Guest Post: “R.I.P. Mr. Wilson, Father of the Taliban”

by Joshua Foust on 2/13/2010 · 34 comments

This is a guest post written by Major Jeremy Kotkin, an Army officer who specializes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The views here are his alone, and not necessarily representative of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This proverb which has become a mainstay of foreign policy courses of action has, in fact, pushed the United States to make horrifically misguided and ignorant decisions about how to view challenges across the globe and the ways and means used to confront them. With this proverb in mind, and often with the best of intentions in tow, organs of U.S. national security have walked blindly into situations where our own ignorance became the single most crippling factor to long term success of a program. In turn, this has allowed U.S. strategy to be high jacked by naïve and/or stunningly blinded officials and officers entrusted with defense of our nation.

One such official was the Honorable Charles N. Wilson of Texas. His fervent and black and white view of a problem led him to get into bed with a culture, a paradigm, and a mission which had positively no bearing on our national security. Unknowingly, he coupled U.S. foreign policy with a growing and insatiable malevolent influence in the region, and still today, 30 years later, we cannot extricate ourselves from it. The poison he and idealists such as him injected into the veins of our foreign policy runs that deep. Mr. Wilson, to be sure, was not the first to use, as a tool, a foreign body as a host to carry our democratic antibody to the Communists. But it is he who singled out a loose band of Afghan mujahedeen under Islamist hardliners as the standard-bearers of this policy. If anyone can be held responsible for the birth of the Taliban and the shambles that is today the quasi-state of Afghanistan, it is Mr. Wilson and his like-minded cohorts then in Congress and the CIA. That we as a nation are there again, almost 10 years since 9/11, owes solely to that old and tired policy and the ghost of Mr. Wilson’s idealism still haunting the halls of the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom.

His formative adult years were molded in the U.S. Navy surface fleet, which, along with the rest of the DoD and nation beginning in the 1950’s were singularly focused on the Soviet bear and it’s expansion. Later, as an elected official in Congress and the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, he further refined his ability to wage war on the spread of Communism. The manner in which Mr. Wilson chose to constrict and drive back the Soviets was wars by proxy. In a time when direct military confrontation with the Soviets was unthinkable, Mr. Wilson and similarly-minded defense and security officials determined that whoever around the world might be or become enemies of the Soviets must then become our friends. And not friends in name only, but friends we would fund and equip and urge to do our fighting for us. The policy of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” took firm hold in the mountains of Afghanistan in 1980 when Mr. Wilson made it his personal mission to enable the Afghan mujahedeen to fight off the invading Soviet troops. While superficially, this may seem like a noble gesture (he had seen for himself the horrors of war inflicted on the Afghan civilians by the heavy hand of the Red Army) and possibly even a militarily prudent one given our fears of nuclear escalation, in the case of Afghanistan, it unnecessarily birthed a much more serious monster than a Soviet invasion of a far-off and strategically negligible place on a map ever could.

There is no doubt that the U.S. won the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. However much as we might like to pat ourselves on the back for the rightfulness of our cause or the morality of our actions, we actually did take the easy way out; we decided that the ends justified the means and we would use whoever was necessary, on a global scale, to achieve those results. We would find the stooges to fight for us in the name of ‘democracy.’ That, however, is not the worst of it; the sad fact is that we had a much nobler blueprint in hand though we chose not use it. We had the ways and means that were suitable, feasible, and acceptable, although we ended up choosing means that were the converse of all three; if not, why then were they funded and conducted under the cover of black appropriations? Simply to hide from the American people what was being done in their name and with whom we had gotten into bed. More importantly, idealists as Wilson could not let the uneasy truth be known that that we were spending money on a solution that politically entwined us with such monsters as Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, Somoza in Nicaragua, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or eventually a band of xenophobic atavists in Afghanistan.

The blueprint mentioned above was NSC-68, penned in theory by George Kennan in the Long Telegram and implemented by Paul Nitze in policy. Echoing Shoeless Joe in the movie Field of Dreams, Nitze described a “Build it and they will come” strategy; America maintains its most credible influence and intrinsic power when it acknowledges and reinforces the “strength and appeal of its idea, and feels no compulsion sooner or later to bring all societies into conformity with it.” Proxy wars such as those which Mr. Wilson and the CIA enabled in 1979 and even what we are doing today in Afghanistan is directly contrary to this advice. Furthermore, Nitze says that only by leveraging the “moral and material strength of the free world” and “building a successfully functioning political and economic system” can we defeat the threat. In other words, only by ensuring our own house is in order and living up to the ideals which first made us a great nation can we “truly frustrate” the designs of our enemies, be they the Taliban or al-Qaeda of today or the Soviets of yesterday. Only then can we convince authoritarian regimes and the disenfranchised groups who become insurgents of the “falsity of [their] assumptions.”

But this is not the path Mr. Wilson chose. He, and others before and after him in different conflicts, convinced our policymakers to take the direct military route, even if the direct route meant by proxy. We chose to mistranslate and misimplement NSC-68 and pull it from its political and economic roots to transform it into a military foreign policy. This was used to justify our kinetic fight with Russians (by, with, and through other host nations nonetheless) to contain communism. We used it to start or expand “dirty little wars” conducted on the periphery of documented grand strategy to achieve an assumed cheaper and quicker fix. However, reality tells a very different story with a vastly different ending. Mr. Wilson, as much as he derided our lack of follow-through and commitment to what he started in Afghanistan leading to its collapse in 1991, did not see that it was he and his fervor to contain the Soviets that actually began the long slide to those very events and even 11 September 2001 itself.

The facts about pre- and post Marxist Afghanistan are not in question. Corruption and the poor economic policies of the ruling monarchy led to the 1973 coup orchestrated by the King’s cousin and serving Prime Minister, Mohammad Daoud Khan. Due to the unpopularity and heavy-handedness of his reforms, he, too, was overthrown and murdered in 1978, leading to the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) run by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan with support of the Afghan National Army. This self-proclaimed Marxist government eventually needed foreign support to quell Islamic insurgents who could not accept further progressive reforms initiated under the DRA. Jamiat-e Islami under Ahmed Shah Massoud led the revolution and the DRA, unable to respond alone, eventually requested the full intervention of the Soviet government. Due to a 1978 treaty after almost 60 years of informal and unconsolidated military and economic support to Afghanistan, Moscow felt obliged to intervene.

Enter U.S. naïveté. The U.S., as early as 1978, 6 months prior to the Soviet intervention, veritably induced the Russian intervention. The intent was, as President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski stated, to give the Russian’s their Viet Nam war. Only by using the Afghans and neighboring Pakistan as tools in the larger U.S. strategy, we flooded arms and money into both countries with goals and agendas very different form our own. We, however, chose not to ask the hard questions, chose not to scratch below the surface, and chose to assume the enemies of our enemy were our friends. As such, we directly entered into talks with Islamist insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, enabling not only a growing fundamental Islamic jihad in Afghanistan, but also enabling the equally destabilizing regime of President (Gen.) Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and his double-faced ISI in Pakistan. Without Representative Wilson and like-minded officials in the CIA, it is not difficult to imagine the events of 9/11 would not have occurred; Afghanistan could very possibly have remained a local issue with the Russians securing and stabilizing the sitting DRA regime. Although not ‘democratic’ in Western eyes, stability could have returned nonetheless and a nascent Islamic fundamentalist movement might have been quashed from the beginning. That is, without the work of Mr. Wilson.

But this was not to be. The provision of U.S.-provided Stinger MANPADS, small arms, propaganda services, and even F-16s to Pakistan in addition to billions of dollars more in aid to the Zia regime, only served to do one thing. It precluded Afghanistan from remaining a strategic backwater and, in fact, as President Obama stated in his 1 December 2009 West Point speech, raised them to the level of a “strategic partner.” Charlie Wilson would be proud. He would be proud on one hand, but on the other would say that the eventual collapse of Afghanistan once the Russians left and even the events of 9/11, happened solely because we failed to politically carry through our support of the insurgent resistance to the DRA and Soviet forces. In actuality, it is because of Charlie Wilson and the CIA’s intervention in Afghan affairs to begin with that the future took the course it did. Not only did we directly arm and train Afghan insurgents on how to perform acts of terror and assassination against Soviet and DRA forces, we coordinated support from across the Persian Gulf states to ensure the mujahedeen were successful against Soviet forces. Our intervention only further entrenched the age-old culture among the ranks of Afghan atavists of fighting against all things progressive, distrusting all things foreign, fighting off any and all foreign intervention or support, from wherever it comes. By coordinating a response from other Muslim states, we re-birthed and solidified the false understanding that the ‘umma’ can again be an effective tool to combat non-Muslim forces and that jihad is the way to secure their ends. Our enabling the mujahedeen mainstreamed this effect and created the various groups who would fight and kill for power once the Soviets threw in the towel. Only the secondary effect of this strategy was the successful pushing back of the Soviet invasion. The primary effect, however, was the regional acceptance of the reborn mujahid movement and rise of one former Saudi fighter, Osama bin Laden and others like him, to fight off a newly perceived threat, the U.S.

We created the very monster we now fight in the provinces of Afghanistan and failingly get the Pakistani’s to half-heartedly fight on our behalf on their side of the Durand Line. Because Mr. Wilson and his CIA brethren could not even begin to conceive of the complexities and nuances of Afghan culture, power bases, and politics, he doomed his own effort to failure. He further doomed the U.S. to remain mired in Central Asia long after the “Great Game” has ended. We have the benefit of hindsight, however, yet we continue to make the same mistake. What Mr. Wilson and his idealistic foreign policy has brought us is 9 years of a U.S. war in Afghanistan long after OEF should have ended, a terrorist-producing intelligence service in Pakistan, and a regional assumption that jihad is an effective and sanctioned method to combat U.S. forces and goals. If anything gave rise to the mainstreaming of “jihad” and the political and military coalescing of groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda, it is the policy of the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and the unfortunately effective results of Mr. Wilson’s actions. It is in play as much now by supporting the Kabul regime to partner with and transform the Taliban to fight al-Qaeda as it was in supporting the mujahedeen against the Soviets and DRA thirty years ago. This should not be surprising given the key CIA officials who orchestrated Operation Cyclone in 1979 are the same ones who, now in the DoD, drive policy for Operation Enduring Freedom.

It is long past the time to put this tired political theory to rest and the notion that Charles Wilson ever did anything good for U.S. foreign policy. He was a champion of great causes such as civil and equal rights, Medicaid and minimum wage issues, and other progressive domestic ideals, but at foreign policy, his legacy remains that of a 30 year Afghan civil war, the Taliban, and a misguided U.S. strategy of intervention. It is time U.S. foreign policy took a more realistic view of the world and stop assuming political necessity must yield strange bedfellows. This would enable our military to get back into the business of protecting our nation from existential threats to our security and winning our nation’s wars; not waste blood and treasure in misadventures in nation building or securing non vital national interests. Finally, it is interesting to note that the reason the Soviets intervened militarily in Afghanistan in 1979 is the exact same reason we are intervening now: to secure the sitting government from Islamic insurgents. The high irony is that those same insurgents are now using the ways and means we doctrinally and militarily provided to them in the form of tactics and hardware to fight the Soviets against us in 2010.

Good intentions and a benevolent domestic agenda aside, thank you Mr. Wilson. Rest in peace, indeed.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Jason February 13, 2010 at 3:21 pm

This is wrong all over the place. Your throwing around Taliban and Al-Qaeda like they are the same group. Your conclusion is all wrong. “Finally, it is interesting to note that the reason the Soviets intervened militarily in Afghanistan in 1979 is the exact same reason we are intervening now: to secure the sitting government from Islamic insurgents”. I believe we are fighting in Afghanistan for another reason, 9/11. Dumbass

Shelene February 15, 2010 at 10:30 pm

You think we’re honestly STILL in Afghanistan for REVENGE? LOL. Yeah. OK, sure.

Andy February 13, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Maj. Kotkin,

You’ve written some very good articles. This is not one of them. It’s represents a distinctly one-sided and flawed view of history.

i'm not dumb February 13, 2010 at 3:50 pm

dude, Wilson ain’t no father of taliban. Taliban came into power in 1996, they first appeared in 1992, didn’t join the civil war until late 1994 and they entered Kabul in 1996.

last US activity was around 1989-1990. bad article.

Are you really a Major? February 13, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Can’t believe I wasted my time to read this inept analysis. I think the first comments sums it best. Major, I hope the Pentagon is not relying on your kind of analysis and you are limited to such a blog. Please read the history first, before getting on a bandwagon of media reporting re: Mr. Wilson’s death and conveying your take over his legacy.

reader February 13, 2010 at 4:36 pm


All I got to say is hahahahha. I’m not laughing at you, rather, I’m amused by the four previous commenters with their panties all in a bunch. Kotkin wasn’t arguing that Wilson started the Taliban directly; instead, Charlie made possible the conditions for the rise of the Taliban. Similarly, Woodrow Wilson CAN and SHOULD be blamed for the rise of Hitler. Kotkin’s point is that we go blindly ahead, being “men of action” and do things which cause blowback. When the blowback comes, like the five year old who let the bird out which ran away, our leaders tick their lower lip out and say “oh shucks, our hearts were in the right place. I didn’t mean no harm, honest. Why you gotta be so mean?” Of course the language is much prettier than that, we hear things like 20/20 vision in hindsight, etc. Of course even statements regarding 20/20 vision in hindsight are self-serving because they ignore the inept decision-making process and voices that were not listened to. Finally, we should add the alternativly cynical/naive attitude that our allies are always good, and it is only years later that we are allowed to talk about the deals with monsters that must be made if a nation is to be a world power.

This state of affairs will continue as long as our leaders are allowed to misbehave with impunity and the toxic myth of American exceptionalism continues to poison our politics.

Talking about Charlie Wilson and his war, I must ask if Joanne Herring’s actions, as a private citizen, were illegal?

I say all this as a disgruntled patriot.

globalguy February 15, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Here! Here!

Danish Ali Ahmad February 13, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Mr. Kotkin,
you are potraying the one side of the coin, and left the other side completely in darkness. like for example, you failed to mention the true nature of afghan occupation by soviets. if you look closely in the window of history (JFK times) Soviets were busy inhaling all central asian states one by one. They have created fiedel castro which still haunts US while laying in bed. Thus, thinking the red army went into afghanistan just to ensure the DRA goverenace is totally wrong. please also read news items from INDIA press, who were flexing thier muscle for the time to reap up pakistan jointly with soviets.

You were definitely discriinating at some points, where you mentioned ISI as the terrorist producing agency, while leaving CIA and others naives.

you did not account for the fact out of 19, 11 hijackers of 9/11 were saudi and rest belong to the hard core middle east.

You have portrayed Charlie wilscon as war monger and the catalyst for today’s situation while even tieing him up- making responsible of 9/11 events, DUDEE—- refresh your memory- THERE IS A CONFLICT CALLED “ISRAEL/PALESTINE” and until the US would not stop ensuing isreal part –9/11 type events is still possible- either you do WILSON WAY OR NOT.

Chris February 13, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Excellent article. It is refreshing to see an accurate analysis of the history of US involvement in Afghanistan and the unintended consequences thereof, however unpopular that analysis may be. Benazir Bhutto warned (then) President GHW Bush in the late 1980s that, “You are creating a Frankenstein,” regarding the mujahideen our foreign policy was empowering. Now, we find ourselves fighting our creation in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

I am reminded of the words of Adlai Stevenson: “You will find that the truth is often unpopular and the contest between agreeable fancy and disagreeable fact is unequal. For, in the vernacular, we Americans are suckers for good news.”

Thank you for your honesty and objectivity at a time when the truth is so unpopular, Major Kotkin.

max bloom February 13, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Mr. Kotkin,

Fantastic article. This offers an insightful look into Charlie Wilson and the general nature of short-sighted policy decisions and their propensity for disastrous backfire. As for the previous negative posters – we’re not in Afghanistan because of 9/11, we’re in Afghanistan because the Taliban sheltered the people who caused 9/11. And the Taliban – a group of extremely conservative totalitarians – took cover because of US money. You wouldn’t have to be a genius to realize that backing several extremely conservative groups, giving them lots of money and huge amounts of weapons in an extremely unstable nation might not work out so well. Yet the simple anti-Communist mentality prevailed, Charlie Wilson created thirty years of conflict in Afghanistan and was subsequently lauded in the US.

MAJ Kotkin February 13, 2010 at 6:49 pm

I think my intent was mistaken and I had hoped readers could connect a few of the dots I pointed out; of course Wilson did not directly hatch a plan with Hekmatyar or Massoud to literally create the Afghani Taliban. But it was our naïveté and shortsightedness which allowed the personal mission of a Texas bureaucrat aided by the CIA to get into bed with the likes of Islamic hardliners and Zia and his ISI. I see today’s Taliban movement (both in PAK and AFG) as the evolution of those agreements, funds, arms, and training. Why? Because the 4 billion in aid under Operation Cyclone to Zia regime largely funded the expansion of the ISI to directly aid the Afghan mujahedeen to fight the Soviets. We, with the help of the ISI, reinvigorated the idea that lesser jihad was a valid political tool to fend off The Russians. By further coordinating the assistance (in terms of money and personnel; the “Afghan Arabs”) of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, we only served to mainstream that idea. What’s the result of this? Trained and armed men who were secure in the ‘right of their might’ then turned on Pakistan and eventually the US. Since the ISI organized and fielded the Wazir and Mehsud groups (which became LeT) to fight India in Kashmir back in 1947 and eventually trained, organized, and equipped the Afghan mujahedeen across the border (with our assistance, primarily through the efforts of Mr. Wilson), there had been a coordinated effort to use insurgent groups as a tool of foreign policy. While we conducted our own proxy war, so did Pakistan for its own reasons. Therefore, the work of Mr. Wilson directly created a lot of funded, trained, and equipped men with no job after the Soviets left in ’89. What’s worse, we had pulled in the support of zealots and criminals like Hekmatyar and virtually begged the likes of OBL to get involved by selling it as a jihad against the Soviets. What did we think would happen when a well-armed and trained group of insurgents would get together and beat back the Russians under an umbrella of religious righteousness we helped open? At best, we could have hoped for an Islamic theocracy a-la Iran. At worst, we could expect an even harder-line group than the mujahedeen to gain control among the various and disorganized warlords to fight on for a further 6 years of civil war. Guess which one we ended up with? Through our intervention championed by Charles Wilson we veritably created a Darwinian experiment in survival of the most fit and most hardcore of mujahedeen groups to gain control of a newly independent Afghanistan. That group was today’s Afghan Taliban.
And no, I don’t throw around AQ and the Taliban like they are one and the same; I only combine the two in the same sentence because somehow, we have confused ourselves that the limited objectives of OEF to rid AFG of AQ has somehow transformed into ridding all of AFG of Taliban. I’m not confused on the two but recent policy has not been so clear or straightforward. If we were fighting OEF simply for 9/11, we would have left in 2002/3 but remained overhead with UAVs for the occasional HVT strike. Today, our mission is something very different and far removed from simply exacting justice for 9/11 by finding and killing those responsible in both AQ and the Taliban gov’t that supported them. The Taliban today is still talked about like a religious monolith; I don’t think we see it actually reverting back to simply a group of organized criminals or almost simply a mujahid movement like the one we organized to oust the Soviets.

myra.macdonald February 13, 2010 at 7:24 pm

I was struck by this comment:

“It is in play as much now by supporting the Kabul regime to partner with and transform the Taliban to fight al-Qaeda as it was in supporting the mujahedeen against the Soviets and DRA thirty years ago.”

Can you explain a bit further? There is definitely a strong sense that if the Taliban were “reconciled” this would dry up al Qaeda’s existing safe haven. But are you suggesting this is a foolishly expedient choice?

Also would recommend “My Life with the Taliban” for anyone who thinks the Taliban began only in 1994. I have written a short summary here, but the book itself is a must-read:

d.mathew February 13, 2010 at 7:55 pm

The analysis is wrong.

The world has, and will always be, about using the enemies of my enemies of my friend. Ergo, Charlie Wilson is NOT responsible for the Taliban.

Wilson wanted to follow through with additional humanitarian operations to fill the security void left after the Russians were kicked out of Afghanistan.

Yes, Taliban came about, but something was going to come out regardless. The US failed to exploit success, the Taliban is what we got…not a critique, but reality.

This statement is nice in theory but a failure in reality… “…that only by leveraging the “moral and material strength of the free world” and “building a successfully functioning political and economic system” can we defeat the threat.”

The Westphalian concept of state morality and a funcitoning political system is on the wane, not on the rise. Have not are circumventing such structures due to ineffective policies and an inability to meet the needs of the people. Ergo, global networks are allowing parallel forms of govt to replace the state. This is why we are seeing fracturing of states world wide where govt control only portions of their state e.g. Mexico, Afghanist, Iraq, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Caucus nations, etc.

Knowing parrallel systems are in existence, these sometimes have to be leveraged to meet US interests…Charlie did that. We only failed to continue forward with his recommendation to further help stabilize the state.


MAJ Kotkin February 13, 2010 at 7:58 pm


Sure; I mean the Taliban we are fighting now are largely not the same ones as in 2001. That we’re trying to ‘convert’ them to the ‘good’ side, or even only partner with them, to help us fight AQ is: 1) misidentifying the basic reasons as to why Afghans still now, in 2010, take up arms against coalition forces, and 2) have us still believing it’s a binary issue as was using the mujahedeen to fight the Russians and ignoring all other factors and systems. If we were successful in reconciling the “Taliban” to use as a tool to fight AQ (through bribing, co-opting, employing, or peeling away the not ideologically-motivated supporters, etc), Afghans would still have the underlying and endemic problems which give rise to various (and valid) grievances against Kabul and that tool would soon again turn against its user….just as it did in the ’90s.

If we want to nation-build and help to create an amenable situation for all Afghan citizens so they can rely on trusted legal local governance, security, and opportunity, than that’s a different fight and that solution doesn’t necessarily involve a strong, central government. I don’t exactly see all this as a vital national interest to the U.S., but in any event it’s a wholly different mindset than simply “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Toryalay Shirzay February 13, 2010 at 8:47 pm

Major, many of your points are well made but for you to wish peace for an hotheaded,gun slinging cowboy from Texas who played a critical role in unleashing Islamic fascism throughout the world which brought a lot of pain and misery to the people of the United States is downright reckless if not worse.This war is far from over as the US will not be immune from international terrorism until Islamic fascism is defeated the world over.Pakistan where terrorism is state policy is still supported by the US because there are still many c. Wilsons out there perpetuating this flawed policy.Arms makers and dealers with strong leverage over DOD may have something to do with this?

RScott February 13, 2010 at 9:42 pm

A good analysis as it does follow the line of history…with a few errors in interpretation.
What would have happened had we not helped the mujahadin fight the Soviets? Afghanistan would likely be part of the Soviet Union which would probably still be in existence, not having been bankrupted by the Afghan war. Many more Afghans would be dead than the estimated million plus that died during the Soviet’s 10 years.
The Taliban did not develop from the groups like Hikmatyar or Ahmad Shah Masood who remained the enemies of or were rejected by the Taliban.
What would have happened if we had followed through and supported the economy of Afghanistan with development projects and funding the way Wilson suggested at the time rather than dropping most aid projects in the region including Pakistan and started funding support for the new republics that had been the Soviet Union? We walked away for a job half done…that resulted in the present mess.
And Daoud was not prime minister at the time of the 73 coup. He was about a decade earlier. There was probably more change (economic development) and westernization during the time of Daoud than any other period, and his overthrow was not from dissatisfaction of the people but from the communized(sp) military which had been getting Soviet training since about the time of Eisenhower when they asked us to military aid but because they would not join CENTO, we turned them down…but the Soviets did not.
And what would have happened had we attempted to establish a dialogue and diplomatic relations with the Taliban when they were asking for help rather than following the direction of that Afghan specialist (Jay Leno’s wife) and isolated them? We might say that we pushed them into the arms of al Quaida. Many of them understood that they did not have the skills or training to run a government effectively. They were mullahs not diplomats, technocrats, or economists. But they did set up an Islamic based government based on Pashtuwali (tribal law)…and it clearly did not work in at least Kabul. As now, we should have been trying to talk to them to settle differences. Violence solves nothing with Pashtuns…as the Soviets learned. Details.

MAJ Kotkin February 13, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Good points; especially liked: “And what would have happened had we attempted to establish a dialogue and diplomatic relations with the Taliban when they were asking for help….and isolated them? We might say that we pushed them into the arms of al Quaida.”

We sure do have a nasty habit of doing that, don’t we? Just ask Ho-Chi-Minh, circa 1945. ;o) But I don’t think the Taliban ever asked us for help post civil-war. We tried to impress upon them the error of getting cozy with the likes of OBL even before 9/11 but to no avail.

Also you’re first point I’d argue; that had we not intervened in AFG, I don’t believe the USSR would still be in existence. It was already on a long downward slope definitely since the ’70s. Sure, the Soviet-Afghan war most assuredly made Moscow hemorrhage more money than it could afford and could have been the final straw or two, but I doubt they would have been able to hang around in East Germany for this much longer.

And I still can’t see how ‘the present mess’ wasn’t created by step 1, i.e. Wilson’s intervention, not by step 2, the “what-if’s” we should have done after the mujehadeen won. Occam’s razor in my opinion.

RScott February 14, 2010 at 12:12 am

While I was working on the first rehabilitation project on the central Helmand irrigation system in 98-99 with INL funding, the Taliban were asking for help in writing. They understood and stated that they did not have the technical skills to run the largest irrigation system in the country and needed help. See my final report in the noted website.
And the “what ifs” are as valid as the idea that our support for the mujahadin created the Taliban…a big leap. Our abandoning Afghanistan after they had fought our final battle of the cold war with the Soviets created the conditions that demanded a movement by someone to end the anarchy that followed, at least in the south. Our abandoning Afghanistan and shifting much of our development funding to the old Soviet states is not a “what if”.
Another “what if”: what if we had agreed to bin Laden’s proposal well before 9/11 to leave Afghanistan secretly but was turned down by State. We insisted that the Taliban turn him over for trial which they could not do. He was not their enemy but had spent a portion of his life and family money in support of the mujahadin against the Soviets, had been on the run from us and his own government and had been granted sanctuary. In 97 he was living outside Kandahar and according to locals attended evening prayers at the main mosque in the center of Kandahar unmolested but with a million $ on his head at that time.

MAJ Kotkin February 14, 2010 at 12:32 am

Mr. Scott,

I started going through some of your memos on your website…..very interesting. I’ll spend a lot more time digesting them.

Let me ask you this: do you think this coming planting season in October will be a good indicator of success of the current Marjah offensive and larger COIN strategy? If the farmers plant poppy (vs. wheat, etc) we can infer the surge was a failure?

RScott February 14, 2010 at 1:19 am

We hit the training camps in Paktia I think in mid-August of 98 after the attacks in Africa. I went to start the work on the Boghra canal in mid-September with INL funding. I was expecting a lot of trouble. I was in contact with the Taliban foreign office guy in Lashkar Gah, Mullah Hashim, almost on a daily basis for a couple of months and he never mentioned the attacks. We had complete cooperation.

I will have to look up a fax I sent to State after I saw the offer made someplace in the media, suggesting that it would be easier to catch a person outside this area. It has to be in a media archive someplace.

RScott February 14, 2010 at 1:26 am

Maj Kotkin,
It is hard to say without seeing what the farmers say. My guess is that a lot would depend on the price of wheat and the price of opium. This was clearly a factor in what happened this past year. These are cash crop knowledgeable farmers that watch the markets closely. But I have seen times when I thought the selection of crop to be planted was to some extent a political statement. Fall of 03 as I remember.

Joel Hafvenstein February 15, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Maj. Kotkin – thanks for the post. Dick Scott’s experience in Helmand vastly exceeds my own, but I’ll venture my comment here too. Taking poppy cultivation levels as a COIN indicator would be a mistake. As Josh has repeatedly insisted on this site, the opium economy cannot be reduced to its role in insurgent funding. The government and its allies play a crucial role in the traffic, even in areas like Helmand (ungoverned, marginal areas can be very useful to state actors). Nor do farmers’ planting decisions result primarily from Taliban coercion.

As a result, even if the Taliban completely lost their grip on Helmand, we could still reasonably expect the farmers of Marja to plant poppy this year (with encouragement from actors in the triumphant Afghan government). On the flip side, imagining that NATO military action managed to so disrupt things in central Helmand that all of next season’s poppy planting shifted up into the mountains, that probably wouldn’t be a good thing for the COIN mission in Marja. It looks like prices for other agricultural commodities will be down this year (and the costs from checkpoint bribery between Helmand and Kandhar will probably increase, for at least the fifth year running), meaning that without growing poppy, the farmers of Marja will probably be worse off. Not a winning COIN strategy.

The traffickers have created a sophisticated enabling environment for farmers who grow poppy, which NATO aid agencies are still struggling to match. For example, the traffickers remove the risk and cost of road bribery from the farmer by buying at the farmgate. They provide credit and agricultural inputs, as well as a guaranteed buyer. Landowners are more likely to give sharecroppers access to land if they agree to grow poppy.

If NATO governments follow the military surge with a push to create a similar enabling environment for legal crops in central Helmand (improving access to credit, land, etc, as well as improving road security and reducing the cost of corruption), the resulting improvement in livelihoods might be a good COIN and CN indicator. But I don’t see much indication that this is the aim — they appear to be more focused on one-off distributions of seed and inputs at the moment.

Andy February 14, 2010 at 12:59 am


We did secretly negotiate with the Taliban for a number of years prior to 9/11. The issue for us was pretty consistent – we couldn’t engage with them on other issues until the UBL problem was solved. I think it would be politically impossible to provide assistance to the Taliban in 98-99 after the Embassy attacks.

Your allegation that State rejected a proposal for UBL to leave Afghanistan is something I’ve never heard of – could you explain in greater detail or provide some evidence? Such a proposal would be contradictory to what is indicated by declassified State memos which clearly indicate a strong US desire for UBL to leave/be expelled from Afghanistan.

Danram February 14, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Toryalay Shirzay states that … “Major, many of your points are well made but for you to wish peace for an hotheaded, gun slinging cowboy from Texas who played a critical role in unleashing Islamic fascism throughout the world which brought a lot of pain and misery to the people of the United States is downright reckless if not worse.”

The abject stupidity of this statement is simply appalling. What Charlie Wilson did, you blithering idiot, was to help engineer a defeat of the Soviet Union that directly contributed to that odious and ossified system’s collapse, thus winning the Cold War for the west. We live in a MUCH safer world today now that the nuclear aresnals of the US and the former Soviet Union are no longer on hair trigger alert, and the US is the world’s sole superpower.

If you’re looking for a “father to the Taliban”, look no further than former president George H.W. Bush (i.e.: “Bush 41”) Charlie Wilson and others warned him and his advisers repeatedly about the dangers of pulling out of Afghanistan and leaving a power vacuum there. Bush 41, in one of his many foreign policy screw-ups, ignored them. The reason we have a Taliban now is because we left Afghanistan before finishing the job, not because we supplied weapons for a popular resistance against a brutal oppressing force that happened to belong to our sworn enemy at the time.

Toryalay Shirzay February 14, 2010 at 2:37 pm

The US is less safe now than during the existence of Soviet Union.The USSR did not attack New York or the Pentagon and it is better to have a wise enemy than many stupid friends such as Charlie Wilson and his like minded idiots at the Company and Danram,by proclaiming that the world is much safer now qualifies you as the real idiot.Although it is true that George HE Bush also played a major role in unleashing Islamic fascism which has brought a lot of pain and misery to the American people not mention many,many others.

Gary February 14, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Great article. I had come to his conclusions a few years ago. Clearly we helped create this mess and now it’s turned back on us. Charlie Wilson did lead us down the wrong road. There is no good end to it either.
Thanks for the article Major. Well done.

D_Waters February 14, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Great article. One does not need to agree with every aspect of MAJ Kotkin’s article to appreciate the larger lessons that should come out of our involvement in Afghanistan (past and present). What does it say about our nation’s ability to design and implement effective foreign policy and national security strategy when a single congressman and a few like-minded CIA agents (acting with the best of intentions I have no doubt) set in motion so many unintended consequences? Our government’s system of checks and balances was designed so that things like “Charlie Wilson’s War” could not happen. Nations should go to war – even proxy wars – when all other options are exhausted, and only after the full weight of the government is utilized to ensure that the ends, ways, and means needed to achieve a better peace are synchronized and fully resourced, not when a few individuals with access to government funds deem it necessary.

The reason there is so much debate over who did what and who is to blame is precisely because of the manner in which this proxy “war” was conceived and conducted. Cutting through red tape in the name of expediency certainly sounds appealing, as is being able to focus on a few narrow objectives rather than be encumbered by factoring in larger national interests, or supporting strategic ends, or anticipating possible 2nd and 3rd order consequences. Unfortunately, the pejorative term “red tape” too often gets confused for necessary legislative and executive oversight – hallmarks of representative governments.

To hear the naiveté referred to in the article, listen to the NPR’s May 13, 2003 interview: It is telling that when asked why he felt so strongly about the Afghan cause, Rep. Wilson states that “they [the mujahedeen] had made a decision themselves to fight till the end if they had to fight with their bare hands. And I just strongly felt that people that brave, that were that opposed to being subdued by the evil empire, if you will, that we would be damned by history if we let them fight with their hands. And so my interest was aroused there.” Should we be impressed by their bravery or concerned over their historic abhorrence to foreign armies?

See also today’s NYT article: “Wahabbi Fanatics Reported on the Afghan Frontier Today, February 13, …1872.”

Mark February 14, 2010 at 6:27 pm

The history in this article is flawed and one-sided, but some of the underlying points are well-taken.

Regarding this comment: “Benazir Bhutto warned (then) President GHW Bush in the late 1980s that, “You are creating a Frankenstein,” regarding the mujahideen our foreign policy was empowering. ”

Um, if Charlie’s the father of the Talibs, then Bhutto was the mother. She was the prime minister in Pakistan during the rise of the Talibs as the ISI funded their march through Afghanistan. It’s rich to take her advice on creating a Frankenstein, all things considered.

And what the Soviets were doing in Afghanistan is truly atrocious, and Charlie’s Wilson’s War and even Rambo III were fairly accurate in depicting the level of Soviet barbary against civilians there. You don’t have to take Hollywood’s word for it though. There’s plenty of documents available at the National Security Archives at GWU in DC. For a fee, you can access them online.

Chris February 17, 2010 at 8:35 am

Perhaps there is merit to your assertion that Bhutto should be considered the mother of the Taliban. Of course, that means her criticisms of the mujahideen’s malignant potential should have been given more merit, not less.

John Hammer February 14, 2010 at 7:51 pm

Russians are great geo-political thinkers. They went into Afghanistan looking to the Indian Ocean and a warm water port. A rebellious Beluchistan would have been their next stop driving an axis through Eurasia. Good piece though.

Fletch February 14, 2010 at 7:53 pm

Thank you Major. As you say, the problem is our insistence on creating the world in our own image. The only hope is that we run out of money to do so. Human nature is not going to change.

Jonathan February 15, 2010 at 6:07 am

Broadly agree with the overall gist of the article, which is what its really about (rather than the detailed history). A couple of points from me.

As Maj Kotkin accepts, all of this is in 20/20 hindsight (not a criticism). During the 1980s the Cold War was by far and away the war that needed to be won at the time. In some way the US intervention did contribute to that, though how much will be forever debated. Much the same is evident in Cold War criticisms of decisions made in the Second World War (before it became “the best war ever”) which in light of later events seemed short sighted and even negligent, when they were made primarily with a view to winning the war against Germany and Japan. I think however the above article does provide the necessary BEWARE! label that needs to be stamped on interventions such as these.

Second, the Soviets went in to prop up and maintain a friendly regime, which is not the reason the US and the west went in, but is the reason we are still there, let’s not pretend otherwise. They intervened in a civil conflict on the side of a government that did have areas of support. Some of the methods used by the Soviets were brutal, but the overall reason why they were there was little different to that of the current commitment. They (naively) expected to leave within a few months but found they couldn’t as the DRA government remained too weak for them to do so. Far from being a different case altogether, as many politicians seem to reply when asked about the Soviet intervention, there is much worth studying about 1979-89.

Mladen February 15, 2010 at 7:43 am

Nice article. Though, it does not tell whole story. One where USA declared “mission accomplished”, cut the money flow and left Afghan warlords without money but with pile of weapons. Once pro-Soviet regime was gone, they turned on each other like pack of starving sharks. So Taliban came as a relief. In the beginning, at least.

This story have also a dark side; how legitimate Bosnian government was left unarmed just because it was predominantly Muslim. After scare with Taliban’s Stinger missiles and possible use on civilian airliners future deliveries of weapons were profiled in religious sense. However, if weapons was not permitted to go to Bosnia, Jihadis were allowed… some people are slow learners.

globalguy February 15, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Not to mention that Al Qaeda cut its teeth in Central Bosnia. Though not as huge a presence as claimed by either the Croat or Serb nationalists, the hesitation for wither Europe or the US to intervene earlier in the Bosnian theater emboldened Bin Laden’s reps there…

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