For nearly thirteen years between 1979 and 1992, the Central Intelligence Agency managed the U.S. government’s largest-ever covert action program in support of the Afghan mujahedin’s war to rid their country of Soviet occupiers and Afghan communists. The CIA learned many lessons from this experience, the most important also being one of the simplist: Money is much appreciated by the Afghans you work with, but it will not get them to do what you want done. Despite the billions of U.S. and Saudi dollars expended in support of the mujahedin, there was almost no occasion when the Afghan insurgents took orders from U.S., Saudi, or Pakistani officials as to the pace of combat, targets to be struck, or efforts toward political unification. Ever polite, the Afghans would take your money, offer thanks, and then do exactly what they wanted to do with no regard for your wishes. The idea that U.S., Saudi, or Pakistani intelligence officers “ran” the mujahedin is a fantasy; if anything, it was much closer to the other way around.
And that was acceptable. The U.S. objective in Afghanistan was clear and simple: to paraphrase Admiral Halsey, the goal was to kill Soviets, kill Soviets, and kill more Soviets. What has come to be known as “Charlie Wilson’s War” had little or nothing to do with Afghan self-determination and democratic nation-building; it had everything to do with exacting revenge from Moscow for the role it played in defeating America in Vietnam. In this context, the CIA-run covert action program was a significant success: the Red Army withdrew in defeat in 1989; the Afghan communists were annihilated in 1992; the USSR suffered high casualties which caused societal problems; and Moscow’s Afghan war sped the bleeding of the already dying Soviet economy. The clear lesson for Washington was that the U.S. got what it paid for: dead Soviets, the Red Army’s defeat, and the USSR on the road to implosion. But the money it expended bought no control of the mujahedin, and no influence on how the postwar Afghan environment unfolded.
Between the covert-action program’s end in 1992 and al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, this straightforward lesson was lost on the U.S. government and–unforgivably–inside the CIA as well. In the wake of what Osama bin Laden calls “..