Secretary Robert Gates in Situation Room on May 1, 2011, monitoring the
raid that killed Osama bin Laden. (From White House photo by Pete
President Barack Obama's decision to extend the U.S.-Afghan strategic
relationship through 2024 was driven, in part, by one of Official
Washington's most cherished myths -- that the United States abruptly
abandoned Afghanistan in 1989 and must not make that mistake again.
This myth is repeated by policymakers and pundits alike. On Tuesday,
for instance, MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked if his guests had seen the
movie, "Charlie Wilson's War." He apparently viewed the Tom Hanks film
as a documentary when it was really a fictional account, both on the
innocence of the Afghan mujahedeen and the callowness of Congress in
supposedly pulling the plug once the Soviet Army withdrew.
But Matthews is far from alone in believing this mythology. The New
York Times' lead editorial on Wednesday criticized Obama for not
explaining how he would prevent Afghanistan from imploding after the
scheduled U.S. troop withdrawal in 2014, though the Times added that the
plan's "longer-term commitment [of aid] sends an important message to
Afghans that Washington will not abandon them as it did after the
Soviets were driven out."
The abandonment myth also has been cited by senior Obama administration officials, including the current Ambassador Ryan Crocker
and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as a way to explain the rise
of the Taliban in the mid-1990s and al-Qaeda's use of Afghanistan for
plotting the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
In late 2009, Defense Secretary Gates reprised the phony conventional
wisdom, telling reporters: "We will not repeat the mistakes of 1989,
when we abandoned the country only to see it descend into civil war and
into Taliban hands."
Yet, Gates knew the real history since he was deputy national
security adviser in 1989 when the key decisions were made to continue
covert U.S. aid, not cut it off. Still, the fictional version from the
movie, "Charlie Wilson's War," apparently proved too tempting as an
excuse for an open-ended occupation of Afghanistan.
In the movie, Tom Hanks played the late Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Texas,
who was a key figure in financing the mujahedeen war against the
Soviets in the 1980s. In one scene -- after the Soviet withdrawal on Feb.
15, 1989 -- Hanks begs a congressional committee for additional money
but gets turned down.
The truth, however, is that the end game in Afghanistan surrounding
the Soviet departure was messed up not because the United States cut the
mujahedeen off but because Washington pressed for a clear-cut victory,
rebuffing peaceful options.
And we know that Gates knows this reality because he recounted it in his 1996 memoir, From the Shadows.
The Real History
Here's what that history actually shows: In 1988, Soviet President
Mikhail Gorbachev promised to remove Soviet troops from Afghanistan and
sought a negotiated settlement. He hoped for a unity government that
would include elements of Najibullah's Soviet-backed regime in Kabul and
the CIA-backed Islamic fundamentalist rebels.
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Gates, who was then deputy CIA director, opposed Gorbachev's plan,
disbelieving that the Soviets would really depart and insisting that --
if they did -- the CIA's mujahedeen could quickly defeat Najibullah's
Inside the Reagan administration, Gates's judgment was opposed by
State Department analysts who foresaw a drawn-out struggle. Deputy
Secretary of State John Whitehead and the department's intelligence
chief Morton Abramowitz warned that Najibullah's army might hold on
longer than the CIA expected.
But Gates prevailed in the policy debates, pushing the CIA's faith in
its mujahedeen clients and expecting a rapid Najibullah collapse if the
Soviets left. In the memoir, Gates recalled briefing Secretary of State
George Shultz and his senior aides on the CIA's predictions prior to
Shultz flying to Moscow in February 1988.
"I told them that most [CIA] analysts did not believe Najibullah's
government could last without active Soviet military support," wrote