How US Intervention in Afghanistan during the Cold War Led to the Global War on Terror

During the Cold War in the late 1970s the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. At the time, tensions between the Soviet Union and the US were high, and so the US was trying to combat the Soviet influence without direct military action that may result in a war between the two nuclear armed countries. The US answer to this problem was to train, arm, and support local Afghans who were against the Soviets. This strategy of waging a proxy war was by no means a novel idea in regards to US foreign policy, however this instance would prove to have lasting impacts in the region, and throughout the world for decades to come.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan commenced in late December 1979 in response to the outbreak of the Afghan War in 1978 which saw the centrist government headed by President Mohammad Daud Khan overthrown by left-wing military officers led by Nur Mohammad Taraki. Thereafter, power was shared by two Marxist-Leninist political groups: the Khalq Party which was led by Nur Mohammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, and the Parcham Party which was led by Babrak Kamal. Originally, the two groups had belonged to the same organization which was the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, however the two groups drifted apart in that the Khalqis advocated a violent revolution and immediate establishment of a communist regime, whereas the Parchamis preached a gradual move towards socialism because they believed that Afghanistan was not industrialized enough to undergo an immediate revolution. However, shortly before the coup the two factions, encouraged by the Soviet Union, formed an uneasy coalition. Following the coup the Khalqis had the majority of the power in the government, and began implementing social reforms such as gender equality, as well as land reforms. These reforms were deeply unpopular with the largely conservative Afghans, especially those in the countryside, and eventually multiple insurgencies arose against the government among both urban and tribal groups. These insurgents became collectively known as the mujahideen. The combination of the start of the mujahideen insurgency, and the assassination of Nur Mohammad Taraki at the hands of his rival and fellow Khalqi leader Hafizullah Amin, led to the Soviets sending in around 30,000 soldiers to topple the presidency of Amin, and instead support the government now led by Parchami leader Babrak Kamal. The Soviets initially left the the fighting to the Afghan army, but eventually had to commit increasing amounts of troops and supplies as the Afghan army was hindered by mass desertions, and became largely ineffective.

The supplying of billions of dollars in arms to the mujahideen was one of the longest and most expensive covert operations carried out by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In what was codenamed Operation Cyclone, the CIA provided assistance, which would total to at least 3 billion U.S. dollars, to the mujahideen through the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence). The cause of US intervention was largely due to two main reasons: the Cold War policy of containment which sought to limit the spread of communism, especially in the Third World, and also as a form of retaliation for the Soviet support of North Vietnam which ultimately led to the defeat of the US and its allies. Mohammad Yousaf, an ISI officer who oversaw the Afghan Bureau during the war, noted in his book that many US government officials and CIA officers shared the same sentiments with Texas Congressman Charles Wilson epitomizing the belief that …Afghanistan must be made into a Soviet Vietnam. The Soviets had kept the Viet-Cong supplied with the hardware to fight and kill Americans, so the US would now do the same for the Mujahideen so they could kill Soviets. (Yousaf, pg.42) Another firm proponent of US intervention on the side of the Mujahideen was the Director of Central Intelligence William Casey who, according to Yousaf, …hated communism. and summed up his views of the war by stating that Those bastards must pay. (Yousaf, pg.52) Two of the most prominent Mujahideen leaders were Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was the founder and leader of the Hezb-i Islami political party, and during the Afghan War it is noted that he received the majority of finances from various countries including the United States, which supported him largely because he was dependent on funds and support from the ISI, and so was relatively easy to control. Jalaluddin Haqqani was the founder and leader of the Haqqani Network, which during the war received a considerable amount of financial support from Arab countries as Haqqani helped and supported the Arab volunteers who arrived in Afghanistan.He also had close relations with the CIA, was visited and personally supported by Congressman Charles Wilson, and lauded as a freedom fighter by President Ronald Reagan. In addition to supporting the Mujahideen with armaments, the CIA, with the ISI, helped them win the ideological battle by propagating the need for Jihad throughout the Muslim world. This religious motivation led to a large amount of foreign volunteers, most notably Arabs, joining the ranks of the Mujahideen. The CIA and ISI also established numerous training camps in Pakistan to train the ill-prepared fighters in shooting, communications, demolition, and reconnaissance, Many madrasas, or religious seminaries, were also established in Pakistan to indoctrinate the Afghan refugee children. The majority of the training centers were located in the cities of Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and Peshawar, of which the former is the capital of Pakistan and the latter two are major metropoles located in close proximity to the Afghan border. Islamabad and Rawalpindi were ISI centers of operation, and Peshawar was the focal point of the Maktab Al-Khidamat organization.

Maktab Al-Khidamat, also known as Maktab Al-Khidamat Al-Mujahideen Al-Arab, MAK, and the Afghan Services Bureau, was an organization founded in 1984 by a Palestinian scholar named Abdullah Azzam, an Egyptian doctor named Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and a young member of a wealthy Saudi Arabian family named Osama Bin Laden. The purpose of the organization was to raise funds for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, and also recruit foreigners to fight against the Soviets. Despite the fact that Osama Bin Laden’s personal fortune was used to pay for the travel and housing of recruits, Abdullah Azzam would still go on to speak in several countries in the world, including both Muslim and Western countries. In the US alone there were around 33 offices set up in different cities to finance MAK, all of which would remain operational until after the signing of the Patriot Act following the September 11th attacks. Over the course of the war it estimated that MAK raised about 1 million dollars in funds from various donors, and trained about 100 fighters in Peshawar. Azzam was largely successful in creating the modern glorified view of Jihad and war which would become an instrumental recruiting tool in the future. Although, their effect on the war at the time may seem insignificant, MAK served as a frontrunner for what would later become Al-Qaeda as it established important connection for funds and recruits which would benefit the future organization.

The Soviet Union finally withdrew from Afghanistan in 1898 after 9 years of fighting, due in part to the fact that the Red Army was mostly made up of unmotivated conscripts, and because they were not trained to, or provided with the intelligence needed to fight against a guerilla force, rather they were trained for large scale conventional warfare. At this point, it is estimated that there were around 35,000 foreign recruits who had fought in Afghanistan. In addition, thousands more were indoctrinated at the madrasas in Pakistan, and so the stage was set for global terrorism. These foreigners would eventually return to their native countries with battle experience and radical ideologies which provided the perfect mix for starting and leading other militant groups, and the large amount of young people who had been trained and indoctrinated would naturally fill the ranks of these new groups. In the power vacuum that followed the Soviet withdrawal the Mujahideen continued to fight the Afghan government until 1992 when the government of President Mohammad Najibullah was defeated, after which for 2 years the different Mujahideen factions ruled and fought amongst themselves until 1994 when the Taliban, which was a new group comprised primarily of the Afghan refugee children who were indoctrinated in Pakistani religious seminaries, entered the scene and would eventually gain control of the entire country in 1996 (

In 1993 the World Trade Center in New York City was bombed by a group of men including: Ramzi Yousef, Mahmud Abouhalima, Mohammad Salameh, Nidal A. Ayyad, Abdul Rahman Yasin, and Ahmed Ajaj. The men were funded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a militant and future Al-Qaeda member who had fought in Afghanistan and trained at a camp run by Abdullah Azzam. Ramzi Yousef, who was the principal perpetrator of the bombing was the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and had also spent time at an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. The bomb blast cut off power to the World Trade Center and heavily damaged the parking garage where it detonated. In total, 6 people were killed in the bombing, 5 employees of the Port Authority and 1 businessman. All of the perpetrators of this attack were apprehended except for Ramzi Yousef who escaped and was never found by law enforcement or military personnel. Although it was not that large-scale, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing would serve as the first of many terrorist attacks directed against Western countries, specifically the United States, by those who had been trained with the support of the United States and the ISI. The 1998 US embassy bombings were the next attack carried out by militants who had trained in Afghanistan, however in the instance the masterminds were Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Over 200 people were killed and 5000 injured when simultaneous truck bombs detonated at the US embassies in the cities of Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The attacks launched Osama Bin Laden to the top of the US government’s watch list as he was indicted, along with 21 others for the bombings. President Bill Clinton ordered retaliatory cruise missile strikes on Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical lab in Sudan.

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