Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who last week was hailed in the Washington Post as someone “incapable of dissembling,” dissembled to a gullible press corps about the history of U.S. dealings with Afghanistan while en route to that country on Monday.
The headline from Gates’s in-air briefing of reporters was that “we are in this thing to win,” a statement which undercut President Barack Obama’s more nuanced explanation of U.S. goals as blocking the Taliban from restoring Afghanistan as a safe haven for al-Qaeda terrorists.
But Gates went further, declaring "that we are not going to repeat the situation in 1989" when the United States supposedly abandoned Afghanistan once the Soviet Union had withdrawn its last military units on Feb. 15, 1989.
However, while that story of the 1989 abandonment may be a powerful conventional wisdom in Washington – popularized by the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” – it is substantially untrue, and former CIA Director Gates knows it to be a myth.
What actually happened in 1989 was that President George H.W. Bush rebuffed overtures from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for a negotiated settlement of the war that envisioned a coalition government involving Soviet-backed President Najibullah and the CIA-backed mujahedeen warlords.
Instead, Bush escalated the purpose of the conflict, revising the intelligence finding that had justified the U.S. covert operation. Instead of Ronald Reagan’s goal of helping the Afghans drive out the Soviet army, Bush approved a more elastic rationale, seeking Afghan self-determination.
The reason for rebuffing Gorbachev and continuing the war was simple: Gates’s CIA analytical division – which he had packed with Cold War hardliners – was projecting a rapid collapse of Najibullah’s government. That would mean a complete humiliation of the Soviets and a total triumph for the United States and the CIA.
In 1989, I was a correspondent for Newsweek magazine covering intelligence issues. After the Soviets left Afghanistan, I asked CIA officials why they were continuing the bloodshed. Why not, I asked, just look for a way to bring the war to an end with some kind of national unity government? Hadn’t the U.S. national interest of driving out the Soviets been achieved?
One of the CIA hardliners responded to my question with disgust. “We want to see Najibullah strung up by a light pole,” he snapped.
What I thought I was hearing was CIA bravado, but the comment actually reflected an internal U.S. government debate. Since the last year of the Reagan administration in 1988, the CIA had been predicting a quick end to the Najibullah government – if and when the Soviet army left.
However, the State Department foresaw a drawn-out struggle. Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead and the department’s intelligence chief Morton Abramowitz challenged the CIA’s assumptions and warned that Najibullah’s army might hold on longer than the CIA expected.
But Gates pushed the CIA analysis of a rapid Najibullah collapse and prevailed in the policy debates.
Gates described this internal battle in his 1996 memoir, From the Shadows, recalling how he briefed Secretary of State George Shultz and his senior aides about the CIA’s prediction prior to Shultz flying to Moscow in February 1988.
“I told them that most analysts did not believe Najibullah’s government could last without active Soviet military support,” wrote Gates, who also was predicting privately that the Soviets would not depart Afghanistan despite Gorbachev’s assurances that they would.
After the Soviets did withdraw in early 1989, some U.S. officials felt Washington’s geostrategic aims had been achieved and a move toward peace was in order. There also was concern about the Afghan mujahedeen, especially their tendencies toward brutality, heroin trafficking and fundamentalist religious policies.
Yet, the new administration of George H.W. Bush – with Gates having moved from the CIA to the White House as deputy national security adviser – chose to continue U.S. covert support for the mujahedeen, funneled primarily through Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI.
However, instead of a fast collapse, Najibullah’s regime used its Soviet weapons and advisers to beat back a mujahedeen offensive in 1990. Najibullah hung on – and the war, the violence and the disorder continued.
Gates finally recognized that his CIA rapid-collapse analysis was wrong. In his memoir, he wrote: “As it turned out, Whitehead and Abramowitz were right” in their warning that Najibullah’s regime might not collapse so quickly.
Another comment in his memoir bears on Gates’s statement to reporters on Monday reiterating the myth about the United States having immediately abandoned the Afghan cause once the Soviets left in February 1989. By his own hand, Gates wrote that he understood the true reality, that the U.S. government hadn’t bailed out of Afghanistan right away.
“Najibullah would remain in power for another three years [after the Soviet pull-out], as the United States and the USSR continued to aid their respective sides,” Gates wrote in his memoir. “On Dec. 11, 1991, both Moscow and Washington cut off all assistance, and Najibullah’s government fell four months later. He had outlasted both Gorbachev and the Soviet Union itself.”
So, in telling reporters that the United States had abandoned the Afghan cause in 1989, Gates was at best dissembling, playing to a popular conventional wisdom that he knew to be false but that buttresses his current case that the United States must escalate the Afghan War to “win.”
In truth, Gates seems to have learned nothing from the real lesson of 1989 – that a misguided determination for total victory in Afghanistan only prolongs the violence, makes matters worse, and harms U.S. national security.
Instead of seeking a negotiated peace among adversaries in 1989, President George H.W. Bush embraced Gates’s hard-line strategy, rejecting Gorbachev’s olive branch and adopting a triumphalist approach to the complex Afghan civil war.
By the time it became apparent to Bush that the Gates-CIA scenario of a quick mujahedeen victory was an illusion, Gorbachev was no longer in a position to broker an Afghan peace deal. He was fighting for his own political survival against hard-line communists in Moscow. [By the way, Gates and his politicized CIA analytical division also missed the coming collapse of the Soviet Union.]
It was not until late 1991 after Gorbachev’s government had collapsed – along with the Soviet Union – that Russia’s new president, Boris Yelsin, and the United States finally stepped back from the Afghan quagmire.
Najibullah’s belated fall in 1992 may have brought an end to the communist regime, but it didn’t stop the war. The capital of Kabul came under the control of a relatively moderate rebel force led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, an Islamist but not a fanatic. Massoud, a Tajik, was not favored by Pakistan’s ISI that backed more extreme Pashtun elements of the mujahedeen.
The various Afghan warlords battled for another four years as the ISI readied its own army of Islamic extremists drawn from Pashtun refugee camps inside Pakistan. With the ISI's backing, this group, known as the Taliban, entered Afghanistan with the promise of restoring order.
The Taliban seized the capital of Kabul in September 1996, driving Massoud into a northward retreat. The ousted communist leader Najibullah, who had stayed in Kabul, sought shelter in the United Nations compound, but was captured.
The Taliban tortured, castrated and killed him, his mutilated body hung from a light pole, just as CIA hardliners had envisioned seven years earlier.
The triumphant Taliban then imposed harsh Islamic law on Afghanistan. Their rule was especially devastating to women who had made gains toward equal rights under the communists, but were forced by the Taliban to live under highly restrictive rules, to cover themselves when in public, and to forgo schooling.
In the late 1990s, the Taliban also granted Saudi exile Osama bin Laden and his extremist al-Qaeda organization a safe haven when they were on the run from the United States and its allies angered over bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa and other terrorist attacks.
Bin Laden, who shared the Taliban’s fundamentalist view of Islam, was welcomed back because bin Laden and his fellow Arab militants had collaborated with the CIA-supported Afghan rebels in their war against the Soviets in the 1980s.
By the late 1990s, however, bin Laden and al-Qaeda had a new enemy: the United States. The stage was set for the 9/11 attacks.
Though Gates is familiar with all this ugly history – and even recounts some of it in his memoir – he was happy to mislead the journalists who were aboard his plane on his Monday trip to Afghanistan, and the reporters either didn’t know enough or didn’t dare to challenge him.
Gates also has eagerly promoted another useful myth – the one about the “successful surge” in Iraq – as a way to lock President Obama in on following Gates’s internal recommendation that Obama sign off on a “surge” of 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to about 100,000, roughly the same number that the Soviet Union committed in the 1980s.
Although the “successful surge” myth in Iraq is now a cherished conventional wisdom in Washington, the actual evidence of why Iraqi violence declined points to many other reasons – some predating President George W. Bush’s 2007 order to send in more than 20,000 additional troops. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Explaining the Drop in Iraqi War Dead” and “Obama Pleases the Neocons.”]
Which brings us to another myth, the one about Gates as a new Wise Man who would never mislead the public.
Last Friday, Washington Post columnist David Broder, who is called “the dean of the Washington press corps,” continued the deification of Gates with praise about the Defense Secretary’s forthrightness. In commenting about the Afghan War and the Obama administration’s decision to escalate, Broder wrote that Gates is “incapable of dissembling.”
The absurdity of Broder’s column is another reflection of how the Washington press corps has veered away from its responsibility to speak truth to power. From his earliest days at the CIA, Gates has been a master of deceit. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Secret World of Robert Gates.”]
Yet, with one Washington myth layered upon another and another, the Obama administration now heads off into the dangerous terrain of Afghanistan with a plan that repeats – more than it learns from – the mistakes of the past.
[For more on this topic see, Consortiumnews.com's "Why Afghanistan Really Fell Apart."]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on December 8, 2009.