“Burning with a Deadly Heat”: NewsHour Coverage of the Hot Wars of the Cold War
Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989)
Background and Context
Afghanistan became a unified nation in the 1700s, although for the first hundred years or so of its existence, its contact with the West was largely defined by conflicts with the British, who hoped to add Afghanistan to their empire. War with Britain continued on and off until the Third Anglo-Afghan War solidified Afghan independence in 1919. After the end of the Third War, the emir of Afghanistan, Amanullah, sought to modernize his country and used Soviet aid to do so, marking the beginning of Soviet-Afghan relations. However, his modernization reforms resulted in a strong backlash from rural religious communities, and Afghanistan was plunged into a civil war in 1929. The war concluded with the establishment of the Musahiban dynasty, which ruled with relative stability until 1978. For the latter half of the Musahiban period, Afghanistan was ruled by King Zahir Shah, who shared power with prime ministers, including his cousin Mohammed Daoud. Unhappy with the involvement of his cousin in politics, Zahir Shah removed Daoud from power in 1964 by establishing a constitutional monarchy in which no relative of the king could be a government minister. Daoud never forgave the betrayal. In 1973, Daoud launched a bloodless coup against Zahir Shah with the help of leftist army officers and took power for himself. Once in power, however, Daoud turned his back on the leftists who had previously been his allies, and in 1978, Daoud was toppled in a coup by the leftist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).70
From the American perspective, for much of the 20th century, Afghanistan was mostly irrelevant. As a U.S. embassy report to Washington in the mid-20th century put it, “Afghanistan has at present limited direct interest.”71 It was not until the late 1970s, when Soviet influence and leftist power in Afghanistan began to grow, that the United States became concerned about the domestic politics of the country. Daoud, in an attempt to counteract the power of the left, attempted to improve relations with the United States; however, before much could come of his efforts, Daoud was killed in 1978 in a Soviet-supported coup.72 The PDPA, which gained power after the coup, was itself divided into two factions: the Khalq faction, led by Nur Mohammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, and the Parcham faction, led by Babrak Karmal. Ultimately, Taraki and Amin took control of the government, as president and prime minister respectively, and aimed to implement radical and rapid modernization reforms. The Soviet Union supported Taraki and Amin’s government, but cautioned the Afghan leaders to move slowly with reforms in their traditional nation. Taraki and Amin refused. They immediately implemented land reform, as well as changing laws regarding women, allowing them to receive an education and refuse the hijab.73
As predicted by the Soviets, there was immediate backlash against the reforms by the Islamic fundamentalists, who saw the changes as a threat to the Islamic way of life. The fundamentalists called for a jihad, or holy war, to overthrow Taraki and Amin and install a religious government. These fundamentalist soldiers would become known as the mujahideen, the soldiers of God. The United States, recognizing an opportunity to increase its access to Afghan oil and thwart the Soviets, began sending aid to the mujahideen in 1979.74
For most of 1979, the Soviets were involved in the politics of Afghanistan, but not involved militarily. However, a rebel attack in the city of Herat resulted in the death of 50 Soviet diplomats and their dependents, leading the Soviet government to discuss using military force to calm the situation in Afghanistan. Ultimately, the Soviet leadership decided that military force was not yet necessary and that removing the radical Amin as prime minister would be sufficient to stabilize the country. The plot to remove Amin was presented to Taraki, and he agreed. Amin learned of the plan, however, and had Taraki assassinated instead. With Taraki out of the way, Amin then took over the roles of president, prime minister, defense secretary, and general secretary of the party.75 Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev decided that the situation in Afghanistan had spun out of control and ordered an invasion to overthrow Amin and re-establish stability.76 In December 1979, Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan, killing Amin and installing Karmal as president. It was the first time the USSR had used its forces to invade a nation outside of the Eastern Bloc.77
The United States saw the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as a blatant attempt to overthrow a sovereign government, and the invasion effectively put an end to the period of lessening tensions between the two superpowers known as détente. In response, the Carter administration, in office since January 1977, implemented an embargo on American grain shipments to the Soviet Union and called for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics.78 The U.S. also decided it was against the nation’s best interests to be openly or directly involved in the war; therefore, the United States government decided to funnel Soviet-made weapons and money to the rebels through Pakistan, an effort known as Operation Cyclone.79 Aid to the mujahideen was further increased under the Reagan administration, and at its height, American aid to the rebels reached $400 million per year.80
The war between Soviet forces and the mujahideen rebels continued for ten years, with the Red Army unable to defeat the rebels despite its technological superiority, leading many Americans to compare it to the Vietnam War. The Soviets held the capital of Kabul, but the mujahideen, familiar with the rugged mountain terrain of Afghanistan, controlled the countryside.81 The war took a heavy toll on both Soviet soldiers and Afghan civilians: there were 15,000 Soviet casualties and a minimum of 500,000 Afghan civilians killed.82 Both sides employed brutal tactics. Soviets bombed the countryside indiscriminately, destroying entire villages, and Soviet soldiers captured by the mujahideen were tortured and suffered slow, painful deaths.83 Partially due to the heavy losses and lack of progress, the war became progressively unpopular in the Soviet Union. When Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985, he put forth a plan to reform Soviet society, a plan with which the war in Afghanistan was incongruous. Finally, in February 1989, Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, ending the Soviet-Afghan war, but a civil war between Afghan factions continued.84
While the Soviet-Afghan war ended in 1989, the ramifications of American aid to the mujahideen continue to this day. Some experts claim that Osama Bin-Laden, leader of al Qaeda and the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, was part of an Afghan-Arab alliance that received training and aid from the United States during the war.85 The U.S. government, however, denies that any aid or training was given to Bin-Laden.86 The mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-e organization, however, did receive significant funding from the CIA. Hekmatyar, a known ally of Bin-Laden, was designated a terrorist in 2003 and accused by the U.S. State Department of taking part in the 9/11 attacks.87 The end of the Soviet-Afghan war also resulted in the Taliban gaining power in the early 1990s, growing from a small fundamentalist organization to a major political player in Afghanistan.88 Twenty years after U.S.-led forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks, began to fight a war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, Afghanistan continues to be a focal point of American news and policy today, and the consequences of the Soviet-Afghan war are still unfolding.
The dynamics of the coverage of the Soviet-Afghan War were different than those of the wars in the other three countries featured in this exhibit. This was due primarily to the direct involvement of the Soviet military in Afghanistan, whereas in the other countries, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. had operated through indirect support for their chosen sides. In the first year of the war, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report coverage largely focused on how America should respond to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
To explore the question of American rebuttal, the Report brought on congressmen from both sides of the aisle to give their opinions on how the Carter administration should respond. In this clip, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) and Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan) discuss which responses would be most beneficial to American interests and most detrimental to the Soviet Union. While the conversation was structured in the signature debate format of the Report and NewsHour, there was noticeably more agreement between guests than in debates over El Salvador, Nicaragua, or Angola. The Report also welcomed multiple Afghan guests to give information on the rebel forces in Afghanistan, discuss civilian casualties, and express their opinion on what the United States should do.
The Report and the NewsHour featured reporters and political figures who had recently returned from Afghanistan, relying heavily on their reports to give a clear picture of the position of the rebels and the state of the war. In one such case, the NewsHour interviewed Selig Harrison and Abdul Rahim, both of whom had recently been to Afghanistan, to fact check the many rumors coming out about the real situation on the ground. As Rahim was a leader in the Afghan rebellion, the NewsHour relied on Harrison, a think tank expert, to counteract potential bias in Rahim’s story.
Outside of experts and political leaders, many of the guests who had recently visited Afghanistan were journalists who brought back footage of the fighting. Edward Girardet of the Christian Science Monitor made multiple appearances on the show, the first occurring in 1982, including footage of his trips to Afghanistan each time. Unlike in Central America, the change from the Report to the longer NewsHour format did not result in NewsHour teams travelling to the front themselves; rather, the NewsHour continued to rely for footage of the war on outside journalists travelling with the rebels. One particularly powerful segment came from Sandy Gall of Independent Television News, who lived with the mujahideen soldiers and documented their daily lives as well as the impact of the war on Afghan villagers.
Vietnam weighed heavily on coverage of the Soviet-Afghan War, but in contrast to proxy wars elsewhere, hope was expressed that the war would become the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. Comparisons to the Vietnam War began early. In this clip from January 2, 1980, less than two weeks after the Soviet invasion, anchor Jim Lehrer, ex-ambassador to Afghanistan Theodore Eliot, and Senators Lugar and Levin discuss whether the conflict might be akin to the American invasion of Vietnam. The Report continued to frame the war in Afghanistan within the context of the Vietnam War as the situation progressed, as in the set-up for this 1981 episode of the Report. The Soviet exit from Afghanistan in 1989, without a victory, only confirmed the prediction that Afghanistan would be for the Soviets what Vietnam had been for the United States. To mark the signing of the Afghan Peace Accords, the NewsHour devoted a special segment to a history of the war that re-enforced comparisons between the two conflicts and asked the question: what role did the United States play in the Soviet stalemate?