Jun 30, 2007

Gates' Dark Legacy, Pt III

From part three of Roger Morris' series on Robert Gates and his legacy. (See part one: If That Peace Of Mind Don't Stay... and part two: "Hysteria about the enemy as a patriotic duty")

The very post-Vietnam d├ętente-restraint of most of [President Jimmy] Carter's advisors -- and the President's own inner hawkishness -- opened the way for his presidency to become (contrary to conventional wisdom) a precedent-setting period for covert intervention. And Gates, as Brzezinski's hard-line staff officer for Soviet affairs, and later his personal outer-office assistant in the White House West Wing, was at the center of it all.

In his 1996 memoir, he would write contemptuously (and, in the case of Secretary of State Vance, falsely), "Because Vance was unwilling to use diplomatic leverage against the Soviets, and [Secretary of Defense] Brown and others wanted no part of U.S. military involvement in the Third World, their standoff gave Brzezinski an enormous opportunity to put forward covert action -- which was under the purview of the NSC -- as a means of doing something to counter the Soviets."

Gates and Brzezinski promptly impressed upon Carter that, "It is his CIA," as Gates described it. Within weeks of his inauguration, at the urging of the national security advisor and his Soviet affairs specialist, the new president approved the first covert actions inside the USSR. These operations were aimed at inciting religious discontent in Soviet Central Asia by smuggling in tens of thousands of Korans, as well as radical Islamic literature. In that and other actions to come, it would be Jimmy Carter who first fanned Islamic fundamentalism -- which would have devastating consequences in our own era. ...

But with predictable alarm bells ringing in Iran, Pakistan, and Russophobic China, Carter's covert interventionists at the NSC saw an irresistible "opportunity," as Gates put it, "to counter the Soviets." Three weeks after the Kabul coup, Brzezinski was in Beijing discussing, among other matters of state in his Kissingeresque debut as a diplomat, the "Soviet peril" in Afghanistan.

Gates memoir dutifully notes the ensuing stream of bland speculations by the CIA's Soviet analysts about what the Soviets might next do in their tortured relationship with a faltering, needy, yet independent Afghan communist regime. But he spares us the covert actions the CIA carried out, amid a stream of memos Brzezinski and he sent Carter about the Soviet "threat" in South Asia -- an intervention kept secret from their hated rival, Secretary of State Vance, and the rest of government.

By summer 1978, the old insurgent training camps in Pakistan were open again and thronged with Islamic radicals. They were eager to fight a regime pushing land reform and education for women, while establishing a secular police state. By fall 1978, more than a year before Soviet combat troops set foot in Afghanistan, a civil war, armed and planned by the U.S., Pakistan, Iran, and China, and soon to be actively supported, at Washington's prodding, by the Saudis and Egyptians, had begun to rage in the same wild mountains of eastern Afghanistan where U.S. forces would seek Osama bin Laden a little more than twenty-three years later.

In April 1979, with arms and agitators paid for by the CIA and Pakistani intelligence (the Shah fell in January ending SAVAK's role), a radical Islamic uprising in Herat in western Afghanistan led to the slaughter of thousands on both sides, including more than 200 Russian military and civilian advisors and their families. Even so, the Soviets stoutly refused to intervene militarily. They even made their refusal absolutely plain to Washington by pointedly conducting telephone conversations with the Afghan leadership en clair for the Americans to intercept. But Gates, Brzezinski, and Carter were having none of it in what had become a deliberate plot to "suck" the Russians into Afghanistan.

The old Great Game was now in cynical full swing. In the sort of mad plan not even Rudyard Kipling could have imagined, they plotted to personally "give the Soviets their Vietnam," as Brzezinski was fond of saying.

The ceaseless machinations and bloody civil strife culminated, of course, in the December 1979 Soviet invasion. The Politburo had resisted it for more than a year and hesitated, even at the eleventh hour. It is, by any measure, one of the more dramatic, and chilling, stories in the annals of world politics. By now, Brzezinski and Gates had essentially created a new foreign policy for the United States and put it into action in secret with few co-authors and no parallel.

By the time they and their co-conspirators are through, a course will have been set that will take the Afghans into a nightmare universe in which a million-and-a-half of them will die, millions more will become homeless (in what the UN will call "migratory genocide"), and, for more than a quarter-century, their country will be a continuing catastrophe beyond any other in the history of nation-states. In part, it is his own work that Gates now faces as secretary of defense.


When Webster retired in 1991, Bush nominated Gates again as director, and for a time it seemed, as a Senate staffer put it, "smooth sailing." Then, suddenly, he found himself facing what one old colleague called a "virtual insurrection" of current and former CIA officers, who trooped to Capitol Hill to testify with unprecedented candor and courage to his record of corruption of intelligence.

It was an extraordinary rebellion against what the New York Times called Casey's (and, by extension, Gates') "dark legacy." In the end, there would be an unprecedented 33 Senate votes against confirmation. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David Boren had to conduct "his own covert action" to secure the nomination, as one witness described it. ("David took it as a personal challenge to get me confirmed," Gates would write.) An Oklahoma Democrat with wealthy backers and presidential ambitions, as well as a personal reputation long the subject of Washington whispers, Boren soon shocked constituents by a hasty retirement to a sinecure presidency at the University of Oklahoma. Boren's chief aide and legacy to the world of intelligence would be a former lobbyist for Greek-American interests, George Tenet.

As director at last, Gates would convene some 14 committees on reform and reorganization, shift budgets from the Cold War to the new targets of terrorism and economic espionage, and pursue other changes national security historian John Prados would find "laudable and energetic." But in his little more than a year in office, there would be no substantive changes in the enduring culture of the Agency. "After all that had happened, after all we knew," one ranking officer said of the flurry, "no one was listening."

Gates would remain under the new president, Bill Clinton, just long enough for one final disaster, providing what Prados called the "initial architecture" for the outgoing Bush regime's "humanitarian" invasion of Somalia, and so paving the way for Clinton's disastrous Black-Hawk-down episode in the streets of Mogadishu. It was a fitting exit, the Rangers bleeding and dying under the guns of gang lords who had once been in the pay of the CIA.

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