The Corner

Re: Charlie Wilson

Lisa Schiffren writes, correctly:

Charlie Wilson was one man, who, for complicated reasons, fell in love with the Afghans, and devoted himself to forcing spineless American bureaucrats to take a stand in the final battle of the Cold War. He made a real difference. But, ultimately, he couldn’t beat the cautious Agency men who were happy with half measures.

It’s interesting to read the declassified reports from the time. Here’s the conclusion from a CIA assessment entitled “The Costs of Soviet Involvement in Afghanistan,” from February 1987:

Despite the increasing trends, however, the economic costs resulting from these operational developments are unlikely, in our view, to be of sufficient magnitude to constitute a significant counterweight to the political and security implications the Soviets would attach to withdrawal under circumstances that could be seen as a defeat.  Indeed, we believe the recent rising trend in economic cost is more a reflection of determination in Moscow to counter a better armed insurgency and this shows continued willingness to incur whatever burden is necessary.

So there you have it. Right before the Soviets decided to withdraw, the CIA concluded that nothing could force the Soviets to withdraw. I always look at this document as a useful reminder to the importance of separating intelligence analysis from policy. Intelligence should color policy, certainly, but it should not supplant it. While raw intelligence can be useful, often the intelligence community’s consensus documents are not. At the very least, they must be taken with a grain of salt. After all, a natural conclusion from this document — perhaps the one which the Agency was pushing — was that we could not win by sponsoring insurgency in Afghanistan; perhaps diplomacy would be better. Men like Charlie Wilson may have been in the minority, but fortunately they were in the right place at the right time and had a president serving over them like Ronald Reagan.

Michael Rubin — Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East ...

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