Thinking Aloud: “What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989”

Aug. 20, 2014 by Darius 

I recently read What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by former CIA analyst and National Security Council member Bruce Riedel.  Riedel’s book differs from other accounts of US policy towards the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in that Riedel, in the CIA at the time, was intimately involved and knew many of the players personally.

The basic facts of the Afghan war are straightforward: in 1978, the Communist Party in Afghanistan overthrew the government and took power in what became known as the Saur Revolution.  Soon after, a popular uprising in Afghanistan began in response to the Communist Party’s atheism and support for gender equality.  This uprising came to threaten the survival of the Communist regime, so in December 1979, the Soviet Union, on Afghanistan’s northern border, responded to repeated requests for assistance by the Afghan government and entered the country to shore up the Communist regime.  The US saw an opportunity to create a Vietnam-like quagmire for the USSR and began funneling arms to the Afghan rebels, known as mujahedin.  Ten years later, the Soviets retreated, defeated, and the USSR broke up soon after, as well as the Afghan Communist government.

What We Won makes a number of important corrections to the mainstream historical record of the Afghan War (in the US anyway).  US support for the mujahedin is popularly portrayed as “Charlie Wilson’s War,” named for the flamboyant Texas congressman who was instrumental in pushing for more funding in Congress for the mujahedin.  But Charlie Wilson doesn’t deserve the credit, according to Riedel.  From the US end of things, it was President Jimmy Carter who decided to take a strong stance against the Soviet invasion.  By the time Carter left office in 1981, US arms and money were flowing to Afghanistan in large quantities.  His successor, President Ronald Reagan, merely inherited and expanded Carter’s policy.  In the US, Carter does not get the credit he deserves.

The Americans, though, were not the major players in the Afghan war.  Riedel has described the US as merely the “quartermaster” for the war.  Instead, Riedel rightly focuses on the true major players: the Afghans themselves, who did almost all the fighting and dying, the Saudi royal family, which matched American funds dollar for dollar, and, above all, General Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator of neighboring Pakistan at the time.

Without Zia’s aggressive partnership, US and Saudi efforts against the Soviets would have been meaningless.  With the exception of a small amount of Iranian aid, everything that came into Afghanistan went via Pakistan and Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI.  As the war went on, Zia became increasingly bold, approving raids into the USSR itself and ISI commando teams on the ground in Afghanistan.  Zia was also running the greatest risk: the Soviet forces in Afghanistan could have easily invaded Pakistan as well.  A joint Soviet-Indian attack on Pakistan could have overrun Pakistan completely.  Zia was well aware of these risks, yet chose to pursue an aggressive policy in Afghanistan, leading the charge to change the goal of the war from bleeding Soviet forces  in Afghanistan to expelling them entirely.

What We Won is very well-researched and well-written.  My biggest complaint is that, at times, the book is short on details – it seems more of a sketch than a finished project.  It is clear that Riedel knows a great deal on the subject, and the book could have benefited from him sharing his knowledge for more than 175 pages.  Regardless, though, What We Won is an accessible, corrective, insider account that would appeal to anyone with an interest in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the CIA, or pretty much the entire rise of Islamic insurgency.

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