Magical Thinking and the U.S. War in Afghanistan

U.S. Army Captain talks with the Nurgaram district sub-governor in Nuristan, Afghanistan. Photo by Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen/U.S. Air Force
U.S. Army Captain talks with the Nurgaram district sub-governor in Nuristan, Afghanistan. Photo by Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen/U.S. Air Force

by Valentine Moghadam

Why is the U.S. still in Afghanistan? When did it first get involved, and why? What is the truth behind the so-called “Soviet invasion” of December 27, 1979? What have been the long-term consequences – for the Afghan people, the region, and the world – of the Carter administration’s fateful decision in 1978-79 to support and arm a tribal-Islamist rebellion against Afghanistan’s left-wing, modernizing, pro-women’s rights government? What can progressives do to finally put an end to the sorry record of U.S. disinformation and “magical thinking” about its foreign adventures?

These questions were addressed at a Mass. Peace Action webinar August 11 that took as its point of departure a recent article authored by University College Dublin scholar Conor Tobin. Titled “The Myth of the ‘Afghan Trap,’ Brzezinski and Afghanistan 1978-79,” it claims that there is no proof that President Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, lured the Soviets into the December 1979 invasion. The article even seeks to refute statements in Brzezinski’s 1998 interview with the French magazine Nouvel Observateur, in which Brzezinski boasts about the Soviets falling into his “Afghan trap”.

Our speakers – Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, a husband and wife team – acquired in 1981 the first visas granted to an American TV crew to enter Afghanistan. Following their news story for CBS, they produced a documentary – Afghanistan Between Three World – for PBS and in 1983 returned to Kabul for ABC Nightline.

Starting in 1992 Paul and Elizabeth worked on the film version of their experience under contract to Oliver Stone. In 1998 they started working with Afghan human rights expert Sima Wali and contributed to the Women for Afghan Women: Shattering Myths and Claiming the Future  project published by Palgrave Macmillan (2002). In 2002 they filmed Wali’s return to Kabul since her exile in 1978 and produced a film about her journey titled The Woman in Exile Returns Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story, was published by City Lights (2009). Crossing Zero The AfPak War at the Turning Point of American Empire, was published by City Lights (2011). Their novel The Voice, was published in 2000. (Visit  and

Their book, Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story was published in 2009, and it lays out how Brzezinski’s covert program was created to destabilize the region to draw the Soviets into the Afghan Trap, and why it was inevitable that the U.S. would end up in Afghanistan too. As they explain with respect to the recent Tobin article:

Having trailed the Afghan story as journalists for decades we already had the research to connect the US quagmire in Afghanistan back to Brzezinski’s scheme. In addition to providing evidence validating the ‘Afghan Trap’ claim, we will reveal a technique favored by ideologues that uses ‘magical thinking’ to wantonly remove facts that contradict the narrative they wish to create. ‘Magical thinking’ literally means, “If I think it’s real, it is real and you have to prove it’s not.” Tobin’s paper is a jaw-dropping example of how the context of the U.S./Afghan record is being stripped down to a fantasy based on ‘magical thinking.’ The practice of rewriting historical records through an ideological lens has resulted in generations of policy failures that will continue until there is a complete transformation from magical to conscious thinking.

Fitzgerald and Gould visited Afghanistan in 1981, 1983, and again in 2002. I traveled to Kabul in early 1989, just as the last of the Soviet troops were departing, and I conducted interviews with Afghan professionals, workers, and members of the ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). I write about those interviews and observations in the chapter on Afghanistan in my book, Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East (1993 edition), and include photos that I took while there. At the time, I was struck by the dedication of PDPA cadre working in various government agencies and social organizations, and the government’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of what had been an internationalized civil conflict, and to the modernization of the country and advancement of its people, especially women and girls. Unfortunately, that was not to be, as the government fell in late spring 1992, when the tribal-Islamist rebels, the Mujahideen, took over – and then began to fight each other, leading to the emergence of the Taliban and their frightful rule (1996-2001). Following the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama Bin Laden, who was said to be behind 9/11, and to punish the Taliban for having refused to hand him over. U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan ever since. They are there partly because of the Taliban’s resurgence in 2006 and partly because the U.S. presence is a show of force vis-à-vis neighboring Iran.

But the U.S. has a much longer history of involvement and intervention in Afghanistan, and the purpose of the webinar was to set the record straight. For if “magical thinking” is all about the “Soviet invasion” and the “valiant freedom fighters”, the Mujahideen, the truth is that the Carter administration made a fateful decision to subvert the modernizing, left-wing Afghan government, and Brzezinski in particular sought to create a “Vietnam” for the Soviet Union.

The webinar turned “magical thinking” on its head, putting the spotlight on the role of the U.S. and its terrible consequences. Supporting the Afghan Mujahideen’s jihad helped the spread of Islamist extremism across the globe; accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of world communism; led to the empowerment of Osama Bin Laden and then to 9/11; emboldened the unipolar U.S. to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003; and enabled both the NATO assault on Libya in 2011 and the instigation of an internationalized civil conflict in Syria.

Fitzgerald and Gould have uncovered the truth about the Carter-Brzezinski plot to lure the Soviets into a Vietnam-type quagmire. It is a tragic tale but a very instructive one. And more than anything, it confirms what we in the peace movement have always insisted: let the people and their rulers decide their own fate. As we know from Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen – external intervention, and especially a coercive one, can only have destructive ends.

Watch the webinar below:

Read Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould’s article