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A Critical Moment in Afghanistan’s History


“We are at a critical moment in Afghanistan’s history,” said Bruce Riedel, Brookings senior fellow and director of the Intelligence Project, in an event promoting his new book What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan 1979-1989 (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). Speaking of the recent presidential elections and the controversy that surround them, Riedel explained that “this election puts Afghanistan on a precipice. If it doesn’t come out with a good ending,” he “would not be surprised to see Afghanistan split apart.”

Riedel called for a “thorough audit of this election” as the suspiciously high voter turnout in the second of the two rounds has raised questions of voter fraud which have sparked protests across the country. To Riedel:

It is astounding to believe that there were 6.8 million votes cast in the first round and 8.2 million in the second round. That is the best ground game of mobilization in the history of elections, and it just doesn’t add up.

Riedel also referred to candidate Abdullah Abdullah as the “21st century reincarnation of [Ahmad Shah] Massoud in his beliefs, and at the top of that list is the belief that Pakistan is not the friend of Afghanistan.” Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir who was assassinated a mere two days before 9/11, felt that Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, “was stealing the Afghan revolution for its own purposes.”

what we won cover final_2x3In his book, Riedel describes the success of the U.S. CIA’s intelligence operation during the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan that ultimately created a quagmire for the Soviet Union and contributed greatly to its decline and end of the Cold War. Riedel attributes this success in part to the fact that the intelligence community had a clear mission devised by President Jimmy Carter which sought to create a quagmire for Soviet forces and ultimately drive them out of Afghanistan. It is “critical to define your mission,” Riedel said.

Riedel described the intelligence operation in Afghanistan as characterized by risk-aversion, a result of the Vietnam war. According to Riedel, the U.S. spent between $3 billion and $4 billion in its efforts throughout the ten years and had around 50 people in the intelligence task force dealing with Afghanistan—a small expense with tremendous bang for the U.S. buck, he said. The U.S. did not put boots on the ground throughout the duration of its operation and suffered no casualties, but “the Afghan people paid a horrific price,” the effects of which are still seen today in the country’s instability and fragility. Riedel pointed out that at least a million Afghans died, another 5 million to 6 million became refugees, and several million others became internally displaced during the war against the Soviet forces. While the Afghan people “defeated the Soviet 40th Red Army,” he explained, “we just provided the guns. They got very little of the benefits of victory, and a big part of that was that their revolution was sabotaged or subverted or drawn to the interests of their Pakistani neighbor.”


The war also had another unintended consequence: it began the global jihad. The ideology of jihadism was born in the fight against the Soviets, he said. The book describes Osama bin Laden’s role in the war.

Riedel also gave three suggestions for possible U.S. intelligence operations in Syria:

  1. Don’t have illusions that weapons given to parties in the conflict will stay in good hands.
  2. Keep the mission simple: “do not try to create a freedom loving, democratic organization; you are fighting an insurgency, and the people who are fighting an insurgency are not likely to be Jeffersonian democrats.”
  3. Find a Pakistan, referring to Pakistan’s vital role in providing a sanctuary and a training ground for the insurgency.

The event was moderated by Brookings President Strobe Talbott whose questions along with those of the audience prompted a rich discussion.

Get the full video and audio here.


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