Where Did We Go Wrong in Afghanistan?

An implicit question haunts this illuminating and richly detailed memoir by Michael G. Vickers, the senior intelligence official at the center of America’s long war for the greater Middle East. It’s a question that has acquired greater immediacy since it was posed in 1998 by Jimmy Carter’s former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski: “What is more important in the history of the world?” he said. “Some stirred-up Islamists or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

That comment appeared in an interview with the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. Asked whether he regretted sending covert U.S. aid to Afghanistan in 1979, all but ensuring the Soviet invasion and the subsequent rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Brzezinski demurred. “Drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap,” he replied, had been “an excellent idea.”

In 1983, a few years into the Russian invasion, a 30-year-old Vickers left an early career as a Green Beret to join the C.I.A. The Cold War of the 1980s was mostly quite cold; covert operations promised action. At the agency, Vickers rose fast. Before the end of the decade, the young operative had become an architect of the Russian defeat in Afghanistan. This was, he writes, the “decisive battle” in the struggle that brought “an end to the Soviet Empire.”

After a stretch of graduate education and a turn at a Washington think tank, Vickers earned a new job, this time at the Pentagon. For eight years, he oversaw operations in various far-flung theaters of the global war on terror. Yet it was Afghanistan, occupied by U.S. forces beginning in 2001, that once more became the focal point of his attention.

Read the full piece in The New York Times.