U.S. Could’ve Prevented an Invasion – but Chose to Boycott the Olympics Instead

In many ways, Jimmy Carter’s presidency remains stained by foreign policy disasters including the Iranian hostage crisis and the failed rescue attempt, and the early handling of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, a State Department history and a partially declassified CIA document hint that the United States and NATO were aware of the invasion more than a week before it happened. Instead of attempting to prevent the invasion (Operation Storm-333), NATO and the United States let it happen unopposed and began planning a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the invasion that hadn’t yet begun.

According to the State Department, “Western governments first considered the idea of boycotting the Moscow Olympics in response to the situation in Afghanistan at the December 20, 1979 meeting of NATO representatives, although at that time, not many of the governments were interested in the proposal.” The date is highly significant. This meeting was held only eight days after the secret decision by the Politboro to invade Afghanistan. It was also four days before senior staff in the Soviet military were informed of the orders to invade Afghanistan, five days before Soviet forces began landing in Kabul (as part of the requested Soviet “military assistance” to Afghanistan) and seven days before Soviet troops actually crossed the border and began the invasion itself. The same State Department history credits President Carter with both “organizing the boycott and rallying support behind it.” While it is true that President Carter rallied domestic support for the boycott and did a lot to organize it, the process had begun at the NATO meeting.

Of course, the most pressing question from this is: when were CIA and NATO first aware of the planned invasion of Afghanistan? The timeline indicates that they were aware of it before even the senior most military personnel in the Soviet Union, giving them ample time to prevent or counter the invasion – an opportunity that was definitely not taken. The only apparent alternative is that the original boycott proposal was in response to something else (perhaps the SALT II talks) and then repurposed. Another CIA report states that the Agency was aware of the apparent plan to invade as early as December 20th (the same day as the NATO meeting) and suspected it as early as December 17th.

CIA Says We Knew

The report, although heavily redacted (naturally) reveals several key dates and assessments made by the Agency’s senior analysts and management personnel. The report summarizes the indicators that CIA was aware of for the 1980 Soviet invasion of  Afghanistan, with many paragraphs and entire pages redacted. The following dates and events stand out from the report:

  • December 11, 1979: A National Intelligence Daily reported that the Soviet buildup at Bagram could be indicative of either an intent to increase military commitment in Afghanistan or to increase security at the base.
  • December 17, 1979: Analysts gave warning that the USSR was preparing to invade Afghanistan. The language hints there may have been earlier warnings.
  • December 18, 1979: A National Intelligence Daily reports that “the Soviets continue to build up their military forces in and opposite Afghanistan, suggesting that the USSR is preparing to mount combat operations in Afghanistan.”
  • December 19, 1979: The Director of Central Intelligence issues an Alert Memorandum on Afghanistan, stating that “the USSR has significantly changed the nature of its military commitment in Afghanistan and is now capable of conducting multibattalion combat operations. … The buildup of additional airborne, tactical air, and ground forces and logistic stocks near the Soviet-Afghan border suggests that further augmentation there is likely soon, and that preparations for a much more substantial reinforcement may also be under way.”
  • December 20, 1979: A National Intelligence Daily reports that “continued Soviet military activity in the Turkestan Military District and the pre-positioning of gasoline and other fuel stockpiles near the Afghan border suggest that the Soviets are preparing a multidivisional force for possible combat operations in Afghanistan.”

Many other events are listed amidst the page long redactions, but the dates remain redacted. The January 9, 1980 memo sent by Director Stansfield Turner doesn’t hint at any foreknowledge, nor does the attached briefing (produced December 7, 1979). It does describe in great detail the financial commitments made by the Soviet Union for the Olympics, the contributions made by Western firms, and the small financial impact that a boycott of the Olympics would have. It also outlined the xenophobic reaction that would ensue and the opportunity for the Soviet Union to play the wounded party. Nevertheless, President Carter went ahead with the boycott.

1980 Redacted Memo

Curiously, this memo was re-redacted fourteen years after being declassified. What piece of classified information needed to be protected and hidden decades after the fact and the nearly fifteen years after being released? NBC’s insurance meant that it wouldn’t lose any of the money it had invested in broadcasting the Olympics if the boycott prevented it.

1980 Unredacted Memo

Ultimately, the U.S. was successful in getting NATO countries and others to boycott the Moscow Olympics to varying degrees. The State Department itself does the best job of summarizing the debacle (although they leave out the popular perception that the Soviet’s boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was, in part, a response to the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics):

In sum, these actions were Washington’s collective attempt to make the Soviets’ “adventure” in Afghanistan as painful and brief as possible. Instead, it took ten years of grinding insurgency before Moscow finally withdrew, at the cost of millions of lives and billions of dollars. In their wake, the Soviets left a shattered country in which the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, seized control, later providing Osama bin Laden with a training base from which to launch terrorist operations worldwide.

In summary, we knew about the invasion at least a week and a half before it happened. Rather than acting to prevent it, the United States and NATO began planning a boycott of the Olympics. After the invasion had begun, President Carter was warned that a boycott would be mostly ineffective and counterproductive, yet he went ahead with it anyway. If instead of deciding to make the Afghanistan war one of attrition, we had moved to preempt the invasion, things would be quite different. Of course, the same could be said about proper reconstruction after the war. The sum result of these failures were circumstances that couldn’t help but lead to the rise of groups like al-Qaida and ISIS/ISIL.

 

On a purely personal note, I’ll be boycotting the Olympics until they finally bring chess into the competition (if just to see Kasparov compete).

Some people boldly go into the world to create art, play sports, do science, even warfare, but if you want to do all four, you play chess.

You can read the cited CIA files below, or my MDR request for an unredacted copy here.

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