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In December 1979, Soviet troops entered the small, poor, landlocked, Islamic nation of Afghanistan, assassinated the communist president, Hafizullah Amin, and installed a more compliant Afghan leader. For almost ten years, Soviet troops remained entrenched in Afghanistan before finally withdrawing in February 1989. During this period, the United States undertook a covert program to assist the anti-communist Afghan insurgents—the mujahideen—to resist the Soviet occupation. Beginning with President Jimmy Carter’s small-scale authorization in July 1979, the secret war became the largest in history under President Ronald Reagan, running up to $700 million per year. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) acted as the war’s quartermaster, arranging supplies of weapons for the mujahideen, which were funneled through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), in coordination with Saudi Arabia, China, Egypt, and others. No Americans were directly involved in the fighting, and the overall cost to the American taxpayer was in the region of $2 billion. The Afghan cost was much higher. Over a million Afghans were killed, a further two million wounded, and over six million refugees fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran. For the Soviet Union, the ten-year war constituted its largest military action in the postwar era, and the long and protracted nature of the conflict and the failure of the Red Army to subdue the Afghans is partially responsible for the internal turmoil that contributed to the eventual breakup of the Soviet empire at the end of the 1980s. The defeat of the Soviet 40th Army in Afghanistan proved to be the final major superpower battle of the Cold War, but it also marked the beginning of a new era. The devastation and radicalization of Afghan society resulted in the subsequent decades of continued conflict and warfare and the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism that has shaped the post-Cold War world.

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Paul D. Miller

Afghanistan has twice been thrust front and center of US national security concerns in the past half-century: first, during the Soviet-Afghan War, when Afghanistan served as a proxy for American efforts to combat Soviet influence; and second, as the frontline state and host for America’s global response to al-Qaida’s terrorist attacks of 2001. In both instances, American involvement swung from intensive investment and engagement to withdrawal and neglect. In both cases, American involvement reflected US concerns more than Afghan realities. And both episodes resulted in short-term successes for American security with long-term consequences for Afghanistan and its people. The signing of a strategic partnership agreement between the two countries in 2012 and a bilateral security agreement in 2013 created the possibility of a steadier and more forward-looking relationship—albeit one that the American and Afghan people may be less inclined to pursue as America’s longest war continues to grind on.