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Twenty-Twenty Hindsight: An Analysis of Operation Cyclone and the War in Afghanistan


Throughout history, foreign policy initiatives undertaken by the United States have played a crucial role in defining American geopolitical interests around the globe. Following World War II, the United States completely abandoned its former isolationist policies and began to pursue an extensive and complex foreign policy, in part geared toward maintaining and encouraging global security. Since then, the United States has actively worked to ensure its national interests, both through means of military and diplomatic action.  However, despite numerous successes in positively influencing a variety of international issues, certain overzealous and misguided policy objectives have had negative long term implications for American interests. Many foreign policy blunders, notably in the Middle East, date back to Soviet-American rivalries during the Cold War, in which certain policies would initiate a series of regional and ideological qualms that would entangle the United States militarily in the decades to come. Former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger put it best saying that “the American foreign policy trauma […] is caused by applying valid principles to unsuitable conditions”. Kissenger’s apt observation demonstrates that despite legitimate intentions to advance American objectives, misguided action ultimately compromises policy interests and perpetuates ongoing geopolitical instability.

Throughout the post-World War II era, the United States actively pursued foreign policy objectives geared toward undermining the proliferation of communism. Such policies prolonged sustained political and military tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Ultimately, ideologically charged struggles over totalitarian communism and capitalist democracy had profound influences in the political atmospheres of nations all over the globe. United States’ blanket condemnation of pro-Marxist regimes ultimately compromised long term national interests, as the poor handling of policy initiatives set the stage for the undermining of American security objectives down the road. Perhaps one of the most notable mishandlings of foreign policy emerged following the installation of a communist government in Afghanistan following the Saur Revolution of 1978[1].  In the short months that followed, anti-Marxist rebels, financed and sheltered by the Pakistani government, launched an insurgency in eastern Afghanistan that precipitated into a full scale civil war. These insurgents, known as the mujahedeen, consisted of loosely aligned Afghan rebel factions temporarily united to take down the leftist Afghan government. The Kremlin, in response, committed large scale financial and military support to the fragile communist government, led by Babrak Karmal. Thousands of Russian soldiers were deployed to aid in suppressing the rebellion, ultimately committing the Soviet Union to direct military involvement in Afghanistan. In keeping with the traditional geopolitical philosophy of “communist containment” established under the Truman Doctrine, American President James Carter vehemently denounced Soviet intervention and embargoed much needed grain shipments to the USSR[2]. Essentially, the United States saw Soviet intervention in Afghanistan as an evident attempt to exert its regional hegemony in the Middle East and as an exploitation of the Afghans’ resource rich caches and access warm water ports. President Carter declared that “The Soviet invasion is the greatest threat to peace since the Second World War”. Shortly following, Carter announced his new major foreign policy objectives, dubbed the “Carter Doctrine”, in which he would “not allow any other outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region.” In addition to the aforementioned embargo and protest of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, Carter created what would become a decade long network of financial and tactical military aid geared toward enhancing the mujahedeen’s capacity to wage war against the Soviets. Known as Operation Cyclone, the initiative would be greatly expanded under the Reagan Administration as part of the Reagan Doctrine, which sought to aid anti-Soviet resistance movements abroad. Reagan’s program relied heavily on Pakistani President Mohammad Zia al-Haq who used his Inter-Services Intelligence network as an intermediary between the US and Afghan rebels for distribution of funds, weaponry, and military training[3]. Reagan also deployed numerous CIA Special Activities Division officers to provide cutting edge military tactics to Afghan resistance groups. Considered one of the chief engineers of the plan, CIA paramilitary officer Michael G. Vickers devised a strategy that involved the use of a wide range of advanced weaponry, tactics, and logistical support intended to mold the mujahedeen into a formidable fighting force. With US aid, Pakistan’s ISI recruited and trained over 100,000 insurgents. The United States also provided approximately $15 billion in military aid between 1980 and 1992, in addition to the sale of over 40 F-16 fighter jets and Stinger anti-aircraft directional missiles, which together effectually ended Soviet control of Afghan airspace. Despite huge success in ousting the Soviets and overthrowing the Afghan communist government, many critics denounced the logistics of the White House’s support program for the Afghan rebels. Critics voiced concerns regarding the unchecked financing and distribution of advanced weaponry to the Pakistani government that often gave most of the aid to radical Islamist rebel leaders, such as the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalauddin Haqqani. Many Islamist groups under the Pakistani umbrella would later reorganize and provide crucial military assistance to the anti-American Taliban in the late 1990s. In the same vein, many of these factions forged close ties with Osama Bin Laden’s fundamentalist Islamist militia, known today as Al-Qaeda. While there is no direct evidence, according to the CIA, that the US had any contact with Bin Laden throughout the course of Operation Cyclone, many foreign policy critics consider American action to be one of the crucial contributors to Al-Qaeda’s sophistication and tactical capabilities which would later be crucial in organizing attacks against the US such as the World Trade Center bombings in 2001[4]. Such blunders in hindsight had a long term effect on the United States, as the ill-informed tactics and misallocation of military resources allowed for the sophistication of then infant terrorist organizations. Policy analyst Peter Bergen remarks that “the real problem is not that the CIA helped Bin Laden, but rather that the Agency had no idea of his possible significance”. Similarly, the initiative had detrimental effects on the Afghan region, as the overthrow of Karmal’s communist regime created a power-vacuum that would attract prospective, radical groups, such as the Taliban and the Pakistani based Haqqani Network. These long term implications ultimately set the stage for prolonged chaos and socio-economic turmoil, as Afghanistan would become a safe haven for terrorists and a front for violent military conflict in the decades to come.

The political turmoil that ensued following the collapse of the Afghan communist government created an inviting power vacuum that attracted Islamist militants who sought to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state. The last of Soviet soldiers exited the region in May of 1989 prompting the United States to quickly cut off funding to the rebel factions shortly thereafter. In the brief period to follow, the remaining Islamic warlords would vie for control of the region until the Pakistani backed Taliban triumphed over the sectarian forces of Ahmad Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar[5]. With developmental support from Pakistan and vast funding from certain Saudi Arabian government officials, the Taliban successfully established the fundamentalist Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan on September 27, 1996. The infant government that rose from the ashes of the US supported civil war in the decade before quickly became a safe-haven for other radical Islamist militants, most notably Al-Qaeda. According to CIA investigative commissions, under the Taliban, groups such as Al-Qaeda were able to establish training centers, transfer arms, and ultimately plot terrorist actions geared towards furthering the jihadist agenda of radical Islamization[6]. With practically unlimited resources and legitimate support from the Taliban government, Bin Laden and his militia devised a series of terrorist attacks, ultimately leading to the 2001 September 11th hijackings that resulted in the collapse of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. According to the New York State Health Department, over 3,000 Americans perished in the attacks, prompting U.S. President George W. Bush to take “all necessary actions to bring those responsible to justice”. At this point, U.S. foreign policy analysts looked directly to the Afghan government that had harbored Bin Laden since 1994. Despite U.S. and NATO demands that the Taliban extradite Bin Laden, Afghan transitional leader Wakil Muttawakil refused to comply as he saw “no tangible evidence” implicating Bin Laden in the affair. In response, Bush launched a full scale military invasion in Afghanistan on October 7th, 2001, aimed at overthrowing the terror sponsoring Taliban government and destroying Al-Qaeda cells scattered throughout the region. In doing so, the majority of preliminary military engagements consisted of heavy sustained air raids over Afghan cities that paid close focus to the Tora-Bora Mountain range where Bin Laden was thought to be sheltered[7]. Gradual increases in ground assault units, led primarily by the 75th Army Ranger Regiment and the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, eventually allowed the United States to overthrow the Taliban regime in May of 2001[8]. Similarly, the garnering of intelligence and consolidation of U.S. control in the region eventually led to the capture and assassination of Osama Bin Laden on May 21st, 2011, signaling a major victory in America’s quest to end global terror. Thereafter, American foreign policy interests shifted toward stabilizing the Afghan region by organizing a democratic government under the tutelage of US supported Hamid Karzai. However, despite modest success in eliminating the proliferation of terrorism in the region, the greater impact of American military involvement has left Afghanistan in a state of political chaos, where overall national security remains a pertinent issue. Over 10,000 service men and women remain in Afghanistan in an effort to sustain security and protection from persistent insurgencies and terrorist attacks[9]. A thorough reflection of Cold War foreign policy action should evoke a serious reconsideration of specific policy action taken by the United States, as mishandling and ill-informed tactics jeopardize long term interests and set the stage for persistent instability and catastrophe down the line.














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