U.S. imperialism’s original sin in Afghanistan began in 1979, not on 9/11
President Jimmy Carter and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski at CIA headquarters in 1978. Standing behind Carter, obscured, is CIA Director Adm. Stansfield Turner. | AP

At September 1’s press briefing about Afghanistan’s Armageddon, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley stated: “There are many tactical, operational, and strategic lessons to be learned.” True. But so far, in their post mortems, the Pentagon brass, diplomats, news media, etc., have mostly ignored exactly when, how, and why the U.S. became so disastrously embroiled in Afghanistan, and in doing so have completely missed the point.

As the Afghanistan apocalypse unravels, handing U.S. foreign policy and militarism their most crushing, humiliating defeats since Saigon 1975, government officials, generals, journalists, and even peace activists erroneously refer to Washington’s intervention in the Central Asian nation as “the 20-year war.” Although it’s correct that (along with the global “War on Terror”) this was indeed America’s longest war, it is at best imprecise plus incomplete, and at worst dis-, information to cite the U.S.’s Afghan interference as lasting only two decades. To do so is to entirely misinterpret and obfuscate exactly what’s wrong with White House, State, and Defense Department realpolitik, and to set the American people up for the next unwinnable debacle abroad with another endless cycle of warfare somewhere in the underdeveloped world. For as philosopher George Santayana famously said: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

It’s inaccurate, as amnesiac statesmen, high-ranking officers, commentators, and some peaceniks keep repeating ad nauseam, that the USA’s involvement in Afghanistan began as a response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America. Doing so totally begs the question as to how Afghanistan came to be ruled by medieval Islamist extremists who the U.S. believed provided a base of operations for foreign jihadists in the first place. To understand this, we have to go back 42 years—not 20—to 1979, not 2001. In doing so, objective observers can learn precisely what the problem is with Washington’s geopolitics, so we’ll never make these disastrous mistakes again.

Ninety-six-year-old Jimmy Carter is popularly perceived as a former peanut farmer-turned-president who pursued human rights, and as a model ex-prez who served as a modest Sunday School teacher, an election observer, and builder of Habitat for Humanity homes after leaving office. But beneath the benevolent persona and toothy smile, the chaos currently unfolding in Afghanistan can be traced directly back to Carter and his one-term Democratic administration. In a Jan. 15-21, 1998, interview headlined “How Jimmy Carter and I Started the Mujahideen” in the weekly French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski confessed:

“According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahideen began during 1980, that guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion, this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.” “[T]he Red Army rolled into the country on December 24, 1979.”

Asked 20 years after this Big Lie was spread and tens of thousands of lives were lost “You don’t regret anything today?” Brzezinski replied: “Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap, and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.”

When Le Nouvel Observateur pressed the Cold War hawk, asking: “And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic [fundamentalists], having given arms and advice to future terrorists?” Sounding like a Machiavellian grandmaster moving pawns across a geopolitical chessboard, Brzezinski responded: “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

Although Washington was thousands of miles away from Kabul, while the USSR shared a border of around 1,000 miles with Afghanistan, under Carter and Brzezinski the U.S. covertly began intervening in Afghan internal affairs before the Soviets entered the country, as Moscow had correctly claimed—not after—but Washington concealed and lied about it for decades. In the Le Nouvel Observateur Q&A, Zbig was corroborating what ex-CIA chief Robert Gates admitted in his 1996 memoir, aptly entitled From the Shadows.

Readers will recall that Pres. Carter withdrew American athletes from participating in the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, and leaned on other nations to withdraw as well, in protest against Soviet action in Afghanistan, concealing, of course, his own provocation with its inevitable response.

The Carter regime opened the floodgates for the most expensive U.S. clandestine operation to date, prophetically codenamed “Operation Cyclone,” whose wild winds are still blowing. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tim Weiner wrote Jan. 7, 2019, in The Washington Post: “The CIA smuggled billions of dollars in weapons into the hands of the Afghan resistance. That bled the Red Army, leaving at least 15,000 soldiers and commandos dead on the battlefield….

“A thousand-page trove of just-declassified White House, CIA, and State Department documents adds significantly to our knowledge of what happened before and after the Soviet invasion. It shows that in 1980, President Carter’s CIA spent close to $100 million shipping weapons to the Afghan resistance.

“Carter’s global gun-running was more aggressive than we knew. He aimed to oust the Soviets…. In the 1980s, it grew to become the biggest American covert action of the Cold War. President Reagan eventually upped the ante to $700 million a year…. Soon Afghanistan was awash with billions of dollars in weapons.”

In D.C.’s anti-Soviet zeal, one of the Jihadis armed and funded by the CIA was named Osama bin Laden, whom ex-CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson called in his 2000 book Blowback, The Costs and Consequences of American Empire “a former protégé of the United States.” When the Cold War was winding down, Pres. George H.W. Bush decided to squander our “Peace Dividend” on yet another military misadventure, this time getting embroiled in disputes between Iraq and Kuwait. According to Blowback, bin Laden “turned against the United States in 1991 because he regarded the stationing of American troops in his native Saudi Arabia [where Mecca is located] during and after the Persian Gulf War as a violation of his religious beliefs.”

In a circa 2003 piece entitled “The Largest Covert Operation in CIA History,” Johnson went on to write: “the ‘tens of thousands of fanatical Muslim fundamentalists’ the CIA armed are some of the same people who in 1996 killed 19 American airmen at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; bombed our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 [eight years to the day of U.S. troops being deployed to Saudi Arabia]; blew a hole in the side of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Aden harbor in 2000….”

OBL is believed to have executed these escalating terrorist attacks. And according to the August 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Brief addressed to George W. Bush, entitled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.,” “Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate Bin Ladin since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the U.S.” Bin Laden implied in U.S. television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and “bring the fighting to America.” Despite his track record of successfully striking U.S. assets and threats, Washington turned a deaf ear to OBL’s demand that the U.S. withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia.

In his 2002 Oscar-winner Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore brilliantly, incisively, sums up U.S. foreign policy and covert actions in the “What a Wonderful World” montage sequence that culminates with jets smashing into the World Trade Center, accompanied by text reading: “Sept. 11, 2001: Osama bin Laden uses his expert C.I.A. training to murder 3,000 people,” carried out by what Brzezinski dismissed as just “some stirred-up Moslems”—that he and Carter had supported! America’s shifting alliances in Afghanistan would give George Orwell whiplash.

On April 29, 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced the U.S. would withdraw all of its troops from Saudi Arabia, and by August 26, 2003, they were gone. Could 9/11 have been avoided if the Yankees had just gone home two years earlier, removing a major motivating factor for Jihadis? If so, could the entire U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan—the longest war in U.S. history—have been completely avoided? Let’s ask the survivors of loved ones lost at the Twin Towers or of soldiers killed or wounded in the Afghan War if stationing troops to protect the Saudi Kingdom—who were eventually withdrawn anyway—was worth the loss and heartache they suffered?

Likewise, let’s ask those now desperately caught up in the chaos in Afghanistan what they think of Carter and Brzezinski’s subterfuge and subversion in Central Asia? Were all these imperialist escapades worth it to those suffering now from U.S. realpolitik? Do ordinary people from Manhattan to Kabul who suffered from U.S. foreign policy’s unintended consequences have the “regrets” that pitiless, heartless fanatics like Brzezinski—that scion of Polish aristocracy—only mocked?

What’s unraveling now in the Afghanistan Armageddon is a case study in exactly what’s wrong with global busybody Washington’s post-WWII geopolitics. It shows how obsessions with anti-communism and containing Russia and China, combined with U.S. meddling as policeman of the world, have sown the seeds of disaster now roiling Afghanistan. If Americans want to stop getting their asses kicked, they must stop sticking their noses where they don’t belong, into others’ internal affairs, especially when cloaked in secrecy while fighting dirty wars with dirtier tricks that usually end up causing blowback. Foreign policy executed via sneaky covert actions is deeply undemocratic—and certainly, no way to spread democracy. Nobody likes meddlers and liars, and what’s true for individuals is likewise true on the national scale.

These are “lessons” decision-makers like General Milley, commentators, and the general public must learn. President Biden correctly pointed out that the Afghan misadventure cost $300 million a day, a squandering of our limited resources that could be far better spent now on the pandemic, hurricane and wildfire relief, infrastructure, and other pressing needs of the American people. As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 is observed, we also must pay attention to what led up to it back in 1979.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.