Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Past Is Prologue or: A tale of two Olympics

Anthony Agnello 6 min

Shortly before a historic and emotionally laden Olympic hockey match between American and Russian athlets in 1980, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. The US, at that time, had actually already started its covert operation to support the mujahedin against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul; it would be their fight that would finally lead to the Soviet withdrawal. In a kind of historic looping, US and Russian hockey teams met again in Sochi ten days ago, their countries’ relationship similarly strained – this time ahead of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. AAN’s guest author Anthony Agnello (*) reflects on symbolic beginnings and endings and wonders if the past must be seen as a prologue.

Post-Valentine’s Day headlines coming out of the Olympic Village in Sochi hyped the recent victory of the US men’s hockey team over the Russians as “the most dramatic shootout in hockey history”. This histrionic description was apparently intended to elicit comparisons to the 22 February 1980 Lake Placid Olympic match called the “Miracle on Ice” where the American 4-3 victory over the heavily favoured Soviet Union hockey team is regarded by many sports pundits as the single most significant athletic victory of all times by any American team.

What was noticeable by its omission was any significant media reference to the 25th anniversary of the departure of Soviet troops from Afghanistan on this same date in 1989.

The accounts of this ‘miraculous’ athletic contest in 1980, would undoubtedly have been characterised differently were it not for the existential conflict that then existed between the era’s two great world super powers, the USA and the USSR. But nuanced understanding of past events is virtually impossible to fully grasp when separated from the historical context in which they occurred.

Disregarded in the euphoria immediately following that extraordinary American athletic victory and now largely forgotten by the public at large, was the global antipathy, especially in the United States, directed at the ‘Evil Empire’, that peaked following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Without this systemic struggle between the two great world powers as a backdrop, the miracle at Lake Placid would quite likely still be recalled today as one of sport’s greatest upsets, but not as it has come to be seen, a symbolic preface to the defeat of world communism and the fall of the Soviet Union. It was this belligerent Soviet violation of international law that presumably compelled President Jimmy Carter to issue an ultimatum on 20 January 1980 that the United States would refuse to participate in the Moscow summer olympics taking place later that year if Soviet troops did not withdraw from Afghanistan within one month.

The official version of the history of covert American military involvement in Afghanistan was that CIA aid to the mujahedin began in the early months of 1980 as a response to the Christmas Eve 1979 invasion by Soviet Special Forces assigned to the USSR’s 40th Army. Our clandestine program supporting the Afghan insurgency was presumably initiated after the Soviet invasion and in defense of the patriotic ‘Freedom Fighters’, the home grown insurgents who were militantly opposing Russian imperialism. But the veracity of the timeline for this claim, which had been carefully protected for decades (1) is, in actual fact, contrived.

American aid supporting the anti-communist insurgents actually began almost six months before the Soviet Invasion. On 3 July 1979 President Jimmy Carter signed the classified first directive authorizing aid to the mujahedin (2), the ‘holy warriors’ who were fighting the pro-Soviet Afghan regime that had successfully executed a bloody coup d’état, which toppled the Republic of Afghanistan and killed President Mohammad Daud and his family more than a year before, in April 1978. (3)

That very same day in July, Carter’s Polish born National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzeziński wrote a dispatch to the president in which he explained that in his opinion the clandestine assistance in support of the anti-communist insurgency was going to induce a Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in defense of the failing Afghan communist state and in support of the self-justifying ideology of the Brezhnev doctrine. Despite this risk, or perhaps because of it, America initiated this covert operation, which has subsequently been referred to as the Bear Trap. Dr. Brzeziński said, in an interview with the French newspaper Nouvel Observateur in January 1998 (here an English translation), “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.”

Soon after armoured Soviet vehicles began crossing the Afghan border at sites along the Oxus River, he wrote to President Carter, asserting, “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.” For most of the 1980s, Russia was embroiled in a great game of diminishing returns in Afghanistan. The Soviets found themselves doubling down on an extremely expensive war, which proved to be as unpopular at home as it was unsustainable in the field.

Finally, after a decade of frustration, as General Boris Gromov, the leader and final soldier from the Soviet 40th Army, prepared to cross the Friendship Bridge into Soviet Uzbekistan leaving Afghanistan on 15 February 1989; few would have predicted that it would be the symbolic beginning of the end of the Cold War and set in motion the events that would lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union a year and a half later, almost a dozen years to the day after the invasion of Afghanistan.

When the “Miracle on Ice” game was played in upstate New York, the USSR had just invaded Afghanistan, none of the current US Olympic hockey players had yet been born and America had only recently started equipping warlords, what later would become al-Qaeda operatives (4) and other Islamist elements to combat the Soviets. This was so early in the Afghan-Soviet War that the Pakistani ISI had not even started to develop the American and Saudi funded Taleban movement. Certainly no one knew how tortuously events would turn in this remote landlocked Central Asian highland over the next generation. And no one could possibly have guessed in those early days of 1980 as America was planning to boycott the Moscow Olympics, that when the Russians next hosted the games it would be the Americans themselves who would be preparing to leave Afghanistan after more than a decade of conflict, a generation in the future.

As the United States and the ISAF prepare to end their combat mission in Afghanistan, it is hoped that a prudent Bilateral Security Agreement will stabilize the incoming, democratically elected government and ensure that the security gains made by religious and ethnic minorities will be maintained, that educational progress (especially for the female population of the nation) will be preserved and that human rights will be respected. If this effort fails and “past is prologue” we may find that the final chapter of the American involvement in Afghanistan is still to be written.

Asked if he regretted American actions that empowered extremists and led to the founding of the Taliban movement, Dr Brzeziński said, “What is most important to the history of the world… the (rise of the) Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire, … the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?” The ultimate answer may prove to be more convoluted than Dr. Brzeziński envisioned as we depart from the great issues of the twentieth century and begin to confront those of the twenty-first.


(*) Anthony Agnello is a former American Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) who served as provincial science supervisor from 1972 to 1974 in Samangan, Afghanistan. Mr. Agnello returned to his host country in 2003 and 2006 to oversee six student-funded school construction projects, emphasizing equitable educational opportunity for Afghan girls. Selected as the 2013 Clifford Harkins Distinguished Citizen of the year at his Alma Mater, Northern Arizona University, since 2006 he has directed numerous student to student educational outreach efforts, providing school supplies and computers to girls’ schools in Afghanistan. Mr. Agnello is the current President of Friends of Afghanistan, the national organization of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served there from 1962 up to the 1979 invasion by the Soviet Union.

(1) It only became publicly known when Brzeziński’s mentioned it in his much-quoted interview with the French newspaper Nouvel Observateur in January 1998 (here an English translation).

(2) President Carter’s 3 July 1978 “Presidential Finding”, authorized “CIA support for insurgent propaganda and other psychological operations to entail the provision of radio access to the Afghan population through third-country facilities and America’s supplying of non-military aid to include a half a million dollars in cash.”  According to research done in the US, Carter’s directive “opened the door for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to take a leading role inside Afghanistan six months before the Soviets invaded this geopolitically important country.“

(3) The military coup that killed President Daud happened on 27 April 1978 (7 Saur, on the Afghan calendar, and therefore called “Saur/April revolution” by the new rulers). For three days, a military council headed by an air force officer, Abdul Qader, ruled and then handed over power to a civilian Revolutionary Council, led by Nur Muhammad Tarakai, the leader of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) that had been founded in 1965, successfully ran for parliamentary seats in 1965 and 1969 but was (as all other parties) never legalised. In 1973, the party had toppled the Afghan monarchy, in an alliance with Muhammad Daud; both sided fell out after Daud imposed a one-party system in January 1977 and cracked down on the PDPA leaders. In reaction, they staged the coup. Tarakai was killed by his deputy and ‘student’, Hafizullah Amin in September 1979, but himself fell victim to the invading Soviet troops, who were in alliance with a rival PDPA faction, on 27 December 1979.

(4) See for example the chapter “We Loved Osama” in Steve Coll’s Pulitzer price-winning book Ghost Wars (2004).




America Cold War Olympic Games Olympics Russia Soviet Union US withdrawal


Anthony Agnello

More from this author