The Iranian revolution was a leading factor that set Jimmy Carter’s government to incite division and conflict in Afghanistan, which shares an extensive western border with Iran. America’s intervention in Afghanistan has come to an end, ending America’s longest war and closing a chapter in military history likely to be remembered for colossal failures
From the early spring of 1979, plans were formulated in Washington to surround and isolate the new Islamic Republic of Iran. Afghanistan was an important piece on the chessboard in the great game, as its neighbor Iran had made the remarkably swift transformation from US ally to staunch enemy of America.
Read more: Taliban unable to control Coronavirus in Afghanistan
1. Iran’s independence
Carter’s successor as president, Ronald Reagan, said that “Iran encompasses some of the most critical geography in the world”, with which Afghanistan is interlinked. Reagan noted also that Iran occupies “a critical position from which adversaries could interfere with oil flows from the Arab states that border the Persian Gulf. Apart from geography, Iran’s oil deposits are important to the long-term health of the world economy”.
As the Americans knew too well, their old enemy the Soviet Union was in early 1979 watching Iran’s independence from US control with glee – while American allies in the region like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were not reassured. Of further concern to president Carter was that, in late April 1978, a Marxist-Leninist government had taken power in the Afghan capital Kabul.
On 30 April 1978 Harold Saunders, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, warned that Washington should “seek to avoid driving the new regime [in Afghanistan] into a closer embrace with the Soviet Union than it might wish”.
On 17 May 1978, an unspecified number of Soviet Communist Party advisers arrived in Kabul, so as to assist the Afghan communist leader Nur Muhammad Taraki in safeguarding his government. President Taraki’s position was vulnerable, as his rapid reforms faced resistance from many Orthodox and conservative Muslims. Among those Russians arriving in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) on 17 May were Yuri Gankovsky and Nikolai Simonenko, the latter holding the status of head of the Afghanistan sector for the Soviet Union.
On 27 June 1978, a group of 48 Soviet officials landed in the Afghan capital, in order to work within Taraki’s government.
In mid-July 1978 David D. Newsom, the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, said that the US should continue a “monitoring action” on Afghanistan. According to president Taraki following a meeting with Newsom, the American official said he felt there was a “new chill” in US-Afghan relations.
Read more: The US in Afghanistan: A tale of follies & miscalculations
On 23 August 1978 Taraki, reflecting on anti-communist revolts in Afghanistan which had occurred that summer, told the Soviet representative in Kabul, Alexander Puzanov, that he had freshly uncovered “an anti-government plot”. Taraki claimed it involved the US, West Germany, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, and also China.
In January 1979 on the recommendation of the American ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph Dubs, the US State Department proposed a $310,000 program for 1979-1980, in order to train Afghan officers.
The presence of a new far-left government in Afghanistan was, from the American point of view, serious enough, while Iran’s revolution was especially grating with the power brokers in Washington.
Dean Acheson, former US Secretary of State, said in 1962 that a reaction by America when its “power, position and prestige” are challenged is not a “legal issue”, and that the US should feel no constraints by international law in such circumstances.
Meanwhile, on 14 November 1978 the Soviet diplomat in Afghanistan, Puzanov, outlined that “already more than 700 Soviet advisers and experts work on a free-of-charge basis in civil ministries and in the military field in Afghanistan”.
Eight days later on 22 November 1978, the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev said Russian material assistance should go to “such states as the People’s Republic of Yemen, Ethiopia, Angola, Afghanistan, and some others”.
On 5 December 1978, presidents Brezhnev and Taraki signed a milestone 20-year Treaty of Friendship centered on “co-operation in the military field”. The treaty stipulated that Taraki could request Soviet military aid if he felt threatened. The official response in Washington to this deal was apparently mild concern, but in private the Carter White House was increasingly disconcerted at the growing Soviet-Afghan links.
Read more: China does not want US to pressurize Afghanistan with foreign reserves
On 17 December 1978, Puzanov informed Taraki of Moscow’s decision to furnish the Afghan communists with military supplies and armaments, worth 24 million roubles. In addition, Afghanistan would receive a bonus loan of 12 million roubles, with the Kremlin allowing the Afghans 10 years to pay it back.
3. Strategic importance
By the spring of 1979, the Soviet Union looked to be in a position where it could start making inroads into US hegemony in the Middle East. Were this to unfold, and if Moscow could avoid becoming caught in a spider’s web in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the USSR would have collapsed in 1991.
Afghanistan is situated in the heart of long-coveted Eurasia: lying beside the Middle East, China, South Asia and Central Asia. It can be remembered that close collaboration, between Afghanistan and Soviet Russia, was not merely a phenomenon that can be recalled in living memory.
The Belarusian-born Soviet diplomat, Andrei Gromyko, wrote in his memoirs, “Shortly after the October 1917 revolution the Soviet Republic and its neighbor, Afghanistan, established diplomatic relations. Soviet political and material support was one of the chief factors in Afghanistan’s victory, in its almost 100 year struggle for independence from its British colonizers. It is therefore not surprising that Soviet-Afghan relations have long been of a friendly nature”.
In January 1979 Zbigniew Brzezinski, the powerful National Security Advisor, had gained control over US covert operational planning with president Carter’s full support. Brzezinski, born in Warsaw, Poland, was by instinct hostile to the USSR and it had long bothered him how, in the post-World War II period, that Poland was under the Soviet sphere of control. The New York Times admitted that Brzezinski had “a rigid hatred of the Soviet Union”.
One of Brzezinski’s great hopes was to have a role in harming the Soviets, “of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War”, he insisted to Carter. From the opening weeks of 1979, Brzezinski was pushing for the US to begin clandestine activities in Afghanistan, and to support the mujahideen insurgency there. A US National Security Archive chronology highlighted: “Having control over covert operations enables Brzezinski to take the first steps toward a more aggressively anti-Soviet Afghan policy, without the State Department’s knowing very much about it”.
Read more: Why was SCO summit so focused on Afghanistan?
4. Overthrowing the USSR
The Carter administration’s plan to suck the Russians into the Afghan trap was intent upon delivering a heavy, perhaps grievous blow, to the USSR. Brzezinski said that US covert actions in Afghanistan, which largely enticed the Soviets to intervene militarily there, had induced “a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire”.
Yet the West’s desire to eliminate communist Russia was by no means a post-1945 reality. At Soviet Russia’s founding when World War I was reaching its end, the leading Western states (America, Britain and France) had attempted to oust the Bolshevik government by embarking on an invasion of Russia in 1918. Part of the aim was to restore a pro-Western, White Russian outfit in the Kremlin.
Through Winston Churchill’s support, in autumn 1919 the British deployed poison gas in northern Russia against Bolshevik troops; despite the horrors of chemical warfare being fresh in the memory from the First World War. Scholars and diplomats, like John Lewis Gaddis and George Kennan, traced the Cold War’s origins to around 1917-1918.
By 1920, it was clear the Western military attack on Soviet Russia had failed to achieve its objectives. A generation later, with the defeat of Nazi Germany becoming a probability in World War II, the Soviet Union was again identified as the West’s principal foe from 1942-1943.
US Brigadier General Leslie Groves assumed control of the Manhattan Project (America’s atomic bomb program) in September 1942. In March 1944 Groves confided to the Polish physicist Joseph Rotblat, “You realize of course that the main purpose of this [Manhattan] project is to subdue the Russians”.
On another occasion, Groves remarked again on America’s atomic bomb development, “There was never, from about two weeks from the time I took charge of the project, any illusion on my part that Russia was our enemy, and the project was conducted on that basis”.
5. The Domino theory
Within a year (1978-79), the Americans had seen both Afghanistan and Iran become independent of US influence.
Read more: Qureshi, Khalilzad for inclusive Afghanistan settlement
It sparked fears once more in Washington about the recurring domino theory: that other countries could fall like dominoes outside of US control, with the revolution in Iran potentially spreading to nearby Iraq and Saudi Arabia, two further states rich in oil reserves.
On 15 February 1979, the Carter administration issued an official protest about purported Soviet activity in Iran of an “anti-American” nature.
Five days later, on 20 February 1979 president Carter, presumably referring to the Soviet Union, warned “other nations” against meddling in Iran, during a speech he gave at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Carter continued that any such interference “will have serious consequences and will affect our broader relationship with them”.
On 1 March 1979, US government departments conceded that the vital CIA TACKSMAN Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) sites – which had been located in northern Iran – were now closed down by the new Iranian leadership. In the Cold War era, the most important sites operated by the CIA were precisely these TACKSMAN intelligence facilities; which among other things enabled the Americans to secretly monitor Soviet missile tests.
In the spring of 1979, the CIA was surveying Afghanistan as a replacement for its TACKSMAN sites.
In mid-March 1979, an anti-communist revolt erupted around the ancient city of Herat, in western Afghanistan. It lasted for just a few days but resulted in many thousands of deaths. Among the men behind this insurrection was the Afghan-born Ismail Khan, who would later command a large mujahideen force against the Red Army in Afghanistan.
During the Herat revolt, Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid wrote that Khan’s forces were responsible for “killing Soviet and communist Afghan officers” and “Hundreds of Russians were killed”. Among the dead were some of the families of Soviet officers and military advisers. Herat’s civilian population, caught between the exchanges of gunfire and heavy weaponry, suffered a loss of life running into the low thousands at a minimum.
Read more: Is China the reason behind US withdrawal from Afghanistan?
The 72-year-old Brezhnev was irate when informed about the Russian death toll in Herat. He agreed to increase military aid to the Afghan communists. However, no evidence existed through 1979 that Soviet troops were directly participating in combat operations in Afghanistan until the Russian military offensive was launched in late December that year.
Shane Quinn has contributed on a regular basis to Global Research for almost two years and has had articles published with American news outlets People’s World and MintPress News, Morning Star in Britain, and Venezuela’s Orinoco Tribune. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.