26 January 1980
On 26 January 1980, Margaret Thatcher wrote to President Jimmy Carter informing him that Britain was ‘looking at a variety of possibilities for covert action,’ meaning acts of illegal force or terrorism, against the government of Afghanistan and Soviet forces stationed there. Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington was not only fully supportive, but wanted to widen the scale of potential intervention. One week earlier he had written a memo to the prime minister advocating that ‘we should consider the practicability of promoting insurgency in Soviet-dominated areas such as the PDRY (Yemen), Ethiopia and Afghanistan itself.’1
Lord Carrington was convinced that the Islamist rebels fighting the Russians were ‘patriots’ who should be armed and trained to kill larger numbers. He recommended that Britain support them ‘through the covert supply of arms and training, amongst other things,’ adding that ‘Moslem money is already flowing and may be sufficient.’ He also thought it worthwhile to consider persuading the various Afghan rebel groups to unite together under an ‘Afghan Liberation Organisation,’ a sort of Taliban like alliance of the Islamist insurgents.2
Britain’s covert involvement, overseen by MI6, supported the Afghan ‘mujahideen’ rebels with less restraint in terms of observing international law than the CIA. Whereas CIA agents hovered nervously near the border, MI6 sent SAS operatives deep into Afghanistan in support of the rebellion. The CIA also felt more limited in the sort of insurgency operations they could sponsor. Gust Avrakotos, a CIA officer who served in Afghanistan, later remembered how Britain was able
‘to buy things that we couldn’t because it infringed on murder, assassination and indiscriminate bombings,’ adding that ‘they could issue guns with silencers. We couldn’t do that because a silencer immediately implied assassination – and heaven forbid car bombs ! No way I could even suggest that.’3
Britain also ran training schools for Afghan terrorists in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Scotland where they were instructed in how to stage effective ambushes, use and deploy explosives and attack airbases.4
- Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac, The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers, William Collins, London, 2017, p. 359.
- Ibid., p. 360.
- Ibid., p. 362.
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