According to Charlie Wilson's War, by George Crile, when the last Russian troops were driven out of Afghanistan by the mujahideen (Islamic "holy warriors") in February 1989, Milt Bearden, head of the CIA's Islamabad station cabled simply "We won." Crile's work brings together a wealth of knowledge and experience, in-depth insight into the issues and geopolitics, and extensive research into and interviews with all the major players. Beyond a detailed history of the USA's covert war against the Russians in Afghanistan, Charlie Wilson's War provides a guided tour of the internal operations of the CIA and a study of the fraught relationship between the US government and its spy agency. Crile details how a motley crew of characters--Congressman Charlie Wilson, socialite Joanne Herring, rogue CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, and young savant warfare strategist Mike Vickers, to name but a few--managed to manipulate global politics involving the USA, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Nicaragua, Iran and China, and, arguably, provoked the collapse of the Soviet Union in November 1989. In short, the book tells us how the CIA works, how the American government works, and even, in some measure, how the world works--and it's never quite as we might imagine.
What Is a "proxy war"?
I was drawn to Charlie Wilson's War because it opened a door to understanding what is happening in Ukraine today. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, like the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, (and for that matter like the Vietnam War and the Korean War) is a proxy war between Russia and the USA. In the simplest of terms, a "proxy war" means the hegemonic nations at war aren't necessarily the people who are actually fighting on the battlefield. I had thought the cynical expression about the USA's "fighting to the last Ukrainian" was original to the Russia-Ukraine war. However, the expression is used repeatedly in Charlie Wilson's War as the CIA struggled to avoid the perception that "The USA was ready to fight to the last Afghan."
An "Unprovoked" "proxy war"?
The parallels between the Russia-Afghanistan-USA war and the Russia-Ukraine-USA war are multiple. But the divergences are even more instructive. The most obvious similarity between the two wars is that in both cases they are "proxy wars" between Russia and the USA (and its NATO allies). This most obvious fact about the war in Ukraine--that it is a proxy war--is the least likely fact to be reported in Western media. This fact cannot be repeated because it contradicts a dominant theme in Western reports that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was "unprovoked." Of all the moral, legal, geopolitical and even pragmatic insults and aspersions that can justifiable describe the Russian invasion, the one that makes the least sense and is the least credible is the one we hear most often, that it was "unprovoked."
An Overt war versus a covert war: The remarkable differences
The key difference between how the USA supported and armed the Afghan tribal warlords and how the USA is now supporting and arming the Ukrainian military and Ukraine's various militias is the difference between a covert and an overt war. In my previous post I asked the question "Was the 2014 Maidan Uprising in Kyiv a covert CIA operation?" and concluded that it could hardly be called covert. It seems possible, maybe even probable that the Orange Revolution in 2004 overturning the presidential election in Ukraine was a US-backed operation. It seems evident and obvious that the Maidan Revolution in 2014 was a US operation and there was surprising little effort made to hide the fact. When Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt's telephone conversation planning who would run the Ukrainian government after the 2014 coup was leaked to the public, Nuland's only comment was that the leak was "good spy-craft." She didn't even bother to deny the implication that the Maidan Uprising was a US-supported overthrow of the government. Instead, she and Ambassador Pyatt presented themselves for photo-ops with the demonstrators who would, shortly afterwards, overthrow the democratically-elected government in a bloody coup.
The Contrast makes the point
As recounted in Charlie Wilson's War, in the 1980s, the CIA was obsessed with keeping their operations clandestine in order to avoid provoking Russia into escalation: invading Pakistan or using nuclear weapons or both. As Crile points out, the war in Afghanistan was barely even reported in US media. The CIA went to great extents to hide the source of the new high-tech weapons they were funneling to the mujahideen but, at the same time, they had the challenge of muting the politicians and hawks at home in the USA who were calling for escalation and threatening to blow the lid off the covert operation. In Ukraine, from the 2004 overthrow to the 2014 coup to American bio-labs established in Ukraine to the tens of billions of dollars in weapons flowing from the USA to Ukraine, (not to mention the expansion of NATO to Russia's borders and the declarations in Ukraine of then Vice President Joe Biden) the Americans have publicly goaded the Russians into escalation, daring them to use nuclear weapons and/or to invade a NATO ally. The same people who claim that Vladimir Putin is amoral and insane seem equally convinced that he won't do the obviously amoral and insane and use his substantial nuclear arsenal.
"The Enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Pakistan's role was crucial in ousting the Soviets from Afghanistan. The Afghan forces would have been unable to fight without being able to retreat, regroup and be rearmed and resupplied through northern Pakistan. The Americans' greatest concern was that the Russians would continue their invasion into Pakistan. Had they done so, they might likely have been victorious in the region.
Four NATO countries share a border with Ukraine--Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. If Russia were to attack any of these countries, the USA and all NATO members would, by treaty, be obligated to join the conflict. A nuclear World War III would begin.
One of the biggest differences between Afghanistan in the 1980s and Ukraine in the 2020s is the shifting of alliances. Most importantly, in the 1980s, China and the Soviet Union were considered mortal enemies. In the 1980s, China manufactured weapons for the CIA which were distributed through Pakistan to arm the Afghans against the Russians. Currently, the USA is imposing sanctions and sabre rattling against both China and Russia, forcing an alliance between these powerful, erstwhile unfriendly neighbours who now present a public face as the best of friends.
Comparing Outcomes: Afghanistan versus Ukraine
We now know that once the Afghans had driven out the Russians using American technology, weaponry and training, the various tribal warlords began to turn on each other. The Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Landen emerged from the chaos as dominant forces in Afghanistan. In 2001, from their bases in Afghanistan, bin Landen and a team of his fellow Saudis developed a plan to crash commercial jet liners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the White House. (Since the CIA had made arrangements for Saudi Arabia to supply fully half of all financial aid going to the mujahideen, it is possible that Afghan warriors never fully realized that they were being armed by the USA.) What followed was an American invasion of Afghanistan (after a devastating and pointless invasion of Iraq) and a war that lasted 20 years, destroyed lives, cost trillions of dollars and ended in a US surrender returning the Taliban to power.
There are enormous differences between Afghanistan and Ukraine, but in both cases you have the USA pouring billions of dollars into countries known for their corruption which have ongoing civil wars and long-standing internal strife. In both cases, you have the USA supplying massive funds and armaments seemingly without paying much attention to who exactly they are funding and arming. In Afghanistan, the influx of massive amounts of US capital created a kleptocracy. Hamid Karzai, the USA's choice to lead Afghanistan, attempted to hold the country together through nepotism, cronyism, bribes and favours, and failed miserably.
Arseniy Yatsenyu, the American choice to lead Ukraine after 2014, only lasted two years in office. Petro Poroshenko, the post-2014, anti-communist President of Ukraine was not only voted out of office after one term but had to flee the country, accused of high treason. Volodymyr Zelensky, the actor who played the President of Ukraine in a TV comedy series and was then elected President of Ukraine in reality, came out of nowhere--sort of.
Since the Russian invasion, Zelensky has been aptly compared to Winston Churchill. However, Zelensky's image has been showing signs of tarnish in recent weeks as Amnesty International has accused Ukrainian forces of war crimes, he has fired two of his closest advisors and his ambassador to Germany, and carried out extensive purges of suspected pro-Russians throughout his government. Zelensky's attempts to make a direct appeal to China's Xi Jinping is unlikely to please Washington. It is worth remembering that Churchill was voted out of office two months after the end of World War II.
We know from the Nuland/Pyatt telephone call that the plan was to keep the ultra-nationalist, right-wing extremists (Oleh Tyahnybok and Vitali Klitschko) out of government. However, since the invasion, the right-wing groups and their militias have proven to be the most skilled and determined fighters, and have become heroes, even to the minorities, Roma, Jews, moderates, socialists, and LGBTs who were their victims in the past.
What Does victory look like?
Russian victory. Interviewed on "Underground" on RT (Russia Today--which is now banned in the West), John Bolton, Trump's one-time National Security Advisor, was to the point: Russia has no interest in holding Ukraine. Bolton claimed that once Russia had control of the eastern provinces, Crimea and a southern port, they could and likely would, if necessary, lay waste to the rest of the Ukraine.
In the event of Russian victory, a best case scenario would be a Ukraine divided between East and West (not unlike North and South Korea, China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, the countries of the former Yugoslavia, etc--the list of similar examples gets pretty long).
I have heard the claim expressed with great conviction that if Putin defeats Ukraine he will continue to expand the Russian empire and invade neighbouring countries. I fail to see the logic or any evidence for this prognosis. I have to assume that it is based on the underlying assumption that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was unprovoked and Putin is a power-hungry madman. I suppose part of my reluctance to accept this analysis is that it implies that Russia must be defeated at any cost and makes a nuclear war inevitable.
Ukrainian victory. The results of a Ukrainian victory are much more complicated and difficult to predict. The best case scenario from a Western perspective is that the war-weary people of Russia will rise up and overthrow the regime. However, Putin has shown what he can and effectively will do to maintain his dictatorship. Moreover, from a Russian perspective, the people have seen this scenario before in recent history. With liberalization and greater openness to the West under Gorbachev then Yeltsin, bringing down the wall, agreeing to the re-unification of Germany, Russians expected immediate prosperity, security, and that there would be no expansion of NATO. Whether or not Russian expectations were justified is much debated, but it is clear that the Russian people didn't get what they expected. Can the West reasonably expect the Russian people to buy the same set of promises again?
The least likely and worst case scenario would be the collapse of the Russian nation-state. The Caspienreport offers a detailed analysis of why a collapse is unlikely, but at the same time, how the collapse (if ever it should happen) would lead to decades of wars as neighbouring countries begin to claim the territories of a defeated Russia.
Ukraine Back to the future?
Ukraine cannot return to the days before the Russian invasion (2014 to 2022) because that would be a return to the civil war between East and West. Ukraine cannot return to the days before 2014 or 2004 because that would be a return to Russian hegemony. The great hope is that a strong, independent, unified Ukraine will join the European Union and NATO. However, with or without Zelensky, in the aftermath of the war, an ultra-nationalist government and the bloody purge of Russians, pro-Russians and suspected Russian sympathizers seem likely. Such "ethnic cleansing" would prevent Ukraine's membership in the EU and NATO. Paradoxically, the same cadre which might give Ukraine a victory might also prevent Ukraine from enjoying the benefits of victory. The rise of a Ukrainian Neo-Nazi equivalent of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Landen isn't the worst possible nightmare, but it would be a nightmare.
This CBS documentary looks at how Ukrainian forces are being supplied and armed: Arming Ukraine: A NATO and Western Perspective
In interviews, the embedded CBS reporter is told that "only 30% of the supplies are getting to the frontlines."
From The Grayzone:
From The Grayzone, in an interview with Futon Armstrong, the USA's National Intelligence Officer for Latin America, Armstrong provides the following analysis of the various levels of US-supported coups.
FULTON ARMSTRONG: Coups, we have to be careful. Just a teeny bit of history here, that when the US government supports coups, it’s done on different levels. There’s the highly political level where the policy is to achieve regime change without actually getting into the mud with potential coup plotters. A second level would be one where we establish it as a policy, and we, through various players in the US government, including covert players but also overt players, go out and sort of look for people who say, think, sort of ‘help me rid me of this priest’ sort of stuff. And then the third one is when you’re hands-on and you’re actually recruiting people, arming people, and setting particular operations in motion.
Note: In my blog post (above) it is clear, evident and uncontested that the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in 2014 was a "level two" US-supported coup. There is reason to suspect but insufficient evidence available to someone like me that the coup in Kyiv went all the way to a "level three."