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Superpowers' 'mistakes' in Afghanistan
Afghan mujahid with US-made Stinger anti-aircraft missile
Overtly or covertly, the USSR and US fought it out in Afghanistan
A quarter of a century after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a former Soviet ambassador and an ex-director of the CIA tell the BBC of the "mistakes" the superpower rivals made to the Afghans' cost.

For Yuli Vorontsov, the 1979 invasion was one huge error, and the ex-ambassador to Afghanistan suggests that forceful diplomacy might have achieved Soviet aims peacefully.

Ex-CIA director Robert Gates argues the US missed a crucial chance to help its mujahideen allies after the Soviet departure in 1989.

Click on the links below to read their accounts.

Yuli Vorontsov
Soviet ambassador to Afghanistan 1988-89

First of all the decision was taken in order to stop the Americans from getting involved in Afghanistan.

It was decided to go for the surgical method of dealing with the situation and in doing so we ended up inflicting a surgical wound on ourselves
Yuli Vorontsov

Everything that was said about helping the Afghan people and all the rest of it, well that wasn't really what it was all about.

Perhaps someone did want to help them but the main reason was to stake out the territory for ourselves and stop the Americans from getting involved.

I was Soviet ambassador in India at the time [of the invasion] and I tried afterwards to do my own personal investigation into the reasons why Soviet troops were sent in.

It was a mistake, first and foremost a mistake on the part of Soviet intelligence services. They took seriously some information - I don't know where they got it from, I couldn't establish what the sources were - but they took seriously some information that the Americans were in all seriousness planning to deploy forces in Afghanistan and open a base there.

They did get one thing right, though, and that was the fact that the Americans did actually have some military already there on the ground in Afghanistan at that time.

There were some officers, some US military engineers in Jalalabad. They were there helping the Afghans to repair irrigation systems. This fact was noted in some official paperwork that I read and these soldiers were referred to as an advance detachment.

So, yes, there was an advance detachment of American soldiers in Afghanistan at that time but they were actually doing something completely different.

So that was one thing, and then the other thing was the game that was being played out between [Hafizullah] Amin and the Americans. Amin was the leader of Afghanistan at that time.

He held lots of secret meetings at that time with the US ambassador in Kabul. This got our KGB people very worked up. Looking what he's doing. Why is he meeting the US ambassador? What's going on?

And when all these facts were strung together, the end result looked like a big threat - that Americans were really about to open a base in Afghanistan.


If there had been a US base there in those days, it wouldn't have been very good for us. It would have been one more link in the chain of US military bases that in those days encircled the Soviet Union. The thought that a base might be built in the south, and that planes would be flying over and that kind of thing, was very worrying for some people.

Not for the military. They were not afraid but the politicians were. The military didn't want to invade. I discovered that later, in conversations with the general staff of the army and the KGB, with people like Marshal Akhromeyev and people like that. The military were totally against it.

What we could have done, of course, was to make a big fuss about it all at the international level: Another base, it's outrageous, look what the Americans are doing.

And then the Americans would have said: Actually we're not doing anything of the sort. And they would have been right because nothing of the sort was being planned.

But there was Pakistan, and our relations with Pakistan were distinctly unfriendly at that time and so it seemed quite logical that if the Americans were already in Pakistan, why shouldn't they move into Afghanistan too?

So we could have tried to put pressure on Pakistan: Look, we're concerned and we might just have to intervene. But for some reason, instead of taking either of those options, it was decided to go for the surgical method of dealing with the situation.

And in doing so we ended up inflicting a surgical wound on ourselves. It was one big mistake from the very beginning. A mistake.

Robert Gates
Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, 1991-93

[When the invasion happened] I was just in the process of leaving the National Security Council where I was executive assistant to the National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and returning to CIA where I would become, shortly, the executive assistant to the director of central intelligence.

I think that the United States did make a mistake in basically withdrawing all interest and help to Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew
Robert Gates

I think that the fact that the Soviets actually invaded Afghanistan did come as a surprise. Their preparations to invade were no secret at all: we could see the massing of troops north of the border.

But I would say that most of the CIA analysts at the time believed that, on the whole, the Soviet Union would not invade, advancing all the reasons that 10 years later caused them to withdraw, going into all of the difficulties that they would encounter at home, in the Muslim world, the difficulties of fighting in Afghanistan, the strength of the mujahideen and so on.

All of those things together, combined with the growing troubles of the Soviet economy had led our analysts, the CIA analysts, to conclude that this was intimidation in an effort to try to bring about a change of regimes but that the Soviets likely would not mount a full-scale invasion.

Beginning early in 1979, the United States government began considering providing covert support to the potential opposition in the mujahideen in Afghanistan and, beginning in July, actually the president authorised that kind of support.

I would say though that, until the invasion, all of the support was non-lethal: in other words, once it actually began in the fall, it tended to be more in the way of medicines and supplies of communications equipment and that sort of thing.

It changed immediately after the invasion and then the president signed what we call a lethal finding which provided authority for the CIA to brief, or to provide, the mujahideen with weaponry.

The American role for the most part in this war was that of quartermaster, of logistician. We had virtually no control over ground operations or in terms of directing the mujahideen or in terms of what to attack or when or anything else. To the degree that they took any outside advice, it was probably the Pakistanis'.


Our general principle was to provide the weaponry to the groups that were doing the heaviest fighting and we had an independent view of that as well as what we heard from the Pakistanis and we worked pretty hard to direct the weaponry in that direction.

For example, the Pakistanis were generally reluctant to provide, for example, Stinger [anti-aircraft] missiles to [Ahmed Shah] Masood and the Tajiks up in the Panjsher Valley and it was under pressure from the US, from the CIA, because we knew that they were doing a great deal of the fighting and we felt that the Pakistanis were being held by some ethnic prejudices there.

I think that the United States did make a mistake in basically withdrawing all interest and help to Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew. I think we could have played a significantly more constructive role, going forward once the Soviets were out and the internecine conflicts began to break out. But the fact was that Afghanistan had always been a tribal society and we saw a re-emergence of the same kind of tribal conflict we had seen throughout the war against the Soviets and, obviously, for centuries before that.

I think that there is a certain deterministic approach that, well, these were fundamentalist Muslims and that therefore we should have known at the time we were arming them that they might be a problem in the future. Don't forget: we were still in some of the hottest parts of the Cold War and the focus was on our global competitor, the Soviet Union at that time, and that was more our focus.

I think, again, that there is this deterministic approach of drawing a line between 1979 and 11 September that doesn't take into account the factional differences within Afghanistan itself, both during and after the Soviet occupation and I think it does not take into account some evolution in the views of the Islamic fundamentalists themselves.

We were certainly aware of the Wahhabi influence in Afghanistan and of what the Saudis', and the private Saudi particularly, support for the more fundamentalist groups was all about. But the truth of the matter is that given the amount of money that they were providing, that didn't seem too out of line for us in light of the war that was going on.

Interviews by BBC World Service

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