British collusion with sectarian violence Part 4: The Afghan crucible
The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) swept to power in Afghanistan in 1978 on a platform of land rights, workers’ rights, and an end to forced marriages. This was effectively a social revolution against the feudal system that had shaped Afghans’ lives for centuries, and it naturally angered the country’s entrenched landed interests as well as its’ religious establishment. Their anger, however, presented an opportunity to an imperial fraternity determined to deliver a blow to the Global South in general, and its Soviet ally in particular. As the armed counter-revolution against Afghanistan’s new, socialist government got underway, the US and Britain seized the chance to give the Soviet Union, in the words of US President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, “their own Vietnam”.
The defeat of the US at the hands of Vietnamese peasants was, in fact, the most obvious sign of imperial decline during that tumultuous period. Earlier in the decade, Portuguese efforts to hang on to their colonies in Angola and Mozambique had been smashed by determined independence movements, with communist forces in the leadership, whilst the US’ loyal South African ally was facing a resurgence of youth resistance.
The Vietnam war had catalysed communist victories in Laos and Cambodia whilst the pro-US Shah was being rocked by determined street protests in Iran. Newly independent countries were overwhelmingly rejecting US overtures to become neo-colonies and were instead forging ahead, through entities such as the Non-Aligned Movement, with plans for a ‘New International Economic Order’, challenging the West’s rigging of world trade. In other words the Global South - increasingly allied to the socialist bloc - was rapidly posing an existential threat to the Western-dominated, white supremacist, capitalist world order.
For far-sighted Western planners, however, the counter-revolution brewing in Afghanistan presented a unique opportunity to turn the clock back. If the US could get the Soviets sufficiently worried about the prospect of a fanatical, anti-communist, pro-US brand of ‘Islamism’ coming to power on its doorstep, they reasoned, the Soviets might feel bound to intervene. So long as the West could keep the counter-revolutionaries supplied with just enough weaponry not to be defeated, the Soviet Union could end up bogged down for years in the same kind of financially-crippling and ideologically-demoralising counter-insurgency war that had dealt such a blow to the US in Vietnam - but without the economic resources to ride it out.
It worked. Five months after US support for the ‘mujahideen’ began, the Soviet tanks rolled in to defend the revolutionary government. Billions of dollars in Western aid kept the insurgency alive and, over the course of the next decade, ground down the Soviet Union to the point of near-bankruptcy. The degree to which this was decisive in Gorbachev’s gratuitous self-destruction of the USSR remains debatable, but what is not disputed is that it certainly played a role. But none of it would have been possible without British support.
Britain’s relationship with Afghanistan has a history that is long and deep, written in blood and fire. The three Anglo-Afghan wars fought between 1839 and 1919 are the stuff of legend. The first - an attempt to remove Afghan ruler Dost Mohammed - was an ignominious defeat, in which virtually the entire British presence in the country, 16,500 people, were picked off one-by-one. Most were killed, some taken prisoner in their attempts to flee the country, leaving just one man -Dr William Brydon- to tell the tale. Britain’s hastily assembled Army of Retribution - which razed Kabul’s ancient market district to the ground in revenge - did not prevent Dost Mohammad’s return to power. It did, however, sear hatred of Britain into the Afghan national psyche for generations to come.
Four decades later, the Second Anglo-Afghan war did result in a British victory, but not before multiple military humiliations, such as the loss of 1,000 soldiers in the ill-fated Battle of Maiwand, had befallen the invaders. From then on, however, Afghanistan effectively became part of Britain’s ‘informal empire’ - a precursor to the neo-colonialism of the twentieth century - its feudal rulers granted protection so long as they ceded foreign policy to Britain.
If the first war was a defeat and the second a victory for the British, however, the third was less easy to categorise. Realising British exhaustion following WWI, Afghan King Amanullah Khan took the chance to invade British India in 1919. Whilst he eventually ceded the territories initially claimed, effectively recognising the British-imposed ‘Durand line’ as the de jure border between the two countries, Khan did succeed in winning back control of foreign affairs and British recognition of Afghan sovereignty.
Prefiguring the fate of the PDPA sixty years later, however, the King’s attempts at reforms - such as the abolition of slavery and the introduction of girls’ education - triggered a feudal backlash seized on by the British who, in the words of Conservative Cabinet minister Rory Stewart, wished Afghanistan “to remain in the middle ages”. Khan was overthrown in 1929.
Following four years of jostling for power - involving several assassinations, coups and counter-coups - the pro-British Mohammed Zahir Shah emerged victorious. The British Foreign Office wrote that whilst he was “weak and inefficient, hampered by an uncontrollable and irresponsible parliament, against a background of popular discontent” he was nevertheless to be supported, as “our own relations with Afghanistan are now better than they have been for about 130 years”. He would remain in power for the next four decades.
The point of recalling this history is to show that, by the time the PDPA came to power, the British had a century and a half’s experience of deep involvement in the country behind them, during which time - especially from the 1870s onwards - they had painstakingly cultivated alliances with some of the country’s leading feudal lords and reactionary leaders. They were thus uniquely placed to tap into these alliances in order to inflame counter-revolution when the chance presented itself. And it was therefore to Britain, and to MI6 in particular, that the US were forced to turn when they sought to establish their own influence amongst the various Afghan forces fighting the progressive government.
As historian Mark Curtis has written, “MI6...helped the CIA early in the war by activating long-established networks of contacts in the country – a similar role, in fact, to that played by MI6 in the 1953 coup in Iran”. In effect, writes Curtis, a division of labour emerged in which Britain provided the knowledge, contacts and specialist experience whilst the US “paid the bills”.
One of these contacts was Abdul Haq, commander of the Younis Khalis faction of Hezb-i-Islami, one of the most notorious militias of the entire period. Abdul-Haq openly attacked the population as part of his military strategy, including an attack on Kabul airport in 1984 in which 28 civilians were killed. This was not a mistake, he explained to British newspapers later: the victims had been deliberately targeted in order “to warn people not to send their children to the Soviet Union”. He was to become one of the prime beneficiaries of the $6 billion worth of military support provided by the US and Saudi Arabia - but it was MI6 who, in 1981, had originally introduced him to the CIA.
The CIA began shipping weapons to him soon after, and “Haq’s office in Peshawar, the organizing centre of the resistance in Pakistan, was often full of MI6 and CIA operatives who supplied him with maps of new Soviet targets they wanted him to hit”. Abdul-Haq maintained close relations with Britain throughout the Afghan insurgency and eighteen months after his airport bombing became the first Afghan commander to be welcomed to Downing Street by the then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Another commander who subsequently received this honour was the founder of Abdul-Haq’s Hezb-i-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who also supped tea with Thatcher in 1986. Hekmatyar was “famed for skinning infidels alive, whilst his group was responsible for some of the most horrific atrocities of the war”, says Curtis, including running torture prisons, the indiscriminate shelling of residential areas and throwing acid in women’s faces. He received at least $600 million in US aid.
Another key MI6 contact was Amhad Shah Massoud from the Jamiat-e Islami group. This group was described by official British documents as “an extreme right wing Islamic party” who wanted to establish a state that would be “virtually a dictatorship ruled by an Amir following the precedents of the earlier Caliphs”, and Massoud would - with US and British support - become one of the key figures in the insurgency and civil war that followed.
Massoud was especially significant as it was one of his supporters, Abdullah Azzam, who founded the Afghan Services Bureau (Makhtab al Khidamat or MAK) with Osama Bin Laden in 1984. MAK’s main work consisted of recruiting fighters and raising funds from abroad to support the Afghan insurgency and, according to Thomas Hegghammer, Azzam was “the single most important individual behind the mobilization of Arab volunteers for Afghanistan”.
One of Britain’s favoured groups was NIFA - the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan - whose programme included restoration of the pro-British former-king Zahir Shah. The NIFA troops trained by Britain were commanded by Brigadier-General Rahmatullah Safi, former senior officer of royal Afghan army, based in Britain since his exile following the coup of 1973, and still in London in the late 1990s as European representative of the Taliban.
But British support was not limited solely to introducing Afghan collaborators to the CIA. Far from it. Bound by far greater congressional oversight of such activities, the US could not easily provide direct training and equipment to the fighters it was grooming, nor take part in operations. But the British could. Then CIA-chief Gust Avrakotos later explained that MI6 “had a willingness to do jobs I couldn’t touch. They basically took care of the How to Kill People Department”. In Charlie Wilson’s War, George Crile notes that, in funding such MI6 operations, “Gust knew he would be skating perilously close to the edge. But with MI6 he was in the presence of old pros, and he figured that as long as never specifically discussed what they would be doing with the money he planned to provide them, he would, technically, not be breaking any US laws”.
Avrakotos elaborated: “The Brits were eventually able to buy things that we couldn’t because it infringed on murder, assassination, and indiscriminate bombings. They could issue guns with silencers. We couldn’t do that because a silencer immediately implied assassination - and heaven forbid car bombs! No way I could even suggest it - but I could say to the Brits, ‘Fadlallah in Beirut was really effective last week. They had a car bomb that killed three hundred people’. I gave MI6 stuff in good faith. What they did with it was always their business.”
MI6 even supported Hekmatyar operations within Soviet borders, launching guerilla attacks within Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. According to former Pakistani intelligence officer Mohammed Yousaf, “scores of attacks were made” up to 25 kilometres inside the Soviet Union, on villages, airfields, and vehicle convoys.
Alongside direct operations such as these, the British were also training some of the most notorious militias of the Afghan war.
Crile describes an MI6 man’s shock on discovering the allied fighters he was visiting were anally raping a Russian Prisoner of War. Yet the agent was reassured later that these were good loyal men, for whom such activities actually demonstrated their commitment to their own particular code of honour; he emerged convinced these were exactly the people his country should be supporting.
Other recipients of British training included the Yunus Khalis faction of Hezb-e-Islami, which later spawned the infamous Haqqani network, as well as Mullah Omar of the Taliban. British support for Amhad Shah Massoud from the Jamiat-e Islami group “began early in the war and involved money, weapons and an annual mission to assess his group’s needs”, says Mark Curtis; the group also received what was described by one British official as “a communications system which was very nearly priceless… subtle things but probably worth over a hundred planeloads of ArmaLites or Stingers”. Those things were provided too, of course, but generally by the US.
The SAS role was to train them to use the advanced US equipment. Says Curtis, when former UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told the world that the name ‘Al Qaeda’ refers to a computer database “of the thousands of mujahedeen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA,” he forgot to add MI6. These “training programmes were critical,” says Curtis, “since many of the indigenous Afghan forces, and the vast majority of the jihadist volunteers arriving in Afghanistan, had no military training”.
The SAS also worked with US special forces to train the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence services, “whose commandos guided guerilla operations in Afghanistan” says Curtis, with “British and US instruction... intended to enable [Pakistani elite division] SSG officers to pass on their training to the Afghan groups and mujahedeen volunteers”.
This was the 1980s, however, and privatisation was proceeding apace. Thus British military training in Afghanistan was often outsourced to private contractors such as KMS – Keenie-Meenie Services (named after the nickname of mercenaries fighting the Kikuyu in 1950s Kenya). Led by former SAS officers, they trained Afghan commando units at secret MI6 and CIA bases in Saudi Arabia and Oman and proposed sending teams into Afghanistan itself to train rebels in demolition and sabotage. Ken Connor, a former SAS soldier, even claimed to have trained junior mujahideen commanders in the use of explosives and mortars in Scotland and northern England in 1983.
In addition to training, Britain also provided equipment on occasion, although not always of the best quality. In 1986, Britain shipped their Afghan contras 600 ‘blowpipe’ shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles - “mothballed following their ineffectual role in the Falklands war”, notes Curtis, following a request from the US.
Curtis sums up UK involvement in the Afghan war as follows: “The British role in the Afghan war mainly involved covert military training and arms supplies, but also extended beyond Afghanistan into the Muslim republics of the southern Soviet Union. Britain played a vital role in support of the US and acted as a de facto covert arm of the US government... British covert forces, unlike those of the US, played a direct part in the war, undertaking scouting and backup roles with the resistance groups they and their colleagues were training.”
Today, the fruits of this collaboration are visible everywhere. In Afghanistan, civilian casualties are at a record high as the US-UK occupation, initiated to overthrow the very Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters the West created, approaches its 18th year. In Iraq and Syria, cities like Mosul and Raqqa resemble Stalingrad following the carpet bombing designed to ‘liberate’ those citadels of civilisation from the latest incarnation of the West’s ‘holy warriors’. And across the Middle East, Africa, and on occasion even the West itself, squadrons spawned from the Afghan contra movement of the 1980s continue to wreak chaos and devastation on a near daily basis. Truly, Britain’s ‘invisible empire’ lives on.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.