Prologue: Invisible History
“It’s a battle for the air and the airwaves. As well as dropping bombs and food ration packs into Afghanistan, military strategists in Washington have a new secret weapon in their war on terrorism – the wind-up radio.”
Clockwork Warfare, BBC News, October 10, 2001
Round and Round like a Clockwork Afghanistan: The symbolism didn’t really hit home until we returned from our latest trip to that desperate country in the late fall of 2002. Over the course of our stay at a small hotel catering to an international cadre of journalists, aid workers and UN staffers, we encountered a local artist in the act of painting American icons on the whitewashed wall of the narrow stairwell. During the first few days we witnessed the detailed completion of the New York City Police Department logo overlooking the small 1st floor dining room while in ongoing days the New York City Fire Department logo came to dominate the 2nd floor stairwell. It was an understandable expression of appreciation from the Afghans, we thought. Throughout our trip we had encountered nothing but thanks from our Afghan hosts who wished America well for liberating them from the oppressive Taliban regime while breaking the cycle of violence that had taken two million lives since 1978.
But when the artist chose to decorate the third floor stairwell with an artistic rendering of the poster from Stanley Kubrick’s classic A Clockwork Orange, we came up short. Why mix the real image of sacrifice and public service represented by New York’s heroes of 9/11 with the most indelible symbol of Anglo/Saxon cultural savagery ever invented?
In the thirty years since I’d seen the movie, I’d forgotten the sedated, Orwellian future ruled over by criminal thugs that Anthony Burgess’s antique British expression had warned of. At the time, it was the tentacles of communism we were persuaded would turn us into the clockwork oranges of Burgess’s book – mind-controlled Sovietized automatons with all “the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State.” But the idea that our own “state” would seek such controls over us free-thinking Americans, seemed an improbable, if not impossible prospect.
Since then an endless series of wars in Vietnam, Granada, Nicaragua, Panama, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan have inched America further and further from the principles and practices of a just society while the media’s endless fascination with tabloid-video-game-warfare has reduced America’s collective moral conscience to a vague numbness. But not until 9/11 and the subsequent unilateral engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq did the inevitable outcome of this step by step process become apparent.
And so here, 30 years later we were reminded by an Afghan artist of what we had been warned about by a book and film 30 years ago and the meaning of the metaphor was suddenly “Clear as an azure sky of deepest summer,” to quote Burgess’s protagonist. We in America had become the “clockwork oranges,” of Burgess’s book – the unsuspecting beneficiaries of Britain’s violent 19th century imperial obsession with conquering Afghanistan and controlling the gateway to Eurasia. But a story about wind-up radios didn’t shed a clue about how Afghanistan had been stage-managed to turn the clock back on America’s disillusioned hearts and minds after Vietnam and Watergate, nor how Afghanistan had been used as a pretext for undermining the power and the promise of American democracy.
Our involvement in this story began in the summer of 1979 when we began production of a documentary we called Arms Race and the Economy, a Delicate Balance. The big international news story of the day was the second round of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) which had been completed that June. Begun under President Nixon in November of 1972, it was hoped that the agreement signed by President Jimmy Carter and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev would further the era of detente and end, once and for all, the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union.
We had no idea at the time of the key role Afghanistan would shortly come to play in keeping the Cold War very much alive. As the host of a weekly public affairs program (Watchworks) on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting affiliate in Boston, the issue had taken on a personal relevance. I had been hired in an effort to balance the ultra-conservative Apocalypse-is-coming programming of Robertson, Falwell, Swaggart and others that streamed out of the network’s headquarters in Virginia Beach. For someone who had worked on the political campaigns of liberals Barney Frank in 1972 and Ed Markey in 1976, this was not difficult to do. But it was Robertson’s decision to repeatedly air an anti-SALT documentary titled the SALT SYNDROME produced by the American Security Council as “public service” that enabled us to engage the topic of the nuclear arms race. So, on a shoestring-budget, we began interviewing individuals who would begin explaining the mechanism of the 20th century arms race; its growth and mutation into the domestic economy following World War II and the mythology that had been created to maintain it.
During the next months Ted Kennedy, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Galbraith, George Kistiakowski, Paul Warnke and numerous others leant their experience to our understanding of SLCMs, GLCMs, Cruise and MX missiles, throw weights and the all important canon of the nuclear age; Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). But the picture that was emerging was anything but clear. It appeared that strategic thought wasn’t only a matter of numbers and throw weights, but a dark world of business, science and politics ruled over by a self-described “priesthood” of experts. A visit to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in Washington that fall revealed a bureaucracy under attack from both left and right – accused of betraying the security of the United States by appeasing an enemy who was bent on America’s destruction. But not even after the Soviets crossed their border into Afghanistan that December 27, did anyone realize the full measure of what was occurring. Suddenly and without warning an insignificant little country called Afghanistan had managed to roll the clock back thirty years on U.S./Soviet relations, and usher in a new and dangerous era of U.S./Soviet competition and pave the way for a “conservative revolution” in American politics.
By the time our program aired on February 17, 1980, the delicate balance of the arms race and the economy, i.e., whether our government should call a halt to the nuclear arms race or commit new trillions to strategic weapons, was no longer at issue. Another set of assumptions had taken hold of the nation with the media echoing a return to Cold War rhetoric and the debate refocused on how much was to be spent to counter this “historic moment” of Soviet aggression. Viewed by the emerging right-wing-neoconservative establishment as a vindication of their longstanding belief in Soviet iniquity, Afghanistan had reset the clock back to the darkest days of the Cold War and the creation of the national security state in 1947. But in July of that year an odd new aspect of that war began to emerge.
Colin S. Gray and Keith Payne’s Summer 1980 Foreign Policy article Victory is Possible went unnoticed by the political pundits of the day. Even after three years of attempting to balance Pat Robertson’s apocalyptic philosophy, the stridency of the rhetoric came as a surprise. “Nuclear war is possible,” they wrote that summer. “But unlike Armageddon, the apocalyptic war prophesied to end history, nuclear war can have a wide range of possible outcomes.”
No longer was biblical prophecy confined to the broadcasts of the Christian Broadcasting Network. Because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan it was now challenging the domain of strategic thinking. It seemed Afghanistan was more than just an “historic moment” in East/West relations as declared by Harvard historian Richard Pipes. Afghanistan had somehow enabled a philosophical shift away from a policy of “realist” diplomacy to a policy of nuclear-war-fighting and the “new right” was rushing to graft it to an archaic spiritual agenda.
Combining the high-tech weaponry of America’s nuclear arsenal with the medieval Catholic doctrine of Just War, Gray and Payne proposed to break the stalemate over the use of nuclear weapons and create a new rationale that would free America from nuclear restraint. Added to Robert Scheer’s January 1980 Los Angeles Times article in which Presidential candidate George Herbert Walker Bush suggested that “winning” a nuclear war was possible, it seemed that Afghanistan had become the most important story of a strange and dangerous new era.
Our decision in the fall of 1980 to request exclusive permission from the Afghan government to enter Afghanistan and see for ourselves what the Soviets were up to, grew from this realization and our journey there in the spring of 1981 under contract to CBS News would forever immunize us from the haze of propaganda and chest beating surrounding U.S./Soviet competition.
Afghanistan was a complex problem – far from the simplistic portrait of black and white/good against evil portrayed by the American media and the U.S. administration. Ethnic feuding, modernization, chronic poverty, women’s rights issues, a fifty percent infant mortality rate and narcotics trafficking were all factors in the country’s political instability. Added to that were two hundred years of colonial pressure from Russia and Britain that saw Britain’s armies occupy broad swaths of Afghan territory during three separate wars of conquest. But even our personal look at the Soviet occupation couldn’t explain why the Kremlin had risked international condemnation in overthrowing the nominally “Marxist” government of Hafizullah Amin. Nor did it explain the disproportionate American response to the Afghan crisis. Something “other” than the presence of 75,000 Soviet troops appeared to be driving Afghanistan as the major East/West conflict of the late 20th century and we were determined to find out what it was.
Against this backdrop, a return trip in 1983 accompanied by Harvard Negotiation Project director Roger Fisher for ABC’s Nightline revealed a major clue. Far from being a preparatory step toward the Persian Gulf, the Soviet Union was anxious to extricate itself as quickly as possible from the Afghan quagmire. Talks with Soviet officials in Kabul that spring indicated a Soviet willingness to admit a “mistake” had been made, withdraw its forces and cool international tensions. Yet this discovery, made by one the world’s foremost experts on crisis negotiation was ignored by the-powers-that-be in both the press and the government of the United States.
A deeper long ranged plan seemed to be unfolding in Afghanistan, a plan that even after the events of 9/11 would never make it to the evening news. But that was a deeper story that went far beyond Osama bin Laden and the veneer of American foreign policy. It was a mystical story – apocalyptic in nature, that bound America’s destiny to the ancient mechanism of good vs. evil culminating in a great battle at the end of time in a place where civilization began.
Following the attack on the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001 we were given the opportunity to speak about our experience to the national media and to provide insight into who and what America might expect from this sudden and shocking turn of events. During this time it came as a great surprise to find that after two decades of direct American involvement in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and a previous bombing of the World Trade Towers by Afghan related fighters, Americans knew virtually nothing about how such a thing had come about. The acquiescence of the major American media in maintaining a silence on the largest covert operation in American history following the invasion of a “limited contingent” of Soviet troops in 1979, had left the greatest democracy on earth without a clue as to who had really just attacked it or what was to be done about it.
In the end of course Afghanistan was bombed by American planes and again invaded – this time by a “limited contingent’ of American forces. But even after years of direct American involvement in the internal affairs of Afghanistan little was known and less understood about how it brought about the events of 9/11 or the importance of this ancient crossroads to the future of the United States. Even less was known about the evolution of Afghan history, its people and the centuries of interaction with outside forces that caused Afghanistan to become the staging ground for the end of an old world and the beginning of another. The impact Afghanistan has made on political life in the West and especially in the life of American politics is significant. Manipulated into a mechanism for change by a handful of insightful geo-politicians and defense intellectuals it has worked like clockwork to produce a series of historic and unstoppable events that have brought our civilization to the edge of a great transformation. The chances that this land, the very place where Western civilization began will soon play a final and decisive role in our future are all but certain. But for most, Afghanistan remains behind the veil – a country whose true purpose and beauty remain hidden from sight, but whose future we ignore at our own peril.