“Lenin Taught Us”

YURI ANDROPOV was a rising force within the gray cabal that circled the Kremlin’s listless don, the hound-faced Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At sixty-five, Andropov knew—or thought he knew—how to smother a rebellion. As a young communist apparatchik he had soared to prominence as ambassador to Budapest when Soviet troops crushed the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He became KGB chief a decade later, managing the vast apparatus of Soviet internal security and external espionage. He was the leading spy in a political system constructed on deception. From his service’s headquarters in the Lubyanka on Moscow’s Dzerzhinsky Square, Andropov oversaw KGB foreign covert operations, attempted penetrations of the CIA, and campaigned to suppress dissent within the Soviet Union. Ashen-faced, he conformed outwardly to the drab personal norms of collective leadership. Because he also read Plato, led drives against Soviet corruption, and mentored younger reformers such as Mikhail Gorbachev, a few Kremlin watchers in the West saw tiny glimmers of enlightenment in Andropov, at least in comparison to decaying elder statesmen such as foreign minister Andrei Gromyko or defense minister Dimitri Ustinov.1 Yet Andropov’s KGB remained ruthless and murderous at home and abroad. In Third World outposts such as Kabul, his lieutenants tortured and killed with impunity. Communist allies who fell out of favor were murdered or exiled. Political detainees languished by the hundreds of thousands in cruel gulags.

Neither Andropov nor the KGB saw Afghanistan’s anticommunist revolt coming. The first sharp mutiny erupted in Herat in March 1979, soon after Kabul’s recently installed Marxists announced a compulsory initiative to teach girls to read. Such literacy drives were a staple of red-splashed Soviet propaganda posters shipped by the trainload to Third World client states. Women workers on the march: muscled and unsmiling, progressive and determined, chins jutted, staring into the future. Earlier in the century, as the Bolsheviks swept through the republics that became Soviet Central Asia—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan—they had transformed pastoral Islamic societies into insistently godless police states. Women poured into factories and onto collective farms. So it would be in neighboring Afghanistan, the KGB’s political specialists believed.

For nearly two decades the KGB had secretly funded and nurtured communist leadership networks at Kabul University and in the Afghan army, training and indoctrinating some 3,725 military personnel on Soviet soil. Afghan president Mohammed Daoud played Moscow and Washington against each other during the 1970s, accepting financial aid and construction projects from each in a precarious balancing act. In April 1978, Daoud fell off his beam. He arrested communist leaders in Kabul after they staged a noisy protest. Soviet-backed conspirators seeded within the Afghan army shot him dead days later in a reception room of his tattered palace. Triumphant Afghan leftists ripped down the green-striped national flag and unfurled red banners across a rural and deeply religious nation barely acquainted with industrial technology or modernism. Hundreds of Soviet military and political advisers were barracked in Afghan cities and towns to organize secret police networks, army and militia units, small factories, and coeducational schools. Advised by the KGB, Kabul’s Marxists launched a terror campaign against religious and social leaders who might have the standing to challenge communist rule. By 1979 about twelve thousand political prisoners had been jailed. Systematic executions began behind prison walls.2

No less than America’s modernizing capitalists, Russia’s retrenching communists underestimated the Iranian revolution. They failed initially to detect the virus of Islamist militancy spreading north and east from Tehran through informal underground networks. The Kremlin and its supporting academies possessed few experts on Islam.3 The Soviet Union’s closest allies in the Middle East were secular regimes such as Syria and Iraq. Like the Americans, the Soviets had directed most of their resources and talent toward the ideological battlefields of Europe and Asia during the previous two decades.

In the early spring of 1979 religious activists inspired by Khomeini’s triumphant return carried their defiant gospel across Iran’s open desert border with Afghanistan, particularly to Herat, an ancient crossroads on an open plain long bound to Iran by trade and politics. A Persian-accented desert town watered by the Hari Rud River, Herat’s traditional cultures and schools of Islam—which included prominent strains of mysticism—were not as severe toward women as in some rural areas of Afghanistan to the east. Yet it was a pious city. Its population included many followers of Shiism, Iran’s dominant Islamic sect. And as elsewhere, even non-Shias found themselves energized in early 1979 by Khomeini’s religious-political revival. Oblivious, Kabul’s communists and their Soviet advisers pressed secular reforms prescribed in Marxist texts. In addition to their literacy campaigns for girls they conscripted soldiers and seized lands previously controlled by tribal elders and Islamic scholars. They abolished Islamic lending systems, banned dowries for brides, legislated freedom of choice within marriages, and mandated universal education in Marxist dogma.

A charismatic Afghan army captain named Ismail Khan called for jihad against the communist usurpers that March and led his heavily armed Herat garrison into violent revolt. His followers hunted down and hacked to death more than a dozen Russian communist political advisers, as well as their wives and children.4 The rebels displayed Russian corpses on pikes along shaded city streets. Soviet-trained pilots flew bomber-jets out of Kabul in vengeful reply, pulverizing the town in remorseless waves of attack. By the time the raids were finished, on the eve of its first anniversary in power, the Afghan communist government had killed as many as twenty thousand of its own citizenry in Herat alone. Ismail Khan escaped and helped spread rebellion in the western countryside.

As Herat burned, KGB officers seethed. “Bearing in mind that we will be labeled as an aggressor, but in spite of that, under no circumstances can we lose Afghanistan,” Andropov told a crisis session of the Soviet Politburo meeting secretly behind Moscow’s Kremlin ramparts on March 17, 1979.5

Records of the Kremlin’s private discussions in Moscow that spring, unavailable to Americans at the time, depict a Soviet leadership dominated by KGB viewpoints. Andropov was a rising figure as Brezhnev faded. His Kabul outpost, the KGB Residency, as it was called, maintained many of the contacts and financial relationships with Afghan communist leaders, bypassing Soviet diplomats.

The Afghans were confusing and frustrating clients, however. Andropov and the rest of Brezhnev’s lieutenants found their Afghan communist comrades dense, self-absorbed, and unreliable. The Afghan Marxists had taken their Moscow-supplied revolutionary textbooks much too literally. They were moving too fast. They had split into irreconcilable party factions, and they argued over petty privileges and arid ideology.

“The problem,” noted Ustinov at a March 18 Politburo meeting, “is that the leadership of Afghanistan did not sufficiently appreciate the role of Islamic fundamentalists.”

“It is completely clear to us that Afghanistan is not ready at this time to resolve all of the issues it faces through socialism,” Andropov acknowledged. “The economy is backward, the Islamic religion predominates, and nearly all of the rural population is illiterate. We know Lenin’s teaching about a revolutionary situation.Whatever situation we are talking about in Afghanistan, it is not that type of situation.”6

The group dispatched former premier Alexei Kosygin to telephone the Afghan communist boss, Nur Mohammed Taraki, an inexperienced thug, to see if they could persuade him to steer a more measured course. Taraki had spent the first year of the Afghan communist revolution constructing a personality cult. He had printed and tacked up thousands of posters that displayed his photograph and described him as “The Great Teacher.” As his countrymen rose in mass revolt, Taraki maneuvered Afghan communist rivals into exile. He had confided at a Kabul reception for a KGB delegation that he saw himself directly following Lenin’s example, forswearing any compromises with noncommunist Afghans and seizing the early period of his revolution to establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat, based on the Soviet model.” The murders of political prisoners under way in Kabul jails might be severe, Taraki once told his KGB handlers, but “Lenin taught us to be merciless towards the enemies of the revolution and millions of people had to be eliminated in order to secure the victory of the October Revolution” in the Soviet Union in 1917.

Kosygin placed the call to Taraki on March 18, in the midst of the Polit-buro’s crisis sessions. “The situation is bad and getting worse,” Taraki admitted. Herat was falling to the newly emerging Islamic opposition. The city was “almost wholly under the influence of Shiite slogans.”

“Do you have the forces to rout them?” Kosygin asked.

“I wish it were the case,” Taraki said.

The Afghan communists desperately needed direct Soviet military assistance, Taraki pleaded.

“Hundreds of Afghan officers were trained in the Soviet Union. Where are they all now?” an exasperated Kosygin inquired.

“Most of them are Muslim reactionaries. . . . What else do they call themselves—the Muslim Brotherhood,” Taraki said. “We are unable to rely on them. We have no confidence in them.”

Taraki had a solution, however. Moscow, he advised, should secretly send in regiments of Soviet soldiers drawn from its Central Asian republics. “Why can’t the Soviet Union send Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Turkmens in civilian clothing?” Taraki pleaded. “No one will recognize them. . . . They could drive tanks, because we have all these nationalities in Afghanistan. Let them don Afghan costume and wear Afghan badges, and no one will recognize them.” Iran and Pakistan were using this clandestine method, Taraki believed, to foment the Islamic revolution, infiltrating into Afghanistan their own regular troops disguised as guerrillas.

“You are, of course, oversimplifying the issue,” Kosygin sniffed. Afghanistan’s rising Islamic rebellion, he told Taraki, presented “a complex political and international issue.”7

THE CIA SENT its first classified proposals for secret support to the anticommunist Afghan rebels to Jimmy Carter’s White House in early March 1979, just as the revolt in Herat began to gather force. The options paper went to the Special Coordination Committee, an unpublicized Cabinet subgroup that oversaw covert action on the president’s behalf. The CIA’s covering memo reported that Soviet leaders were clearly worried about the gathering Afghan revolt. It noted that Soviet-controlled media had launched a propaganda campaign to accuse the United States, Pakistan, and Egypt of secretly backing the Afghan Islamic insurgents. In fact, the United States had not done so until now. Perhaps this would be a good time to begin.8

The upheaval in Iran had created new vulnerabilities for the United States in the Middle East. The KGB might seek to exploit this chaos. Here was an opportunity to deflect some of the fire spreading from Khomeini’s pulpit away from the United States and toward the Soviet Union. A sustained rebellion in Afghanistan might constrain the Soviets’ ability to project power into Middle Eastern oil fields. It also might embarrass and tie down Afghan and perhaps Soviet forces as they attempted to quell the uprising. Still, this was a risky course. The Soviets might retaliate if they saw an American hand in their Afghan cauldron. Carter’s White House remained undecided about the CIA’s initial options paper. On March 6 the Special Coordination Committee asked the CIA to develop a second round of proposals for covert action.

The CIA’s chief analyst for Soviet affairs, Arnold Hoelick, wrote a worried memo to Admiral Stansfield Turner, the CIA’s director. Hoelick feared that Taraki’s communist regime might disintegrate, prompting the Soviets to intervene. A Soviet incursion might lead Pakistan, Iran, and perhaps China to augment secret support to the Afghan rebels. General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan might then ask the United States to openly oppose or deter any Soviet military thrust across Pakistan’s border. Here was a scenario for the outbreak of World War III, with all of its horrifying potential for nuclear escalation. As to Moscow’s attitude toward the floundering Kabul communists, Hoelick concluded that in at least some scenarios “the Soviets may well be prepared to intervene on behalf of the ruling group.”9

As the CIA and KGB hurtled forward that spring, each had glimpses of the other’s motivations, but neither fully understood the other’s calculus.

From CIA headquarters at Langley clandestine service officers in the Near East Division reached out to Pakistani and Saudi contacts to explore what might be done on the ground inside Afghanistan. At last, some of the CIA officers felt, the agency was taking initiative. The exploration of an Afghan covert action plan, however tentative, seemed to these Near East hands a rare exception to what had become a dismal, defensive, passive period at the CIA.

Widely publicized congressional hearings a few years before had exposed agency assassination plots in Cuba, rogue covert operations in Latin America, and other shocking secrets. An American public and Congress already outraged about governmental abuses of power after Watergate had turned on the CIA, creating a hostile political environment for agency operations. Assassinations had been formally and legally banned by executive order. New laws and procedures had been enacted to ensure presidential and congressional control over CIA covert actions. Inside Langley the reforms produced anger and demoralization among the professional spy cadres, and even among those who welcomed some of the changes. The CIA had only been doing its job, following presidential directives, sometimes at great personal risk to the officers involved, many at Langley felt. Now there was a sense in Washington that the agency had all along been a kind of criminal organization, a black hole of outrageous conspiracies. By 1979 the public and congressional back-lash far exceeded the scale of the original abuses, many career CIA officers believed. Meanwhile Jimmy Carter had sent a team of brass-polish outsiders, led by Navy Admiral Turner, to whip them into shape. To cut the CIA’s budget Turner had issued pink slips to scores of clandestine service case officers, the first substantial layoffs in the agency’s history. Inside the Directorate of Operations it felt as if they had hit rock bottom.10

As they probed for options in Afghanistan that spring, officers in the CIA’s Near East Division reported that General Zia in Pakistan might be willing to step up his existing low-level clandestine support for the Afghan insurgents. The general was concerned, however, that unless the United States committed to protect Pakistan from Soviet retaliation, they “could not risk Soviet wrath” by increasing support to the anticommunist rebels too much, the CIA officers reported.11

Diplomatic relations between the United States and Pakistan had reached a nadir in 1979, but the CIA had kept its liaison channels in Islamabad open. Zia understood that no matter how sternly Jimmy Carter might denounce him in public because of his poor human rights record or his secret nuclear program, he had backdoor influence in Washington through the CIA. Khomeini’s victory early in the year had led to the loss of vital American electronic listening stations based in Iran and trained on the Soviet Union. Zia had accepted a CIA proposal to locate new facilities in Pakistan. For decades there had been these sorts of layers within layers in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. During the 1960s the first American U-2 spy planes had flown secretly out of Peshawar air bases. During the early 1970s Henry Kissinger had used Pakistani intermediaries to forge his secret opening to China. For his part, Zia saw covert operations as the most prudent way to pursue his regional foreign policy and military objectives. Pakistan had lost half its territory in a war with India eight years earlier. It was too small and too weak a country to openly challenge its neighbors with military force. Zia preferred to strike and hide.

Jimmy Carter’s deputy national security adviser, David Aaron, chaired a second secret session of the Special Coordination Committee on March 30 to consider direct American covert aid to the Afghan rebellion. It was just two weeks after Kosygin’s stalemated telephone conversation with Taraki. The State Department’s David Newsom explained to the group that the Carter administration now sought “to reverse the current Soviet trend and presence in Afghanistan, to demonstrate to the Pakistanis our interest and concern about Soviet involvement, and to demonstrate to the Pakistanis, Saudis, and others our resolve to stop extension of Soviet influence in the Third World.” But what steps, exactly, should they take? Should they supply guns and ammunition to defecting Afghan army units? How would the Soviets react?

Aaron posed the central question: “Is there interest in maintaining and assisting the insurgency, or is the risk that we will provoke the Soviets too great?”

They decided to keep studying their options.12

Within days Afghan army officers in Jalalabad followed Ismail Khan’s example and mutinied against the communists, murdering Soviet advisers. Afghan commanders climbed into their tanks and rumbled over to the rebel lines, declaring themselves allies of the jihad. To Jalalabad’s north, in a village of Kunar province known as Kerala, Afghan government forces accompanied by Soviet advisers carried out a massacre of hundreds of men and boys. As word of this and other executions spread in the Afghan countryside, defections and desertions from government army units mounted. Week by week that spring the communist-led army melted with the snow, its conscripts sliding away into the rock canyons and pine-forested mountains where mujahedin (“holy warrior”) rebel units had begun to acquire large swaths of uncontested territory.13

Most analysts at CIA and other American intelligence agencies continued to predict that the Soviet forces would not invade to quell the rebellion. As summer neared, the CIA documented shipments of attack helicopters from the Soviet Union to Afghanistan and described increasing involvement by Soviet military advisers on the ground. But Langley’s analysts felt the Politburo would try to minimize direct involvement. So did the U.S. embassy in Moscow. “Under foreseeable circumstances,” predicted a Secret cable from the embassy on May 24, the Soviet Union “will probably avoid shouldering a substantial part of the anti-insurgency combat.”14

The cable accurately reflected the mood inside the Kremlin. The KGB’s Andropov—along with Gromyko and Ustinov—formed a working group that spring to study the emerging crises in Afghan communism. None of their options seemed attractive. They completed a top-secret report for Brezhnev on June 28. The Afghan revolution was struggling because of “economic backwardness, the small size of the working class,” and the weakness of the local Communist Party, as well as the selfishness of its Afghan leaders, they concluded.15

Andropov’s team drafted a letter to Great Teacher Taraki urging him to stop squabbling with his rivals. They instructed him to involve more comrades in revolutionary leadership and soften his stance toward Islam. They advised him to work at recruiting mullahs onto the communist payroll and “convincing the broad number of Muslims that the socioeconomic reforms . . . will not affect the religious beliefs of Muslims.” For his part, Taraki preferred guns. He still wanted Soviet troops to confront the rebels.16

In Washington that week, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, the son of a Polish diplomat whose family was forced into exile by the Nazi invasion and later by Soviet occupation, recommended that President Carter endorse “non-lethal” covert support for the Afghan rebels. There were too few opportunities to embarrass the Soviets in the Third World, Brzezinski believed. One had now presented itself in Afghanistan. The risks could be managed. Brzezinski’s plan was a compromise that bridged unresolved arguments within the Special Coordination Committee. The CIA would funnel support to the Afghan insurgents, but no weapons would be supplied for now.

On July 3, 1979, Carter scrawled his name on a presidential “finding” required under a recent law intended to ensure White House control over CIA operations.17 Under the new system, if the CIA intended to undertake “special activities” designed to influence political conditions abroad—as opposed to its more routine work of espionage, or stealing secrets—the president had to “find” or declare formally and in writing that such covert action promoted American national security. The president also had to notify a handful of congressional leaders of his decision.18

Carter’s finding authorized the CIA to spend just over $500,000 on propaganda and psychological operations, as well as provide radio equipment, medical supplies, and cash to the Afghan rebels.19 Using intermediaries in Germany and elsewhere to disguise their involvement, CIA officers from the Near East Division began that summer to ship medical equipment and radios to Pakistan, where they were passed to Zia’s intelligence service for onward distribution to the Afghan guerrillas.

It seemed at the time a small beginning.

DESPITE MOSCOW’S PLEAS for common sense, Kabul’s Marxist leaders began to consume themselves. By late summer Great Teacher Taraki had become locked in deadly rivalry with a party comrade, Hafizullah Amin, a former failed graduate student at Columbia University in New York and a leading architect of Afghanistan’s 1978 communist revolution. Each soon concluded that the other had to go. Amin managed to oust Taraki from office in September. A few weeks later he ordered Taraki’s death; the Great Teacher perished in a fusillade of gunfire inside a barricaded Kabul compound.

Hafizullah Amin’s ascension launched a tragicomedy of suspicion and miscalculation within the KGB. KGB handlers working out of the Kabul Residency had kept both Taraki and Amin on their payroll for years, sometimes meeting their clients secretly in parked cars on the city’s streets.20 After Amin gained power, however, he became imperious. Among other transgressions he sought authority from the KGB to withdraw funds from Afghanistan’s foreign bank accounts, which had about $400 million on deposit, according to KGB records. Frustrated and hoping to discredit him, the KGB initially planted false stories that Amin was a CIA agent.

In the autumn these rumors rebounded on the KGB in a strange case of “blowback,” the term used by spies to describe planted propaganda that filters back to confuse the country that first set the story loose. For reasons that remain unclear, Amin held a series of private meetings in Kabul that fall with American diplomats. When the KGB learned of these meetings, its officers feared that their own false rumors about Amin might be true. A document from India circulating that autumn noted that when he lived in New York, Amin had been affiliated with the Asia Foundation, which had a history of contacts with the CIA. As the weeks passed, some KGB officers examined the possibility that Amin might be an American plant sent to infiltrate the Afghan Communist Party. They also picked up reports that Amin might be seeking a political compromise with Afghanistan’s Islamic rebels. Of course, this was the approach the KGB itself had been urging on Taraki from Moscow earlier in the year. Now, suddenly, it looked suspicious. KGB officers feared Amin might be trying to curry favor with America and Pakistan.21

The KGB sent a written warning to Brezhnev about Amin in November. The Kabul Residency feared “an intended shift” of Afghan foreign policy “to the right,” meaning into closer alignment with the United States. Amin “has met with the U.S. chargé d’affaires a number of times, but he has given no indication of the subject of these talks in his meetings with Soviet representatives.”22

For their part, the Americans in Kabul regarded Amin as a dangerous tyrant. They held Amin partly responsible for the murder of Adolph Dubs, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, who had been kidnapped and shot to death in a Kabul hotel room earlier in 1979. Still, U.S. diplomats inside the embassy were aware of the rumors that Amin was a CIA agent. There was enough concern and confusion about this question among State Department diplomats in the embassy that before his murder, Ambassador Dubs had asked his CIA station chief point-blank whether there was any foundation to the rumors. He was told emphatically that Amin had never worked for the CIA, according to J. Bruce Amstutz, who was Dubs’s deputy at the time and became U.S. chargé d’affaires after his death. Officers in the Near East Division of the CIA, who would have handled Amin if he were on the agency payroll, also said later that they had no contacts with him when he lived in New York or later, other then casual discussions at diplomatic receptions. No evidence has yet surfaced to contradict these assertions.23

That fateful autumn, however, Amstutz did meet five times with Amin in private. Their discussions were stilted and unproductive, Amstutz recalled years later. Far from tilting toward the United States, Amstutz found the Afghan communist leader uncompromisingly hostile. Amin had twice failed his doctoral examination at Columbia, and in Amstutz’s estimation, this humiliation left him angry and resentful toward Americans.

CIA officers working in the Kabul station concentrated most of their efforts on Soviet targets, not Afghan communists. Their principal mission in Kabul for years had been to steal Soviet military secrets, especially the operating manuals of new Soviet weapons systems, such as the MiG-21 fighter jet. They also tried to recruit KGB agents and communist bloc diplomats onto the agency’s payroll. Toward this end the CIA case officers joined a six-on-six international soccer league for spies and diplomats sponsored by the German Club in Kabul. The officers spent comparatively little time cultivating Afghan sources or reporting on intramural Afghan politics. As a result the CIA had failed to predict Afghanistan’s initial 1978 communist coup.24 The agency still had relatively few Afghan sources. “What Are the Soviets Doing in Afghanistan?” asked a Top Secret/Codeword memorandum sent to National Security Adviser Brzezinski by Thomas Thornton in September 1979 that drew on all available U.S. intelligence. “Simply, we don’t know,” the memo began.25

The KGB fared no better in assessing American intentions. Knowing that Amin had been meeting with U.S. diplomats in secret but unable to learn the content of those discussions, KGB officers concluded that the CIA had begun to work with Amin to manipulate Kabul’s government. The KGB officers in Afghanistan then convinced their superiors in Moscow that drastic measures had to be undertaken: Amin should be killed or otherwise removed from office to save the Afghan revolution from CIA penetration.

In a personal memorandum to Brezhnev, KGB chief Andropov explained why. “After the coup and the murder of Taraki in September of this year, the situation in the party, the army and the government apparatus has become more acute, as they were essentially destroyed as a result of the mass repressions carried out by Amin. At the same time, alarming information started to arrive about Amin’s secret activities, forewarning of a possible political shift to the West.” These included, Andropov wrote, “contacts with an American agent about issues which are kept secret from us.” In Andropov’s fevered imagination, the CIA’s recruitment of Amin was part of a wider unfolding plot by the agency “to create a ‘New Great Ottoman Empire’ including the southern republics of the Soviet Union.” With a base secured in Afghanistan, the KGB chief feared, as he wrote confidentially, that the United States could point Pershing nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union’s southern underbelly, where its air defenses were weak. Iran and Pakistan might go nuclear as well with American support and push into Central Asia. To prevent this, Andropov advised, the Soviet Union must act decisively to replace Amin and shore up Afghan communism.26

In the end Andropov and the rest of Brezhnev’s inner circle concluded the best way to achieve these goals would be to assassinate Amin and mount a military invasion of Afghanistan, installing new and more responsive Afghan communist leaders. KGB fears about Amin’s reliability were by no means the only factor in this decision. Without direct military support from Moscow, the broader Afghan government faced collapse because of desertions from its army. If communism in Afghanistan was to be saved, Moscow had to act decisively. Yet Politburo records also make clear that KGB fears about Amin’s loyalty played a role in this analysis. The questions about Amin accelerated the timetable for decision-making, encouraged the Politburo’s inner circle to think they faced devious CIA intrigues in Kabul, and helped convince them that only drastic measures could succeed.

Meeting in Moscow, the Politburo’s inner circle made the first tentative decision to invade on November 26, 1979, just five days after the Jamaat student mob had sacked the U.S. embassy in Islamabad and three weeks after Iranian students had seized hostages at the besieged American embassy in Tehran.

Clandestine Soviet military and KGB units began to infiltrate Afghanistan early in December to prepare for the assault. On December 7, Babrak Karmal, the exiled Afghan communist selected by the KGB to replace Amin, secretly arrived at Bagram air base on a Tu-134 aircraft, protected by KGB officers and Soviet paratroopers. KGB assassins began to case Amin’s residence. Operatives first sought to poison Amin by penetrating his kitchen, but Amin had by now grown so paranoid that he employed multiple food tasters, including members of his family. According to KGB records, the poisoning attempt succeeded only in sickening one of Amin’s nephews. The next day a sniper shot at Amin and missed. Frustrated, the KGB fell back on plans to stage a massive frontal assault on Amin’s residence once the broader Soviet military invasion began.27

The CIA had been watching Soviet troop deployments in and around Afghanistan since the summer, and while its analysts were divided in assessing Soviet political intentions, the CIA reported steadily and accurately about Soviet military moves. By mid-December ominous large-scale Soviet deployments toward the Soviet-Afghan border had been detected by U.S. intelligence. CIA director Turner sent President Carter and his senior advisers a classified “Alert” memo on December 19, warning that the Soviets had “crossed a significant threshold in their growing military involvement in Afghanistan” and were sending more forces south. Three days later deputy CIA director Bobby Inman called Brzezinski and Defense Secretary Harold Brown to report that the CIA had no doubt the Soviet Union intended to undertake a major military invasion of Afghanistan within seventy-two hours.28

Antonov transport planes loaded with Soviet airborne troops landed at Kabul’s international airport as darkness fell on Christmas Eve. Pontoon regiments working with the Soviet Fortieth Army laid floating bridges across the Amu Darya River near Termez in the early hours of Christmas morning, and the first Soviet tanks rolled across the border. As regular Soviet forces fanned out, more than seven hundred KGB paramilitaries dressed in Afghan army uniforms launched an operation to kill Hafizullah Amin and his closest aides, and to install new leadership in the Afghan Communist Party. Dozens of KGB officers were killed before they finally battled their way inside Amin’s Kabul palace and gunned him down.29

FROM THE VERY FIRST HOURS after cables from the U.S. embassy in Kabul confirmed that a Soviet invasion had begun, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s most determined cold warrior, wondered if this time the Soviets had overreached. Brzezinski and his colleagues knew nothing about the KGB’s fears of CIA plotting. They interpreted the invasion as a desperate act of support for the Afghan communists and as a possible thrust toward the Persian Gulf. As he analyzed American options, Brzezinski was torn. He hoped the Soviets could be punished for invading Afghanistan, that they could be tied down and bloodied the way the United States had been in Vietnam. Yet he feared the Soviets would crush the Afghans mercilessly, just as they had crushed the Hungarians in 1956 and the Czechs in 1968.

In a discursive memo to Carter written on the day after Christmas, classified Secret and titled “Reflections on Soviet Intervention in Afghanistan,” Brzezinski worried that the Soviets might not be plagued by the self-doubts and self-criticisms that had constrained American military tactics in Vietnam. “We should not be too sanguine about Afghanistan becoming a Soviet Vietnam,” he wrote. “The guerrillas are badly organized and poorly led. They have no sanctuary, no organized army, and no central government—all of which North Vietnam had. They have limited foreign support, in contrast to the enormous amount of arms that flowed to the Vietnamese from both the Soviet Union and China. The Soviets are likely to act decisively, unlike the U.S. which pursued in Vietnam a policy of ‘inoculating’ the enemy.

“What is to be done?” Brzezinski then asked. He sketched out a new Afghan policy,much of it to be carried out in secret. He drew on the plans developed earlier in the year at the White House and CIA to channel medical kits and other aid to the Afghan rebels. “It is essential that Afghanistan’s resistance continues,” he wrote. “This means more money as well as arms shipments to the rebels, and some technical advice. To make the above possible we must both reassure Pakistan and encourage it to help the rebels. This will require a review of our policy toward Pakistan, more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a decision that our security policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our nonproliferation policy. We should encourage the Chinese to help the rebels also. We should concert with Islamic countries both in a propaganda campaign and in a covert action campaign to help the rebels.”30

Disguised KGB paramilitaries were still chasing Hafizullah Amin through the hallways of his Kabul palace, Soviet tanks had barely reached their first staging areas, and Brzezinski had already described a CIA-led American campaign in Afghanistan whose broad outlines would stand for a decade to come.

“Our ultimate goal is the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan,” Brzezinski wrote in a Top Secret memo a week later. “Even if this is not attainable, we should make Soviet involvement as costly as possible.”31

Anti-Soviet fever swept Washington, arousing support for a new phase of close alliance between the United States and Pakistan. Together they would challenge the Soviets across the Khyber Pass, much as the British had challenged czarist Russia on the same Afghan ground a century before.

Yet for the American staff left behind to work near the charred campus of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, half a day’s drive from the Khyber, the Soviet invasion was a doubly bitter turn of events. They were shocked by Moscow’s hegemonic violence and at the same time angry that Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq would benefit.

The diplomats and CIA officers in Islamabad had spent much of December burning compromised documents and reorganizing their shattered offices in makeshift quarters at a U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) compound near the burned embassy grounds. Worried about another attack on their offices by rioters, the CIA had shipped back to Langley decades’ worth of index cards filled with names and details of contacts and agents.

It took more diplomatic fortitude than many of them possessed to suddenly embrace Zia as a strategic partner. As many inside the embassy saw it, the Pakistani general had left them for dead on that Wednesday afternoon in November. As Soviet armor rolled into Afghanistan, there were sarcastic suggestions from the Islamabad CIA station of an alternative new American policy toward Pakistan: the secret export of hundreds of thousands of Russian dictionaries and phrase books to Islamabad for government use after the Soviet regional occupation was complete. They might be able to use a few of those Russian phrase books over at the student union of Quaid-I-Azam University, too.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!