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, where Gates was then deputy director, had been predicting a quick end to the Najibullah government -- if and when the Soviet army left.
In contrast, 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 was predicting privately that the Soviets would not depart Afghanistan at all, despite Gorbachev's assurances that they would.
After the Soviets did withdraw in early 1989, some U.S. officials felt Washington's geo-strategic 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.
Yet, the new administration of George H.W. Bush -- with Gates having moved from the CIA to the White House as deputy national security adviser -- chose to continue U.S. covert support for the mujahedeen, still funneled primarily through Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI.
Instead of a fast collapse, Najibullah's regime used Soviet weapons and advisers to beat back a mujahedeen offensive in 1990. Najibullah hung on. The violence and the disorder continued.
Gates finally recognized that his CIA rapid-collapse analysis was wrong. In his memoir, he wrote: "As it turned out, Whitehead and Abramowitz were right" in their warning that Najibullah's regime might not collapse so quickly.
However, by then, Gorbachev was no longer in position to help broker a settlement. He was struggling to keep his own government afloat. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, surprisingly survived by Najibullah's regime in Kabul.
Dream Come True
It would take another half decade for my CIA contact's dream to come true.
Though Najibullah relinquished power to a relatively moderate mujahedeen group in 1992, he chose not to flee. When the extremist Taliban finally captured Kabul in 1996, they hunted Najibullah down. They tortured, castrated and killed him -- before literally hanging his body from a light pole.
As it turned out, the Afghan "victory" -- though widely celebrated in American books and movies -- had many grave consequences, besides Najibullah's grisly demise.
Pakistan ended up with a nuclear arsenal, destabilizing South Asia and creating terror risks for the world; the Taliban imposed harsh Islamic law on Afghanistan and crushed the rights of women who had gained freedoms under the communists (indeed those freedoms were a chief cause for the Islamic mujahedeen to take up arms in the first place); and the Taliban granted safe haven to Saudi exile bin Laden and Al Qaeda, opening the way to the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. [For more, see, Consortiumnews.com's "Why Afghanistan Really Fell Apart."]
So, the lesson from the Afghan conflict in the 1980s would seem to be that all the tough-guy talk about ousting some unsavory leftist dictator -- whether Najibullah or Gaddafi -- can lead to a cure worse than the disease, especially if the United States doesn't understand who its new friends are.
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