In Afghanistan, who was responsible?

In the 1981 cult film “Cutter’s Way,” Alex Cutter, who had returned from Vietnam without an arm and a leg and with only one eye, had this to say about Lyndon Johnson and the men who had sent him to war: “It’s never their ass that’s on the line. Never. It’s always somebody else’s.”

Cutter’s insight is worth considering as debate rages as to whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump is most to blame for the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. Because there are two presidents more deserving of the nation’s opprobrium than Biden and Trump, who each played as he thought best a hand that had been dealt decades earlier.

In April 1978, two Afghan communists, Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, orchestrated a coup that deposed the government of Afghanistan. Taraki and Amin soon had a falling-out, and on Amin’s order in Sept. 1979, Taraki was murdered. Three months later, Soviet agents murdered Amin and that Christmas Eve, 50,000 Soviet troops moved into Afghanistan to install another communist government that Moscow hoped would be more capable than the Taraki/Amin government had been of fighting Islamic fundamentalists who opposed the communists.

Prior to that Christmas Eve, the United States had no national security interest in Afghanistan, a landlocked country more than seven thousand miles distant whose society was feudal, whose politics were tribal and whose people were impoverished and mostly illiterate. But with absolute certitude, cold warriors like Arizona senator Barry Goldwater believed that the USSR intended to use Afghanistan as a “launch pad to go across the western end of Pakistan” and then assert its hegemony throughout southeast Asia.

President Jimmy Carter agreed with Goldwater and described the United States’s new national security interest in Afghanistan as follows: “A Soviet-occupied Afghanistan threatens both Iran and Pakistan and is a stepping stone to possible control over much of the world’s oil supplies... If the Soviets are encouraged in this invasion by eventual success, and if they maintain their dominance over Afghanistan and then extend their control to adjacent countries, the stable, strategic, and peaceful balance of the entire world will be changed.”

The fact that the president of the United States believed that would have pernicious consequences for the people of Afghanistan who had done America no harm and wished it none.

Publicly, Carter imposed economic sanctions on the USSR and announced that the United States would boycott the summer Olympics in Moscow. But six months before the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, Carter had decided to poke the Russian bear and secretly authorized Operation Cyclone, a covert CIA program to provide medical supplies and other nonlethal aid to the Islamic fundamentalists, known collectively as the mujahideen, who had taken up arms against the Taraki/Amin government.


Who were the mujahideen? They were war and drug lords and Islamic religious fanatics whose leaders included Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, today is a senior leader of the Taliban.

Two days after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, Zbigniew Brzezinsky, Carter’s national security advisor who wanted the United States government to encourage the mujahideen to turn Afghanistan into the USSR’s Vietnam, advised the president that “It is essential that Afghanistani resistance continues. This means more money as well as arms shipments to the rebels.” Carter gave the go-ahead and directed the CIA to expand Operation Cyclone by providing the mujahideen with weapons. In 1981, when he succeeded Carter as president, Ronald Reagan further expanded Operation Cyclone. At the urging of CIA director William Casey, in 1986, Reagan authorized the CIA to provide the mujahideen with Stinger missiles to enable them to shoot down Soviet helicopters. And according to Casey’s deputy, Robert Gates, “By 1987, the United States (including Saudi matching funds) was spending a billion dollars a year on weapons and equipment for the mujahideen.”

In 1988, USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev announced that the Soviet army, which by then had suffered 14,000 dead and 50,000 wounded, had bled enough and would depart Afghanistan.

When the last Soviet troops left in February 1989, the United States once again no longer cared what happened in Afghanistan. But for the people of Afghanistan, who had endured a decade of war that the United States had financed and the CIA had covertly abetted, day-to-day life would deteriorate from beyond bad to dystopian when the mujahideen began fighting each other. By 1996, when the Taliban took power and ended the internecine bloodletting, as many as two million Afghani civilians had died, another five million had fled to Iran and Pakistan, and for those who remained, violence had become capricious and commonplace.

But the price for peace was the Taliban’s establishment of a theocratic dictatorship run by mullahs who ruthlessly imposed their version of Sharia law.

On Aug. 16, President Biden told the nation that “Our only national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland.” But contrary to that spin, preventing a terrorist attack has been the national security interest of the United States in Afghanistan only since Sept. 11, 2001.

Between 1978 and 1989, Presidents Carter and Reagan treated the people of Afghanistan as flotsam, lives that were expendable in what in 1840 Arthur Conolly, a captain of the Sixth Bengal Light Cavalry, famously described as the “Great Game.” And between 1990 and Sept. 11, 2001, no one in the United States government much cared what, first the mujahideen, and then the Taliban, did inside Afghanistan.

Who has been called to account for the misery the people of Afghanistan have endured since Jimmy Carter’s approval of Operation Cyclone began the series of events that culminated in the chaos the world watched play out at the Kabul airport?

Not Jimmy Carter. Not Ronald Reagan. Not Zbigniew Brezezinski. Not William Casey. Not Robert Gates. And not the members of Congress who supported Operation Cyclone and, according to one Reagan biographer, “sometimes appropriated more Afghanistan aid than Reagan asked for.”

Among the latter, Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens merits mention.

In 2010, when Ted died in a plane cash, I attended his memorial service at the Anchorage Baptist Temple. According to the speakers on stage that afternoon, “Uncle Ted” had devoted his career in the Senate to selflessly assisting deserving Alaskans obtain their Social Security benefits and less selflessly showering the state with a seemingly endless cascade of federal money. But just before the speech-making began, down the aisle in their dress uniforms marched the joint chiefs of staff, their hats covered with gold braid, their chests with brightly-colored service ribbons.

Why had they come from the Pentagon to pay their respects?

Because from 1981 to when he left the Senate in 2009, Ted Stevens was either chairman or ranking member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. In those positions, he was up to his elbows in arranging for Congress to appropriate the money the CIA spent on Operation Cyclone; particularly between 1981 and 1986, when he was chairman of the subcommittee during the years that, at Ronald Reagan’s urging, Congress significantly increased the amount of money the CIA was given to purchase weapons for the mujahideen.

Ted Stevens, Ronald Reagan, Zbigniew Brezezinski, and William Casey are in the grave. But in Plains, Georgia, Jimmy Carter has said nothing about his decision to authorize Project Cyclone and the catastrophic consequences of that decision for the people of Afghanistan. And after admitting that he had been “deeply involved” in Project Cyclone, in 2020 Robert Gates tried to distance himself from what he had wrought by asserting that because the CIA used the Pakistani intelligence service to hand out the weapons “neither I nor anyone else at the top of the American government fully grasped” that the CIA was supporting “some of the most extreme Afghan Islamic groups,” including foreigners such as Osama bin Laden who came to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet army alongside the mujahideen. “Unknowingly,” according to Gates, “we armed and strengthened those in Afghanistan who would attack us on Sept. 11, 2001.” An outcome he then tried to explain away as just another regrettable example of the operation of “the law of unintended consequences.”

You can decide for yourself whether that shedding of responsibility is credible. But one thing is certain. As Alex Cutter will tell you, when Jimmy Carter authorized and Ronald Reagan expanded Project Cyclone, when William Casey and Robert Gates supervised the CIA’s arming of the mujahideen, and when Ted Stevens and other members of Congress appropriated the money that made it all possible, insofar as the consequences of those decisions and actions were concerned, as it always is, it was never their ass that was on the line.

Donald Craig Mitchell is an Anchorage attorney, author of the two books on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and “Wampum: How Indian Tribes, the Mafia, and an Inattentive Congress Invented Indian Gaming and Created a $28 Billion Gambling Empire.” He was also a former vice president and general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives.

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Donald Craig Mitchell

Donald Craig Mitchell is an Anchorage attorney, author of the two books on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and "Wampum: How Indian Tribes, the Mafia, and an Inattentive Congress Invented Indian Gaming and Created a $28 Billion Gambling Empire."