President Reagan’s campaign to fund the Nicaraguan contras has distracted public attention from the much larger covert war operation in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan funding is currently at least $275 million per year but it may be double that—the exact sums are discreetly hidden as “other procurement” lines in military appropriations bills. The absence of Congressional controversy over the US role in Afghanistan has kept the sum secret. “As the Nicaraguan operation became the bad war,” said one administration official, “the one in Afghanistan became the good war.”
The counterrevolutionary project in Afghanistan shares several features with its Nicaraguan counterpart. According to Alexander Alexiev, a Rand Corporation consultant who visited Afghanistan for the Pentagon, “Corruption is rampant….Some of the political leaders live in fancy villas and have fat bank accounts, while the fighters don’t have boots five years into the war.” Estimates of the arms and aid that never reach the combatants range as high as 80 percent. Another common element is the importance of illicit drug trafficking to sustain counterrevolutionary operations. According to international narcotics officials, Afghanistan is the largest single source of illegal opium. Finally, there is the matter of battlefield comportment. The destruction caused by the Kabul regime’s bombing campaigns has been widely publicized in the West, but the atrocities of the Afghani mujahidin have escaped this limelight. The Washington Post reported in early 1985 that the US government “has confirmed reports that the CIA-supported insurgents drugged, tortured and forced from 50 to 200 Soviet prisoners to live like animals in cages.” According to one account, “There are 70 Russian prisoners living lives of indescribable horror.”
The presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan wraps the mujahidin cause in an American flag. Representative Charles Wilson of Texas, a major congressional proponent of covert aid, sees his campaign as one of revenge for Vietnam: “There were 58,000 dead [Americans] in Vietnam and we owe the Russians one and you can quote me on that.” The popularity of the Afghan cause has Congresspeople competing to propose even greater funding than the administration wants. Mainly because of Pakistani insistence that its role remain “deniable” to the Soviets, the Reagan administration has resisted a campaign to make the covert aid overt. But it has not resisted Congressional efforts to double its funding requests for this particular line item.
US covert support for anti-regime forces predates the Soviet intervention of December 1979. Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his memoirs, brags that in April 1979 he “pushed a decision through the SCC to be more sympathetic to those Afghans who were determined to preserve their country’s independence.” (The Special Coordination Council was the National Security Council body responsible for covert operations.) In September 1979, Brzezinski writes, he “consulted with the Saudis and the Egyptians regarding the fighting in Afghanistan.”
Along with Pakistan and China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have continued to play key supporting roles. Pakistan has been the conduit for arms and material assistance to the rebels and a sanctuary area as well. (An estimated 2.5 to 3 million Afghanis are living as refugees in Pakistan.) Saudi Arabia has “matched” official (but secret) US disbursements to the rebels (more than $500 million in the last two years alone). Egypt provided Soviet-model weapons in its inventory and from its factories which were then replenished by American military hardware. The Chinese connection has been more discrete. In the words of one participant in Defense Secretary Harold Brown’s Peking negotiations of January 1980: “We let it be known we were going to do certain things. They let it be known they were going to do certain things.”
Even ballpark figures for the extent of US covert financing are difficult to come by. Most accounts mention $20 to $30 million per year in the 1980-82 period (plus the Saudi “matching funds”). It appears that by 1983 the US component was in the range of $50 million per year. By early 1983, the “bleeders” in the administration—those who argued for an expanded war to tie down Soviet forces and drain its economy rather than push for a negotiated Soviet withdrawal—had carried the day. The quantity and quality of war materiel to the rebels increased. When UN-sponsored negotiations between Afghanistan and Pakistan looked especially productive, the administration revealed the magnitude of its covert aid, thereby signalling Washington’s lack of genuine interest in a political settlement. In mid-1984, a lobbyist of the Washington-based Federation for American Afghan Action put US total aid at $325 million. In July 1984, Representative Wilson pushed through an additional $50 million for fiscal year 1985. According to press reports, the figures for fiscal years 1986 and 1987 total $250 million and $275 million.
Lawrence Lifschultz provided an excellent account of the US attitude towards the stalemated UN talks in The Nation (May 31, 1986). The fourth round of the talks, in June 1985, agreed on principles of non-interference in Afghan affairs, international guarantees and return of Afghan refugees. Unresolved is the linkage between the withdrawal of Soviet forces and Pakistani restraints on rebel activity from its territory. Lifschultz notes that not everyone is interested in a settlement: “In Southwest Asia the United States and the Soviet Union have advanced ‘forward policies’ that have brought their military establishments into closer proximity in a region where for decades great-power conflicts had been mediated by buffer states. The military and intelligence establishments in the United States and the Soviet Union, to speak nothing of sister agencies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, have acquired huge budgetary allocations premised on current trends in the Afghan war and preparation for wider wars yet to take shape in the region. The negotiations can conclude successfully only if the prevailing momentum toward greater militarization, the fostering of garrison states and the extension of covert warfare is halted.”
: Washington Post, January 13, 1985 and June 20, 1986; Congressional Quarterly, August 4, 1984; Jay Peterzell, Reagan’s Secret Wars (Washington: Center for National Security Studies, 1984); Time, June 11, 1984; New York Times, May 4, 1983, June 18 and 19, 1986; Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1981.