What We Won

Title:                      What We Won

Author:                 Bruce Riedel

Riedel, Bruce (2014). What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press

LCCN:    2014011190

E183.8.A3 R54 2014


  • Introduction and acknowledgments — Part 1. The players — The Afghan communists — The main enemy : the Soviets — The Afghan Mujahedin — The Pakistanis : Zia’s war — The Saudis : financiers and volunteers — Part 2. The U.S. war — Jimmy Carter’s war — Reagan and Casey — Endgames without end — Lessons of the secret war.


Date Updated:  March 8, 2017

Compiled and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake.[1]

Bruce Riedel’s 30-year career at the CIA included assignments as special assistant for Near East affairs to both Presidents Bush and to President Clinton; deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near East and South Asian affairs; national intelligence officer on the National Intelligence Council; and special adviser to NATO. In 2009, President Obama appointed him to chair a strategic review of US policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now a senior fellow for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, he writes on the major events in South Asian affairs in which he participated. What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989 is his most recent contribution.

Riedel’s story begins after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when, he writes, President Carter instructed the CIA to turn Afghanistan into a “Russian Vietnam.” President Reagan “upped the ante … when the goal became defeating the Soviet Army and driving it out of Afghanistan for good,” an event President Vladimir Putin later called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” (p. x) What We Won examines the secret intelligence alliance that got the job done and its consequences.

“It wasn’t Charlie Wilson’s War,” or even the CIA’s war. “It was Zia’s war,” says Riedel who makes Pakistani General Zia ul-Haq out to be the most important figure in “the epic battle with the Soviet Army.” (p. xii) But there are other important players—nations and· individuals. In the first part of this two-part book, Riedel focuses both on their history and their contributions to the Soviet defeat.

The history follows key Afghan participants and their struggle for power while battling outside influences before and during the Cold War. The communist coup d’etat in Kabul in the late 1970s, although supported by Moscow, did not result in a Soviet client state. The communist regime had its own agenda. “The sexes were declared equal, and a minimum age was set for marriage … and dowries were restricted to encourage girls to have more choices. (p. 27) But this resulted only in more internal turmoil and violent changes at the top until the Soviet “strategic surprise” in 1979.

The anticommunist Afghan forces reacted as they had in the 19th century-guerrilla warfare. And what became known as the “Mujahedin, an army of illiterate peasants … defeated the Soviets.” (p. 40). But they clearly couldn’t have done it alone, and Riedel describes at some length the role of each major contributor—Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United States.

In part two, Riedel lays out the sequence of events in the Carter and Reagan administrations that led to the decision to provide Stinger missiles to the Mujahedin to use against the Red Army. It wasn’t the CIA’s idea alone. After General Zia sent raiding units into the Soviet Union and tried other unsuccessful measures to defeat the Soviets, he made the critical decision to allow their use. Riedel reviews the obstacles the CIA had to overcome—setting up training and supply lines, arranging funding, gaining congressional cooperation, establishing rules of engagement, and managing alliances-to achieve its greatest covert-action success.

What We Won concludes with a discussion of lessons that in many cases “were never envisioned” at the outset and should be considered when future covert actions of this kind are considered. (pp.141 ff) This is an important book.

[1] Hayden Peake, “Intelligence Officer Bookshelf,” The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Stuidies (21, 2, Spring/Summer 2015, pp. 116-178)Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of his reviews cited have appeared in recent unclassified editions of ClA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov


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