wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Steve Coll

Ghost Wars

If Kabul's next government might be 'actively hostile' toward Washington, why didn't the United States push quickly for political negotiations that could produce a more friendly and stable Afghan regime, as they were being urged to do by Afghan intellectuals and royalists? If Najibullah's quick collapse was inevitable, as the CIA believed, wasn't the need for such political mediation more urgent than ever, to help contain Hekmatyar and his international Islamist allies?

But the councils of the American government were by now deeply divided on the most basic questions. Gorbachev's initiative on Afghanistan had neither been anticipated nor carefully reviewed. Individuals and departments pulled in different directions all at once. The CIA and the State Department were much more focused on Gorbachev and the Soviet Union than on Afghanistan. The entire nuclear and political balance of the Cold War seemed suddenly at stake as 1988 passed. Central Asia's future did not rank high on the priority list by comparison.

Gates continued to doubt Gorbachev's intentions. Shultz, isolated in his own cabinet and running out of time, wanted to find a formula for Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan that would ensure the fastest, least complicated Soviet pullout possible, without restricting the ability of the mujahedin to fight their way into Kabul when the Soviets were gone. Trying to negotiate some sort of transitional government in Afghanistan seemed out of the question: It would make the pace of Soviet withdrawal dependent on American successs in Afghan politics—a very poor bet.

For its part, the CIA's Near East Division, led by the Afghan task force director Frank Anderson, began to argue that the CIA's work in Afghanistan was finished. The agency should just get out of the country when the Soviets did. The covert action had been all about challenging Soviet power and aggression; it would be an error to try to convert the program now into some sort of reconstruction project. There was no way to succeed with such a project, the CIA's Near East officers argued.

As Bearden put it years later, 'Did we really give a shit about the long-term future of Nangarhar? Maybe not. As it turned out, guess what? We didn't.' The CIA's Near East hands were increasingly annoyed at the State Department diplomats who were now wheedling onto the CIA's turf at the moment of victory, continually questioning the agency's assumptions, harping on the Pakistani support for Hekmatyar and the Islamists, and wringing their hands about peace settlements. Where had these pin-striped assholes been when it counted, the grumbling at Langley went, when the CIA had been slogging away amid skepticism that they could ever succeed? What naive earnestness led State's diplomats and their allies in Congress to believe that they could unscramble the Afghan war, hold a few conferences in Europe, and welcome the exiled Afghan king back to his Kabul palace, with a brass band playing on the lawn? The Afghans would have to figure things out themselves. The Americans couldn't help, and it was not in the interests of the United States to try. How much of this thinking within CIA's Near East Division was carefully considered and how much of it was an emotional rebellion against second-guessing from State and Congress was difficult to measure. They felt they had taken more than ample guff about the most successful covert action program in CIA history. The Soviets were leaving. Enough.

As to Afghan politics, the CIA was content to let Pakistani intelligence take the lead even if it did mean they installed their client Hekmatyar in Kabul. So what? Pakistani hegemony over Afghanistan, whether or not it was achieved through the ideology of political Islam, did not seem to pose any significant threat to American interests, the Near East Division's officers felt. Besides, if they had qualms about Hekmatyar—and most of them did—they did not see what they could do at this stage to block ISI's plans. So they moved to help ISI succeed. After consulting with Prince Turki, the CIA and Saudi intelligence both accelerated shipments of weapons to Pakistan, hoping to beat any diplomatic deadlines that might constrict supplies.

The new Pakistani intelligence chief, Hamid Gul, had taken over with fresh plans to push the rebels toward more formal military operations that could put pressure on major Afghan cities. Gul felt his job was 'to get the Russians out. I'm not concerned about anything else.' He was not as close personally to Hekmatyar as some of the colonels and brigadiers who had become fixtures in ISI's Afghan bureau, a bureau where Gul had little experience. Based on military liaison contacts with Gul in Islamabad, the Defense Intelligence Agency produced a biography of the new ISI chief that emphasized his pro-Western attitudes. The sketch of Gul's character turned out to be almost entirely wrong.