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What We Won

America's Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979–89

Bruce Riedel

Publication Year: 2014

In February 1989, the CIA's chief in Islamabad famously cabled headquarters a simple message: "We Won." It was an understated coda to the most successful covert intelligence operation in American history.

In What We Won, CIA and National Security Council veteran Bruce Riedel tells the story of America's secret war in Afghanistan and the defeat of the Soviet 40th Red Army in the war that proved to be the final battle of the cold war. He seeks to answer one simple question—why did this intelligence operation succeed so brilliantly?

Riedel has the vantage point few others can offer: He was ensconced in the CIA's Operations Center when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979. The invasion took the intelligence community by surprise. But the response, initiated by Jimmy Carter and accelerated by Ronald Reagan, was a masterful intelligence enterprise.

Many books have been written about intelligence failures—from Pearl Harbor to 9/11. Much less has been written about how and why intelligence operations succeed. The answer is complex. It involves both the weaknesses and mistakes of America's enemies, as well as good judgment and strengths of the United States.

Riedel introduces and explores the complex personalities pitted in the war—the Afghan communists, the Russians, the Afghan mujahedin, the Saudis, and the Pakistanis. And then there are the Americans—in this war, no Americans fought on the battlefield. The CIA did not send officers into Afghanistan to fight or even to train.

In 1989, victory for the American side of the cold war seemed complete. Now we can see that a new era was also beginning in the Afghan war in the 1980s, the era of the global jihad. This book examines the lessons we can learn from this intelligence operation for the future and makes some observations on what came next in Afghanistan—and what is likely yet to come.

Published by: Brookings Institution Press

Front Cover

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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xviii

The war in Afghanistan that took place between 1979 and 1989 was a pivotal event in modern history. The defeat there of the Soviet 40th Red Army proved to be the final battle of the cold war, a struggle between the United States and its allies on one hand and Russia and its allies on the other that lasted from 1945 to 1990. ...

Part 1: The Players

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1. The Afghan Communists

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pp. 3-19

Shibirghan, the capital of Jowzjan Province, is a remote and barren place, even by Afghan standards. To the north, Jowzjan borders on the Amu Darya River and Turkmenistan, a former part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.1 ...

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2. The Main Enemy: The Soviets

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pp. 20-39

The Operations Center of the Central Intelligence Agency was on the seventh floor of the original headquarters building, just a short walk from the Office of the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). In 1979 there was a large round desk in the center of the room with four chairs reserved for three watch officers and a senior duty officer who was in charge of the center. ...

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3. The Afghan Mujahedin

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pp. 40-55

The Afghan mujahedin defeated the Soviets. The United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and others helped them considerably, but they did almost all the fighting and virtually all the dying themselves. They and the civilian population that backed them paid an awful price—at least 1 million dead and many more wounded—but they got very little of the benefit of their sacrifice. ...

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4. The Pakistanis: Zia's War

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pp. 56-73

Black September made General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq a success. In the fall of 1970, the civil war that erupted in Jordan between King Hussein’s small army and the Palestinian fedayeen movement, led by Yasser Arafat, provided the opportunity for Zia, an unknown Pakistani general, to make his mark and thereby become an up-and-comer in the Pakistani army back home. ...

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5. The Saudis: Financiers and Volunteers

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pp. 74-90

The palaces of the House of Saud, the ruling family of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, were built to inspire awe in any visitor. The king’s palace in the capital, Riyadh, is an enormous structure decorated inside in lovely green Italian marble; the palace grounds cover a square mile. ...

Part 2: The U.S. War

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6. Jimmy Carter's War

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pp. 93-109

James Earl Carter, the thirty-ninth president of the United States, was the father of the covert program to aid the mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It was Carter who decided that the United States would respond aggressively to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and instructed the CIA to begin supplying weapons to the mujahedin. ...

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7. Reagan and Casey

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pp. 110-127

Directors of the Central Intelligence Agency travel abroad in great secrecy; only a select few individuals know their itinerary. In the 1980s they flew in unmarked C-141 Starlifter aircraft provided by the U.S. Air Force that were outfitted with the latest in electronic systems to deflect missile attack. ...

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8. Endgames Without End

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pp. 128-140

The Afghan war went on without the Soviet army. Moscow and Washington provided arms to the communists and mujahedin for another three years, then both lost interest. Afghanistan would descend into a bloody and endless civil war among the various mujahedin factions, with Abdul Rashid Dostum as a key participant. ...

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9. Lessons of the Secret War

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pp. 141-156

The Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, a museum of military history in Vienna, contains a remarkable exhibit from one of the most important covert operations in world history, the assassination, on June 28, 1914, of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the heir-apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. ...


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pp. 157-176


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pp. 177-189

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780815725855
E-ISBN-10: 081572585X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815725848
Print-ISBN-10: 0815725841

Page Count: 189
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 881029965
MUSE Marc Record: Download for What We Won

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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Foreign relations -- Afghanistan.
  • Afghanistan -- Foreign relations -- United States.
  • Espionage, American -- Afghanistan -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States. Central Intelligence Agency -- History -- 20th century.
  • National security -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Military policy.
  • Afghanistan -- History -- Soviet occupation, 1979-1989.
  • United States -- Foreign relations -- Soviet Union.
  • Soviet Union -- Foreign relations -- United States.
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