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How the U.S. Baited the Soviet Union into Invading Afghanistan; or, “What Is More Important? … Some Agitated Muslims or … the End of the Cold War?”

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It is well known that the U.S. funded the mujahideen, a loosely knit group of rebel groups in Afghanistan which included the present-day Taliban and Osama bin Laden, in the 1980s. According to the official version of history, this was to oust the Soviet Union, which invaded Afghanistan in 1979. But a recent interview with the national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter suggests otherwise.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: And you are listening to The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Well, as you no doubt heard, the U.S. marked the beginning of the ground war in Afghanistan this weekend. More than 200 U.S. commandos and light infantry Rangers landed and fought with Taliban forces near Kandahar and a military airport 60 miles to the southeast. Some 20 Taliban soldiers were reportedly killed before helicopters lifted the U.S. troops out of the area. And it was the first U.S. operational casualties, occurred when two U.S. paratroopers died when their helicopter crashed near the Pakistani-Afghan border. Taliban are saying they shot the plane down; the U.S. denies this.

We’re going to go back in history right now. It’s well known that the U.S. funded the mujahideen, a loosely knit umbrella of rebel groups in Afghanistan which included the present-day Taliban and Osama bin Laden, in the 1980s. According to the official version of history, this was to oust the Soviet Union, which invaded Afghanistan in 1979. But a recent interview with a national security adviser to then-President Jimmy Carter suggested otherwise.

We’re joined right now by David Gibbs, an associate professor of political science at the University of Arizona.

David Gibbs, you translated from the French an interview that a French reporter did with Zbigniew Brzezinski. What did the former national security adviser to President Carter say?

DAVID GIBBS: Oh, by the way, a small detail was that it was also partially translated by William Blum of Washington, D.C. The interview was in the Nouvel Observateur in 1998. And Brzezinski was basically boasting that, contrary to popular belief, U.S. aid to the Muslim guerrillas, the mujahideen, who were fighting the Soviet Union, did not begin after the Soviet invasion in 1979 as had long been believed, but had actually begun six months before the invasion. And that was what he called a closely guarded secret, that has now been revealed.

That’s extremely significant, of course, because the Soviets — nobody believed them when they said that they were fighting against secret U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, but actually there was secret U.S. intervention. That, of course, doesn’t justify their invasion. Nothing justifies that. But it does suggest that there was some effort by the United States to try and provoke the invasion. Brzezinski hints at this possibility and said that when the secret aid was given to the mujahideen, it was done with the knowledge that it would probably trigger a Soviet invasion. So there was a clear consciousness of what was going on here.

AMY GOODMAN: In this interview, Brzezinski says there’s the official version of history and what the real version is. And for listeners who perhaps weren’t even born then, if you could elaborate more fully on the significance of the U.S. funding the mujahideen not after the Soviet invaded but actually before, as Brzezinski was suggesting, to provoke the Soviet invasion? Why would the U.S. want this?

DAVID GIBBS: Well, from — well, Brzezinski spells it out, that he said that once the Soviets invaded six months after the aid began, he wrote to President Carter, seemingly triumphally, saying that “We now have the opportunity of giving the USSR its Vietnam War.” So, there was — according to Brzezinski, there was a conscious desire to get the Soviets bogged down in a ground war in Afghanistan and to weaken them. And he, in the interview, rather boastfully notes that he believes that this was a significant factor in undermining the Soviet Union, bringing down the Soviet Empire. And he’s quite celebratory about his own role in this. And so, getting the Soviets into a ground war seems to have been the motive. Obviously it worked.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, the Soviets were involved with a ground war in Afghanistan. We know, ultimately, they were forced out. It was a war with tremendous casualties on both sides. And now we see the United States this past weekend moving into a ground war in Afghanistan. Can you talk about the parallels?

DAVID GIBBS: Well, I think the first thing I want to note is that the — much of what is going on now must be seen as long-term blowback from the operation described by Brzezinski. It is doubtful that any of the events that have been occurring recently — the attack on the World Trade Center, this War in Afghanistan — any of this would have been necessary if the U.S. hadn’t taken the steps that led to the Soviet invasion. It’s very possible that what Brzezinski describes was a decisive trigger point that led to these events, or at least was one of the decisive trigger points.

In terms of the recent events, basically, Afghanistan remains as rugged a country as it was when the Soviets were there. It is as difficult a place to fight a ground war as it ever was. And, of course, there is a real danger the U.S. could become involved in a full-scale ground war in Afghanistan, with potentially devastating consequences. American officials, no doubt, want to avoid that possibility at all costs. They may or may not be successful in avoiding it. Once you start a war, as we’ve already done, a great power is committed to winning that war or losing face. And the question would be what the U.S. would do if it faced basically a decision of either withdrawing or committing full-scale ground forces. And this could easily escalate into a Vietnam-style war. I could see that as a possibility.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to David Gibbs with some really groundbreaking information about the beginning of the Soviets going into Afghanistan, that led to a very brutal war with heavy casualties on both sides. David Gibbs, associate professor of political science at University of Arizona, talking about revelations that came out of an interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski that got no attention here in the United States, that was done in a French newspaper that David Gibbs and Bill Blum translated.

Now, in this interview, going back to that, you not only talk about Brzezinski responding to the question, “Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action.” That was the U.S. supporting the mujahideen before the Soviets had moved in. “But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into the war and looked for a way to provoke it?” And Brzezinski said, “It wasn’t quite like that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.”

And then the question: “When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against secret U.S. involvement in Afghanistan , nobody believed them. However, there was an element of truth in this. You don’t regret any of this today?” And just repeating what you were saying before, Brzezinski says, “Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap, and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially, [saying]: 'We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.'”

And then the question: “And neither do you regret having supported Islamic fundamentalism, which has given arms and advice to future terrorists?” Brzezinski responds, “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet Empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

The question then is: “'Some agitated Muslims'? But it has been said and repeated: Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today…” And Brzezinski responds, “Nonsense! It is said that the West has a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid: There isn’t a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner, without demagoguery or emotionalism. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers.” And it goes on from there.

But again, that quote: “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet Empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” That’s Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to Jimmy Carter. And also, talk more about his significance. We see him on television still all the time.

DAVID GIBBS: Well, he’s regarded as something of a — of a kind of elder statesman. He’s maybe second to Kissinger in terms of his popularity as a commentator and so on. And he’s also seen as somebody who played a key role in ending the Cold War. This is, I think, the key point. It was always assumed that in taking these measures, such as Afghanistan, this was — there would be no consequences for the United States. This was cost-free from the standpoint of the United States. You can see that in this interview: It was an overwhelming and sensational victory. We paid no significant price so far as Brzezinski was concerned. I suppose what can one say to that is, I wonder what would Brzezinski say now if he were asked about this after September 11th, if he would be so dismissive of the significance of what he called some agitated Muslims, or if he would acknowledge there might have been an extremely high price the U.S. had to pay for those decisions he described.

What’s disappointing about this is there has been no effort of follow-up by journalists on this issue. It would be important, I think, to establish some personal accountability here and to question Brzezinski on television about these quotes and ask: What does he think of these of these quotes now? And is he still so proud of his role in helping to make the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan more likely over 20 years ago?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, David Gibbs, I want to thank you very much for being with us, associate professor of political science at the University of Arizona, really making news, though this was an interview that was done a while ago, not heard here in the United States, Zbigniew Brzezinski saying — and just repeating that quote — “What is more important in world history? … Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

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