In the late 1970s, the USSR had been supporting the Afghan government in its fight against rebels, who had made considerable inroads and controlled territory outside Afghanistan’s major cities. Determined to squash a growing threat, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. Soviet troops and swarms of helicopters overthrew the government, which Moscow believed had contributed to the instability, and installed a pro-Soviet government, forcing millions of Afghanis into refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan and Syria.
However, the Soviet military faced significant resistance from a group of highly motivated fighters called the mujahedeen, literally “one engaged in Jihad.” The Islamic fighters fought the Soviets aggressively and attracted the attention of the United States, most famously Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, whose work on the issue became the subject of the book and movie Charlie Wilson’s War. Most famously, he successfully fought to give the mujahedeen Stinger surface-to-air missiles, which proved to be very effective against Soviet helicopters. The Soviets eventually withdrew their forces from Afghanistan in 1989, in what has widely been deemed “Russia’s Vietnam.”
Alan Eastham was the Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar from 1984-1987, and discusses his time in Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in July 2010.
Read more about Afghanistan. Go here to learn about when U.S. Embassy Islamabad burned down in 1979 and some funny anecdotes about Charlie Wilson.
“It was kind of a Wild West atmosphere out there”
EASTHAM: When I got to Peshawar in 1984 we were in a situation where the Soviet Union had sent its troops into Afghanistan in December of 1979. We had gone through the last couple years of the Carter administration with the famous Pakistan President General Zia-ul Haq’s response to Jimmy Carter’s offer of a small amount of assistance when he said, “Peanuts,” which was a nifty response to [former peanut farmer] Jimmy Carter.
The Reagan administration came into office and very early on decided to confront the Soviets more aggressively. There had been a support program for the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion since the Carter administration but the Reagan administration stepped it up substantially in large measure with the active encouragement and even some bullying and intimidation by Congressman Charlie Wilson.
Charlie came out three or four times in the three years that I was in Peshawar and I got to know him quite well. He was quite an interesting fellow in his personal life and in the unique position that he occupied in Washington.
But what was going on in August of 1984 when I got to Peshawar was that the war was in full swing. There were seven recognized resistance organizations. I can use the word “mujaheddin” but that word means a different thing in 2010 than it meant in 1984.
There were seven resistance groups and my job, as I perceived it, was to maintain contact with all these groups and to try to provide a, shall we say, diplomatic entry into what these guys were up to, what they were thinking about and particularly how their politics worked — as distinct from the information that was available on other channels, where you had a situation where you had people who were running a substantial program of assistance to these guys, who were also reporting on their successes and failures.
It is the nature of human beings that if one is responsible for a successful program, if your job is to make a program successful then what you report on is its successes; you don’t talk about its failures or what doesn’t work. So my job was to get to know these guys.
My Pakistani sidekick out there, my friend and highly valued colleague, the late Dr. Massoud Akram, always chided me for not paying enough attention to Pakistan. He used to tell me basically I was not doing my job with respect to the nuances of the Northwest Frontier itself. I spent way too much time thinking about what was going on in Afghanistan. But the priority of Washington was clearly Afghanistan; Washington didn’t much care about the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan.
It was a very small post. When I arrived there, there were basically two of us and a secretary. There were two State officers, one USIA [US Information Agency] officer, and an office assistant. The other officer was Margaret Scobey who [later became] the Ambassador in Cairo; she’s done very well.
Our job was the normal consular stuff: we did visas, passports that stuff, representation to show the American presence in the Northwest Frontier, and the Afghan piece, which was the most interesting by far of everything we did. We got frequent visitors; there were a couple of million Afghan refugees in the Frontier Province at that time, which generated great interest in senior officials to come out.
The Attorney General came, Ed Meese, at the time; we took him up to the Khyber Pass [the mountain pass connecting Pakistan and Afghanistan]. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs came out and CODEL after CODEL after CODEL [Congressional delegation], so for a two-person post we were very, very, very, very busy. Later on we started to add personnel.
About 1984 the Congress decided to authorize a substantial program of cross-border humanitarian assistance, wherein we were supposed to try to deliver humanitarian aid into Afghanistan. I believe that the idea behind that was to soften the military aspects of what we were doing to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan.
We did a lot of Afghan public diplomacy. When we added the humanitarian assistance function, we got a lot of new U.S. NGOs [non-governmental organizations] who were grantees of USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development], who enhanced the American presence. It was kind of a Wild West atmosphere out there. There was a lot of jargon: the “Muj” are doing this, the “Muj” are doing that and people would “go inside,” meaning to go to Afghanistan. It was quite an interesting mix of war stuff.
There were medical workers and people who just came for the adrenalin rush — quite a few not very stable people — but it was a fascinating time. The Frontier itself in those days was fairly easy to get around in. You could do some spectacular stuff, if you got permission; you could ride the train to the Khyber Pass, you could drive up to the KhyberPass.
We used to take CODELS to the Pakistani Frontier Force [Khyber Rifles] headquarters up in Landi Kotal, on the western end of the Khyber Pass near the border and they put on a nice show with tribal dancing and swords flashing and goat on a spit; there was a lot to do. Of course, that’s all closed off now.
Stinger Missiles – “It was going to make the cost of that war much more expensive for the Russians”
EASTHAM: I recall the day that the first Stingers were used against Soviet helicopters in Afghanistan. Stinger is a heat-seeking, heat-guided, surface-to-air missile, which was highly controversial at the time it was introduced, but Charlie Wilson bullied it through. The Reagan administration decided to provide Stingers to the Afghan Resistance because they were suffering greatly on the receiving end of fire from Soviet helicopters.
There was a day when they shot down two or three helicopters at the Khost airport in Afghanistan. The Russians did not see it coming, they had no idea that the Stinger was about to hit them. The results of that day were two helicopters burning on the runway at the Khost airport, two or maybe three.
The CIA subsequently presented the grip stock from those particular missiles to Charlie Wilson; Charlie told me he had it and that that was one of the things that they had done.
But it was electric in Peshawar because the Afghans all knew that something new had come and it was something new that was going to make a difference; it was going to make the cost of that war very, very much more expensive for the Russians. I think that was the turning point, I think it was about 1985. That was a moment when Afghan resistance morale was really, really high.
“It was fine with the United States in 1984 for the Afghans to be motivated by that spirit of jihad”
There was another phenomenon at that time that was not quite so positive from the point of view of what we were doing and that was the importation of this new kind of Islam to the Afghans. The Afghan jihad, the fight against the Russians, caused a great rush of arrivals in the Northwest Frontier Province and in Afghanistan of people with a new kind of idea about Islam. In my view it is an idea that came from Cairo.
One major influential person in this was a fellow called Sayed Qutb, who wrote several books. He was executed by the Egyptian government. But his ideas filtered through the Muslim Brotherhood and several other organizations. It came to the only place in the world where this new kind of jihad was being fought and that was Afghanistan.
Now we encouraged that, it was fine with the United States of America in 1984, ’85, ’86, ’87 for the Afghans to be motivated by that spirit of jihad and self-sacrifice. What was happening at that time was that the foundations were being laid to what subsequently became al Qaeda.
I sent an unclassified telegram to the State Department in mid-1986. I said, “What is this? We are hearing about the Takfiris and the Ikwanis, the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, the Muslim Brotherhood. We are hearing about this the Afghans are expressing concern about this new thing that’s coming. What is this?”
Never got a reply but at least I was on the record of asking. I remember being concerned about this new thing. It was something that was not in the Pashtun way of doing things. When the very recently arriving phenomenon of suicide bombing appeared in Afghanistan, I remember thinking how absolutely inconceivable it would have been in 1984-85 for an Afghan fighting the Russians to blow himself up; that would never have happened. It was not in the culture and now it’s all over Afghanistan, it’s happening in tribal areas and it has even moved into Pakistan.
Q: Did Osama bin Laden come across your radar?
EASTHAM: No he did not ever. I was there in that period when he was supposed to have been around. In fact, I spoke to a reporter the other day and he told me he was writing a New Yorker article about that 1987 period. He told me that [high-level al-Qaeda member, currently in Guantanamo] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (pictured) was in Peshawar the same time I was.
It was interesting there was one well-funded Arab relief organization there, I’m thinking it might have been Kuwaiti or styled itself as Kuwaiti or something, but we had very little to do with them. I recall once I felt that we were not covering that part of it adequately so I invited those guys to come over for a reception, and a couple of them did turn up.
I felt bad about that evening, however, because it was for a reception or something and they probably regarded a reception where the attendees were mostly foreign relief workers and international organization people as an unmitigated evening of debauchery because this was a hard-drinking, hard-living crowd. I suspect it was a little bit less dignified than it should have been to suit a staunch Arab conservative.
But we never had much luck with those guys. We had a problem communicating with them, we had no common language with these characters and I didn’t have anybody who could translate Arabic and they didn’t have anybody who could translate English.
So we were reduced whenever we encountered one another to sort of hand signals or something. It was as a practical matter very difficult to talk to these guys.
Q: Were their Sunni /Shia battles going on?
EASTHAM: Yes, at several levels. Parachinar, in particular, Kurram Agency, was an area where there were two populations: there were Sunni and Shia and it was known for difficult communal relations there, especially after the arrival of the Afghan refugees, who were mostly Sunni.
At the time I lived in Pakistan, in that period there was also an organization which was just getting started, a very nasty anti-Shia organization of Sunni. Their tactics were quite awful. They were mosque bombers, assassins, and that sort of thing. It was not suicide bombing but drive-by shootings of Shia as they were coming out of the mosque; it was pretty nasty….
Khyber Pass and the Gun Market
We would put that stuff on the schedule just because it was such gorgeous, attractive stuff and there was a purpose of going out to the Khyber Pass. You would go to Michni Point which is the point overlooking the border at Torkham down the hill and you’d get a nice Pakistani major with a sand table who would give you a briefing about the deployment of the forces in the valley around Torkham where everybody was.
You’d get the latest war story from up there and then you would go meet the colonel who was the head of the Khyber Rifles.
Then in those days you could go down to the guns, if you wanted, to although it took a day to go to the gun market. Charlie always did it and very few others did. Charlie would come away with a Thompson sub-machine gun…
It’s a town where they sold nothing but guns and hash. They had two products for sale in that market and it was firearms and narcotics. I suspect they also sold a lot of opium at that point.
Q: Where did they get their guns?
EASTHAM: Everywhere, all over the place, they had the weirdest collection of guns. Charlie bought two of those World War II Mauser machine pistols. He bought two of those and he bought two of something that I’d never seen before. It was a drum-barreled sub-machine gun of some sort; it was not a Thompson but it was somebody else’s manufacture.
They also manufactured guns. The Pakistanis are awash with small arms. There were perennial rumors there that the Pakistani government was going to register and seize all the AK-47s so my Pakistani friends in Peshawar would go and get the guys in Darra Adam Khel to make copies. They would make a country-built AK-47 and put the same serial number on it just in case the Pakistani government decided to seize the weapons. The plan was that if that happened, they would give them a copy and keep the real one.
It was fascinating; there were three different prices for AK-47s. There was one price for the Chinese in the grease, brand new; there was another price for the Egyptian one in the grease new….out-of-the-case, brand-new weapon, as it was packed at the factory and it is all greased-up for movement but you would have to clean it before you used it.
Then there was another price for the used one, Russian or Chinese; there was yet another price for the new one, there was a new little weapon that had just come out and it was a nifty little short thing, an AK-74. Those were highly desirable; they were concealable.
I had somebody offer me AR-15s, M-16s you would call it, the U.S. military weapon. I actually went and got the serial numbers off of about ten of those ones that they were offering me. They traced it back to a U.S. depot that was overrun in April of 1975 in Vietnam; I actually managed to persuade DOD [Department of Defense] to find out where those guns came from and that’s where they came from. They were captured by the North Vietnamese in April of 1975; so they came from all over the world.
You could get an anti-aircraft gun, they had 12.5 millimeter, those big ones; there was just everything out there. They were using bar steel to make new stuff. They made shotguns; I have a shotgun that somebody gave me, which was made in Darra Adam Khel. They made little pistols, their own little .32 semi-automatics. There was a manufacturing operation in addition to a trading operation.
“’We are not going to have the Soviet army here to keep you in power until you die’”
Q: What were your take on the official Saudi influence at your time there?
EASTHAM: It was not evident. There were some Resistance leaders who were better positioned to get Saudi money than others. There was a fellow, still around, he’s in Kabul; a fellow named Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who was one of the seven Resistance leaders. He was an Arabic scholar; he apparently spoke beautiful, classical Arabic although he was a Pashtun like all of the Resistance leaders except one. He was able somehow to attract a great deal of Saudi money directly to him. I believe there are published accounts that during this period that the Saudis were matching us dollar for dollar on the covert side.
Q: Did you get any feel during this time any reports about the Soviet position? What was happening with them?
EASTHAM: It was hard to say. I was not following the Soviet angle on this very closely; I had enough to do following the war. I think though that the basic Gorbachev position to disengage from Afghanistan was probably made around 1987, if I’m not mistaken. They left in 1989 and I think they were trying to disengage and they had started a program of “strengthening the Afghan security forces.” I believe that is the phase that the Russians were in at the end of my time in Peshawar.
They were doing something very much like what one would naturally do, which is strengthen the capability for the Afghans to do their own work. There have been published accounts since of a conversation that Gorbachev had with [Afghan President from 1987-1992 Mohammad] Najibullah who was in Afghanistan at the time, in which he basically told him, “If you guys don’t hold up your end of the stick this is not forever. We are not going to have the Soviet army here to keep you in power until you die.”
That was a turning point; I don’t recall when that conversation was supposed to have occurred but I believe Gorbachev mentioned it in his own memoirs. I’m pretty sure they were on their way out the door by the middle of 1987 when I left.