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The United States had spotted an opportunity to strike a blow to their enemy in the Cold War. Running the CIA in Asia at this time was Chuck Cogan.

Chuck Cogan “The Soviets were taking advantage of our perceived weakness and were advancing on all fronts. The Cuban proxies in Angola, the other advances in the Horn of Africa. And it seemed as though we were, we had lost momentum. And then, at the end of the 70s in 79, this opportunity arose in Afghanistan. When the Pakistan intelligence service approached us and asked if we could help support the Mujahideen. The rebels who had risen up against the Communist government. When this opportunity arose in Afghanistan, I mean, the watchword was revenge.”

Charles (Chuck) Cogan
Charles (Chuck) Cogan

Revenge above all for Vietnam. The Communist governments had supported the resistance in Vietnam. And 58,000 Americans have been killed in this faraway land, in the first-ever humiliation of the United States. Now, six years later, the US saw a chance to give the Soviet Union a taste of its own medicine.

Chuck Cogan “We felt that somehow if we could sort of right this balance. And inflict as much damage as possible on Russian soldiers, this would be a sort of a semi-vindication.”

Cogan authorised a plan to covertly supply weapons across the Pakistani border to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. But only weapons that could not be traced back to the US. And Cogan agreed the plan directly with Pakistan’s military ruler General Zia.

Chuck Cogan

Chuck Cogan “This Afghan covert action programme run by the agency would never have gotten off the ground without Zia and I can remember meeting Zia in Zia’s rather modest bungalow in Rawalpindi. And during the meeting, Zia brought out this huge map of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and he put a red template over the southern part of where Afghanistan touches Pakistan and Iran.

Muhammad Zia ul Haq
Muhammad Zia ul Haq

The Pakistanis always want to have an influence in Afghanistan, as an insurers against India, and as a sort of rearguard for themselves, they decided to help the Mujahideen. And at the same time Zia used another simile, which he used frequently, and that is, the pot should be kept boiling, but should not boil over. In other words, the Soviets should not be antagonised by this amount of, huge amount of weaponry to the point that they would intervene to attack across the border into Pakistan or some other action, air attacks, and we were very conscious of this.”

For that reason, Cogan’s operation remained relatively small and secret and in itself, it would have had only a modest effect upon the outcome of the Afghan-Soviet war.

But, at this point, the Islamist Afghans acquired the most unexpected anti-Communist ally of all. The Christian, Texan, wealthy socialite, Joanne Herring.

Joanne Herring “the man you just met is one of the richest men in Houston… And he is wonderful. He does so much and, and I’m working on him for Afghanistan.”

Joanne Herring Socialite and friend to Chuck Cogan

This is an evening that both shows Joanne Herring as part of the Texan elite with whom she raises money at gala dinners like this and through whom she influences policy, but it’s also a reminder that she is a very unique individual. She is somebody who almost single-handedly created the entire American support for the Mujahideen during the Afghan war. The CIA was of course already involved with the resistance, but it was this society hostess which took it into a different league financially. And she did it for the most improbable reasons and in the most unlikely way.

Joanne Herring Socialite and friend of Chuck Cogan
Joanne Herring

Joanne Herring “I worked with the Afghan poor in the mountains. I felt that they were an honourable people, and that they valued honour, but they valued freedom more than anything on Earth. And when you think of the juggernauts that they have faced. Great Britain was the strongest country in the world, the sun never set really on the British flag. And they were now facing, when I was there, the greatest build-up of military might in history and they were willing to fight to the death against that with pitchforks, so to speak.”

Joanne Herring’s mission was to make sure it wasn’t pitchforks or ancient rifles that Mujahideen had to fight with, but that they could take on the Soviet military with the latest in 20th-century weaponry. And the secret to her success was one relationship in particular.

Joanne Herring “So, guess who I was dating? Charlie! The minute Charlie heard about it, wow! He understood the Communists, and he wanted to stop them too.”

Charlie Wilson

Joanne Herring’s boyfriend happened to be Texan Congressman Charlie Wilson. And crucially, he sat on the congressional committee which set the budgets for the CIA covert operations. And what happened next was brilliantly portrayed in the Hollywood film Charlie Wilson’s War.

With Joanne Herring’s help, Charlie Wilson lobbied and cajoled the committee, and persuaded them to channel incredible quantities of funds, in secret, to the Mujahideen. Total US funding for the resistance went from $5 million to $9 billion. It became the largest covert operation in US history. But Charlie Wilson never pretended to have a deep understanding of Afghanistan itself, let alone its problems.

Charlie Wilson
Charlie Wilson

These Texan anti-communists who spoke of their common cause with the Mujahideen, romantically painting them as religious freedom fighters, were really only using Afghanistan as a proxy for their fight with Soviet Russia. But the billions of dollars of US funding, matched dollar for dollar by Saudi Arabia and the supply routes and safe havens provided by Pakistan transformed the fortunes of the Afghan resistance.

Ruslan Aushev “Tactics changed between 1980 and 1989, the changes according to the Mujahideen led to them receiving more weapons and ammunition. If one takes the first battles in which my battalion engaged, the weapons were small arms only. There were even flintlock rifle is around, one rarely encountered assault rifles. Then, later on, appeared mines, mortars, anti-tank weapons.”

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Chuck Cogan authorised the Afghan Covert Action