35. Memorandum From Thomas Thornton of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Afghanistan—Possible Covert Action (S)

We took up the subject of covert action in Afghanistan at the meeting with Saunders yesterday (CIA was present).2 Bill Griffith’s memo to you (log #700–XX) has also just come to me and I will cover both at once. First, Bill’s memo. (S)3

The Griffith Memo

I agree with most of what Bill says. His analysis is correct except for the claim that the Pakistanis are supporting the Afghan rebels. CIA says that they have no information to confirm this. I would not exclude the possibility (and certainly the Paks are keeping a weather eye on the situation) but just because some of the dissidents claim they have support is not evidence that they actually have it. (S)

As far as the recommendations go, I have some reservations about how active we should be in supporting the insurgents (see below) but am otherwise on board with the caveat that we should not get into an extensive arms supply relationship with the Pakistanis because of Indian considerations. And, there is of course the general question as to how we supplement what we do in terms of meeting short term Saudi and Pakistani problems (arms supply) with other measures that go to the issue of their potential instability. In the Pakistani case, this is first of all promoting a modus vivendi with India and secondly economic assistance. (S)

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Covert Action in Afghanistan

The discussion with Saunders and CIA was inconclusive but raised important questions. The current insurgency (and even any likely extension of it) will not directly threaten the Kabul regime. The Khalq represents, to be sure, only one ethnic element in Afghanistan, but it is by far the most significant. If, however, there is enough blood-letting, it is conceivable that the Army could tire of taking the losses and move to oust the Taraki regime. However, the Khalq has moved quickly to get political control over the Army. It is not sure that the Army even now has the capability of mounting a counter coup and whatever ability they have will be steadily eroded as the Army is further politicized. (S)

Another argument for supporting the insurgency is that it will keep the Afghans preoccupied on their side of the border and hence less able to stir up trouble on the Pakistani side. A further argument is this: as the regime gets more embroiled, it will turn more to the Soviets for help. Some argue that this is against our interests since we would like to see the Afghans be more independent of the Soviets. If you believe as I do, however, that this is a vain hope, then there might be some advantage in getting the Soviets deeply involved. As long as our hand was not evident, this would work to our favor by scaring the Indians, Iraqis, etc. (S)

Lastly, there is a humanitarian issue. Would we be stimulating a lot of killing to no good end? Pathans are said to think that getting killed while fighting the central government is not all that bad, especially if the central government is godless.4 I have never been able to determine the views of a Pathan who had been killed as to whether he thought it was worthwhile; that would, I guess, depend on whether the Koran makes good on all of its promises. It bothers me, however, especially if there is no significant gain made. (S)

The issue is, then, whether much will be gained. Most of those present thought that the answer would be no. There will be a lot of fighting, the government will be distracted, the Soviets will get more involved, but overall the odds are against it having much effect on the strategic outcome. If that is the case, and given the problems we might have “consulting” with Congress on this, the consensus was to keep hands off. (S)

What we should do, however, is make sure that we keep channels open to the insurgents and keep the matter under review. Also, there is no need for us to discourage the Pakistanis or the Saudis from keeping their hand in to the extent they see desirable. On that there was general agreement. (S)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Thornton, Subject File, Box 98, Chron: 1–5/79. Secret. Sent for information. A copy was sent to Griffith.
  2. No record of this meeting was found.
  3. Griffith’s memorandum to Brzezinski, January 31, was entitled “The Arc of Instability: What is to be Done?” The “arc” referred to three crisis points which created a geographic arc: Yemen, Iran, and Afghanistan. Griffith identified the policy problem as two-pronged: 1) instability in this arc threatened U.S. access to petroleum sources in the Arabian Peninsula; and 2) regional allies would have diminished expectations about what the United States could do to restore stability. With regard to Afghanistan, Griffith counseled that the United States should engage in consultations with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (and to a lesser extent, India) [text not declassified] and that the United States should endorse arming rebels in Afghanistan and, if necessary, increase arms shipments to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan toward that endorsement. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office File, Meetings File, Box 82, Sensitive XX: 1/11–31/79)
  4. Pathan is another word for Pashtun, the major ethnic group of Afghanistan.