How to Win Covert Wars

The world's a complex place. It's time to reconsider covert action as an instrument of American statecraft.

In light of plummeting security around the globe today, the United States would be prudent to take an inventory of its instruments of statecraft. The foundation for effective statecraft and strategy is to have the means to achieve political ends. The potential political ends in this deteriorating world are far outpacing American military capabilities. Our defense budgets, talented military personnel and hardware are suffering from stresses and strains, and are worn out after more than a decade of battles from Afghanistan to Iraq and elsewhere in the world.

To make American ends and means match, we will have to be smarter at using instruments other than military power. These instruments include diplomacy, intelligence and covert action. We often think of drone strikes and direct-action attacks by Special Operations Forces such as Delta and SEAL teams when talking about covert action these days as a legacy of the type of operations we have been conducting against the likes of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But covert action should be understood in a broader sense of statecraft. It is the support or operations to influence global situations to the advantage of American national interests that require the hiding of the American role to minimize risks and investments, while maximizing the chances for success.


The American covert action to support the Afghanistan mujahedin against Soviet military forces during the Cold War was an exemplar of covert actions. The program inflicted substantial costs on the Soviet Union, forced Moscow to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan and achieved a major American security interest: to prevent Soviet forces from using Afghanistan as a launching point to capture more strategically valuable real estate in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. The covert-action program, moreover, accomplished all this with minimal risk and costs to the United States. Many commentators, especially those on the political right, stretch the point a bit too far by arguing that the Afghanistan covert-action program “won the Cold War.” They wrongfully dismiss the importance of sustained, decades-long, old-fashioned bipartisan consensus for the importance of politically, economically and militarily containing the Soviet Union to allow its own internal weaknesses to bring it down, just as realist and grand strategist George F. Kennan had argued in the late 1940s.

With the benefit of time, reflection and publicly available information, a look back to assess the Cold War covert-action program in Afghanistan would be a valuable stock taking of the American inventory of statecraft instruments. Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an accomplished scholar and practitioner, has done just that in his new book What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-89.

The United States needs allies and security partners in the world, even if they are unsavory players. Riedel’s important book focuses on the United States’ critical relationships with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in orchestrating the supply of arms and money to the Afghan insurgency via Pakistan. Riedel’s extensive experience as an intelligence officer and senior Department of Defense and National Security Council official gives this book unique insight into the demands and intricacies of policy making.

As a former senior policy maker, Riedel knows well the importance of how individuals with their personalities and egos get along than most academics. His focus on the managing of relations provides readers with insights into the covert war beyond those of former journalist Steve Coll’s best selling book Ghost Wars (2004). Riedel’s book also benefits from his one-on-one interviews with critical players in the covert-action program—to include former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud, former secretary of defense Robert Gates, and former president Jimmy Carter—with whom Riedel has had official dealings in the past.

The covert war was inexpensive for the United States in both blood and treasure. Riedel reflects that no Americans lost their lives, and the total cost of the war for the entire decade was about $3 billion. Such a sum is nothing to laugh at, but it is dwarfed by the trillion-plus dollars the United States has spent in the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Soviets pulled off a strategic surprise with their invasion of Afghanistan, much as the Russians last year shocked the West with their unconventional approach to Ukraine. Riedel shows that President Carter was not warned of the impending Soviet invasion in December 1979. The intelligence community reported the steady buildup of Soviet forces along the border, but it misjudged Moscow’s intentions. The intelligence community had done much the same in failing to warn policy makers of the 1973 Egyptian attack against Israel and of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

The 40th Red Army was the Soviet invasion force that had about 80,000 troops. It eventually grew in its occupation of Afghanistan to about 110,000 troops with three motorized rifle divisions, one airborne division and eight independent brigades. Parenthetically, the Russians in 2014 marshaled comparably sized forces tallying in the tens of thousands along Ukraine’s border, a feat that could not be matched these days by the NATO alliance.