George Crile
Charlie Wilson's War

Zia and his foreign minister, Yaqub Khan, were in Moscow in 1985 for Konstantin Chernenko's funeral, when the newly elevated Gorbachev took them aside at the Kremlin and all but threatened to destroy their country if they did not halt support for the mujahideen. He was reportedly brutal in his delivery, declaring that Pakistan was in effect waging war on the Soviet Union and that he was not going to stand for it. Summoning all of his courage, Zia looked Gorbachev straight in the eye and insisted that his country was not involved. With that, the CIA's key ally left Moscow for Mecca, where he prayed to Allah for courage to continue the jihad.

The CIA didn't wake up to what Gorbachev had in mind for them until later, when the Kremlin put General Mikhail M. Zaitzev in charge of the Afghan campaign. Zaitzev was the legendary officer who had executed the brutal invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and his appointment was viewed as virtual proof that the Soviets were now committed to prevailing no matter what the cost. Almost immediately upon Zaitzev's arrival, the 40th Army took to the offensive everywhere.

The battlefield reports coming in that spring were deeply disturbing. Whereas the Soviet forces had previously operated only with huge shows of force, easy to detect and hide from, they were now moving in all kinds of ways and on all fronts. For the first time, the Red Army itself was howling at the doors of Pakistan, its fighter-bombers striking border towns, Soviet battalions and regiments sweeping in to cut off supply lines. There was more of everything-more bombing more shelling, more gunships prowling the countryside looking for mule and camel caravans to blast. But most unnerving was the introduction of thousands of elite Spetsnaz troops into the fighting.

The Spetsnaz are the Russian equivalent of America's Green Berets. The most highly trained elite soldiers in the Soviet Union, they had previously been used only for the most technically demanding and sophisticated operations. But in Afghanistan Zaitzev and his commanders were now bringing in these skilled killers by helicopter at night, inserting them behind mujahideen lines to organize ambushes and sabotage raids. For a time they seemed to be an invincible and omnipresent force, spreading terror among the usually stoic mujahideen.

Gorbachev, alarmed at the price the Soviet Union was paying for its Afghan campaign, had given Zaitzev a year to break the back of the resistance. And by the summer and fall of 1985 many Western analysts seemed to think the Soviets were on the verge of pulling it off. The escalation had taken its toll on the mujahideen, who, in spite of their warrior discipline and their astonishing faith in Allah, had become a bit war weary. At the funerals of their fathers and sons and brothers and cousins they rarely wept. They claimed to believe that they were happy for their loved ones who were now in Paradise, but it was hard not to detect a certain exhuastion setting in. They were, after all, just people. The war had been going on for five years, and instead of things getting better they were now facing an enemy that was increasing his ability to punish in ways they had never had to worry about before.

For the first time that year, Avrakotos had to consider the possibility that for once he was playing chicken with an adversary who might not blink. He says, 'This was the escalation that scared us because here we were pouring in stuff that would soon double and triple their casualties and that's what caused them to escalate in the first placeā€”the casualties. We had to ask ourselves, What would be left for them to do after that other than to invade Pakistan or to use tactical nukes?'

The well-publicized appointment of Zaitzev had created a kind of panic among the Afghan hands in Washington, but it turns out he was not the real commander. Instead, a far more lethal and politically important figure had been placed in charge.

It seems almost incredible that a general as significant as Valentin Varennikov could have served so long in Kabul and been so little known to his American adversaries. Zaitzev was the subject of constant conversation; Varennikov none. It was as if the Kremlin had never focused in on the role that General Westmoreland had played in Vietnam.

Certainly in his own world, Varennikov was anything but invisible. To begin with he was an authentic war hero, Possessor of the Golden star of the Hero of the Soviet union, a man whose history embodied the legend and mystique of the invincibility of the Red Army. It was Varennikov who was given the honor as a young captain at the end of World War II of presenting a captured Nazi flag to Stalin.

From that moment on, the Red Army had been his life, and he had never known anything but victory as he'd risen through the ranks to become one of the three most significant officers of the Soviet General Staff. By Christmas 1979, when the Soviets marched into Afghanistan, he was the Soviet General Staff's man in charge of drawing up the master plan for all-out war against the united States and the West. As Varennikov matter-of-factly puts it, it was his job to design the strategy for the Red Army to fight the entire world at once and win, and he had no doubt that his side would prevail.

In 1985, when the grand old strategist of Soviet power took command in Kabul, he was alarmed by developments in Eastern Europe, what he saw as a subversive anti-Communist alliance between the Reagan administration and the Polish pope of Rome. He concluded that the soviets would have to choose a place to halt the momentum. As he set off to draw the line in Afghanistan, he was prepared to use Soviet power without compromise. During the 1980s, while Wilson and Avrakotos were still maneuvering to get into positions of power, Varennikov was in charge of Soviet military affairs in the Third World, Cuba, Nicaragua, Angola, Ethiopia, Yemen, El Salvador, and South Africa. In all those areas where the United States felt threatened, the anonymous hand of Valentin Varennikov was at work stirring the pot. In 1993, surrounded by rich Oriental rugs in the Moscow apartment building where former generals are still given gracious housing, the general agreed to speak about Afghanistan as he awaited trial for his part in the failed coup against Gorbachev.

He quickly made his American visitor understand how significant Afghanistan had been to him and to the Kremlin leadership when he laid out his dark vision of U.S. intentions during the Cold War. 'It was America that started the arms race as a way of bankrupting the Soviet economy,' he explains. 'America loved blackmailing the world with its nuclear might.'

The general found himself even more alarmed when he learned that Reagan had launched a missile attack against the Soviet's Libyan ally Muammar Qrddafi. The White House and the Pentagon openly rubbed salt in this wound to Soviet pride by releasing a videotape from a tiny camera that had been placed in the nose cone of the American rocket so that the whole world could see and feel, via television, the experience of riding a U.S. Air Force bomb right into Qaddafi's tent. 'What was I to think? I knew Qaddafi very well. We were friends. I had just visited him in that tent the month before. How could we ignore these things?"

From the standpoint ofthe Kremlin, the early returns on Varennikov's series of offensives must have looked very promising indeed. By the summer of 1985, new floods of Afghans were pouring over the border seeking refuge in Pakistan, telling horror stories of saturation bombing, a new scorched-earth policy, and the dreaded night-fighting Spetsnaz troops.

What Gorbachev and Varennikov had no way of knowing that spring, however, is that they were moving with too little, too late. Back in Langley, Avrakotos had his own personal General Varennikov in place,thirty-two-year-old Mike Vickers, and Vickers was going to turn out to be the better general.

On one level it was preposterous for Vickers to be playing such a role. He was so junior in grade that he couldn't even sign his own cables. But he was now speaking and acting in Avrakotos's name, with a half-billion-dollar war chest to use to wreck General Varennikov's campaign.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.