Spies, Lies and the Distortion of History
By Steve Coll
To a greater extent than any other armed conflict on the planet, Afghanistan's unfinished 24-year war has been shaped by rival foreign intelligence agencies: The Soviet Union's KGB, America's CIA, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Saudi Arabia's General Intelligence Department and Iran's multiple clandestine services. They primed various Afghan factions with cash and weapons, secretly trained guerrilla forces, financed propaganda and manipulated political conventions.
When spies help construct a civil war, one seed they sow is confusion. Afghans today have little basis to trust their own recent history; too much remains hidden. The country has become a cauldron of interlocking conspiracies, both real and imagined, a maze of fractured mirrors designed by warmakers who embraced deception as a winning weapon. Afghanistan's successful reconstruction as even a semi-normal country, then, must eventually include some reclamation by Afghans of the truth about their recent past.
The KGB was present at the creation of this clandestine architecture. But there has been too little evidence to allow even an intelligent guess about how the Soviet secret services operated as the Afghan war developed after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Now a section of the shroud has been lifted. In a 178-page paper released this month, former Soviet archivist Vasili Mitrokhin extensively quotes KGB cables and files to describe violent guerrilla deception campaigns, assassinations, sabotage and bribery carried out by the KGB in Afghanistan between 1978 and 1983. In the context of current events, Mitrokhin's disclosures read like a catalogue of the Afghan war's original covert sins. Among other things, they forecast and explain many of the sins that followed.
Mitrokhin, living in Britain under an assumed identity, is still working at one of the most impressive acts of heroism ever performed by a librarian. From 1956 until his retirement in 1984, he toiled in the archives of the KGB's foreign department. Pricked by conscience, he later said, he secretly smuggled out handwritten notes he had created and saved, describing roughly 300,000 documents. He defected to Great Britain in 1992 and seven years later co-wrote a meticulous book with Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrew, which covered the part of Mitrokhin's chronicle involving Western Europe and the United States. He originally drafted his newly released paper on the KGB in Afghanistan in 1987, working in secret in an isolated country dacha. It has been translated and edited by scholars with the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington. The record Mitrokhin presents of Bolshevik follies and outrages in Central Asia sur!
ely would have been lost had he not risked his life to take home his notes of KGB files day after day, often hiding them in his shoes.
The Soviet military's occupation of Afghanistan occurred in plain view. Unseen were large-scale, adjunct operations mounted by the Soviet secret services. They worked, Mitrokhin writes, out of a large Kabul-based KGB "Residency" and through numerous ad-hoc training, sabotage and small-unit paramilitary missions, some organized directly from Moscow.
Most strikingly, according to Mitrokhin's paper, the KGB ran scores of secret "false flag" military operations inside Afghanistan during the 1980s. In these, Soviet-trained Afghan guerrilla units posed as CIA-supported, anti-Soviet mujaheddin rebels to create confusion and flush out genuine rebels for counterattacking. The KGB attached "particular importance" to this program, Mitrokhin writes: As of January 1983, there were 86 armed, KGB-trained "false bands," as they were called, operating throughout Afghanistan. They "provoked clashes between different [genuine rebel] groups and when necessary pretended to abandon their armed opposition," falsely surrendering to the Kabul government. In a relatively small country riven by ethnic and tribal suspicions, a successful program of this kind could have created widespread confusion.
Because Mitrokhin's retirement deprived him of access to files about later stages of the Soviet occupation (Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989), his information on this deception program is incomplete. It is difficult, for example, to know how rigorous KGB supervision of these false rebel groups was, or how effective the groups were among fellow Afghans. It would be absurd to attribute factionalism among the U.S.-backed mujaheddin rebels primarily to KGB provocation, as such discord had many other deeply rooted causes.
Yet the program Mitrokhin describes had an impressive scale, and his disclosures cast the standard history of chronic mujaheddin infighting during the 1980s in a new light. An unknown, perhaps significant, number of the clashes among mujaheddin groups during the 1980s -- which set the stage for the catastrophic civil war in the 1990s -- apparently were carried out deliberately by paid KGB agents.
The 8th Department of the KGB foreign division's "Directorate S" ran the sharp edge of Soviet covert programs in Afghanistan. The unit, Mitrokhin writes, "engaged in what is known in the criminal jargon as wet jobs, i.e., murder, sabotage, arson, explosions, poisoning, mechanical breakdowns and terrorism." In 1982, the 8th Department set up a training camp in Afghanistan run by a veteran KGB officer named Kikot, who had been transferred from Havana. The center trained Afghan agents to run sabotage and other operations in the refugee camps that were then filling with Afghan civilians -- as well as anti-Soviet rebel fighters -- in Pakistan and Iran.
In addition, KGB "Cascade" units, consisting of about 150 men, were given "broad powers" to operate around Afghanistan, according to Mitrokhin. They engaged in sabotage, recruited agents, coopted Afghan tribes through bribery, and attempted to disrupt the operations of the CIA-backed mujaheddin.
From the Soviet embassy in Kabul, the KGB spent enormous sums to rapidly build up indigenous Afghan communist intelligence services. The main Afghan security service, known as KHAD, became feared and hated for its use of torture and assassination. With KGB funding and training, Afghan staff at KHAD soared from 700 in 1980 to more than 16,000 in 1982.
Because the Soviets knew that Pakistan's intelligence services, backed by the CIA, were training and arming anti-Soviet Afghan guerrillas, the KGB sought to infiltrate and disrupt this activity with secret cross-border operations, some violent. They also sought to destabilize Pakistan. Mitrokhin documents -- with names and dates -- what had been long suspected: The KHAD supplied arms to Pakistani dissidents in Baluchistan and Sind who opposed their own government in Islamabad. The KGB and KHAD also linked up with Murtaza Bhutto, the brother of later Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The KGB and KHAD worked directly with Murtaza Bhutto, a leftist terrorist, to organize and supervise the hijacking of a Pakistani civilian airliner in 1981, according to Mitrokhin. Citing KGB cables, he describes a scene in which Najibullah, then the head of KHAD and later Afghanistan's Moscow-backed president, met mid-hijacking with Bhutto at Kabul's airport while disguised as an aircraft!
KGB-trained agents substantially penetrated CIA-backed mujaheddin groups, their training camps, and their headquarters, at least according to the reports sent back to Moscow from field agents. Of course, KGB agents worldwide notoriously exaggerated their intelligence achievements in written reports to headquarters; it is hard to know where their real covert actions ended and their bureaucratic pump-priming began. But by the early 1980s, KHAD claimed to its KGB sponsors that it had placed more than 200 Afghan agents and trainees inside Pakistan, and more than 110 inside Iran. According to Mitrokhin's account, some operated at least occasionally inside the headquarters of the seven major anti-Soviet mujaheddin parties. They ran operations meant to sow dissent among the Afghan leaders. In one case, a KGB handwriting specialist imitated the scrawl of a leader in one Afghan party, headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and penned a letter threatening to eliminate a rival mujaheddin lead!
er, Mohammed Nabi Mohammedi. The fake letter was left in Mohammedi's office.
It is doubtful that mujaheddin leaders needed such provocations in order to fear and despise one another; they seemed to find ample grounds on their own. Still, even if the KHAD agents only succeeded in amplifying the rivalries, their work may have contributed to rising distrust within the mujaheddin leadership.
Hekmatyar, in particular, was so prone to attack his fellow rebels that some American intelligence analysts in Washington wondered at the time if he might be on the Soviet payroll. Mitrokhin's files make clear that he was not. Hekmatyar's considerable flaws as an American proxy seem to have been entirely his own.
By Mitrokhin's account, the KGB Residency in Kabul spent much of the Soviet war complaining about how lazy, factionalized, and unreliable its Afghan communist clients had become. It sent candid cables to Moscow about how badly the war was going, how little of the country communist forces controlled, and how deeply the Kabul government had failed in its efforts to win Afghan hearts and minds. Yet the KGB cablers drew exactly the wrong conclusions from the facts they observed. At the very moment when global Bolshevism was expiring, they argued to the home office that if only they could install harder-working, more dedicated Afghan communists in Kabul, all would be well.
The clandestine structure of the Cold War-era Afghan war anticipated the character of the fractured, deception-laden civil war that raged there during the 1990s. After Moscow and Washington withdrew, regional intelligence agencies -- in most cases trained, inspired and funded by the CIA or the KGB during the 1980s -- intervened directly. They often used the same covert methods pioneered by their mentor agencies. Pakistan's still-obscured role in aiding the rise of the Taliban between 1994 and 1996, and Uzbekistan's clandestine support for ethnic Uzbek warlords reigning in Mazar-e Sharif are two examples among many. In addition, after his expulsion from Sudan in 1996, Osama bin Laden introduced his stateless terrorist network to Afghanistan -- a secret brotherhood that operated as a conspiracy within the Taliban's Pakistani-supported conspiracy.
A consequence of this history for Afghans is evident in today's headlines. When political violence occurs, it is very difficult for anyone to express confidence about its origins. A government minister was killed 10 days ago by a cold, hungry, angry mob at the Kabul airport. The country's interim government, eschewing the obvious, made arrests and announced that the minister had been assassinated in a covert plot, perhaps with international dimensions. Now it has backed away from that assertion. Which is true? Sadly, either seems plausible.
Steve Coll, managing editor of The Washington Post, served as the newspaper's South Asia bureau chief from 1989 to 1992, based in New Delhi. He is writing a book about the history of U.S. foreign and intelligence policy in Afghanistan.
CWIHP Afghanistan Collection Featured in Washington Post
- Feb 24, 2002
Spies, Lies and the Distortion of History