In the wake of the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, reflection has turned to America’s role in the Soviet-Afghan war, which lasted from 1979 to 1989. The widespread story about this war is that the CIA provided arms and other forms of support to anti-Communist jihadist rebels fighting the Soviets and their Afghan allies—and thereby drawing the Kremlin into a costly protracted conflict it couldn’t win. According to this version of events, the U.S.-backed Afghan mujahidin were an earlier form of the Taliban, who would—in a supposed tragic irony—go on to attack America and engage Washington in a costly, protracted conflict of its own. Though satisfying to a certain kind of anti-imperialist, writes Emran Feroz, this story gets much wrong:
[This] analysis suggests that the CIA funded the mujahidin, synonymous with al-Qaeda, and thereby made 9/11 possible. The Afghan freedom fighters who resisted the Soviets are uniformly either Taliban or al-Qaeda, two labels used interchangeably, ignoring . . . the distinction between the two groups. [In reality, the rebels] were far from united and followed different ideologies across the Islamic spectrum. None had any connection to al-Qaeda, which was formed much later by what was a radical splinter group of the so-called Afghan Arabs. These Afghan Arabs were followers of Palestinian Islamist leader and ideologue Abdullah Azzam.
The U.S. Stinger missiles [provided to the mujahidin] were just a small part of the larger Afghan tale, but they became crucial in saving lives. For some, it might come as a surprise that Soviet helicopters, which destroyed whole villages, irrigation canals, and acres of arable land and waged mass destruction on thousands of Afghans, could not be defeated through peaceful protests or sheer political activism.
Indeed, [the] popular narrative of American blundering also tends to cover up the reasons for the Soviet invasion, its brutality, and the murderous nature of the regime it was intended to prop up; . . . tens of thousands of innocent Afghans were imprisoned, tortured, and executed by the [Afghan Communist] regime. . . . Even students, peasants, and laborers were not safe. A lot of those who succumbed to their ghastly fates at the hands of the Communists were targeted simply because they prayed five times a day, betrayed any sign of religiosity, were people of some standing and influence, or criticized the mass-murdering regime that was in power.
The [Afghan Communist government] and its Soviet backers claimed they were upholding women’s rights and secularism, even as they were using rape as a weapon of war in Afghan villages and in the regime’s torture dungeons—much the same way as the Assad regime is doing in Syria now.