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Barack Obama's presidency

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WPost Misleads on Afghan History

By Melvin A. Goodman
October 28, 2009

Editor’s Note: The Washington Post’s neoconservative editorial page is at it again, using made-up “facts” and dubious logic to influence a foreign-policy debate in the direction favored by the capital’s still influential neocons.

In this latest case, the topic is Afghanistan and the Post’s misinformation may contribute to the deaths of many more U.S. troops and Afghanis, as former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman explains in this guest essay:

The Washington Post is creating its own facts in order to support its argument for U.S. nation-building in Afghanistan.

In its lead editorial on Saturday, the Post asserted that the United States is capable of building a strong government in Afghanistan at the national and local levels. The Post claimed that Afghanistan had had a "working national government through most of the 1970s and 1980s." This is simply not so.

Afghanistan has always been a diverse, loosely organized country, although there was support for King Mohammad Zahir's reign from 1933 to 1973. King Zahir was the last Afghan ruler to pretend to play a national role, but he was a weak and indifferent ruler, spending most of his time abroad.

He was ousted in a bloodless coup in 1973 by Prince Mohammad Daoud, who proclaimed himself the first president of the Republic of Afghanistan. There has not been a stable government in Afghanistan since then.

Daoud lasted until 1978, when the same leftist officers who had ousted the king occupied the palace and killed Daoud, his wife and many of his children and grandchildren. Daoud was replaced by Nur Mohammad Taraki, secretary of the People's Democratic (Communist) party, who was ousted and eventually executed by a supposedly loyal follower, Hafizullah Amin.

In this period, marked by instability and violence, there was no evidence of national support for either Taraki or Amin. The conventional wisdom was that the Soviets were responsible for Daoud's coup against the king as well as the events that led to the overthrow of Daoud.

In fact, it was Iran and not the Soviet Union that was responsible, as Tehran (with the encouragement of the United States) had been trying to draw Kabul into a western-tilted, Tehran-centered security sphere.

In any event, developments were about to get worse, and Afghanistan was going to move even further from what the Post described as a strong government at the national and local levels.

On Christmas Eve 1979, Soviet armed forces invaded Afghanistan, killed Amin and replaced him with Babrak Karmal, a Communist who was subservient to Moscow's wishes. This marked the fourth Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 54 years, following small-scale interventions in 1925, 1929 and 1930.

It is not widely known, but President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, sponsored covert efforts in Central Asia to foment rebellion inside the Soviet Union even before Moscow ordered the invasion of Afghanistan.

President Carter then authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to assist Afghan rebels six months before Moscow invaded. Following the invasion, CIA Director William Casey encouraged Afghan rebels to conduct cross-border operations into the Soviet Union itself and boasted about these operations in secret talks with high-ranking members of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI).

Not even the neocons who dominate the Post editorial staff could possibly believe that the ten-year Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 produced a "working national government."

Indeed, the Soviet occupation led to the creation of an anti-Soviet jihad that produced the greatest instability in Afghanistan's tortuous history. The CIA worked closely with Pakistan's ISI during the jihad, including support for operations in the Soviet republic of Tajikistan.

No one in Washington worried about the political disintegration of Afghanistan during the 1980s or the potential repercussions for religious fanaticism throughout Southwest Asia in the 1990s. The Taliban created its own chaos from 1994 to 2001, and the U.S. invasion in 2001 led to another spiral of violence that continues until today.

The recitation of this history over the past four decades is not only designed to expose the Washington Post's chicanery (or simply a lack of research), but to highlight the chaos and violence that have marked Afghanistan.

This history clearly suggests that nation-building and institution-building is a fool's errand in Afghanistan, where political and economic backwardness and corruption have been dominant.

The Obama administration increased forces this summer to provide security for the Afghan election and to challenge the expanding Taliban presence in Helmand Province. The effort failed on both counts and, in the process, left the northern regions of Afghanistan exposed to greater Taliban infiltration.

The Taliban have also infiltrated key cities, including Kabul. It is possible that the repositioning of U.S. and international forces could protect Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and even Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. But key Afghan institutions, particularly the National Army and the police, cannot provide much support to U.S. forces in sensitive areas in the south and the east, where the Taliban has access to sanctuary in Pakistan.

According to informed observers, the Afghan Army is still unable to conduct autonomous operations with more than 100 troops. The high level of illiteracy among Afghan military recruits does not augur well for the future.

The Obama administration is counting on the current Pakistani offensive against the Pakistan Taliban to buy time for the Islamabad government. There is no indication, however, that the Pakistan Army would be willing or able to take on the Afghan Taliban and thus buy time for the government in Kabul.

The notion of sending civilian specialists to Afghanistan to promote political and economic stabilization would be laughable if the situation were not so serious.

Since there has never been an Afghan government capable of running the entire country, it is impossible to expect U.S. military and civilian forces at virtually any reasonable level taking on both a successful counterinsurgency against the Taliban and the policy of nation-building in Afghanistan.

Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the U.S. Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA. [This story originally appeared at]

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