On February 15, 1989, the USSR pulled out of Afghanistan and the US — which had been arming the mujahideen fighters who defeated the Soviet Empire – largely walked away from Afghanistan. The vacuum allowed the rise of the Taliban and a safe haven for the 9/11 plotters. President Obama’s decision to have 98,000 US troops in Afghanistan evolved in no small way from the decision of previous presidents to walk away from Afghanistan after the Soviets left.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates assailed that decision, saying that the US “will not repeat the mistakes of 1989, when we abandoned that country only to see it descend into chaos and into Taliban hands.”
He made a similar reference this morning at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
This meme, in the hands of others in the Obama administration, has been in some ways a pushback against former Vice President Dick Cheney’s criticisms of President Obama and his handling of foreign policy.
Not only is the current mess in Afghanistan due to the fact that the Bush-Cheney administration under-resourced the Afghanistan war, the argument goes, when Cheney was Defense Secretary for President George HW Bush from 1989 until 1993, the inaction of the Bush-Quayle administration helped open the door for the Taliban.
Tuesday night, President Obama referred to the Taliban as "a ruthless, repressive and radical movement that seized control of that country after it was ravaged by years of Soviet occupation and civil war, and after the attention of America and our friends had turned elsewhere."
And earlier that day, National Security Council chief of staff Denis McDonough said "if you go back to…the early 1990s when then Vice President Cheney was the Secretary of Defense, we made a very grave mistake when we walked away from Afghanistan and Pakistan."
But for Secretary Gates, the mistake is a little more personal.
“I feel a certain sense of personal responsibility,” he testified before the House Armed Services Committee in December 2007.
“I was deputy director of CIA and then deputy national security advisor during the period when the Soviets did withdraw from Afghanistan, and the United States essentially turned its back on Afghanistan,” Gates said. “And five years later came the first attack on the World Trade Center. And so, you know, one of the lessons that I think we have is that if we abandon these countries, once we are in there and engaged, there is a very real possibility that we will pay a higher price in the end.”
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says that Gates at the time was focused on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of the Warsaw Pact.
Gates in early 2008 at the Munich Conference on Security Policy said that “September 11th was a galvanizing event – one that opened the American public's eyes to dangers from distant lands. It was especially poignant since our government had been heavily involved in Afghanistan in the 1980s, only to make the grievous error – of which I was at least partly responsible – of abandoning a destitute and war-torn nation after the last Soviet soldier crossed the Termez bridge.”
At a press conference in Pakistan in February 2007, Gates said, “after the Soviets left, the United States made a mistake. We neglected Afghanistan, and extremism took control of that country. And the United States paid a price for that on September 11th, 2001. We won't make that mistake again. We are here for the long haul.”
As George Crile, author of Charlie Wilson's War, wrote, by 1990 “the Afghan freedom fighters had suddenly and frighteningly gone back to form, re-emerging as nothing more than feuding warlords obsessed with settling generations-old scores. The difference was that they were now armed with hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of weapons and explosives of every conceivable type….What now seems clear is that, under the umbrella of the CIA's program, Afghanistan had become a gathering place for militant Muslims from around the world.”
Crile wrote that the presumption at the CIA “had been that when the United States packed its bags and cut off the Afghans, the jihad would simply burn itself out. If the Afghans insisted on killing one another, it would be a shame but not America's problem. Perhaps that policy would have worked out had it been only weapons that we left behind. But the more dangerous legacy of the Afghan war is found in the minds and convictions of Muslims around the world. To them the miracle victory over the Soviets was all the work of Allah not the billions of dollars that America and Saudi Arabia poured into the battle, not the 10-year commitment of the CIA that turned an army of primitive tribesmen into technoholy warriors. The consequence for America of having waged a secret war and never acknowledging or advertising its role was that it set in motion the spirit of jihad and the belief in surrogate soldiers that, having brought down one superpower, they could just as easily take on another.”
This all paved the way for 9/11, Crile wrote.
"By the end of 1993, in Afghanistan itself there were no roads, no schools, just a destroyed country — and the United States was washing its hands of any responsibility,” wrote Crile. “It was in this vacuum that the Taliban and Osama bin Laden would emerge as the dominant players. It is ironic that a man who had almost nothing to do with the victory over the Red Army, Osama bin Laden, would come to personify the power of the jihad."
Some of this was captured in the movie version of Charlie Wilson’s War, when CIA agent Gust Avrakotos tells then-Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Texas, about a National Intelligence Estimate that shows the pending problem.
“I'm about to give you an NIE that shows the crazies are rolling into Kandahar,” Avrakotos says.
Inside Wilson’s Watergate condo, folks are celebrating the defeat of the USSR in Afghanistan. Avrakotos isn’t so sure.
“There's a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse,” Avrakotos tells Wilson. “And everybody in the village says, ‘How wonderful. The boy got a horse’ And the Zen master says, ‘We'll see.’
“Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, ‘How terrible,’” he continues. “And the Zen master says, ‘We'll see.’ Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight… except the boy can't cause his legs all messed up. and everybody in the village says, ‘How wonderful.’”
Says Wilson: “Now the Zen master says, ‘We'll see.’”
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, said yesterday that “during the '70s and the '80s, I had the privilege of serving with Congressman Charlie Wilson in the House of Representatives.”
Nelson told Gates he was “so happy to see in your statement, and I quote you, ‘We will not repeat the mistakes of 1989, when we abandoned the country only to see it descend into civil war and then into Taliban hands.’ And it was Charlie Wilson at that time — who singularly had been in large part responsible for us getting in, in the first place – that fought us getting out. So thank you for stating the United States policy as strongly as you have.”
Later in the hearing, Gates repeated his pledge.
“We will not repeat the mistake — we must not repeat the mistake of 1989, and turn our backs on these folks,” said the defense secretary. “And when we've got the security situation with them under control, then the civilian and the development part must be the preponderant part of our relationship far into the future.”