Saturday, March 25, 2023|
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While Jimmy Carter was president, his critics claimed his foreign policy was weak and had emboldened the Soviet Union. Carter, who is 98 and recently entered home hospice treatment, is today known for having prioritized human rights during his term. Yet this view forgets that in Afghanistan, Carter launched an unnecessarily aggressive effort against the USSR that flew in the face of his rhetoric.
That policy’s cost has been enormous: the rise of al-Qaida, America’s 20-year war against the Taliban, and decades of civil war in Afghanistan.
Conflict began in 1978 when the left-wing People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, or PDPA, seized power. The PDPA expanded women’s rights by banning forced marriages and reducing the oppressive bride price to a nominal fee, among other measures. Facing an exceptionally low female literacy rate, they made education compulsory for girls.
The party also distributed land to the poor, albeit clumsily, and restrained the power of the Muslim clergy, who responded by rallying the peasantry against the government’s reforms.
While unpopular in the countryside, the regime had many urban supporters who had seen that, in the adjoining Muslim-majority regions of the Soviet Union, there had been tremendous progress in eliminating illiteracy, reducing infant mortality, improving living standards and life expectancy, and uplifting women.
As scholar Valentine Moghadam observed in Afghanistan in 1989, women had taken up prominent positions in urban areas and in the PDPA government, as well as becoming “chief surgeons in military hospitals, and construction workers and electrical engineers who often supervised male staff.”
Carter covertly armed the rural opposition, believing that the Soviets, faced with the possibility of a Muslim extremist regime on their border, would intervene. Over the next decade the Central Intelligence Agency dispensed $3 billion to the various anti-PDPA groups, which were known collectively as the Mujahideen.
Many of America’s later enemies came from the Mujahideen, including al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the “Butcher of Fallujah,” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The PDPA, struggling to survive, repressed opposition, often brutally, and asked the USSR to intervene. When the USSR sent in 80,000 troops in 1979, they had walked into the Carter administration’s “Bear Trap” — designed to ensnare them in a long, costly war.
Carter then vilified the Soviet invasion he helped create, instituting draft registration, scuttling SALT II, sharply increasing military spending, and boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
In 1989, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who had labeled the war a “bleeding wound,” removed Soviet troops from Afghanistan. It was assumed in the West that the PDPA regime would quickly collapse.
Instead, unlike in 2021 when the Afghan Army collapsed as soon as the United States withdrew, the PDPA regime held on following the Soviet withdrawal. At key battles like the siege of Jalalabad, the Afghan Army dealt the Mujahideen humiliating defeats.
Aid was cut off after the USSR’s collapse, but the PDPA held out until 1992, when the Mujahideen finally seized Kabul. The Taliban, constituted from Mujahideen veterans along with Afghan refugees from Pakistan, took over the country in 1996.
The Soviet-Afghan War was a brutal conflict with atrocities on all sides, but the Soviet-backed regime, for all its faults, sought to build a comparatively modern, egalitarian society. Yet Carter placed America’s desire to wound the USSR above all other considerations — including human rights. Both Afghans and Americans have paid a high price for his actions.