How Did the CIA Funnel Soviet Weapons to the Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War?

Operation Cyclone: 1979-1992. Read time - 7 minutes 52 seconds
Operation Cyclone meme

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The never ending storm - Operation Cyclone

What’s your favorite “threequel?” If you said Rambo III, you’re already in the right mindset… which is kind of weird if US operations in Afghanistan during the Cold War are on your mind. 

For the uninitiated, Rambo III is all about John Rambo (Sylvester Stalone) joining a CIA team to assist the Mujahideen in their war against the Soviet Union. 

Mujahideen: Any Muslim fighting for a religious cause, but most famously applied to the loose network of guerilla fighters in Afghanistan from the 1970s-1990s.

This is (loosely) based on real events. The US government really did provide military assistance to the Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War – which was something that absolutely never came back to bite anyone in the ass. 

Disappointingly, most US aid to the Mujahideen didn’t come in the form of long haired, sweaty CIA operatives (that we know of). Instead, most US support was supplying the Afghan forces with weaponry, ranging from missile systems and helicopters to small arms. 

Soviet-Afghan War: A conflict between the Afghan Mujahideen (with US aid) and the Soviet Union, which tried to support a Communist Afghan government. Often listed as a primary cause in the collapse of the USSR.

The cover of Rambo III (Region 2 DVD Cover)

If you ever played Call of Duty, you most likely know that the iconic weapon of Afghan militants is none other than the AK-47, the famous Soviet assault rifle. Well, technically it’s the more streamlined AKM model, but we’ll leave that distinction to gun weebs.

AK-47: The first modern assault rifle, first produced in the Soviet Union in 1947 by Mikhail Kalashnikov. It has been adapted into many other models over time. Officially called the Avtomat Kalashnikov.

This begs the question – how exactly did Soviet weapons end up in the hands of the rebels that were fighting? Today we’ll be talking about none other than Operation Cyclone.

Operation Cyclone: The covert CIA program to send weapons, supplies, and money to the Mujahideen from 1979-1992.

Operation cyclone meme

Ain't nothing like a good revolution

In 2022, it’s pretty easy to take former US involvement in Afghanistan for granted. It’s as American as apple pie and baseball – which is to say that the United States embraced it, but it was pioneered by the British. 

Afghanistan had been seen as Russia’s gateway to the Middle East since the early 19th Century. First the British, and then the Americans attempted to spread their own influence in Afghanistan to counter the Russians. It checks all the boxes for classic international intrigue. 

The Russian side of the equation saw major successes in April 1978 when the Saur Revolution toppled the previously western-friendly Afghan government in favor of a pro-Soviet communist government. In the United States, President Jimmy Carter and his advisors weren’t thrilled with this situation but didn’t take immediate action.

Saur Revolution: The Afghan coup in April 1978, when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan deposed the existing military dictator in favor of a communist government. 

Jimmy Carter: President of the United States from 1977-1981. Among many other things, he oversaw the early stages of Operation Cyclone.

Initially, the newly formed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was plagued by infighting between different communist factions and leaders. This led to thousands of executions and as much as half of the entire Afghan army deserting. 

Many deserters and disaffected civilians alike began to take up armed resistance against the new regime. Like they say, history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes.

Flag of the newly established Democratic Republic of Afghanistan from 1980-1987

After it became clear that the Afghan communists were unstable, the Carter administration authorized the first $695,000 for the CIA to support Afghan resistance fighters with medical and communications equipment in May 1979.

As Soviet involvement became increasingly likely, more funds were authorized to send weapons to the recently organized Mujahideen to antagonize the communist government. 

The first shipment of guns in Operation Cyclone contained nothing but WW2 surplus, Lee-Enfield rifles purchased as surplus from the British military. These were useful for stoking civil unrest in Afghanistan and taking potshots at government officials, but it wasn’t really what the US government had in mind after the Soviet invasion. 

Instead, the plan from the very beginning was to lure the Soviet Union into its own version of America’s Vietnam War: a disastrous, unpopular, and expensive quagmire.

On the far side of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union was trying to salvage the first friendly Afghan government they’d seen in decades. They sent money and made public statements to support their preferred Afghan leaders, who kept getting assassinated or politicked out of power. 

Ultimately, the USSR decided to intervene directly, sending in troops on December 24, 1979 in what became known as the Soviet-Afghan War

The Iron Curtain: A phrase used to describe the divide between the Soviet bloc and the rest of the world. Originally coined by the Nazi propoganda magazine “Signal,” but popularized by Winston Churchill.

“We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would…That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Soviets into the Afghan trap … The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviet Union its Vietnam War.’”

—Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Adviser to Jimmy Carter, in an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, 1998

Mujahideen fighters in Kunar Province, Afghanistan

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To turn this intervention into a protracted war, the Mujahideen militias needed modern weapons. The Carter administration wanted plausible deniability so the Soviets couldn’t accuse the US of intervening directly and risk turning the Cold War hot. 

To pull that off, the CIA wanted to send Soviet equipment to Afghanistan to arm the resistance against the Soviet invasion.

Of course, the American government couldn’t just call the Kremlin and say “Heyyy we’d like to buy a few shipments of military equipment to help the Mujahideen, no hard feelings.” 

Luckily for the CIA, there was one country that had the solution – Israel

How to grow your side hustle

This was hardly the first time either side of the Cold War had supplied a rebellion against their adversary’s allies. 

For example, The Soviet Union supported the Arab alliance of Egypt, Syria, and Palestinian Rebels during their invasion of Israel in the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. 

Yom Kippur War: A 19 day conflict between Israel (backed by the US) and a coalition of Arab states (backed by the USSR). After the Israeli victory, captured Arab-Soviet weapons were funneled to the Mujahideen in Operation Cyclone.

Likewise, the US was rapidly supplying Israel, which was ultimately victorious and captured huge caches of Soviet military equipment.

The Israeli military had just received an influx of equipment and training from America and had no immediate use for all of this Soviet weaponry. Rather than letting it all go to waste and destroying it, the Israeli government took all of this military hardware and stuck it in storage.

Fast forward seven years and these Soviet weapons were being called on once again, not to be used against the international interests of the United States, but to be purchased by the US government. This caught the attention of Charlie Wilson, a well connected congressional representative from Texas. 

Charlie Wilson: The primary supporter of Operation Cyclone in Congress. He was the House Representative for Texas’s 2nd district from 1973-1996.

Wilson was responsible for securing increased funding for Operation Cyclone in early 1980s and became the CIA’s main point of contact in Congress to deal with Afghanistan. He had recently been appointed to the House Appropriations Committee and leveraged his new position to increase funding for CIA black ops in Afghanistan, more than doubling Operation Cylone’s budget from the end of the previous year.

House Appropriations Committee: The standing committee in the US House of Representatives responsible for bills that regulate government spending.

Operation cyclone meme

The CIA used that money to buy Soviet weapons from Israel, but they couldn’t send them straight to Mujahideen. Fortunately, Charlie Wilson knew a guy, and that guy happened to be the president of Pakistan, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (will be referred to as Zia).

Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq: The President of Pakistan from 1978-1988, who came to power through a military coup. He cooperated with Operation Cyclone to funnel aid and weapons to the Mujahideen.

The Cold War is really just a bunch of coups in a trench coat – one of them being Zia’s rise to power in 1977 through a relatively bloodless military coup in which he almost immediately received US support. As Afghanistan’s next-door neighbor, Zia was already working with most of the US foreign policy officials in the region. 

Charlie Wilson and his CIA contacts reached out to Zia, who agreed to secretly order his own intelligence agency to act as the next layer of middlemen, taking weapons from the Israelis and distributing them to Afghan resistance.

A middleman sandwich

Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq visiting the United States in 1982. Operation Cyclone was most likely discussed.

The United States secretly sent money to Israel, who secretly sent unmarked crates of Soviet weapons and ammunition to Pakistan, and Pakistani intelligence got these crates across the border and into the hands of the Mujahideen. 

However, all the weapons in the world didn’t do the Mujahideen much good if they didn’t know how to use them. 

A rifle of any type is easy enough to just pick up and use. Even things like personal rocket launchers are pretty intuitive, but the Mujahideen was also receiving Soviet anti-aircraft and anti-armor weapons that required specific training. 

On top of that, some basic tactical training would go a long way to forming a successful resistance movement and dragging the USSR into the protracted war the US wanted to see. 

That led Operation Cyclone to its final set of middlemen – the foreign militaries that could train the Mujahideen. The CIA could send a few of their guys to train their new friends in Afghanistan, but not enough to teach whole armies. 

For that, they asked President Zia to let Chinese and Saudi Arabian special forces join Pakistani intelligence and the CIA in training the Mujahideen fighters on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

These training camps would start small, and probably weren’t actually operational until 1981, but this series of middlemen laid the groundwork for the Afghan war against the Soviet Union.

Let’s get this whole absurd situation straight. The United States bought Soviet weapons from Israel, then had Pakistan distribute these weapons to the Mujahideen, who were then trained by Pakistani, Saudi, and Chinese troops. 

When it comes to toppling communist governments, the CIA does not fuck around. 

While the US organized everything, they could technically claim that they were not sending any weapons to the Mujahideen.

Rep. Charlie Wilson posing with Mujahideen fighters during his 1987 trip to Afghanistan

New management

By the time Operation Cyclone was really up and running, the Carter administration wasn’t long for this world. Jimmy Carter’s tenure as president was marred by a series of domestic and international events that left him very unpopular. 

While he was overseeing escalation in Afghanistan in 1980, he was also losing an election to Ronald Reagan. 

Reagan’s landslide victory in November brought sweeping changes across the board in American politics, but it also meant that the Reagan administration inherited the young Operation Cyclone – which was about to go through puberty real quick.

Ronald Reagan: The 40th President of the United States from 1981-1989. He introduced many policies, including overt support for anti-Soviet forces like the Mujahideen.

Operation cyclone meme

Charlie Wilson won re-election to the House that year as well, and CIA agents don’t need elections, so the only thing that really changed for Operation Cyclone was the environment. That environment was much friendlier, especially as they began to see the fruits of their labor.

The USSR increased its presence in Afghanistan to counter the rising success of the newly equipped Mujahideen. To continue their support for the Afghan rebels, the House Appropriations Committee approved a six year aid package of $3.2 billion in 1981.

President Reagan met with Mujahideen leaders in 1983. The details of their conversations remain a secret to this day.
President Reagan met with Mujahideen leaders in 1983. The details of their conversations remain a secret to this day.

For four years this budget was used to continue buying Israel’s stockpile of Soviet weapons and other Soviet equipment from China. 

Then things changed on February 6, 1985 when President Reagan announced the so-called Reagan Doctrine, and authorized open US support of Afghan rebels.

Reagan Doctrine: A political policy introduced by Ronald Reagan in his 1985 State of the Union address to openly oppose the Soviet union around the world. The basis for publicizing and escalating Operation Cyclone.

“We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives—on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua—to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.”

– The Reagan Doctrine

The exact details of Operation Cyclone were still a secret, but the existence of such a program was not. This led to a sudden rush of cutting-edge, American-made equipment into Afghanistan. 

This shift was crucial to the Mujahideen successfully forcing the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. Soviet troops began pulling out in July 1987, and the unpopular war went down in history as a major contributor to the fall of the USSR.

“I saw houses burned by the Mujahadeen, as well as disfigured bodies of prisoners they’d taken. But I saw other things too: villages destroyed by our shelling and bodies of women, killed by mistake. When you shoot at every rustling in the bushes, there’s no time to think about who’s there. But for an Afghan, it didn’t matter if his wife had been killed intentionally or accidentally. He went into the mountains to seek revenge.”

― Vladislav Tamarov, a Russian veteran of the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

Operation Cyclone Meme

However, US support for the Mujahideen and Operation Cyclone didn’t end there. Charlie Wilson continued advocating for funding to the Mujahideen rebels against the communist government which was still officially in control of Afghanistan. 

This funding continued until 1992, when Operation Cyclone provided the last $400 million dollars to the Afghan rebels, who ousted the Communist government later that year. 

They proclaimed a new Islamic State of Afghanistan, but promptly descended into a civil war (again), which led to various Mujahideen groups previously funded by Operation Cyclone to join the Taliban and their opponents for decades to come. 

Taliban: An Islamic fundamentalist group that formed by religious students. After the Afghan communist government fell, many Mujahideen groups joined them. They are still in power to this day.

After 13 years, and more $6 billion, Operation Cyclone went down as one of the longest and most expensive black ops projects in American history, and its operation remains a highly controversial topic to this day.

Remember kids. Invading Afghanistan is usually not a good idea

Operation cyclone

Timeline - Terms - Sources - Memes - Sources

October 6-25, 1973: The Yom Kippur War between Israel (with US support) and the Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria (with Soviet support) results in an Israeli victory and capture of Soviet military equipment.

April 21, 1977 – September 16, 1978: A military coup, followed by a period of marshall law makes Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq President of Pakistan.

April 27-28, 1978: The Saur Revolution in Afghanistan leads to the creation of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, a communist government with Soviet Support.

May 1978 – December 1979: Different factions in the new Afghan government violently compete for control, leading to mass military desertions and popular opposition. The Mujahideen militias are formed to oppose the new government.

May 1979: Operation Cyclone begins in the US when the Carter administration greenlights $695,000 in non-military aid to Afghan resistance fighters

October 1979: The NBA adds the 3-point line.

Mid-December 1979: Operation Cyclone sends weapons to Afghanistan for the first time in the form of antique Lee-Enfiled rifles.

December 24, 1979February 15, 1989: The Soviet-Afghan War begins with a Soviet invasion to stabilize the Communist government’s position in Afghanistan. 

Early 1980: Rep. Charlie Wilson becomes involved in Operation Cyclone and secures additional funding for the project. The CIA organizes a system to transfer Soviet arms from Israel to Afghanistan.

January 20, 1981:  Ronald Reagan replaces Jimmy Carter as President of the United States

April 1981: Charlie Wilson and the House Appropriations Committee approve a six year plan with $3.2 billion in aid to escalate US support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.

February 6, 1985: President Reagan makes the statement later characterized as the Reagan Doctrine in open support for Afghan (and Nicaraguan) rebel movements. The existence of US aid to the Mujahideen is no longer secret.

July 20, 1987: Soviet forces begin withdrawing from Afghanistan.

February 15, 1989: The Soviet-Afghan War ends when the last Russian troops leave Afghanistan. 

April 26, 1992: The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan is officially replaced by the Islamic State of Afghanistan, which promptly entered its own civil war. 

AK-47: The first modern assault rifle, first produced in the Soviet Union in 1947 by Mikhail Kalashnikov. It has been adapted into many other models over time. Officially called the Avtomat Kalashnikov.

Charlie Wilson: The primary supporter of Operation Cyclone in Congress. He was the House Representative for Texas’s 2nd district from 1973-1996.

House Appropriations Committee: The standing committee in the US House of Representatives responsible for bills that regulate government spending.

Islamic State of Afghanistan: The new government formed by an alliance of Mujahideen groups after ousting the Afghan Communist in 1992. Not to be confused with the later terrorist organization ISIS.

Jimmy Carter: President of the United States from 1977-1981. Among many other things, he oversaw the early stages of Operation Cyclone.

Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq: The President of Pakistan from 1978-1988, who came to power through a military coup. He cooperated with Operation Cyclone to funnel aid and weapons to the Mujahideen.

Mujahideen: Any Muslim fighting for a religious cause, but most famously applied to the loose network of guerilla fighters in Afghanistan from the 1970s-1990s.

Operation Cyclone: The covert CIA program to send weapons, supplies, and money to the Mujahideen from 1979-1992.

Reagan Doctrine: A political policy introduced by Ronald Reagan in his 1985 State of the Union address to openly oppose the Soviet union around the world. It was the basis for publicizing and escalating Operation Cyclone.

Ronald Reagan: The 40th President of the United States from 1981-1989. He introduced many policies including overt support for anti-Soviet forces like the Mujahideen.

Saur Revolution: The Afghan coup in April 1978, when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan deposed the existing military dictator in favor of a Communist government.

Soviet-Afghan War: A conflict between the Afghan Mujahideen (with US aid) and the Soviet Union, which tried to support a Communist Afghan government. Often listed as a primary cause in the collapse of the USSR.

Taliban: An Islamic fundamentalist group that formed by religious students. After the Afghan communist government fell, many Mujahideen groups joined them. They are still in power to this day.

The Iron Curtain: A phrase used to describe the divide between the Soviet bloc and the rest of the world. Originally coined by the Nazi propoganda magazine “Signal,” but popularized by Winston Churchill.

Yom Kippur War: A 19 day conflict between Israel (backed by the US) and a coalition of Arab states (backed by the USSR). After the Israeli victory, captured Arab-Soviet weapons were funneled to the Mujahideen in Operation Cyclone.

Sources:

Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire by Chalmers Johnson, 2001

Afghanistan: A Russian Soldier’s Story by Vladislav Tamarov, 2001

Conflict in Afghanistan: Studies in Asymetric Warfare by Martin Ewans, 2004

Ghost wars : the secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll    

The Reagan Doctrine https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/rd/17741.htm

Hekmatyar’s never-ending Afghan war https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2012/1/28/hekmatyars-never-ending-afghan-war

Charlie Wilson’s War Was Really America’s War https://michaeljohnsonfreedomandprosperity.blogspot.com/2008/01/charlie-wilsons-war-was-really-americas.html

A timeline of more than 40 years of war in Afghanistan https://apnews.com/article/joe-biden-islamic-state-group-afghanistan-europe-middle-east-70451c485d46908ef5c6a83a1de9f0f6

Afghanistan: Remembering the Long War We Would Rather Forget https://warontherocks.com/2019/02/afghanistan-remembering-the-long-long-war-we-would-rather-forget/

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