“Somehow get me more mules.” That was Milt Bearden’s repeated request to CIA headquarters during the war with the Soviets in Afghanistan.
His colleagues were dubious but complied because he was, after all, in charge of covert operations in Afghanistan. He admits he tested their patience and credulity, but mules were among the best means of transporting arms to the Afghan resistance over treacherous routes from Pakistan. Mules were as reliable as trucks and sturdy under fire.
So did mules win the war? He does not quite say that, but he pays tribute to them as well as to other unconventional resources in a gritty, probing account of the CIA in the Afghan war. The Main Enemy is co-authored by James Risen, a reporter on national security issues for The New York Times newspaper.
Mr. Bearden thinks he and Mr. Risen have written a different kind of book:
“There are a number of books on the CIA out there, but most of them are written by outsiders and those written by insiders are very narrowly focused on an issue here or there,” he says. “I think what we did was take you on a journey through the end game of dealing with the KGB and with the Soviet Union. I did a lot of the work in Moscow myself. I linked up with all my old adversaries.”
The book falls into two parts. One deals largely with failure: the capture and execution of most of the CIA agents in Moscow due to Soviet spies within the CIA and the FBI. The authors nimbly, dramatically describe the intricate, highly imaginative maneuvers of both sides to recruit one another and obtain secrets on which war or peace might hinge.
The second part of the book tells of success: the victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan. Mr. Bearden was deeply involved from providing stinger missiles and other advanced weaponry to the resistance to trying to reconcile its fiercely committed but quarrelsome factions.
“Afghanistan was in its time frame an absolute success because the Soviets went in, and then they were driven out,” he says. “The end game was that the Soviet Union collapsed, and the United States continued on. But it was just one heck of a battle and they were very good.”
Mr. Bearden believes the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan spelled the end of empire. The Soviets lost the will to fight, and subject peoples found the courage to resist. “I am profoundly convinced," he says, "that when the Soviets walked across the Oxus River back into Uzbekistan in February of 1989, that set in motion across East Central Europe the belief that there was no chance that they would intervene anywhere else any time soon."
Then and now, some critics take issue with Mr. Bearden and U.S. strategy in the Afghan war. It was meant to win, says Mr. Bearden, and social engineering was out of the question. Weapons went to those who would fight, and they happened to be the fundamentalist parties.
He writes: “I would have to deal with the Washington fan clubs of the three moderate parties for the rest of the war, and with the recurring suggestion that if we would only funnel more supplies to the moderates, not only would the war end sooner, but nice guys would be in charge at the finish.”
In fact, he later learned from the KGB that one of the celebrated moderate Afghan leaders had been secretly dealing with the Soviets:
“It was a nightmare of rivalries between the seven parties that I had to deal with, and the four so-called fundamentalist parties got the lion’s share of the weapons for the simple reason that they had the most guys in the field, and the so-called moderates brought up the rear," he says. "A basic sense of Islam was what held these 250,000 Afghans who were willing to fight the Soviet Union together."
Just considering the fighting was not enough, says Barnet Rubin, director of the studies center on international cooperation at New York University. U.S. strategy in Afghanistan needed a political framework to counter the extremists in the postwar era. This, he believes, eluded Mr. Bearden and the CIA.
“Basically, he is saying they gave them the money because they were fighting. They did not give them the money and the weapons because they were capable of establishing a stable government in Afghanistan. They were not. They did not, and the result was they created a haven for terrorists."
Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives, agrees that arming the extremists was a costly error.
“The current challenge that we face from not only al-Qaida but actually this entire cohort of former Afghan fighters that have spread around the world flows out of this decision to arm the more fundamental segments of the Afghan opposition,” he says. “It was a mistake to arm the extremist elements in Afghanistan, and it was certainly a mistake once you have done it to just turn your back on the situation and walk away.”
Milt Bearden insists the CIA neither recruited nor trained the Arab fighters who went on to commit acts of terrorism elsewhere. He writes that the call to jihad against the Soviet invaders had resonated throughout the Arab world.
“There were the genuine volunteers on missions of humanitarian value. There were the adventure seekers on the paths of glory; and there were the psychopaths. As the war dragged on, a number of Arab states quietly emptied their prisons of their homegrown trouble-makers and sent them off to the Afghan jihad with the hope that they might not return.”
He says much of the extremism was bred in the teeming, squalid Pakistan refugee camps where Afghans had fled the Soviets in what has been called a “migratory genocide.”
Mr. Bearden says all wars have their unforeseen consequences or blowback. Don’t reduce this one to a cartoon version of a complex history, he urges. It was a victory if only we had followed up by staying involved in postwar Afghanistan.
He fears the United States may once again be paying insufficient attention to Afghanistan after defeating the Taliban.
“I am deeply concerned," he says, "that we may cross over some line in the sand where it will be almost be impossible to get the reconstruction projects going. And if that happens, then we kind of throw ourselves back to the pre-Taliban period. The Taliban satisfied a very vital need in the minds of most Afghans. It was security, and they do not have it now.”
Milt Bearden says the CIA will have to get back in touch with the Afghans they left and show them the United States is serious about rebuilding the country.
He writes: “It is a daunting task and the learning curve is short. But failure could allow the country to become a haven for internationalist terrorists once again. Afghanistan will thus be the ultimate testing ground for the new CIA as it seeks to remake itself for the global war on terrorism.”