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What We Won: America's Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-89

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In February 1989, the CIA's chief in Islamabad famously cabled headquarters a simple message: "We Won." It was an understated coda to the most successful covert intelligence operation in American history. In What We Won, CIA and National Security Council veteran Bruce Riedel tells the story of America's secret war in Afghanistan and the defeat of the Soviet 40th Red Army in In February 1989, the CIA's chief in Islamabad famously cabled headquarters a simple message: "We Won." It was an understated coda to the most successful covert intelligence operation in American history. In What We Won, CIA and National Security Council veteran Bruce Riedel tells the story of America's secret war in Afghanistan and the defeat of the Soviet 40th Red Army in the war that proved to be the final battle of the cold war. He seeks to answer one simple question—why did this intelligence operation succeed so brilliantly? Riedel has the vantage point few others can offer: He was ensconced in the CIA's Operations Center when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979. The invasion took the intelligence community by surprise. But the response, initiated by Jimmy Carter and accelerated by Ronald Reagan, was a masterful intelligence enterprise. Many books have been written about intelligence failures—from Pearl Harbor to 9/11. Much less has been written about how and why intelligence operations succeed. The answer is complex. It involves both the weaknesses and mistakes of America's enemies, as well as good judgment and strengths of the United States. Riedel introduces and explores the complex personalities pitted in the war—the Afghan communists, the Russians, the Afghan mujahedin, the Saudis, and the Pakistanis. And then there are the Americans—in this war, no Americans fought on the battlefield. The CIA did not send officers into Afghanistan to fight or even to train. In 1989, victory for the American side of the cold war seemed complete. Now we can see that a new era was also beginning in the Afghan war in the 1980s, the era of the global jihad. This book examines the lessons we can learn from this intelligence operation for the future and makes some observations on what came next in Afghanistan—and what is likely yet to come.


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In February 1989, the CIA's chief in Islamabad famously cabled headquarters a simple message: "We Won." It was an understated coda to the most successful covert intelligence operation in American history. In What We Won, CIA and National Security Council veteran Bruce Riedel tells the story of America's secret war in Afghanistan and the defeat of the Soviet 40th Red Army in In February 1989, the CIA's chief in Islamabad famously cabled headquarters a simple message: "We Won." It was an understated coda to the most successful covert intelligence operation in American history. In What We Won, CIA and National Security Council veteran Bruce Riedel tells the story of America's secret war in Afghanistan and the defeat of the Soviet 40th Red Army in the war that proved to be the final battle of the cold war. He seeks to answer one simple question—why did this intelligence operation succeed so brilliantly? Riedel has the vantage point few others can offer: He was ensconced in the CIA's Operations Center when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979. The invasion took the intelligence community by surprise. But the response, initiated by Jimmy Carter and accelerated by Ronald Reagan, was a masterful intelligence enterprise. Many books have been written about intelligence failures—from Pearl Harbor to 9/11. Much less has been written about how and why intelligence operations succeed. The answer is complex. It involves both the weaknesses and mistakes of America's enemies, as well as good judgment and strengths of the United States. Riedel introduces and explores the complex personalities pitted in the war—the Afghan communists, the Russians, the Afghan mujahedin, the Saudis, and the Pakistanis. And then there are the Americans—in this war, no Americans fought on the battlefield. The CIA did not send officers into Afghanistan to fight or even to train. In 1989, victory for the American side of the cold war seemed complete. Now we can see that a new era was also beginning in the Afghan war in the 1980s, the era of the global jihad. This book examines the lessons we can learn from this intelligence operation for the future and makes some observations on what came next in Afghanistan—and what is likely yet to come.

30 review for What We Won: America's Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-89

  1. 4 out of 5

    Patrick

    Intro: p.IX What is now known as the global jihad movement began as an unintended (by the United States) consequence of the Afghan war. p.136 Rarely does a country fight the same war twice in one generation; to fight it twice from opposite sides is even rarer. Yet in many ways, that is what the United States did in Afghanistan. The scope of this work is impressive. Tracking the history of the current conflict in Afghanistan through the past is an education. The text is heavy in biographical inform Intro: p.IX What is now known as the global jihad movement began as an unintended (by the United States) consequence of the Afghan war. p.136 Rarely does a country fight the same war twice in one generation; to fight it twice from opposite sides is even rarer. Yet in many ways, that is what the United States did in Afghanistan. The scope of this work is impressive. Tracking the history of the current conflict in Afghanistan through the past is an education. The text is heavy in biographical information of the major players on both sides of the conflict. Soldiers, politicians, CIA operatives, and the strange cast of characters who contributed to the Afghan war effort are the focus of the text. By using such a wide array of sources, both inside and outside of combat, Bruce Riedel lays out a comprehensive picture of the competing interests of the Russian-Afghan War. The turmoil in and around Afghanistan comes into clear focus due to the use of many sources. Information within the text can be surprising and enlightening. This reader was unaware of President Carter's deep involvement in the earliest stages of the conflict. Mr. Carter's aid package became the template for Reagan era aid. In another piece of important information is the linkage between the origins of Hamas to Afghan fighters, another important unintended consequence of the Afghan war. p.141-142 Delivers an interesting piece about the unintended consequences of assassinations and plots. The writing examines the fallout from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. In a most painful revelation, the text states the US bought back many of the Stinger missiles which had been sold to Afghan fighters. Apparently, a lot of time and money was spent in the late 80's and early 90's to track down and purchase our own weapons. A surprising, and rather instructive, turn of events. Mr. Riedel is at pains to refute the popular notion that US involvement in the Afghan war did not directly lead to Osama bin Laden attacking the twin towers. The claim is stated explicitly through the work. The US was so fixated upon the USSR that it was oblivious to the developments within and without for the Afghan. Policy which was strictly hands off and aloof, led to the security state in which Americans live now.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Nicole

    Embarrassingly, my knowledge of our first war in Afghanistan prior to reading "What We Won: America's Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989" consisted of a simple awareness that we had been involved (somehow) in a conflict in the country (sometime) prior to the most recent war. I'm in the medical field, and my undergrad classes in Neuroscience never managed to talk about past wars all that much. That said, even with my limited knowledge of the subject, I found Riedel's book absolutely fascinating. Embarrassingly, my knowledge of our first war in Afghanistan prior to reading "What We Won: America's Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989" consisted of a simple awareness that we had been involved (somehow) in a conflict in the country (sometime) prior to the most recent war. I'm in the medical field, and my undergrad classes in Neuroscience never managed to talk about past wars all that much. That said, even with my limited knowledge of the subject, I found Riedel's book absolutely fascinating. With my background I was a little nervous picking up such a specific foreign policy / history book as "light reading," but Riedel's writing style is straightforward and very readable for the layperson even after a 12 hour shift. And although a background in the subject probably adds additional layers to the material covered, I never felt lost or overwhelmed by the material; Riedel provides information in such a way that you can start from the beginning and gain a comprehensive understanding of the conflict. "What We Won" provides excellent historical context for our most recent war in Afghanistan. It put the conflict in a completely different light for me, as most of my information so far had been superficial and obtained by partisan news stations. I'm lucky to have received this book as a Goodreads Giveaway and recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about our nation's history in the Middle East. I'll definitely be passing this one on to my International Relations-educated husband and am excited to see what he thinks.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Onur Yilmaz

    Kitabın orjinalini Brookings Enstitüsü basmış, yazar da geçmişte dört ABD başkanına danışmanlık yapmış bir Güney Asya ve Ortadoğu uzmanı. Ortadoğu ile güncel olayların hikayesi eninde sonunda Afganistan'a dayandırılır. Hakim görüşe göre ABD'nin Ruslara karşı savaşlarında mücahid grupları desteklemesi, zamanla bumerang etkisi yapan bir eylemle, Taliban'ı, El Kaide'yi doğurmuştur. Bu örgütler de 9/11 ile birlikte dünyanın başına bela olmuşlardır. Peki bu görüş ne kadar doğrudur? ABD'nin Afgan mücahi Kitabın orjinalini Brookings Enstitüsü basmış, yazar da geçmişte dört ABD başkanına danışmanlık yapmış bir Güney Asya ve Ortadoğu uzmanı. Ortadoğu ile güncel olayların hikayesi eninde sonunda Afganistan'a dayandırılır. Hakim görüşe göre ABD'nin Ruslara karşı savaşlarında mücahid grupları desteklemesi, zamanla bumerang etkisi yapan bir eylemle, Taliban'ı, El Kaide'yi doğurmuştur. Bu örgütler de 9/11 ile birlikte dünyanın başına bela olmuşlardır. Peki bu görüş ne kadar doğrudur? ABD'nin Afgan mücahidlere desteğinin dönemin uluslararası siyasi konjonktüründeki yeri nedir? Soğuk savaşın biteceği öngörülmüş müdür? Pakistan'ın bu savaştaki dahli nedir? Ziya ve Ahtar, Suudileri de yanlarına çekerek bu organizasyona ABD'yi nasıl ortak etmiştir? İşte bütün bu sorulara bol miktarda anekdotla cevap veriyor kitap. Gerek oturduğu analiz çerçevesi, gerekse anlatım biçimi bakımından konu ile uzaktan ya da yakından ilgili herkese hitap edebilecek bir kitap. Bir uzman işi.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Atul

    A very small book, but an extremely clearly written, informative, and insightful book. Anyone interested in learning about the U.S. covert war in Afghanistan and the impact it had on the modern world should read this.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Wendy

    Impressive distillation of a complex decade in Afghanistan, with all the MVPs present and thoughtfully, clearly explained.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Skjam!

    Disclaimer: I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it. The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989) was a turning point in history. It was often called the “Russian Vietnam” as the Soviet troops found themselves mired in battle with an enemy that had little structure, struck without warning and enjoyed strong local support. The war drained men and material with little to show for it, and displeasure with the conflict helped bring about changes in Disclaimer: I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it. The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989) was a turning point in history. It was often called the “Russian Vietnam” as the Soviet troops found themselves mired in battle with an enemy that had little structure, struck without warning and enjoyed strong local support. The war drained men and material with little to show for it, and displeasure with the conflict helped bring about changes in the Soviet government that led to the end of the U.S.S.R. The United States government, working through the CIA, primarily influenced the war by partnering with the Pakistani government to funnel arms and intelligence to the mujahedin who were fighting to free their country from Communism. The author, a former CIA agent, explains who the major players in the war were, what they hoped to accomplish and the outcomes. He shows why this operation worked so well, in contrast to other covert operations such as the infamously botched Iran-Contra deal. In addition, there is some compare and contrast of the Soviet invasion and the current Afghanistan conflict. There are holes in the story, of course. Several key figures died even before the end of the war, and many others never wrote down their stories. Much of the details of covert actions are still classified by the various governments, and thus off-limits for public consumption. But the author has managed to get quite a bit of new information, including access to Jimmy Carter’s diary of the time. (Since President Carter wrote his memoir while the U.S. aid to the mujahedin was still a secret, his part in setting it up wasn’t in there.) It begins with a brief history lesson on the many previous foreign invasions of Afghanistan, primarily by the British. Then there’s an examination of the Communist government of Afghanistan, which was fatally divided against itself from the beginning. It introduced much-needed reforms, but, well, Communists, which didn’t sit well with the large groups of strongly religious citizens. When the Communists proved unable to keep from killing each other, let alone control the insurgencies, the Soviets decided to roll in with their tanks, thinking it would be just like Hungary or Czechoslovakia. It wasn’t. In addition to starting a land war in Asia, the Soviets had three leaders in a row whose health was failing, and a developing problem in Poland that kept them from moving sufficient troops and weapons down into Afghanistan. In addition, it was the first time the U.S.S.R.’s troops had seen serious combat in decades, and they just weren’t up to speed. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government was rightfully concerned that if the Soviets took over Afghanistan, they might well be next. Especially if Russia could talk their other hostile neighbor India into helping. So they were all too ready to arm the freedom fighters, directly delivering the aid and training provided by funds from America and Saudi Arabia. However, they had very strong ideas about what kind of mujahedin they wanted to support, and their favoritism helped sow the seeds of discord after the war. Which leads us to the Arab volunteers who came to Afghanistan to fight alongside their Muslim brothers in a jihad against the foreign and officially atheist invaders. At the time, they were only interested in throwing out people who had come uninvited and unwanted. Even Osama bin Laden almost certainly had no clue that in twenty years’ time he’d come to think that crashing airplanes into civilians was a good idea. It’s emphasized that the Arab volunteers had no direct contact with the CIA or other American forces. The closing section looks at why this particular operation was so successful for the U.S., what happened to the people of Afghanistan after the world turned its eyes away. and how we ended up in the Afghanistan mess we have today. There are no maps or illustrations, but there are extensive endnotes and an index. The writing is a bit dry but informative, and the writer’s biases don’t get in the way. Recommended for those who wonder what’s up with Afghanistan, and fans of the movie Charlie Wilson’s War

  7. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    I received this book as part of Good Reads First Reads giveaway. What We Won is the story of the United States' involvement in the Soviet-Afghan war from 1979-1989. The book is divided into part 1, part 2 and an epilogue discussing lessons learned and the impact of the war. Part 1 goes over the participants such as the Afghans (communists and mujahedin), the Soviets, the Pakistanis and the Saudi's. Part 2 discusses the actual US involvement over the course of the war. I think the reason so many pe I received this book as part of Good Reads First Reads giveaway. What We Won is the story of the United States' involvement in the Soviet-Afghan war from 1979-1989. The book is divided into part 1, part 2 and an epilogue discussing lessons learned and the impact of the war. Part 1 goes over the participants such as the Afghans (communists and mujahedin), the Soviets, the Pakistanis and the Saudi's. Part 2 discusses the actual US involvement over the course of the war. I think the reason so many people find history boring is because it's often presented as, "And then the Americans signed the Declaration of Independence. And then the British attacked Lexington and Concord . . . and then Barack Obama was elected president. This will be on the test." I know I skipped over some stuff but I fell asleep in class around Paul Revere and when I woke up Obama was president. On the other hand, Bruce Riedel presents the context and background of the Afghan war and answers questions like why did the Soviets invade and what were they trying to accomplish? Why did the Pakistanis flip out and what were they concerned about in the bigger scheme? why did the United States get involved? Ultimately, Mr Reidel presents a coherent narrative about what happened, who did what and why they did it (noting speculation where appropriate). The book focuses on very high level strategy. So decisions at the level of the American or Pakistani presidents, the Soviet premier, etc. I would've liked to see more talk about the situation on the ground (how did the mujahedin actually live and fight?) but that was explicitly outside this book's scope. It's not to the book's detriment at all, I simply came at this expecting more of an on the ground viewpoint. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in history, especially the history of the late Cold War. I'd also recommend this book to anyone not interested but open minded enough to try. The story is certainly engrossing enough to get you interested.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Kristi Richardson

    I received this informative and engaging book as part of the First-reads program at Goodreads. Bruce Reidel was in the CIA for over 30 years and knows what he is talking about. He writes simply and matter of factly for those of us that know very little about covert operations. His conclusions are interesting and well thought out. I have a greater admiration for President Jimmy Carter who started the operation to give the Soviet 40th Army a hard time in Afghanistan. He was very engaged in the mat I received this informative and engaging book as part of the First-reads program at Goodreads. Bruce Reidel was in the CIA for over 30 years and knows what he is talking about. He writes simply and matter of factly for those of us that know very little about covert operations. His conclusions are interesting and well thought out. I have a greater admiration for President Jimmy Carter who started the operation to give the Soviet 40th Army a hard time in Afghanistan. He was very engaged in the matter and made notes and met with the CIA in frequent meetings to stay up to date on what was happening and if they were getting off course of their original objective. Reagan, on the other hand, only trusted certain people and rarely met with the CIA directly. Bush, (a former CIA director) had little interest in Afghanistan and lost the focus of the objective almost immediately. The United States had to deal with some nefarious characters, (Zia of Pakistan) but by doing so kept the direct US involvement to a minimum. Why did we win? 1. Soviet mistakes 2. Strong allies 3. the Afghan people. Mr. Riedel's conclusion delves into the cause of World War I and how covert operations can have unforeseen circumstances. I was thinking "The Butterfly Effect". I highly recommend this book for anyone that would like to learn more about history and the unseen forces at work behind the scenes. Well done.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Alan

    This is a fascinating and eye-opening account of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan and America’s response to it. It purportedly, and convincingly, claims to correct many myths about the events. Perhaps most relevant to today is the fact that, contrary to popular wisdom, the US and CIA did not create the conditions for the rise of Al Qaeda. The author argues that the Mujahedin had already set about fighting the communist Afghans and the Soviets; the Pakistani government was already focused on This is a fascinating and eye-opening account of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan and America’s response to it. It purportedly, and convincingly, claims to correct many myths about the events. Perhaps most relevant to today is the fact that, contrary to popular wisdom, the US and CIA did not create the conditions for the rise of Al Qaeda. The author argues that the Mujahedin had already set about fighting the communist Afghans and the Soviets; the Pakistani government was already focused on running things and the Saudis were already financing the efforts before the CIA got involved. Islamist and jihadist ideology were already driving the key players and Arab volunteers were already flooding in to fight. The author also establishes Carter’s pivotal role in the US response well before Reagan and Charlie Wilson got involved.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Irene

    Received this book from Goodreads Give Away. Very informative. Since Riedel has knowledge of both covert and overt aspects, he is better able to give the reader a unique perspective about America's "secret" war in Afghanistan and the Soviet Red Army's defeat. For me it was a little dry as well as hard for me to remember all the players with their complex personalities. I could see where retired or ex-military personnel would enjoy reading this and those who are interested in the hidden forces at w Received this book from Goodreads Give Away. Very informative. Since Riedel has knowledge of both covert and overt aspects, he is better able to give the reader a unique perspective about America's "secret" war in Afghanistan and the Soviet Red Army's defeat. For me it was a little dry as well as hard for me to remember all the players with their complex personalities. I could see where retired or ex-military personnel would enjoy reading this and those who are interested in the hidden forces at work behind the scenes. Would also recommend for students studying political science and international relations...it might help in understanding some of the current day Afghan politics.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Muhammad Syed

    An interesting book. I was really hooked to it. The author has immaculately put before the readers how the CIA outplayed Russia to with the cold war. Pakistan & Muslim Freedom Fighters although enjoyed financially and otherwise, however, in the long run were at the receiving end especially Pakistan. A must read for all Pakistanis in particular to learn how we as a nation got swindled by our leaders and other nations from time to time. An interesting book. I was really hooked to it. The author has immaculately put before the readers how the CIA outplayed Russia to with the cold war. Pakistan & Muslim Freedom Fighters although enjoyed financially and otherwise, however, in the long run were at the receiving end especially Pakistan. A must read for all Pakistanis in particular to learn how we as a nation got swindled by our leaders and other nations from time to time.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Carmelita

    "What We Won" is clear and concise. I appreciate Riedel's disclosure of his professional connections and the experience he brings to documenting the war and America's involvement. This is a great primer to further study of US involvement in the region.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Bill Radcliff

    Might have had higher goals for the book. While it did a great job in discussing the history, it was a slow read and not one of the books that I was always ready to pick up. It did provide a lot of the back story of how the events of 9/11/01 came to be

  14. 4 out of 5

    Grace Barrera

    Very informative! What I loved about this book is that it gave insight how American intervention benefited Pakistan's President Zia. Although I wish it could have discussed more about the Afghan Mujaheddin and how the Taliban came to possess the American weapons.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Curtis Trefry

    Great book so far. I've learned a lot about the US involvement in Afghanistan that I didn't know. I would recommend it to any history buffs.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Gaurav

  17. 4 out of 5

    Valentina Kalk

  18. 5 out of 5

    Beth Waterloo

  19. 5 out of 5

    Shan Maqbool

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jesse Tracey

  21. 5 out of 5

    Chetan

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ernie

  23. 5 out of 5

    Shantanu Roy-Chaudhury

  24. 5 out of 5

    Doug James

  25. 4 out of 5

    Demetrius James

  26. 4 out of 5

    Joachim

  27. 4 out of 5

    Paul D. Miller

  28. 5 out of 5

    Katharine

  29. 4 out of 5

    Patricia

  30. 4 out of 5

    Charles Hoots

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