America’s Foreign Legions: How We Treat Our Proxies Defines Us

Foreign Legion

America’s Foreign Legions: How We Treat Our Proxies Defines Us

The real and present history of American warfare is one of outsourcing; of volatile marriages of convenience between the United States and its partisans, partners, and proxies. Like all relationships, they come with mixed expectations and varied intentions.

Service with American forces marked the partisans, partners, and proxies who fought for years in support of U.S. efforts as well as their families. Unknown numbers were executed, died attempting to escape Vietnam, or languished in refugee camps or under a hostile government. Those who escaped feared retribution or a forced return to Vietnam and persecution. Sadly, nativist sentiment in the United States ran strongly against the settlement of Vietnamese refugees of any ethnicity and, despite two critical pieces of legislation—the 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act and the United States Refugee Act of 1980—the number of soldiers who fought with and for the United States that actually reached the nation that enlisted them is less than those who died in the attempt.

IT IS nearly impossible to write a sentence regarding the wars in Afghanistan without including the words “betrayal” or “disaster.” Such has been the case for more than 2,300 years of foreign invasions by a cast of “superpowers,” from Alexander to the Moguls to the British and to the Soviets, the only constants are betrayal and disaster. The American experience is no exception. The betrayal, as always, will fall upon the partisans, partners, and proxy forces we have created, guided, and supported. 

The authors’ shared experience spans the American wars in Afghanistan from the earliest days of the massive CIA covert action that shattered the myth of the Soviet monolith, to the current meandering conclusion of the post-9/11 American invasion and occupation. After a combined forty years spent partnered with, or fighting against, lightly-armed tribal warriors, there is no clear outcome apparent, save a declaration that we’re tired, we’re fed up, and we’re going home. As our Afghan war sputters out, seemingly canceled for lack of interest, it is an appropriate guide to exploring the means by which America conducts the majority of its modern wars. We must ask whether the conduct and conclusions of our small wars comport with our national values. In short, we should begin to understand the predictable outcomes of continuing down the same path.

The first U.S. betrayal of Afghan proxy forces occurred in 1988–89, after the Afghan resistance, the Mujahedin, “the soldiers of god,” pushed Soviet occupation forces back across the Oxus River in the final act of ten years of brutal warfare. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan can be viewed as the precise moment when the scales of history tipped toward the collapse of the Soviet empire.

The Soviet Afghan adventure began on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1979, when the aging and ailing Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, ordered the incursion into Afghanistan. Brezhnev’s Limited Expeditionary Force was tasked with putting down the fundamentalist insurrection against the Soviet puppet government in Kabul. Brezhnev had been convinced by the KGB that the United States was either still too reluctant after its humiliating exit from Vietnam, or too distracted by its ongoing hostage crisis in Iran, to do much about his quickly tidying up of his problem in Afghanistan. Brezhnev thought he could be in and out before the Americans even took much notice.

Brezhnev was wrong.

105th Airborne and Interior Ministry special forces easily secured Kabul, killed a handful of troublesome Afghan leaders, and put Babrak Karmal in charge. But before they could set about dealing with the Afghan resistance, U.S. president Jimmy Carter responded. Predictably and unspectacularly, he canceled a number of pending agreements with the Soviet Union, such as wheat deals and the expansion of consular posts. Furthermore, Carter set in motion the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Much more quietly and decisively, Carter signed a secret presidential finding tasking the CIA to provide covert lethal support to the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation. 

Within weeks the CIA organized huge shipments of venerable British Enfield .303 rifles to the Afghan resistance fighters with the assistance of the Pakistan Army’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. It soon became clear that many of the Soviet Union’s fraternal socialist nations had no problem providing weapons to the insurrectionist forces fighting the Soviet Union’s 40th Army in Afghanistan. The CIA established an ordnance pipeline through Pakistan that, within a few months, was virtually bursting with Warsaw Pact weaponry from friendly sources such as Egypt, and later China, and several not-so-friendly sources within the increasingly wobbly Warsaw pact. Soon, the U.S.-led coalition of countries supporting the Afghan resistance grew to an impressive collection, amongst others, the United States, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and China. King Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia pledged to financially match U.S. support of the Afghan resistance in response to the godless communist Soviet invasion of a fraternal Islamic nation.

After the Carter administration handed over its growing covert war in Afghanistan to a Reagan administration eager to ratchet up pressure on the “evil empire,” the CIA program grew from a few tens of millions of dollars per year to several hundreds of millions. Ronald Reagan’s CIA director, William Casey, viewed Afghanistan as critical to his strategy to bring down the Soviet Union. The other component to his strategy was a rather helpful Polish pope, whose influence in Poland—the cornerstone of the Warsaw Pact—was massive. An equally helpful Saudi oil minister kept destructive price pressures on the Soviet Union’s only export—oil. Under President Reagan, support to the Mujahedin ultimately reached more than $1 billion a year and over the course of the ten-year war, the CIA delivered several hundred thousand tons of weapons and ordnance to the Mujahedin.

By 1985, the Soviet 40th army had grown from its original “Limited Expeditionary Force” to an occupation force of around 120,000 widely dispersed troops. After stoically facing inevitable defeat and martyrdom only a few years before, Afghan resistance groups were advancing on the Soviets on all fronts, buoyed by American largesse and moral support. With more than 250,000 full- or part-time Mujahedin fighters in the field, Soviet forces suffered, though the Mujahedin and the civilian population endured horrendous casualties. Critically, Soviet air operations became severely restricted following the introduction of American Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

Brezhnev, the architect of the Soviet Union’s Afghan misadventure, died in 1982, and a succession of Soviet leaders failed to reverse Soviet fortunes in Afghanistan. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the USSR, declaring Afghanistan the Soviet Union’s “bleeding wound” a year later. He gave his commanders one year to turn things around and even ramped up Soviet operations against the Mujahedin, but failed to reverse the tempo of the war. On April 14, 1988, the signing of the Geneva Accords ended Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. The date for the final withdrawal of all Soviet forces was set as February 15, 1989, a timetable the commander of Soviet forces choreographed to the last moment of the last day.

After ten years of war, the Soviet Union admitted to losing fifteen thousand troops killed in action, several hundred thousand wounded, and tens of thousands dead from disease. The true numbers might be higher. Almost one-third of seventeen million Afghans were directly affected by the sanguinary Soviet occupation with approximately 1 million killed, another 1.5 million wounded or maimed, and 3.5 million forced into external exile in Iran or Pakistan. The United States lost no personnel during the CIA’s involvement in the ten-year covert war.

What followed the Soviet exit from Afghanistan grew rapidly into a cataclysm for the USSR and a national disaster for the Afghans. A weakened Soviet Union faced rebellion throughout its empire, dramatically culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. On Boxing Day 1991, a small detachment of Red Army soldiers marched out on the Kremlin wall, hauled down the hammer and sickle for the last time, and hoisted the Russian tricolor. The Soviet Union was no more—a victim of its own decrepitude.

In Afghanistan, a new post-Cold War construct was born of chaos: the failed state. With stunning events ongoing in Eastern Europe, the USSR, and Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan received scant attention from the George H.W. Bush administration or the world at large. By the mid-1990s, the state of Afghanistan ceased to exist. Civil war between the contending factions of the Mujahedin resumed, with horrendous brutality, and continued until the population was ready for any path to peace and stability. Against this backdrop, a mystical group called the Taliban became “the saviors of Afghanistan.” The United States seemed to find comfort with the new sense of order the Taliban brought to a disintegrating Afghanistan, and briefly entertained working with the Taliban on a major pipeline project from the gas fields of Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan and onward to India. But that project failed and, by the mid-1990s, the United States had fully turned its back on Afghanistan, quickly forgetting that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact was rooted in the blood-drenched soil of Afghanistan.

A QUARTER-MILLION Afghan fighters, created, sustained, and supported by the CIA in their struggle against the Soviet 40th Army, were ultimately abandoned. A small number of America’s old Afghan comrades in arms were able to find their way to the United States. But with the concepts of betrayal, revenge, and blood debt firmly fixed in Afghan culture, the now-abandoned fighters who served as proxies for the United States in the brutal, ten-year war were forced to take a second look at their former friends. Thus, the sons, grandsons, and nephews of a quarter-million Mujahedin warriors, either “your best friend or worst enemy,” became the Taliban. Soon they would face off against American troops and a new set of Afghan proxy forces who replaced them as favored by Uncle Sam.