The CIA’s Strategic Thinking in Afghanistan: 1979 to 2021

Afghanistan has been a priority area for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) since the 1950s as a result of the growing influence of the two adversaries, the Soviet Union (USSR) and the People’s Republic of China, which share borders with the country. This is evidenced by the declassified document NIE 53-54, which identifies Afghanistan as “highly vulnerable to Soviet pressures” territory, thus important to monitor.

The interest of the U.S. intelligence community was reinforced in 1973, when the Republic of Afghanistan was proclaimed after Mohammed Daoud Khan deposed his cousin, King Mohammad Zahir Shah, in a non-violent coup. Daoud’s endeavors to modernize the country came with the assistance of the Soviet Union and the United States, both trying to gain influence in this part of the world—respectively, to increase the influence of Communism and to create an American outpost on the USSR’s Central Asian border.

The situation deteriorated rapidly in the late 1970s, and the Kremlin organized a military intervention in the country, considering its technological supremacy sufficient to ensure a quick victory. This war, which lasted for almost ten years, had consequences for the modern world insofar as it led Islamic radicals to establish ties with the neighboring Pakistan, the only Muslim country with nuclear weapons, and to accentuate arms trafficking between Afghanistan and China via the Wakhan Corridor, giving rise to international terrorism, the most striking example of which is Al Qaeda and the attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York City.

For all these reasons, Afghanistan has been a priority area for the United States, as evidenced by no less than 12,864 declassified CIA FOIA documents mentioning the territory. This article attempts to synthesize the CIA’s reasoning from the declassified documents from 1979 to the most recent ones, in order to understand this region of the world at a time when American troops are withdrawing and China is strengthening its military presence in the Wakhan corridor and beginning negotiations with the Taliban.

The Soviet presence in Afghanistan (1979-1989) and its consequences for regional powers and U.S. diplomacy

Far from confining itself to the Sino-Afghan relations, the CIA integrates its reasoning by taking into account all the neighboring countries, notably India, Pakistan[1] and Iran[2].In this respect, if the Agency gathers information on Soviet equipment and strategies, its attention seems to be focused on the possible domino effect on other nations in the region, and tries to determine what the consequences might be on bilateral relations between the United States and Pakistan, its strongest partner in the region.


As such, the CIA targeted Iran in its 1980 report “Afghanistan: Iran’s Role in the Crisis”. The report suggests that Teheran supplied military equipment to Afghanistan, seeking the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Iran also welcomed more than 100,000 Afghan refugees on its territory, which led to tensions between Moscow and Teheran at that time, with the Soviets going to the extent of characterizing some Iranian diplomats, including Sadegh Ghotzadeh, as “agents of the United States and China”[3]

Iran’s diplomatic position was therefore as follows:

  • All Soviet troops must withdraw;
  • The rebels must take part in the political life of the country;
  • The government in power cannot be recognized as legitimate.

However, Iran does not wish to see its relations with the USSR deteriorate because of Afghanistan and confirms its support for the Soviet anti-American and anti-Western European policy.[4]There were also tensions between China and the USSR on the Afghan issue, and, as such, Iran approached Huang Hua, China’s Foreign Minister, on the issue of Afghanistan during the Oslo conference on 12 June 1980. From this point on, it is clear that China has a stake in Afghanistan because Beijing has been pro-active in Pakistan and Iran to prevent the USSR from expanding into Afghanistan, as stated in another CIA report “Soviet Problems, Prospects, and Options in Afghanistan in the Next Year” issued five years later, stating “the Afghan issue has become more significant because of the growing Chinese role in aiding the Mujahedin.”


Another regional player, Pakistan, has interests in Afghanistan, especially when it comes to Balochistan[5]. This territory, divided between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, wants greater autonomy and has been in direct confrontation with Islamabad for several decades. As such, a strengthening of Afghan Balochistan leads to increased support for Pakistani Baluchistan, which in turn leads Islamabad to seek greater influence in Afghanistan to avoid Baloch separatism.

As mentioned in the U.S. intelligence reports, ensuring a Soviet presence in Afghanistan means being able to exert pressure on Pakistan, a country close to the United States, thus challenging the American presence in this part of the world. Moreover, control of Afghanistan provides support for Iranian and Pakistani Baluchistan from Afghan Baluchistan, which means that Moscow would have an ally with direct access to the Arabian Sea if a pro-Soviet Baluchistan state were to be created. Although Pashtunistan is also to be taken into account, it does not seem to attract as much attention from the CIA because of the less pronounced autonomist claims as compared to Balochistan. In the end, the Afghan issue is interconnected with that of Balochistan and Pakistan, which explains its importance in the eyes of the great powers, then the USSR, China and the United States.

This also explains why India is concerned about Afghanistan. Apart from the desire to strengthen its regional presence as China does, a conflict on Pakistan’s doorstep destabilizes the region since it strengthens the U.S.-Pakistan relations, being, therefore, detrimental to India’s relationship with the USSR.

All these reasons explain why Afghanistan is a neuralgic point as a zone which allows to ensure international ambitions, as in the case of the USSR it allows to destabilize Pakistan, ally of the United States, and hinder Chinese ambitions and the emergence of a communist power able to compete with the USSR[6].

The Soviet Union’s approach

In the eyes of the CIA, Moscow had the knowledge of insurgency and counter-insurgency practices, but was unable to implement it:

The Soviet have written extensively about problems that other nations have encountered in counterinsurgency efforts, but in Afghanistan have found themselves facing weaknesses and vulnerabilities”[7]

Attempts to adapt were observed on the ground, and the USSR substituted the use of Spetznaz and helicopters instead of tanks, which were not particularly efficient against insurgents. The CIA did not fail to add that “An effective military force for counterinsurgency operation should be light, specialized, and highly mobile: this does not describe the Soviet forces in general not the army which the Soviets have deployed in Afghanistan. [8]”

These shortcomings in adaptability are highlighted in several reports, in addition to overly heavy equipment and inappropriate training that leaves the specificity of the Afghan land out of account. In addition, the training of the Afghans who support the Soviets was insufficient.

In the end, the CIA observes that Afghanistan is, in Moscow’s eyes, an outpost towards other countries, including those of the Gulf, Pakistan and India. It is therefore the country’s position between Central Asia (the USSR) and South East Asia that interests Moscow, and the reason why China and the United States are not ready to accept the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A recurring fear has been of the construction of a Soviet airport in southern Afghanistan[9], but this was dismissed by the CIA, which mentioned that it would take at least three years to complete, requiring a battalion to constantly defend the site and the construction of a railway or infrastructure to connect it, which makes this an unlikely option.

Nevertheless, Moscow sees Afghanistan as a laboratory for its new military strategies and equipment. As such, the SU-25 Frogfoot, Vasilek mortar, several types of mines, and modifications of the MI-24 were being tested on the ground[10].

Despite efforts to adapt, the Agency stated in its 1985 report “Soviet Problems, Prospects, and Options in Afghanistan in the Next Year” that as long as anti-Soviet support existed in Iran and Pakistan, a resurgence of violence should be expected. Therefore, the Soviet military presence will have to be continuous over several decades, and a withdrawal will inevitably lead to the immediate return of combatants residing abroad.

The departure of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 left the country divided between socialists and religious fundamentalists who wanted to take over the country, but also led to a competition between the two countries wishing to take the place of the USSR to reinforce their regional and global influence: China and the United States.

Since the Afghans were equipped by Iran, the U.S., the USSR, and at least trained by China from Pakistan,[11] the country collapsed when the Soviet troops left, something that resulted in the increasing power of Islamists with connections abroad, as evidenced by the presence of Afghan Mujahideen in Nagorno-Karabakh (South Caucasus) at the beginning of the 1990s.[12]

Despite the withdrawal of Moscow, countries that could have replaced Russia, notably China, did not involve themselves in Afghanistan.

A chaotic and overlooked period of 1990 to 2001

The withdrawal of the Soviet troops led to a chaotic period in the region as a whole, particularly because of the absence of a Chinese involvement. Indeed, according to the CIA’s numerous reports, it seemed consistent to expect that Moscow’s withdrawal would lead to a substantial Chinese involvement.[13] However, Beijing did not wish to intervene militarily, nor did Pakistan or Iran, which resulted in a political vacuum in Afghanistan—hence the rise of radicals, notably the Taliban.

The post-Soviet Russia no longer shares a border with Afghanistan, which makes military intervention unlikely, despite the relationship between Afghan religious extremists and those in the North Caucasus (Chechnya and Dagestan), while the Central Asian countries are reluctant to interfere in Afghan politics by sending soldiers.

This lack of initiative led to the emergence of a new radical Islamic state. The Taliban emerged in September 1994 as a movement and militia of students (talib) from Islamic madrassas (schools) in Pakistan, who soon enjoyed military support from Pakistan.

Taking control of the city of Kandahar that year, they went on to conquer more territories until finally driving out the government of Rabbani from Kabul in 1996, where they established an emirate that gained international recognition from only three countries.

Unlike some other movements, the Taliban had international ambitions and no military opponents at that time. The first countries to suffer were China with growing separatism in Xinjiang, Russia with rising terrorism activities and separatism in Chechnya supported by the Taliban, and Pakistan with the Balochistan separatists.

In the late 1990s, the United States had to intervene on the ground with its NATO allies following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. For the CIA, such involvement was necessary to ensure the security of American citizens—but also of Pakistan, where Al Qaeda was becoming more active (Osama bin Laden himself took refuge in Pakistan, underlining the growing influence of Al Qaeda in the country).

Some 400,000 Afghans died in internal conflicts between 1990 and 2001. In October 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power after they refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden, the prime suspect of the 9/11 attacks.

The majority of Afghans supported the American invasion of their country. For the CIA, this intervention was necessary and could serve the American interests by providing an outpost on the doorstep of China and Iran, while strengthening the relationship with Pakistan. However, Washington will have to face the same problems as those faced by the USSR before it, i.e. entering into a fight knowing that it cannot lead to a total victory, as hardliners may take refuge in Iran and Pakistan using their Balochistan connections.

American intervention and the covetousness of Russia and China: 2001 to 2021

The American intervention in Afghanistan can be interpreted in several ways. For the American and Western public at the time, it was about protecting democracy and liberating the Afghan people. For the American intelligence, the presence on the ground was an opportunity to curb Chinese ambitions and ensure a presence close to Iran.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Washington did not want to make the same mistakes, and the CIA’s analyses allowed for a more appropriate approach, particularly with regard to the equipment on site. However, given the return of the Taliban in 2021, it is quite possible to deduce that Washington was wrong in some aspects.

Light and fast vehicles, advanced technology, especially in all-source intelligence, inclusion of Western partners in the framework of NATO, the American approach still led to casualties: 2,312 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan have died and 20,066 have been wounded since 2001, but this is a very significant difference from the 15,000 Soviet soldiers who died in less than 10 years. However, like the USSR, the United States will not succeed in effective training of the Afghan troops, nor in developing a strategy of soft power in rural areas, which will help stabilize the country but not achieve total victory.

While the situation in Afghanistan has stabilized with the arrival of U.S. troops in 2001, it is more the international context and geopolitical changes that the CIA has been concerned about in a post-2021 Afghanistan.

During the 2001–2021 period, Russia has regained its great power status and, through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), is now in a position to provide protection to Central Asian countries, notably Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is now more active in far-flung countries such as Syria, suggesting that Moscow may once again be interested in Afghanistan 30 years after the Soviet withdrawal, especially given the links between the Taliban and Chechen separatists.

The second element to take into account is the rise of China, which is developing a more active anti-terrorist policy in Xinjiang and seems now able to take a firmer stance in the conflict in Afghanistan. Beijing has already enhanced its military presence in the Wakhan corridor with a military base in Tajikistan and may be interested in direct involvement in Afghanistan to secure the Xinjiang. In this context, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian announced at a press conference in 2021 that senior diplomat Yue Xiaoyong will replace Liu Jian as special envoy for Afghan affairs. Therefore, it seems plausible that China will actively interfere in Afghanistan in the coming years.

All of this suggests that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan had to be an option not because the terrorist threat had been defeated but rather because the surrounding countries are now in a position to replace the U.S.

Towards a post-2021 Afghanistan or the strengthening of China

The CIA mentions the importance of Afghanistan since the beginning of the People’s Republic of China.[14]Since China and Afghanistan share a border in the Wakhan Corridor, every internal disturbance has repercussions on national affairs, including Islamic terrorism in the Xinjiang. As such, the relationship is a two-way street—if the threat of religious extremism spills over into China, Beijing is also able to destabilize foreign forces in Afghanistan.

In its 28 January 1982 report “China’s Afghanistan Policy: The Pakistani Connection”, the CIA mentions the presence of Chinese military equipment in Afghanistan that originated not in the Wakhan Corridor but in Pakistan (e.g. 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns) and adds that several Afghan rebels are receiving military medical training in China. As such, the Soviet presence in Afghanistan is perceived as a threat by Beijing, which wants Moscow to withdraw and not engage in expansionism.

Although it has refused to interfere directly in Afghanistan, China wants to control the country to ensure the security of Chinese citizens in the Xinjiang. However, it was impossible for Beijing to take an active stance during the Cold War, as Moscow considered itself the sole legitimate representative of Communism the region. In the 1990s, China was not ready to take an active position in a changing space with unpredictable new countries in its periphery (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). In the 2000s, it was the United States and NATO that took an active position in the region, leaving China in the background once again.

The election of Joe Biden marked a change in the American military posture with the announcement of the withdrawal of troops with a final date of September 11, 2021. At the time of writing, Afghanistan seems to be returning to religious tensions and the comeback of the Taliban leaderships in national politics, which suggests that the situation going forward will be similar to that before the 2001 U.S. intervention. Beijing will then be in a position to decide whether to interfere militarily or to continue to control only the Wakhan Corridor from its base in Tajikistan.

The CIA has not yet declassified any recent documents on China’s activities in Afghanistan, but the CIA World Factbook (the CIA news aggregator) seems to be paying considerable attention to the return of the Taliban. Moreover, a U.S. Department of Defense report issued in 2020 mentions the Chinese presence in the region via Tajikistan.

There are parallels between the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan and that of the United States. In this respect, both tended to underestimate the importance of transmitting knowledge to local troops and police forces, who remain dependent on Moscow and Washington to ensure the country’s security, which results in a return of extremism as soon as the foreign troops withdrew. In contrast to Moscow, the U.S. deployed more light vehicles, including the Humvee, M1117 and International MaxxPro, which shows a break with the Soviet approach but remains a strategy of containment more than anything else.

Will Afghanistan’s future be Chinese? This is the legitimate question asked by specialists and inhabitants of the country itself, many of whom fear the return of the Taliban. Without a doubt, the presence of the USSR and then NATO has been a success insofar as these two groups have made it possible to stem the progression of terrorism for more than two decades, to the benefit of China (Xinjiang) and the other neighboring countries (Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran).

The intensification of religious extremism in the country will have repercussions on the neighboring countries. If Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan can count on Russia to provide a response in case of a major crisis (the CSTO), the fear is more consequential for Pakistan, a nuclear power, which for its part could be influenced by religious extremism and lead to an even more consequential conflict with India.

In the end, China now seems the most likely actor to take a position in the conflict in 2021. It remains to be seen whether Beijing wishes to engage in a conflict that the USSR and NATO had difficulty in controlling before it, or whether it wishes to confine itself to controlling the Wakhan Corridor and economic influence with the New Silk Road.

  1. Central Intelligence Agency – Directorate of Intelligence (1985), Pakistani Attitudes Toward Afghanistan
  2. Central Central Intelligence Agency (1980), Afghanistan: Iran’s Role in the Crisis
  3. Central in Central Intelligence Agency (1980), Afghanistan: Iran’s Role in the Crisis
  4. Central in Central Intelligence Agency (1980), Afghanistan: Iran’s Role in the Crisis
  5. Central Baluchistan is an arid desert and mountainous region in South and Western Asia. It comprises the Pakistani province of Balochistan, the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan, and the southern areas of Afghanistan, including Nimruz, Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Balochistan borders the Pashtunistan region to the north, Sindh and Punjab to the east, and Persian regions to the west. South of its southern coastline, including the Makran Coast, are the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman.
  6. Central In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping’s China experienced a rapid economic resurgence and began to become a plausible alternative to the Soviet communist model.
  7. Central CIA (1985), Soviet Counterintelligence Capabilities, Studies in Intelligence
  8. Central CIA (1985), Soviet Counterintelligence Capabilities, Studies in Intelligence
  9. Central Central Intelligence Agency (1983), Afghanistan: Potential for Soviet Airfield Construction
  10. Central CIA (1985), Soviet Counterintelligence Capabilities, Studies in Intelligence
  11. Central Central Intelligence Agency – Directorate of Intelligence (1982), China’s Afghanistan Policy: The Pakistani Connection
  12. Central Michael Taarnby (2008), The Mujahedin in Nagorno-Karabakh: A Case Study in the Evolution of Global Jihad, Real Instituto Elcano
  13. Central Central Intelligence Agency – Directorate of intelligence (1985), The Soviet Presence in Afghanistan: Implications for the Regional Powers and the United States. National Intelligence Estimate NIE 11/37-85
  14. Central Central Intelligence Agency – Directorate of Intelligence (1982), China’s Afghanistan Policy: The Pakistani Connection

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Michael Lambert
Michael Lambert
Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century