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Context of '1973-1979: US Starts to Provide Support to Islamists Opposing the Soviets in Afghanistan'

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In 1973 Afghan Prince Muhammad Daoud ousts the Afghan king with help from the Soviet Union, and establishes an Afghan republic. The CIA in turn begins funding Islamist extremists, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, as a resistance movement opposing the Soviets. US allies Iran, with its intelligence agency SAVAK, and Pakistan, with its intelligence agency the ISI, play an important role in funneling weapons and other forms of assistance to the Afghan Islamist militants. After the pro-Soviet coup in April 1978, the Islamic militants with the support of the ISI carry out a massive campaign of terrorism, assassinating hundreds of teachers and civil servants. (Dreyfuss 2005, pp. 260 - 263)

The CIA begins covert action against the Communist government in Afghanistan, which is closely tied to the Soviet Union. Some time this year, the CIA begins training militants in Pakistan and beaming radio propaganda into Afghanistan. By April 1979, US officials are meeting with opponents of the Afghan government to determine their needs. (Blum 1995, pp. 344) Robert Gates, who will become CIA Director in the early 1990s, will later recall that in a meeting on March 30, 1979, Under Secretary of Defense Walter Slocumbe wonders aloud whether there is “value in keeping the Afghan insurgency going, ‘sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire.’” (Gates 1996, pp. 145) In March 1979, there is a major revolt in Herat province, and in June and August there are large scale army mutinies. (Cooley 2002, pp. 5) President Carter will formally approve covert aid to opponents of the government in July (see July 3, 1979), which will result in a Russian invasion in December (see December 8, 1979).

As the US mobilizes for covert war in Afghanistan (see 1978 and July 3, 1979), a CIA special envoy meets Afghan mujaheddin leaders at Peshawar, Pakistan, near the border to Afghanistan. All of them have been carefully selected by the Pakistani ISI and do not represent a broad spectrum of the resistance movement. One of them is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a drug dealer with little support in Afghanistan, but who is loyal to the ISI. The US will begin working with Hekmatyar and over the next 10 years over half of all US aid to the mujaheddin will go to his faction (see 1983). Hekmatyar is already known as brutal, corrupt, and incompetent. (McCoy 2003, pp. 475) His extreme ruthlessness, for instance, his reputation for skinning prisoners alive, is considered a plus, as it is thought he will use that ruthlessness to kill Russians. (Dreyfuss 2005, pp. 267-268)

US President Jimmy Carter and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev sign the SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) agreement in Vienna, after years of fitful negotiations. The basic outline of the accords is not much different from the agreement reached between Brezhnev and President Ford five years earlier (see November 23, 1974).
Conservative Opposition - The Senate must ratify the treaty before it becomes binding; Republicans and conservative Democrats alike oppose the treaty. Neoconservative Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA—see Early 1970s) compares Carter to former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (who allowed the Nazis to occupy part of Czechoslovakia in 1938) in accusing Carter of “appeasement in its purest form” towards the Soviet Union. Members of the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD—see 1976) appear before the Senate 17 times to argue against ratification. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testifies against it, calling instead for a $44 billion increase in defense spending and once again evoking the specter of Nazi Germany: “Our nation’s situation is much more dangerous today than it has been at any time since Neville Chamberlain left Munich, setting the stage for World War II.” The American Security Council launches “Peace Through Strength Week” (see November 12, 1979). And Governor Ronald Reagan (R-CA), embarking on his presidential campaign, warns the nation that the Soviets could just “take us with a phone call,” forcing us to obey an ultimatum: “Look at the difference in our relative strengths. Now, here’s what we want.… Surrender or die.”
Familiar Arguments - In 2008, author J. Peter Scoblic will write that the arguments advanced against the SALT II treaty are the same as advanced so many times before (see August 15, 1974), including during the infamous “Team B” exercise (see November 1976). The Soviet Union believes it can win a nuclear war, opponents insist, and a treaty such as the one signed by Carter and Brezhnev merely plays into the Soviets’ hands. Once the US loses its significant advantage in nuclear payloads, the likelihood increases that the USSR incinerates American missile silos and dares the US to respond—the US might get off a volley of its remaining missiles, but the Soviets will then launch a second strike that will destroy America’s cities. And that US strike will have limited impact because of what critics call the Soviets’ extensive, sophisticated civil defense program. The US will have no other choice than to, in Scoblic’s words, “meekly submit to Soviet will.” SALT II plays into what the CPD calls the Soviet goal of not waging a nuclear war, but winning “political predominance without having to fight.” Scoblic will note, “An argument that had started on the fringes of the far Right was now being made with total seriousness by a strong cross-section of foreign policy experts, backed by significant public support.” Scoblic then calls the arguments “fatuous… grounded in zero-sum thinking.” The facts do not support the arguments. It is inconceivable, he will observe, that the US would absorb a devastating first strike without immediately launching its own overwhelming counterstrike. And for the critics to accept the tales of “extensive” Soviet civil defense programs, Scoblic argues, is for them to be “remarkably credulous of Soviet propaganda.” No matter what the Soviets did first, the US could kill upwards of 75 million Soviet citizens with its single strike, a circumstance the USSR was unlikely to risk. And, Scoblic will note, subsequent studies later prove the conservatives’ arguments completely groundless (see 1994).
Senate Fails to Ratify - By late 1979, the arguments advanced by Congressional conservatives, combined with other events (such as the “discovery” of a clutch of Soviet troops in Cuba) derails the chance of SALT II being ratified in the Senate. When the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan (see December 8, 1979), Carter withdraws the treaty from further consideration. Scoblic will note that by this point in his presidency, Carter has abandoned any pretense of attempting to reduce nuclear armaments (see Mid-January, 1977); in fact, “[h]is nuclear policies increasingly resembled those of Team B, the Committee on the Present Danger, and groups like the Emergency Coalition Against Unilateral Disarmament” (see Early 1977 and Late 1979-1980). Carter notes that such a treaty as the SALT II accord is the single most important goal of US foreign policy: “Especially now, in a time of great tension, observing the mutual constraints imposed by the terms of these treaties, [SALT I and II] will be in the best interest of both countries and will help to preserve world peace.… That effort to control nuclear weapons will not be abandoned.” (Scoblic 2008, pp. 105-109, 117)

President Carter authorizes covert aid for opponents of the Communist government in Afghanistan. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Adviser, will state in 1998, “According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the mujaheddin began… after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan… But the reality, secretly 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.… We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.” (Brzezinski 1/15/1998) After Brzezinski’s confession, other US officials who denied US involvement prior to the Soviet invasion will change their story as well. For instance, Charles Cogan, who is head of the CIA covert aid program to Afghanistan at this time, will call Carter’s approval on this day a “very modest beginning to US involvement.” (Cooley 2002, pp. 10) In fact, even this is not correct because the CIA had been aiding the rebels since at least the year before (see 1978 and 1973-1979). The Soviets invade Afghanistan by the end of 1979 (see December 8, 1979).

Soviet tanks entering Afghanistan in late 1979.Soviet tanks entering Afghanistan in late 1979. [Source: Banded Artists Productions]The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan. The Russians were initially invited in by the Afghan government to deal with rising instability and army mutinies, and they start crossing the border on December 8. But on December 26, Russian troops storm the presidential palace, kill the country’s leader, Haizullah Amin, and the invitation turns into an invasion. (Blum 1995, pp. 342) Later declassified high-level Russian documents will show that the Russian leadership believed that Amin, who took power in a violent coup from another pro-Soviet leader two months before, had secret contacts with the US embassy and was probably a US agent. Further, one document from this month claims that “the right wing Muslim opposition” has “practically established their control in many provinces… using foreign support.” (Cooley 2002, pp. 8) It has been commonly believed that the invasion was unprovoked, but the Russians will later be proven largely correct. In a 1998 interview, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, will reveal that earlier in the year Carter authorized the CIA to destabilize the government, provoking the Russians to invade (see July 3, 1979). (Le Nouvel Observateur (Paris) 1/1998; Pilger 1/29/2002) Further, CIA covert action in the country actually began in 1978 (see 1978), if not earlier (see 1973-1979). The US and Saudi Arabia will give a huge amount of money (estimates range up to $40 billion total for the war) to support the mujaheddin guerrilla fighters opposing the Russians, and a decade-long war will ensue. (Hiro 2/15/1999)

Front row: Pakistani President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq  (left) and President Carter (right). Zbigniew Brzezinski is in the center of the back row.Front row: Pakistani President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq (left) and President Carter (right). Zbigniew Brzezinski is in the center of the back row. [Source: Wally McNamee / Corbis]National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski writes a memo to President Jimmy Carter about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which has just begun (see December 8, 1979). Brzezinski focuses on fears that success in Afghanistan could give the Soviets access to the Indian Ocean, even though Afghanistan is a landlocked country. He suggests the US should continue aid to the Afghan mujaheddin, which actually began before the war and spurred the Soviets to invade (see 1978 and July 3, 1979). He says, “This means more money as well as arms shipments to the rebels and some technical advice.” He does not give any warning that such aid will strengthen Islamic fundamentalism. He also concludes, “[W]e must both reassure Pakistan and encourage it to help the rebels. This will require a review of our policy toward Pakistan, more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and alas, a decision that our security problem toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our nonproliferation policy.” Carter apparently accepts Brzezinski’s advice. Author Joe Trento will later comment, “With that, the United States agreed to let a country admittedly in turmoil proceed to develop nuclear weapons.” (Trento 2005, pp. 167-168) Trento and fellow author David Armstrong will add: “Once [Pakistan] became a partner in the anti-Soviet Afghan campaign and the Carter administration adopted a more lenient view of Pakistan’s nuclear activities, the [procurement] network [run by A. Q. Khan] expanded its operations dramatically. It would soon evolve into a truly global enterprise, obtaining the vast array of sophisticated equipment with which Pakistan would eventually build a bomb.” (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 99)

Muhammad Zia ul-Haq.Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. [Source: Associated Press]General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq seized power in Pakistan in a 1977 coup and declared himself president. The US stopped all economic and military aid to Pakistan as a result of the coup and Zia ruled cautiously in an attempt to win international approval. But immediately after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (see December 8, 1979), the US allies with Zia and resumes aid. This allows Zia to use Islam to consolidate his power without worrying about the international reaction. He passes pro-Islamic legislation, introduces Islamic banking systems, and creates Islamic courts. Most importantly, he creates a new religious tax which is used to create tens of thousands of madrassas, or religious boarding schools. These schools will indoctrinate a large portion of future Islamic militants for decades to come. (Gannon 2005, pp. 138-142) Zia also promotes military officers on the basis of religious devotion. The Koran and other religious material becomes compulsory reading material in army training courses. “Radical Islamist ideology began to permeate the military and the influence of the most extreme groups crept into the army,” journalist Kathy Gannon will write in her book I is for Infidel. (Gannon 2005, pp. 138-142) The BBC will later comment that Zia’s self-declared “Islamization” policies created a “culture of jihad” within Pakistan that continues until present day. (Hardy 8/5/2002)

In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (see December 8, 1979), President Carter declares in his annual State of the Union address, “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” This will become known as the Carter Doctrine. (Scott 2007, pp. 69, 303) The US immediately follows up with a massive build up of military forces in the region. New military arrangements are made with Kenya, Oman, Somalia, Egypt, and Pakistan. In March 1980, a Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force is created, which will be renamed US Central Command (or Centcom) several years later. (Scott 2007, pp. 78-79, 308-309)

In an interview, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Adviser, admits that it was US policy to support radical Islamists to undermine Russia. He admits that US covert action drew Russia into starting the Afghan war in 1979 (see July 3, 1979). Asked if he has regrets about this, he responds, “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.” Then he is asked if he regrets “having given arms and advice to future terrorists,” and he responds, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” The interviewer then says, “Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.” But Brzezinski responds, “Nonsense! It is said that the West had a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid. There isn’t a global Islam….” (Brzezinski 1/15/1998) Even after 9/11, Brzezinski will maintain that the covert action program remains justified. (Alterman 10/25/2001)

A satellite image of the Zhawar Kili training camp in Afghanistan, taken shortly before it was hit by a US missile strike in August, 1998.A satellite image of the Zhawar Kili training camp in Afghanistan, taken shortly before it was hit by a US missile strike in August, 1998. [Source: Corbis] (click image to enlarge)The New York Times reports that the training camps recently attacked by the US in Afghanistan were built by the US and its allies, years before. The US and Saudi Arabia gave the Afghans between $6 billion and $40 billion to fight the Soviets in the 1980s (see December 8, 1979). Many of the people targeted by the missile attacks were trained and equipped by the CIA years before. (Weiner 8/24/1998)

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