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Arms for Afghanistan

The resistance fighters think they get no help from the US. They're wrong.

Peter Jouvenal / Getty Images
Jubilant Afghan guerrillas on a captured Russian armoured personnel carrier during the war between Afghanistan and the USSR.

A year and a half after Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan, the US Central Intelligence Agency is coordinating a complex, far-flung program, involving five countries and more than $100 million, to provide the Afghan resistance with the weaponry of modern guerrilla warfare. The result is an emerging anti-Soviet alliance—the United States, China, Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia—that, in the judgment of American planners, is effectively countering the most blatant Soviet aggression of the postwar era.

Shortly after the December 1980 invasion there were scattered newspaper reports that the United States intended to supply arms to the Afghan resistance fighters. Not much more has been heard on the subject since. In fact, the American role in Afghanistan—as described by senior officials of the Carter and Reagan administrations—is far more extensive than any of those initial reports suggested. For the United States the stakes are especially high. This is the first time that weapons supplied with American help have been used to kill regular troops of the Soviet army—though thousands of American soldiers were killed by Soviet-supplied weapons in Korea and Vietnam.

For the Afghan people, the Soviet invasion and its aftermath have been devastating. In a country of 16 million people, tens of thousands have been killed and wounded. Soviet helicopter gunships have emptied most villages, forcing more than two million men, women, and children to flee into neighboring Pakistan, where they make up the largest refugee population in the world today.

In discussing the clandestine operation to supply arms to the resistance, officials of the Reagan and Carter administrations tell a remarkably consistent story—balancing their desire to report on its success with their desire to keep operational details secret. These officials—from the White House, the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon—are convinced that the Soviets are bogged down in Afghanistan, a view supported by British and Arab intelligence estimates. The Russians have lost their grip on the roads linking Afghanistan’s principal cities. They have suffered an estimated 6,000 casualties, with 2,000 killed. Several thousand more Russian troops are ill with hepatitis. Resistance forces are now initiating the fighting, combining the tactics of guerrilla warfare with increasingly sophisticated weaponry. According to a secret White House report, at least 60 Russian helicopters have been shot down—many by surface-to-air missiles. The Soviets have failed to develop either a political or a military strategy to deal effectively with the Afghan resistance.

Officials cite two overriding reasons for the Soviets’ difficulties: the extraordinary will of the mujahiddin rebels, who are fighting a holy war for their homeland (see “Russia’s Afghan Enemy,” by John Bierman, TNR. June 6); and the effectiveness of the covert operation to supply them with weapons.

Planning for the operation was personally ordered by President Carter and carried out under the direct supervision of his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and his CIA director, Stansfield Turner. In the hours after the Soviets crossed the Afghan border, the president told a meeting of the National Security Council that the United States had “a moral obligation” to help arm the resistance. Until then US aid to rebels fighting the Kabul government had been limited to medical supplies and communications equipment. Increased American assistance, the president told his aides, should do nothing to disturb the impression that the Afghan struggle was an Islamic struggle. Coordination with the Islamic countries has been conducted by the CIA through its counterpart intelligence services, rather than through normal diplomatic channels.

America’s NATO allies were neither consulted nor asked to participate. There was grave doubt in the White House that the nations of Western Europe would lend support to an operation involving such direct confrontation with the Russians. Moreover, one of Mr. Carter’s advisers explained, “it was a foregone conclusion that it would leak if the Europeans were involved.”

On January 9, 1980, 12 days after Soviet troops had rolled across the border, the CIA outlined plans for the operation to the Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee. “The CIA recognized that if we were going to let the Afghans defend themselves we had to get them weapons that were effective against the gunships,” former senator Birch Bayh, then the committee’s chairman, said in a recent interview with ABC News. Above all, that meant heat-seeking missiles—SAM-7s, which, like almost all the weapons destined for Afghanistan, have been Russian-made or, often, replicas, making them untraceable to their real suppliers. RPG antitank rockets, anti-aircraft guns, Kalashnikov (AK-47) assault rifles, and machine guns were also designated for priority shipment to Afghanistan. “The objective was to strike a balance,” explained Bayh. “On the one hand we wanted the Soviets to pay a significant price. On the other hand we didn’t want to raise the conflict to the level of conventional warfare .. . or provide so much assistance that the Soviets would pour more troops in.” Not a single objection to the CIA’s proposal was raised on the Oversight Committee—in contrast to the atmosphere that, in 1975, led the full Senate to terminate the last CIA arms supply operation, to rebel forces in Angola.

While the Senate committee was being briefed, Defense Secretary Harold Brown was in Peking for a long-scheduled visit. The secret part of his agenda dealt primarily with Afghanistan. “It was something of a minuet,” said one participant in the discussions. “We let it be known we were going to do certain things. They let it be known they were going to do certain things. There was an implicit agreement. Instead of a joint operation, we would do things in parallel.” The Chinese agreed to permit overflights of their territory for planes carrying arms bound eventually for Afghanistan. The Chinese also would help supply the SAM-7s and RPG antitank rockets. And if the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan were closed, the Chinese would take over the transshipment of weapons—permitting planes to unload in China and providing Chinese personnel to carry the cargo across the difficult Chinese-Afghan frontier.

THE ROLES of the other nations involved in the covert operation have remained constant since the operation began. The United States has provided financial assistance, $20 million to $30 million to start, considerably more since; has arranged the purchase of some weapons on the international arms market; and is the operation’s primary planner and coordinator. Saudi Arabia has undertaken the other major financing role, equal to or greater than that of the United States. The Saudis, who also bankroll much of Pakistan’s military budget, have kept a firm hand on the Pakistanis, pushing them—at United States urging— to keep their border open for the transfer of arms to Afghanistan. The Egyptians have provided training for the Afghan guerrilla fighters and serve as the major source of arms—supplying weapons obtained from the Soviet Union during the years of Egyptian-Soviet friendship, and tons of replicated Soviet armaments, turned out in factories on the outskirts of Cairo.

Pakistan, the country most essential to the operation’s success, allows the weapons to be moved across its 1,400-mile border with Afghanistan. But the Pakistanis, fearful of Soviet retaliation, have been reluctant to aid the insurgency openly. Even today, Pakistani diplomats, who were deliberately excluded from a role in the operation’s planning, continue to insist that Pakistan is not officially cooperating in any venture to arm the resistance. But all the major features of the operation, according to American officials, have been personally approved by Pakistani president Mohammed Zia. And to reduce the risk of Soviet retaliation, the Pakistanis imposed three conditions of their own: first, the countries supplying weapons to Afghanistan would not publicly acknowledge their role; second, arms arriving in Pakistan would have to move immediately across the border, without any storage or warehousing; and third, the quantity of weapons moving through Pakistan would be limited to the equivalent of about two planeloads a week. The weapons arrive as air cargo in Pakistan, in planes whose markings are constantly changed. There, under the supervision of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the arms are transferred to the mujahiddin, who carry them across the border on the backs of men and mules, then up into the mountain passes where the weapons are distributed to bands of tribesmen in their camps.

The flow of arms began as a trickle in the first months after the invasion. In October 1980, the Carter administration and the Islamic states committed themselves to a significant increase in the level of aid, particularly heavy equipment for antitank and antiaircraft warfare. The effects of those shipments began to be felt this spring. The Reagan administration has since reviewed the clandestine operation and ordered it expanded. Pakistan, impressed with the administration’s pledge of three billion dollars in long-term military credits, has eased some of its restrictions on the quantity of arms crossing the border.

The mujahiddin say they still need more arms, and that is doubtless true. They complain that they are still not getting help from the United States. Untrue. The resistance fighters seldom know where their equipment comes from. Some of it has been acquired as a result of the very high rate of defection in the Afghan army (some estimates say as many as three-quarters of the country’s 80,000 troops have defected). But arms passed out in the guerrilla camps are often said to have come from defectors when, in fact, they have moved through the pipeline established by the clandestine operation.

Senior officials of the Reagan administration, assessing the success of the operation, believe the Russians are being bled by their Afghanistan adventure— militarily and politically. “Our judgment is that they will have to maintain a huge occupation force for years to come under the present circumstances,” states one of Secretary Haig’s principal deputies. Here lies the single biggest difference between the Reagan and Carter administrations in their approach to Afghanistan. The Carter people left office thinking the combination of Islamic will and covert aid might put enough pressure on the Soviets to force them eventually to negotiate their way out. The Reagan team is less interested in the prospect of negotiations and appears to relish the notion of seeing the Soviets tied down for years to come—expending blood and equipment and prestige along the Maginot line of the Khyber Pass.