Cheney's Bagram Ghosts

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"I
heard a loud boom," Vice President Dick Cheney remembered of
the suicide bomb at Bagram air base outside Kabul where he stopped
over this week. Said to be aimed at Cheney himself, the attack left
him untouched while killing twenty-one Afghan workers and two Americans – still
more casualties in Afghanistan’s thirty-year, million-and-a-half-dead
civil war.

In that setting,
one hopes Cheney heard symbolically more than a "boom."
Bagram thunders with relevant ghosts, many of them American.

In the fourth
century B.C. it was a fort in one of the first of so many ill-fated
attempts to subdue the Afghans. Even Alexander’s campaign-hardened
Macedonians were shocked when the local insurgents left battlefield
dead to devouring wild dogs. For ancient Afghans it was religious
practice, but for invaders a telling mark of a people capable at
once of tender poetry and chivalrous hospitality along with the
most ferocious, indomitable resistance to conquest.

Bagram was
a mocking ruin as Britain came and went in the nineteenth century
to parry imperial Russia in the Great Game. The English killed,
tortured, bribed, and subverted the Afghans, and in the end, like
Alexander’s legions, left their bones to bleach at Gandamak and
on the stony plain of Maiwand west of Kandahar. They left, too,
the Durand Line dividing Afghanistan from the subcontinent. Cut
for colonial convenience through the heart of Pashtun tribal lands,
the fateful boundary with its separatist ambitions and fears still
makes Pakistan the furtive nemesis of Afghan stability, and the
inconsolable frontier now a sanctuary for the resurgent Taliban.

Cold War brought
Bagram back to life in the mid-1950s as an air base of the old Afghan
royal regime. Having begged in vain for U.S. help – Washington at
the time thought the Hindu Kush of no strategic value and preferred
as clients the crisp military dictators in Pakistan – the Afghans
turned to Russia to modernize their antique armed forces.

As Bagram hummed
with Soviet advisors and MIGs, America took up the competition,
albeit on the cheap. Over a quarter century U.S. aid to Afghanistan
would be only a fraction of Moscow’s. All the while, the Great Game
continued. Whatever the visible policy, the CIA relentlessly used
Afghanistan to spy on Soviet Central Asia, feeding perennial Russian
fears and the inevitable counter intrigues.

Intent on each
other, both superpower rivals dispensed their foreign aid wares – and
a corrupt Kabul oligarchy took them – heedless of the impact. As aid
spawned an educated class without jobs, as the army grew better
armed but no better paid, as grinding poverty only worsened, the
turmoil built that would plunge Afghanistan into unimaginable disaster,
and haunt the world into the next century.

Bagram was
always emblematic. The neutrality of its officers allowed strongman
Mohammad Daoud to overthrow the venal monarchy of King Zahir in
1973. It was from Bagram five years later that a leftist commander
launched his jet fighters with withering effect on Daoud’s presidential
palace in the 1978 communist coup neither Russia nor the U.S. expected – and
Moscow soon regretted more than Washington.

Into Bagram
then poured Soviet advisors and materiel in the Kremlin’s vain attempt
to shore up a weak, divided communist rule in Kabul that remained
typically Afghan, and thus fiercely independent of its patrons.
The regime’s reforms were now crudely anti-religious and culturally
insensitive, now laudably democratic in land reform and the education
of women. Change in any case ignited a reactionary Islamic revolt
which the U.S., Pakistan, China, and briefly the tottering Shah
of Iran quickly moved to foment with covert arms and training.

Results were
horrific. When a CIA- and Iranian-instigated Islamic uprising in
Herat massacred hundreds of Russian aid workers and their families
in March 1979 – the bloodiest episode in the history of foreign aid – sorties
from Bagram indiscriminately bombed monuments, homes and schools
of the ancient capital even after rebels had left, killing as many
as 20,000.

In the face
of a deliberate U.S. policy to provoke an invasion of Afghanistan – "giving
to the USSR its Vietnam War," as National Security Advisor
Zbigniev Brzezinski told President Jimmy Carter – we know from the
post-Soviet release of Politburo minutes the Kremlin warily resisted
what some knew would be a disaster.

When that trap
was sprung by self-deception and fear on all sides, it was Bagram
that saw the elite KGB unit who killed Afghan President Hafizullah
Amin in a December 1979 coup to replace his regime with a more agreeable
puppet. It was Bagram’s runways that took wave after wave of Soviet
invasion forces whose masters expected a victorious, low-casualty
show of force lasting only months. It was Bagram that saw the last
Russian troops more than nine years later after some of the most
savage warfare in history and twice as many casualties as the Kremlin
admitted.

Over a decade
of carnage the base was a center of war and portent. Trained by
the Americans and Pakistanis with the latest explosive devices and
eventually Stinger missiles, the Mujahideen, as the Islamic radicals
were known, constantly stalked Bagram. Tuesday’s attack was in a
tradition begun by U.S.-directed car-bombing squads sent to terrorize
not only Soviet or Afghan military, but also civilians, including
Kabul’s intelligentsia and university professors at sites like movie
theaters and cultural events.

After the fall
of the USSR and the Kabul communist regime, the base was a shifting
prize between Mujahideen factions abandoned to the chaos of further
civil war and then the bloody Pakistani-sponsored rise of the Taliban.
With the U.S. occupation in 2002, Bagram was expanded as never before
as a hub of the NATO war, including conversion of one of its cavernous
hangers into most notorious prison in Afghanistan, eclipsing even
the infamous Pul-i-Charki outside Kabul where the Mujahideen, and
the communists, Daoud regime and monarchy before them, jailed and
tortured thousands.

Did Cheney
hear any of it? In the 1970s as Afghanistan slid to calamity, he
was a rising young aide to Don Rumsfeld in the Nixon and Ford Administrations.
In 1978 as the communists seized power and the U.S. began its covert
intervention, he was maneuvering for a Wyoming congressional seat.
In 1979 as Washington provoked and Moscow invaded, he was finishing
his first year in the House, positioning for the leadership he gained
a decade later. In the 1980s as the Mujahideen attacked Bagram,
he ardently supported the Reagan Administration’s covert wars in
Afghanistan, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Iran, though he took no
interest in places or issues – like his colleagues, looking
the other way amid questions about the drug trade, atrocities, terrorism.

It
was all there at Bagram – the consummate folly of corrupt clients,
the false valor of historical ignorance, and the presumption once
again to conquer the unconquerable in what the Greeks called the
"land of the bones."

A "loud
boom" indeed.

March
3, 2007

Roger
Morris [send him mail], who
served on the Senior Staff of the National Security Council under
Presidents Johnson and Nixon, is an award-winning historian and
author of several books on American politics and foreign policy,
including Partners
in Power: The Clintons and Their America
. His latest book,
Shadows of the Eagle, a history of US covert intervention
and policy in the Middle East and South Asia, will be published
by Alfred Knopf in 2007.

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