary target of a burgeoning human rights movement. This geopolitical windfall for the United States in a recrudescent Cold War came at a significant humanitarian cost—nearly two million dead Afghans—a reality that undermines dominant perceptions of Washington as the underwriter of peace and stability in international order.

If ordering the world is an “inherently imperial undertaking,” as Patrick Porter argues, with devastating consequences for the global periphery and ugly domestic blowback, should the United States continue to pursue global political and military supremacy? Or should it instead focus its global engagement on fighting climate change and reversing economic inequality? A lot of lives are on the line in how we answer these questions.


Gunar Olsen is an independent scholar and writer who covers the politics of U.S. imperialism. He provides research assistance to the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and tweets at @GunarOlsen.

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