Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who last week was hailed in the Washington Post as someone "incapable of dissembling," dissembled to a gullible press corps about the history of U.S. dealings with Afghanistan while en route to that country on Monday.
The headline from Gates's in-air briefing of reporters was that "we are in this thing to win," a statement which undercut President Barack Obama's more nuanced explanation of U.S. goals as blocking the Taliban from restoring Afghanistan as a safe haven for al-Qaeda terrorists.
But Gates went further, declaring "that we are not going to repeat the situation in 1989" when the United States supposedly abandoned Afghanistan once the Soviet Union had withdrawn its last military units on Feb. 15, 1989.
However, while that story of the 1989 abandonment may be a powerful conventional wisdom in Washington -- popularized by the movie "Charlie Wilson's War" -- it is substantially untrue, and former CIA Director Gates knows it to be a myth.
What actually happened in 1989 was that President George H.W. Bush rebuffed overtures from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for a negotiated settlement of the war that envisioned a coalition government involving Soviet-backed President Najibullah and the CIA-backed mujahedeen warlords.
Instead, Bush escalated the purpose of the conflict, revising the intelligence finding that had justified the U.S. covert operation. Instead of Ronald Reagan's goal of helping the Afghans drive out the Soviet army, Bush approved a more elastic rationale, seeking Afghan self-determination.
The reason for rebuffing Gorbachev and continuing the war was simple: Gates's CIA analytical division -- which he had packed with Cold War hardliners -- was projecting a rapid collapse of Najibullah's government. That would mean a complete humiliation of the Soviets and a total triumph for the United States and the CIA.
In 1989, I was a correspondent for Newsweek magazine covering intelligence issues. After the Soviets left Afghanistan, I asked CIA officials why they were continuing the bloodshed. Why not, I asked, just look for a way to bring the war to an end with some kind of national unity government? Hadn't the U.S. national interest of driving out the Soviets been achieved?
One of the CIA hardliners responded to my question with disgust. "We want to see Najibullah strung up by a light pole," he snapped.
What I thought I was hearing was CIA bravado, but the comment actually reflected an internal U.S. government debate. Since the last year of the Reagan administration in 1988, the CIA had been predicting a quick end to the Najibullah government -- if and when the Soviet army left.
However, the State Department foresaw a drawn-out struggle. Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead and the department's intelligence chief Morton Abramowitz challenged the CIA's assumptions and warned that Najibullah's army might hold on longer than the CIA expected.
But Gates pushed the CIA analysis of a rapid Najibullah collapse and prevailed in the policy debates.
Gates described this internal battle in his 1996 memoir, From the Shadows, recalling how he briefed Secretary of State George Shultz and his senior aides about the CIA's prediction prior to Shultz flying to Moscow in February 1988.
"I told them that most analysts did not believe Najibullah's government could last without active Soviet military support," wrote Gates, who also was predicting privately that the Soviets would not depart Afghanistan despite Gorbachev's assurances that they would.
After the Soviets did withdraw in early 1989, some U.S. officials felt Washington's geostrategic aims had been achieved and a move toward peace was in order. There also was concern about the Afghan mujahedeen, especially their tendencies toward brutality, heroin trafficking and fundamentalist religious policies.