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PAUL JAY: In 1979, Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski was the national security adviser for President Jimmy Carter. One of his most important recommendations to President Carter was to support the CIA’s plan to finance the Afghan Mujahedeen in their civil war against the Afghan communist government . . . a full six months before the Soviet’s invaded to defend their anointed Afghan leaders.
The Afghan communists had infuriated tribal leaders with edicts that allowed girls to go to school and women to work. Although life in major cities was quite modern with women enjoying some basic rights, the communist government also alienated many urban Afghans with their bureaucratic and repressive rule. An armed insurgency developed in the countryside amongst poorly armed tribal forces.
In the book “From the Shadows” by former CIA director Robert Gates, now the President Obama’s Secretary of Defense, the objective of funding the Mujahedeen was summed up this way at a senior level meeting on March 30, 1979:
“Walt Slocombe, representing Defense, asked if there was value in keeping the Afghan insurgency going, ‘sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire?’”
In a secret finding on July 1979, President Carter authorized the CIA to fund the resistance to the Afghan government. On that day, according to an interview he gave to the French paper “Le Nouvel Observateur”, Dr. Brzezinski told President Carter:
“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”.
The strategy succeeded as the Soviets invaded on December 24th, 1979.
In this second part of my interview with Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, I asked him what he thinks now of that fateful decision.


JAY: When you go back in history, there’s a famous interview you gave to a French paper where you talked about the decision to advise Jimmy Carter to arm the jihadists in Afghanistan against the communist government of Afghanistan. And you’re quoted as saying that this would help induce or would lead to the Soviets intervening in Afghanistan, which might lead to their Vietnam.

BRZEZINSKI: No, that’s not an accurate quote. I don’t know, you know, what yours is based on. But there are two different aspects here that are kind of connected. One, Robert Gates revealed in his memoirs, accurately, that before the Soviets staged the formal invasion of Afghanistan (but they were already in Afghanistan with special forces and so forth), we increased military—not—we increased financial assistance to the mujaheddin, it was mostly for the acquisition, presumably, of weapons. And then, after they came in, when the Soviets came in, I did send the president a memo saying, yes, they’re entering into Afghanistan at a time of turmoil in Iran, and in the whole Persian region, Gulf region as a consequence, potentially. We have the chance to give the Soviets their Vietnam.

JAY: ‘Cause the interview says this was before

BRZEZINSKI: Well, that’s not right. That’s not right.

JAY: —that leads to Carter’s decision

BRZEZINSKI: That’s not right. That’s not right. I mean, the archives are open at the Carter Center. You can send someone down to have them check.

JAY: Some of the veteran journalists I’ve talked to about this, they think this is overstated, that the real decision that created today’s world was Reagan’s decision to give Stinger missiles, that that early decision really wasn’t as significant.

BRZEZINSKI: Look, we were already helping, and that was an escalation, and a constructive one, in my judgment. In fact, since I was no longer in the government but I had some experience in dealing with this problem, as we have just discussed, I was asked to participate in a meeting which involved Secretary Shultz, Director Casey, and Secretary Weinberger, and I was there. And I fully endorsed—again, I was not a decision-maker, but I was being consulted—I fully endorsed the decision to give the mujaheddin the Stingers. And it was quite important in hastening the end of the conflict, not in deciding the conflict, because actually the fact is that even though we had the mujaheddin, they would have continued fighting without our help, because they were also getting a lot of money from the Persian Gulf and the Arab states, and they weren’t going to quit. They didn’t decide to fight because we urged them to. They’re fighters, and they prefer to be independent. They just happen to have a curious complex: they don’t like foreigners with guns in their country. And they were going to fight the Soviets. But giving them Stingers was a very important forward step in defeating the Soviets, and that’s all to the good as far as I’m concerned. The Soviet Union at the time was actively engaged in helping international terrorism, including those elements of the PLO that were very active. They have 30 training camps in the Soviet Union, the various terrorist groups. So it was a good thing that the Soviets were bogged down in Afghanistan.

JAY: When you look back at it now and see the extent to which this destabilized Pakistan—there’s mules going one way with narcotics and going the other way with weapons over the Pakistani border, the role that played in terms of how it shaped the Pakistan military. And, of course, what we know bin Laden gets invited to Afghanistan and the Civil War of perhaps more than a million Afghans killed, afterward the Taliban, 9/11, and now what you say may be this morass—it may turn into a morass in Afghanistan. One can’t have hindsight in reality, but looking back, was it the right decision?

BRZEZINSKI: Which decision? For the Soviets to go in?

JAY: To arm the mujahedin.

BRZEZINSKI: The decision was the Soviets’, and they went in. The Afghans would have resisted anyway, and they were resisting. I just told you: in my view, the Afghans would have prevailed in the end anyway, ’cause they had access to money, they had access to weapons, and they had the will to fight.

JAY: So US support for the mujaheddin only begins after the Russians invade, not before?

BRZEZINSKI: With arms? Absolutely afterwards. No question about it. Show me some documents to the contrary.


JAY: We took up Dr. Brzezinski’s challenge and first went to back to his interview with the French paper “Le Nouvel Observateur”, and sure enough, Dr. Brzezinski is correct, he didn’t make his Vietnam comment until after the Soviets invaded:
“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.”
But six months earlier, on the day Carter signed the Finding authorizing covert action, Brzezinski says in the interview:
“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 sent the published interview with Le Nouvel Observateur to Dr. Brzezinski and he responded:
“As far as the French interview is concerned, it was not an interview but excerpts from an interview that was originally supposed to be published in full but which they never checked with me for approval in the form that it did appear”.
We then went back to Robert Gates book “From the Shadows”. Although Dr. Brzezinski acknowledges in our interview that US funding was for the purchase of weapons, as does Gates, they both make a point of stating that there was no direct supply of “lethal weapons” to the Afghan insurgents.
President Carter’s finding authorized “the provision either unilaterally or through third countries of support to the Afghan insurgents, in the form of either cash or nonmilitary supplies”.
But Gates states in another paragraph: “By the end of August, Pakistani President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq was pressuring the United States for arms and equipment for the insurgents in Afghanistan …”
“When Turner (then director of the CIA) heard this, he urged the DO to get moving in providing more help to the insurgents. They responded with several enhancement options, including communications equipment for the insurgents via the Pakistanis or the Saudis, funds for the Pakistani to purchase lethal military equipment for the insurgents, and providing a like amount of lethal equipment ourselves for the Pakistanis to distribute to the insurgents.”
According to security analysts we consulted, this could have been a violation of Carter’s authorization to supply only “cash and non-military” support, which might explain the ambiguity.
There is nothing in Gates book that directly connects Brzezinski with the decision to provide such lethal weapons. We sent the relevant chapter of Gates book to Dr. Brzezinski for comment and he replied:
“Prior to the overt Soviet invasion, though the Soviets were covertly already engaged in Afghanistan, we did decide to provide financial assistance to the resistance. After the overt invasion, we provided more direct military assistance.”
The strategy achieved its aim. The Soviet’s invaded, and under President Reagan the US greatly increased its military support for the Mujaheddin, and the Soviet’s got their Vietnam.
It’s estimated more than a million civilians died during the Soviet Afghan war.  5 million Afghans fled to Pakistan and Iran, 1/3 of the prewar population of the country. It’s also the period when the CIA invited bin Laden to Afghanistan to inspire the Mujaheddin.
After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the Mujaheddin warlords, armed with millions of dollars of modern weapons, waged a bloody civil war that killed at least another half million civilians. The chaos of civil war led to the rise of the Taliban, the growth of al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, contributed to the events of 9/11, and now an American-Nato war against the Taliban and al Qaeda, with no end in sight. Real consequences of a foreign policy that sees the world as a board game that requires a supreme winner.


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Zbigniew Brzezinski Zbigniew Brzezinski is a CSIS counselor and trustee and cochairs the CSIS Advisory Board. He is also the Robert E. Osgood Professor of American Foreign Policy at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, in Washington, D.C.

He is cochair of the American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus and is a former chairman of the American-Ukrainian Advisory Committee. He is also a member of the International Advisory Board of the Atlantic Council. He was a member of the Policy Planning Council of the Department of State from 1966 to 1968; chairman of the Humphrey Foreign Policy Task Force in the 1968 presidential campaign; director of the Trilateral Commission from 1973 to 1976; and principal foreign policy adviser to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential campaign.

From 1977 to 1981, Dr. Brzezinski was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. In 1981, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role in the normalization of U.S.-China relations and for his contributions to the human rights and national security policies of the United States. He was also a member of the President's Chemical Warfare Commission (1985), the National Security Council-Defense Department Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy (1987-1988), and the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (1987-1989).

In 1988, he was cochairman of the Bush National Security Advisory Task Force, and in 2004, he was cochairman of a Council on Foreign Relations task force that issued the report Iran: Time for a New Approach. Dr. Brzezinski received a B.A. and M.A. from McGill University (1949, 1950) and Ph.D. from Harvard University (1953). He was a member of the faculties of Columbia University (1960-1989) and Harvard University (1953-1960). Dr. Brzezinski holds honorary degrees from Georgetown University, Williams College, Fordham University, College of the Holy Cross, Alliance College, the Catholic University of Lublin, Warsaw University, and Vilnius University.

He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards. His many books include America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy (Basic Books, 2008), coauthored with Brent Scowcroft and David Ignatius; Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower (Basic Books, 2007); The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership (Basic Books, 2004); The Geostrategic Triad: Living with China, Europe, and Russia (CSIS, 2001); The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (Basic Books, 1997); and The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the 20th Century (Scribners, 1989).