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Operation Cyclone: Let’s Go to Afghanistan! What could go wrong?!

To start, let’s paint a quick backdrop: We’re in Afghanistan, and it’s the late ‘70s. Due to the ongoing Cold War, global tensions were, ah, frosty. 

Anti-communism sentiment ran deep for much of the world—and we’ll see that play a major part as motivation for the events of this story. In fact, many world leaders of the time shared one pretty similar, if drastic, opinion: The spread of communism anywhere threatened freedom everywhere. 

So, when communism began to spread to the Persian Gulf and surrounding countries – including Afghanistan in the last years of the decade – it was a big deal. It seemed like a resurgence of the same philosophies and power struggles that the world had recently watched play out in Cuba, in the Vietnam War, in the Dominican Republic and – most recently, in Angola, in 1976. To many, this latest emergence of communism may have felt like an almost-forgotten nightmare happening in the daylight; or, at least, extremely unpleasant deja-vu. Many even saw it as the very beginnings of a third World War, as we’ll see in a moment. 

It’s understandable, then, that the United States would throw everything it had at this situation to stop communism in its tracks. However, the United States may have been a little leery of overtly engaging with anticommunism efforts in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s leadership had a tricky relationship with the Soviet Union; and the United States and the Soviet Union were not on good terms. 

This made it difficult for the US to provide apparent, clearly-visible, clearly-trackable support. 

So—they didn’t. 

Instead, the CIA found a loophole, a back-door way to help quash Afghan communism. An inconsequential initiative, a strategic side-project, just a little aid program that, no big deal…grew into the longest, most expensive CIA operation of all time. 

Operation Cyclone, this multi-billion-dollar CIA program, has gone down in history for being extremely costly—and for the storm of criticism it triggered well after the program was over and done. For years, people the world over have been wondering: Given what happened at the end of Operation Cyclone, was its colossal investment justified? All seems rather familiar, here in 2021, doesn’t it?

Here’s a spoiler: Towards the end of Operation Cyclone, Pakistan’s prime minister reached out to America’s president to issue a ghoulish warning about Operation Cyclone’s progress. The warning? “You are creating a Frankenstein.” 

Sounds promising.

The Saur Revolution

Mohammed Daoud Khan
Mohammed Daoud Khan

Early 1978, Afghanistan. The country’s President, Mohammed Daoud KhanDaoud, was under a lot of pressure. 

Afghanistan and the Soviet Union had been quite close for a long time; the Soviet Union had even funneled lots of money into Afgan infrastructure projects over the preceding decades. However, Daoud did not appreciate the way that the Soviet Union tried to use that relationship to influence other things that happened in Afghanistan – for example, their foreign policies, and even the way that the different groups forming within the Afghan government related to one another.

Recently, in an attempt to set some boundaries, President Daoud had travelled to Moscow to inform (or, perhaps, remind) the Soviet Union that Afghanistan was a free state, and that the Soviet Union would not have a say in how the country governed itself. 

This was a power play that the Soviet Union did not appreciate. It wasn’t even a move condoned unanimously by Daoud’s own government. There were many in Afghanistan who believed that partnering more fully with Russia would give Afghanistan some much-needed power. 

Under Daoud, these political disagreements between parts of his government festered and tension grew until the once-unified government—the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, or the PDPA—split into two factions; the moderate Parcham and the more communist-leaning Khalqs. A Khalq plot began to simmer, one that involved overthrowing the current government and joining forces with the Soviets.

Let’s zoom out for a moment and think about this not from the government’s angle, but from the point of view of an Afghan going about their day-to-day life that Spring. 

Perhaps, if it would help, here’s a question: How can you tell if a revolution is about to happen? 

You’re walking around your bustling metropolis and your skin prickles; perhaps there’s an odd traffic pattern that your subconscious picks up on, or a distinct lack of sound that seems suspicious.

For the people living in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, on the 27th of April in 1978, there were only a handful of clues that their city would be the site of a revolution that day. 

The first clue involved a tank column heading towards the city. There was also “smoke of unknown origin” floating around—never a good sign. There were men in military uniforms guarding major intersections. Shots were heard near the Ministry of the Interior—but that itself wasn’t conclusive. 

A final “subtle” clue would arrive later that day, when the government-owned Radio Afghanistan ran an announcement. Over speakers citywide it was declared that the Khalqs—one of the factions within the Afghan government—were overthrowing the government. 

The next morning, the city’s terrified population woke up to an eerie quiet—and a new president, Nur Muhammad Taraki, a communist-leaning member of the Khalqs, had seized control. The coup was complete. 

Afghanistan under Taraki 

Taraki’s stated motives for wanting power sounded good on paper. He wanted to improve access to education and “improve land laws.” Great goals. 

Nur Muhammad Taraki.
Nur Muhammad Taraki.

Unfortunately, working towards those goals proved difficult and dangerous. Many of Taraki’s reforms led to riots, revolts, and violent demonstrations among the people of Afghanistan. Taraki did not know how to quiet this unrest peaceably, and often asked the Soviet Union for help controlling his constituents.  

Additionally, Taraki’s cabinet was not exactly stable. For most of his time in power, Taraki was on the losing end of a power struggle with his deputy prime minister. Taraki even tried and failed to assassinate a member of his own government. Under Taraki’s leadership, the relationship between the Khalqs and the Parcham deteriorated – resulting in the banishment of many Parcham officials. Taraki also made a contentious, if predictable, decision: Taraki and the PDPA signed a treaty with the Soviet Union. 

Those opposed to this launched an uprising in Eastern Afghanistan…which turned into a civil war: The government forces versus the guerrilla mujahideen. (‘Mujahideen’ is a term that generally refers to Islamic fighters, especially those attacking non-Muslim forces. In this story, they’re seen fighting the new communist government.)

The nearby Pakistani government—not psyched about communism’s spread—supported the rebel fighters, even giving them access to covert training centers. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union sent thousands of “military advisors” to support Taraki’s government.

Still technically a civil war; no outside country was actually stepping in. Just a lot of man-behind-the-curtain stuff.

But it’s definitely about to become something bigger.

Bring on the Cyclone

Let’s shift focus for a moment from Afghanistan to America. The new communist treaty with Taraki set the United States government on high alert. Officials in the US United States noticed Pakistan’s assistance of the anticommunist rebels, and suddenly saw a way to provide aid that wouldn’t require their on-site support.

In July of 1979, President Jimmy Carter authorized Operation Cyclone, a covert CIA program that would send funding and supplies to support anticommunist guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan. For the first few years of assistance, the budget for Operation Cyclone was $20-30 million dollars. 

A couple of months later, throughout the continuing Afghan civil war, another coup occurred. In September of 1979, a man named Hafizullah Amin deposed Taraki—in a coup orchestrated by Taraki’s fellow Khalqs within the PDPA government. 

Now, remember, the Soviet Union and Taraki were close. 

With true “enemy of my friend is my enemy” logic on display, the Soviet Union immediately thought that Hafizullah Amin was no friend of theirs. They (incorrectly) assumed that he was even a US sympathizer. 

This meant that it was time for the Soviets to take further action. 

Soviet special forces invaded Afghanistan in December of 1979 and killed Amin. In his place, the Soviets installed a man named Babrak Karmal as the president of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union then deployed even more Soviet troops to stabilize Afghanistan. 

This invasion officially turned a civil war into something much bigger. This also required more funds from Operation Cyclone to meet a more robust foe. 

Immediately after the invasion, President Carter wanted to “respond vigorously” to such a “dangerous provocation”. He made a televised speech to announce sanctions on the Soviet Union, promise renewed aid to Pakistan, and to commit the United States to the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan’s defense. “The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan is the greatest threat to peace since the Second World War,” he said. Big words.

Big words that were followed, as it turns out, by even bigger money. 

Operation Cyclone Grows

1980 was President Jimmy Carter’s year of unpopular decisions. 

In January, he terminated something called the Soviet Wheat Deal—a series of grain shipments from the United States to Russia that many had hoped would lessen Cold War tensions. These suddenly-cancelled grain exports had been really helpful for American farmers; so this was definitely a hit on public sentiment towards Carter. Then, Carter boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics, which happened to be in Moscow, because of the Soviet Union’s Afghan invasion. He also reinstated the draft. 

A cancelled grain deal, no Olympics, more war: Not a great look for Carter. 1980 would be the last year of his presidency. 

In 1981, Ronald Reagan became president. Reagan increased funding for Operation Cyclone and deployed CIA paramilitary officers to help as support for the mujahideen forces as they fought the Soviets. 

The strategy? Enhance the rebel fighters’ ability to fight by training them and assisting with tactical and logistical support—but the US would never actually get involved themselves. 

In clockwise order: Ronald Reagan; Michael A. Barry; Muhammad Omar Babarakzai; Mohammad Ghafoor Yousefzai; Habib-Ur-Rehman Hashemi; Farida Ahmadi; Mir Niamatullah and Gul Mohammad.
In clockwise order: Ronald Reagan; Michael A. Barry; Muhammad Omar Babarakzai; Mohammad Ghafoor Yousefzai; Habib-Ur-Rehman Hashemi; Farida Ahmadi; Mir Niamatullah and Gul Mohammad.

No Americans trained or had direct contact with the mujahideen. The CIA itself never had more than a few operatives in the region—partially because it didn’t want to be blamed for anything that happened. The support Operation Cyclone was able to give went through an intermediary for the funds prior to being funneled into Pakistan. The same went for many of the other types of support sent to the Afghan resistance groups.

One of the other types of support? Weapons—massive ones; and lots of them.

The Stinger anti aircraft missile, for example. These missiles help ground troops deal with helicopters and low-flying airplanes extremely effectively. Whereas previously Soviet aircraft would tend to (literally) have the upper hand because they could bomb, strafe, or do surveillance work without risk of retaliation, the Stinger missile gave the Afghan fighters an easy way to eliminate these threats. The United States sent the mujahideen huge amounts of Stinger missiles in 1986, and the Soviets didn’t like that very much. The influx of these shoulder-held, easy-to-use missiles changed the tide of the war. 

In July 1987, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, with the last of the Soviets actually gone by early 1989. The potential buildup to a World War Three, in the eyes of many, had been effectively managed. It’s easy to imagine, perhaps, that President Carter, the man who’d made the comparison to a newthe latest World War, released a sigh of relief. 

Sounds like a happy ending. If we ended it there, Operation Cyclone might have been a simple success story. 

As we know, that’s not how history works. 

In history, there are always consequences you can trace out of events like these. We’ll get into it in a moment, but first, here’s a hypothetical question:

When you’ve spent a decade funneling really expensive and really intense weaponry through one country into another, what are the odds that none of those weapons would fail to reach the intended recipients?

What are the odds that zero of the highly-trained guerrilla fighters would choose to rebel against a far-away country’s influence?

How likely is it that, in a combat program with seemingly-endless resources, there wouldn’t be any corruption? 

While you think about that, let’s run some numbers. 

Operation Cyclone – Statistics

  • Operation Cyclone ran from 1979 to 1989—a full decade. Not only is it the most expensive CIA program ever; it’s the longest. 
  • In that time, over fourteen thousand Soviet troops died (or went missing in action); fifty thousand more were wounded.
  • Through Operation Cyclone, the United States was able to train and arm approximately 100,000 guerrilla fighters—and, in some cases, through Operation Cyclone and Pakistan’s influence, they were able to encourage volunteers from across the Persian Gulf to assist the Afghan resistance.
  • Before we discuss just how expensive Operation Cyclone was, there’s a key point we need to consider: The United States provided an incredibly large amount of money, but they weren’t the only ones assisting with financial support. For part of Operation Cyclone, Saudi Arabia agreed to match dollar-for-dollar the money that the CIA was sending to the anticommunist guerrilla warriors. (This led to what must have been relatively awkward trips when Operation Cyclone officials had to (routinely) fly to Saudi Arabia to politely request the money.) Aside from Pakistan, the U.S., and Saudi Arabia, the People’s Republic of China and Britain’s MI6 and SAS also provided substantial support.
  • Initially, in 1979, the budget for Operation Cyclone was twenty to thirty million per year – or sixty to ninety million in today’s currency. By 1987, after Reagan had stepped in, the yearly financial support package had grown to $630 million dollars per year – over one and a half billion dollars, after inflation is taken into account! 
  • However, it can be difficult to track exactly what the United States’ investment in Operation Cyclone was—particularly when you count the time spent, the personnel involved, inflation, and the massive amounts of weaponry provided in addition to the funds. Some sources say that the total financial support from all sources was in the $6-12 billion dollar range; others sources state that the United States alone contributed over $20twenty billion dollars. (For some perspective, another of the most expensive recent CIA operations, a four-year effort in Syria, came to a total bill of about a billion dollars.) 
  • Regardless of the precise amount on the check written to cover Operation Cyclone, this program has earned its title as the most expensive CIA operation ever—it’s got the official Guinness World Record for ‘most expensive covert action,’ and who are we to argue with that? (In the world record logs, it’s listed as costing the U.S. only two billion—so, we figure that even at a low estimate, it’s still got the title.) 

Anything that massive is going to have some critics. For Operation Cyclone—the program that helped the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan with an effort that helped move the Cold War towards its close—what could the criticism possibly be? 

Criticism of Operation Cyclone – and a brief conclusion.

The main criticism of the decade-long program is simple. There are those who believe that the US funding of the mujahideen through Operation Cyclone ultimately led to a lot of chaos in the area and indirect support of groups that would later fuel violent, or even terrorist, attacks. That’s a big claim, so, let’s take a minute to connect those dots. 

A mujahideen resistance fighter shoots an SA-7, 1988.
An Afghan Mujahideen demonstrates positioning of a hand-held surface-to-air missile.

First, the decision to route U.S. aid through Pakistan led to huge amounts of fraud. Weapons sent over were frequently sold on the local market rather than delivered to the Afghan rebels. Because of this, the area became verygot really corrupted and incredibly dangerous. It’s easy to see how some could link Operation Cyclone’s efforts to lots of unintended but very real violence. 

Then, once the Soviet troops had withdrawn from Afghanistan completely in 1989, the U.S. quickly directed its focus and funding elsewhere. This abrupt end led to lots of questions over the vast amounts of weapons that Pakistan or other parties might still have. Despite a buy-back program for Stinger missiles in the ‘90s, many believed that there were groups all around the Persian Gulf who had far more dangerous American-made weapons than, perhaps, was strictly ideal for everyone around. 

Others criticize the CIA for circulating racist propaganda that deepened the divide between some Americans and citizens of other countries. Still others worried about any effect Operation Cyclone and remaining weaponry may have had on the fast-growing militant Islamist movement. Among these people—as we mentioned earlier—was Pakistan’s prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who reached out to the United States’ President Bush in the late ‘80s to say—“You are creating a Frankenstein.”

So—while Operation Cyclone may not have directly triggered any years-later terrorist attacks, there are some who claim that the chaos left in its wake may have helped. 

You could see Operation Cyclone as a CIA program that invested well, leveraged international partnerships strategically, and (seemingly successfully) stopped World War Three in its tracks. You could also see the program as an overly-ambitious initiative that made life difficult for millions of United States citizens, and even, possibly, the source of the first seeds of lots of further violence. 

Was the CIA, as the Pakistani Prime Minister pointed out back in the ‘80s, unintentionally creating Frankenstein (or his monster)? Or was this a well-intentioned, if very expensive, program that was just trying its best to protect global interests and prevent widespread bloodshed? 

Operation Cyclone, its triumphs, and its fallout was a huge influence on the Cold War and the relationships between all involved countries for decades after it ended. Regardless of the waves it may have created, this side project will go down in history as the most expensive CIA covert operation of all time. 

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