How Jimmy Carter Started America’s Afghanistan Folly

Some forgotten history goes a long way toward explaining our longest war.

Since President Joe Biden began to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan—and the chaos that would inevitably come with the process ensued—pundits have argued whether Afghanistan is George W. Bush’s war or Biden’s. Both camps are (technically) wrong. In fact, it’s Jimmy Carter’s war.

If you think America’s exit from this Central Asian country concluded a 20-year war, think again. Some forgotten history goes a long way to explaining how we got where we are. The United States first intervened in Afghanistan in the summer of 1979—six full months before the Soviet Union’s land invasion—when Carter was president. Prodded by his hawkish national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter reluctantly agreed to authorize a small covert action program to provide aid to a motley group of mujahideen guerrilla forces challenging the central government in Kabul. Take note: These mujahideen were extreme Sunni Muslim fundamentalists, and more than a decade later they would morph into the Taliban. But they were anti-communists—and for Brzezinski, who viewed the world with Cold War blinders, that’s all that mattered.

The Afghan monarchy had been overthrown in July 1973 by the king’s cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan, who proclaimed a republic. But in April 1978, Khan was assassinated during a coup by the miniscule Afghan Communist Party, led by Nur Mohammad Taraki. The coup came as a complete surprise to Moscow. The American-educated Taraki considered himself to be a secular Marxist. Not surprisingly, his efforts to modernize the feudal economy and challenge the country’s tribal warlords were met with strong resistance from medieval-minded tribal and religious leaders. (Yes, Taraki and his comrades favored educating women and banning purdah.)

A year after taking power, Taraki appealed to the Kremlin for much-needed assistance, requesting the intervention of Soviet troops to shore up his precarious regime. The Kremlin refused. Then Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin told Taraki on March 20, 1979, “The entry of our troops in Afghanistan would outrage the international community, triggering a string of extremely negative consequences.”

On July 3, Carter and Brzezinski authorized the covert action program to aid the mujahideen. It wasn’t much—just an initial $500,000 in cash, along with communications gear and other nonlethal supplies for the Afghan insurgents. That same day, Brzezinski wrote a note to Carter, predicting that “this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.” In August, the CIA began smuggling Soviet-made arms taken from the Egyptian army to arm the mujahideen.

But then, in September, Taraki was himself overthrown and executed by Hafizullah Amin, a rival leader of a hard-line faction within the Communist Party. Amin was a ruthless thug. He arrested thousands of tribal leaders and executed hundreds of political enemies, mostly from the “moderate” wing of his own party. Amin’s ostensible allies in Moscow soon concluded that his tactics were creating the conditions for a reactionary, Iranian-style Islamist backlash.

In mid-December, the Soviet Politburo convened to decide whether to move against Amin and replace him with a more reasonable, “moderate” communist who might have more credibility in Afghan society. We now know from declassified Soviet-era documents that the Politburo was sharply divided; many of the members distrusted the ability of their 73-year-old party chief, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, to make a sound decision. Brezhnev was drunk most of the time and suffering from dementia. “The scary part,” noted Anatoly Chernyaev, a member of the Kremlin’s inner circle, “is that the final, sole decision was made by someone who is completely senile . . . It was a terrifying sight.”

Carter himself seemed to be privy to such intelligence, noting in his diary, “We have evidence that the Politburo is split on the advisability of the Afghan invasion.” By this time, however, the die had been cast. The Soviets invaded. Brzezinski felt vindicated, arguing that this expansion of the Soviet empire proved that the Kremlin was an aggressive and formidable opponent.

Carter was deeply shocked by the Soviet intervention. In my view, he overreacted, ignoring the advice of his chief foreign policy adviser, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who argued that the Afghan invasion would prove to be a foolish and costly intervention. As Vance contended, the Soviet gamble in Afghanistan was proof not of strength, but of decay and profound weakness at the very heart of the Soviet Union. Vance and Brzezinski had very different worldviews, and until then, Carter had invariably sided with Vance. But in the last year of his presidency, Carter began listening to Brzezinski. (A few months later, Brzezinski would persuade a wary but frustrated Carter to approve the ill-fated Desert One helicopter rescue mission, a predictable disaster that arguably sealed Carter’s defeat at the polls in November 1980.)

American aid to the mujahideen escalated in the wake of the Soviet intervention, a development that essentially meant that America’s resources went to support the feudal and religiously fundamentalist forces entrenched in traditional Afghan society. Such a move was obviously shortsighted. In the 1980s, under the Reagan administration, it made the U.S. a de facto ally of Osama bin Laden, who was then fighting the Russians. But successive Democratic and Republican administrations continued to double down on the ridiculous notion that we could influence events in that ethnic mosaic of a country.

Afghanistan would have been better off without U.S. intervention. Left alone, without America or the Soviet Union, the country might have had a chance to modernize in an organic manner. Like Vietnam and Iraq, we knew nothing about Afghanistan. We still thought we could shape this strange land’s destiny. And so, after September 11, President Bush decided we had both the right and the imperative to occupy Kabul. Naturally, we were soon viewed as colonizers. (Notably, we felt compelled to promise immigrant visas to thousands of Afghans to serve as translators—people who otherwise might never have risked working with our troops. This says everything about the viability of the whole enterprise.)

But our leaders assured us that things were going well, so we spent $2 trillion in American treasure and lost more than 2,400 American soldiers—for nothing. Well, not nothing. Our dollars, often corruptly spent, fueled a small middle class and allowed a generation of women to be educated. In the end, though, there was no Afghan fight in this fight. We had lost the war—and defeat doesn’t look pretty. Yet some still loudly complain that Biden was wrong to make the tough decision to get out.

The fallout has been predictable—including a Taliban takeover in short order—and yet our foreign policy establishment seems perpetually unable to learn that foreign adventures abroad sap our economic strength and even our democracy at home. Carter actually had the right instincts. He was wary of using military force, even during the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis. He talked about our limits as a nation; as a southerner, he knew from his own ancestral stories that not all wars can be won. Southern defeat and occupation had made him cautious about the overblown rhetoric surrounding the notion of American exceptionalism.

Ironically, our first intervention in Afghanistan occurred 42 years ago under his watch, but it is impossible to imagine Jimmy Carter doing what his successors did to embrace our latest and longest war.

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Kai Bird

Kai Bird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography, and the author most recently of The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter.