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Ex-KGB General Says Covert Action, Not More Troops, the Key in Afghanistan

Jeff Stein, CQ Staff


* Ex-KGB General Says Covert Action, Not More Troops, the Key in Afghanistan * By Jeff Stein, CQ Staff

The incoming Obama administration stands on a precipice in Afghanistan.

Someday we may look back at the impending deployment of two U.S. army brigades to Afghanistan as we do President Lyndon B. Johnson's sending the Marines ashore in South Vietnam -- a fatal mistake.

In that one step, Johnson traded a strategy of counterinsurgency -- which arguably had a chance of winning, however slim -- for the application of brute military force, which had none.

Take it from a former Russian KGB general: Sending more American troops to Afghanistan is not the answer there, either. And he knows first-hand.

Oleg Kalugin is better known as the former head of the KGB's First Directorate, who was in charge of Soviet espionage in the United States, rather than his expertise on Afghanistan.

But a timely new book, "The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan," recounts Kalugin's 1978 trip to Kabul and his subsequent advice to his Kremlin bosses, who were on the verge of sending the Red Army in to solve political problems there.

Kalugin took a trip outside the capital, which left him impressed by Muslim fundamentalism's grip on the country. He also saw how corrupt and contentious the various factions in Kabul were. After that he opposed a military invasion, in author Gregory Feifer's riveting account.

"That's correct," Kalugin recalled in an interview Friday. "I always said that the military was not the solution to the problem. It may be helpful at some point, but to rely on military power all the way is just erroneous and doomed to failure there."

He was prescient, of course. It took a decade, and massive help from the CIA and Pakistani intelligence, but eventfully the Islamic fighters bled the Red Army dry.

Today's mujahideen are using the same tactics against us that their fathers and uncles used against the Russians: hit and run attacks and sabotaging U.S. supply caravans from Pakistan.

Upping the number of U.S. troops there is as wrong for us now as it was for the Russians 20 years ago, Kalugin argues.

More troops will lead to "more antagonism, more anti-Americanism, and more casualties," the former KGB general maintains. "I don't believe it would help."

"I would help the legitimate government in every way," said Kalugin, who became a U.S. citizen in 1993, "but I would not increase American's military presence in that part of the world. It would be interpreted as American imperialism, part of an American design. We have to try a different way, more discreet, emphasizing economic and technological assistance and trade."

And something else: Covert action.

Washington must quickly find alternatives to the corrupt politicians who have infested the U.S.-backed Karzai regime, perhaps fatally, he says.

"I would simply build up a strong opposition to [President Hamid] Karzai, which would rely on values we all share, which would fight corruption, fight extremism, and, with massive American economic assistance, produce the desired results," Kalugin said.

"There are opposition forces to Karzai. . . . those who are more liberal, more educated, more pro-Western and, let's put it this way, more honest," he asserts. "Plenty of them," he says, can be found in the United States and elsewhere around the world.

"That's where we have to find guys, help them get positions in Afghanistan, become politically active in Afghanistan, and offer them an alternative to the regime," he said. "The Karzai government is incapable of fighting the Taliban. That's quite obvious."

But how could the CIA launch such operations without weakening Karzai to the point that he could be overthrown by the Islamic forces we're fighting?

"Well, that requires special operations," Kalugin said, dryly chuckling. "Building up opposition forces."

"You have to find the right people, who you trust," the old Russian spymaster added, "the people who you feel will be capable of doing the job. Then finance these guys, help them in every way, create an international reputation for them by getting good news coverage of them. I mean, push them forward to a position of power. That's how I would do it. But it takes awhile, and it's not easy."

A vast understatement. And it's hard to imagine the CIA successfully pulling off such a complex, sustained operation. After congressional investigations provoked widespread revulsion for some of its Cold War-era methods, "they lost interest, and even the capability, to do the job," Kalugin maintains. "And I think that was wrong."

But if there were ever a case for covert action, as opposed to military escalation, it's Afghanistan, he says.

"Intelligence is not just collecting information. [The CIA] has to be actively involved in some of the political goals of the country that they represent - - not through military force, but through covert action."

But that alone won't do it. To succeed there will also require "a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan," says Kalugin, who compares the jihadis to "Nazis." And it has to be on the same order as the massive U.S. aid that saved Europe -- from the Soviets -- after World War II, he says.

Covert action could fail, too, he admits.

"Right, but military operations cost so much more dearly, not only in terms of money, but human lives. Covert operations are far less expensive. It was the French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, who said, one good spy in place is worth 20 thousand soldiers on the battlefield. That's what I'm talking about. If you have the right person inside, it will be far less expensive, it will be far less costly in terms of the loss of human lives, which is an important consideration."

But it's already too late, say some U.S. covert operatives who have returned recently from Afghanistan.

"They hate us," said a CIA man who has been chasing al Qaeda operatives around the Pakistan-Afghan border region. "We have to forget about making Afghanistan into a country that resembles us. It'll never happen."

"It's not even a country," he went on, "it's a collection of tribes and clans who are at each others' throats. There are plenty of [19th century] British graves to show what happens when you try to make them into something they will never be."

His solution?

"Tell the Afghans we don't care about their religion, that we're not there to threaten that, or them -- including the Taliban. Tell them the only thing we're there for is to kill the al Qaeda guys, who are mostly Arabs that they don't like anyway. We pay them off, and they'll help us do that."

"And then leave," he said.

Jeff Stein can be reached at

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