A2 Unit 3 IR 1945-2004: (13) Détente under pressure; the Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1970s; Angola; Afghanistan, 1979

Source: US State Dept History archive –

Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1970s

Youtube documentary: ‘Good guys, Bad guys’ 1967-1978

The 1973 Arab-Israeli War

The 1973 Arab-Israeli War was a watershed for U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East. It forced the Nixon administration to realize that Arab frustration over Israel’s unwillingness to withdraw from the territories it had occupied in 1967 could have major strategic consequences for the United States. The war thus paved the way for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” and ultimately, the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979.

President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, November 1973. (U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress)President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, November 1973. (U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress)

The Nixon Administration and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1969–1973

President Richard Nixon came into office convinced that the Arab-Israeli standoff over the fate of the occupied territories could damage America’s standing in the Arab world and undermine prospects for U.S.-Soviet détente. In attempt to break the deadlock, he ordered Secretary of State William Rogers to negotiate with the Soviets on the parameters of a Middle East settlement, with the goal of reaching an agreement that each superpower could sell to its regional clients. By December 1969, however, the Soviet Union, Egypt, and Israel had all rejected the so-called “Rogers Plan,” which called for Israeli to withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines, with “insubstantial alterations,” in return for peace.

The failure of the Rogers Plan led Nixon to suspend efforts to reach a settlement with the Soviets and lent credence to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s argument that the United States should not push Israel for concessions so long as Egypt, the leading Arab state, remained aligned with the Soviets. In the summer of 1970, Nixon broke with Kissinger and allowed Rogers to present a more limited initiative to halt the Israeli-Egyptian “War of Attrition” along the Suez Canal, in which the Soviets had become militarily involved. “Rogers II,” which called for Israel and Egypt to agree to a three month ceasefire and negotiations under the auspices of U.N. mediator Gunnar Jarring, was accepted by both parties, who stopped fighting on August 7. Yet Nixon’s appetite for diplomacy was spoiled by Egyptian and Soviet efforts to move anti-aircraft missiles closer to the Canal and Syrian intervention in Jordan’s civil war. Until February 1971, Kissinger’s arguments against prematurely rewarding Soviet clients again held sway.

In February 1971, however, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat presented the Nixon administration with a new opportunity for Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Sadat proposed that Egypt would reopen the Suez Canal if the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) pulled back from the Canal’s east bank and later agreed to a timetable for further withdrawals. He also indicated that he would renounce all claims of belligerency against Israel if the IDF withdrew to the international border. Rogers’ efforts to capitalize on Sadat’s statements by working toward an interim settlement, however, were opposed by the Israelis, and received little support from Kissinger and Nixon. Kissinger believed that Egyptian proposals for an interim settlement, along with a Soviet peace plan tabled that September, would be rejected by the Israelis, and did not want discord over the Middle East to undermine efforts at détente before the Moscow summit of May 1972. For Nixon, such reasoning was reinforced by a desire to avoid a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations before the 1972 presidential elections.

In the wake of the Moscow summit, where the Americans and the Soviets deliberately avoided discussing the Middle East, Sadat made two more moves to get the Nixon administration to break the Arab-Israeli stalemate. In July 1972, he decided to expel Soviet military advisors from Egypt, and opened a backchannel to Kissinger through Hafiz Isma‘il, his national security advisor. In February 1973, Isma‘il met with Kissinger and informed him that Egypt would be willing to sign a separate peace agreement with Israel that could involve demilitarized zones on both sides of the international border and peacekeepers in sensitive locations like Sharm al-Shaykh. However, Egyptian-Israeli normalization would have to wait until Israel withdrew from all the territories it had conquered in 1967. The Israelis responded haltingly, and Nixon and Kissinger made little effort to change their minds. Despite Sadat’s public displays of frustration, as well as warnings from Jordan’s King Hussein and Soviet Secretary-General Leonid Brezhnev, Nixon and Kissinger believed that given the military balance, Egypt and Syria would not attack Israel, a view supported by much of the U.S. intelligence community. Until the fall of 1973, the President and Kissinger held that any American diplomatic initiative would have to wait until after Israel’s elections that October.

The War and its Consequences

On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel’s forces in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Despite initial Israeli setbacks, Kissinger, now both Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, believed that Israel would win quickly. He feared that a rout of the Arabs could force the Soviets to intervene, raising their prestige in the Arab world and damaging détente. Thus, he proposed that the United States and the Soviet Union call for an end to the fighting and a return to the 1967 ceasefire lines. The Soviets, who were uneager to intervene on behalf of their clients, agreed, but the Egyptians rejected the ceasefire proposal. Wanting to avoid both an Arab defeat and military intervention, the Soviets then began to resupply Egypt and Syria with weapons. By October 9, following a failed IDF counter-attack against Egypt’s forces, the Israelis requested that America do the same for them. Not wanting to see Israel defeated, Nixon agreed, and American planes carrying weapons began arriving in Israel on October 14.

With the American airlift underway, the fighting turned against the Arabs. On October 16, IDF units crossed the Suez Canal. Sadat began to show interest in a ceasefire, leading Brezhnev to invite Kissinger to Moscow to negotiate an agreement. A U.S.-Soviet proposal for a ceasefire followed by peace talks was adopted by the UN Security Council as Resolution 338 on October 22. Afterward, however, Kissinger flew to Tel Aviv, where he told the Israelis that the United States would not object if the IDF continued to advance while he flew back to Washington. When Kissinger returned to the United States, he agreed to a Soviet request to seek another ceasefire resolution, which the Security Council adopted on October 23. Yet the Israelis still refused to stop. On October 24, Brezhnev sent Nixon a hotline message suggesting that the United States and the Soviet Union send troops to Egypt to “implement” the ceasefire. If Nixon chose not to do so, Brezhnev threatened, “We should be faced with the necessity urgently to consider the question of taking appropriate steps unilaterally.” The United States responded by putting its nuclear forces on worldwide alert on October 25. By the end of the day, the crisis abated when the Security Council adopted Resolution 340, which called for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of all forces to their October 22 positions, and U.N. observers and peacekeepers to monitor the ceasefire. This time, the Israelis accepted the resolution.

The 1973 war thus ended in an Israeli victory, but at great cost to the United States. Though the war did not scuttle détente, it nevertheless brought the United States closer to a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union than at any point since the Cuban missile crisis. The American military airlift to Israel, moreover, had led Arab oil producers to embargo oil shipments to the United States and some Western European countries, causing international economic upheaval. The stage was set for Kissinger to make a major effort at Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

Oil Embargo, 1973–1974

During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an embargo against the United States in retaliation for the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military and to gain leverage in the post-war peace negotiations. Arab OPEC members also extended the embargo to other countries that supported Israel including the Netherlands, Portugal, and South Africa. The embargo both banned petroleum exports to the targeted nations and introduced cuts in oil production. Several years of negotiations between oil-producing nations and oil companies had already destabilized a decades-old pricing system, which exacerbated the embargo’s effects.

Cars wait in long lines during the gas shortage. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Warren K. Leffler)Cars wait in long lines during the gas shortage. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Warren K. Leffler)

The 1973 Oil Embargo acutely strained a U.S. economy that had grown increasingly dependent on foreign oil. The efforts of President Richard M. Nixon’s administration to end the embargo signaled a complex shift in the global financial balance of power to oil-producing states and triggered a slew of U.S. attempts to address the foreign policy challenges emanating from long-term dependence on foreign oil.

By 1973, OPEC had demanded that foreign oil corporations increase prices and cede greater shares of revenue to their local subsidiaries. In April, the Nixon administration announced a new energy strategy to boost domestic production to reduce U.S. vulnerability to oil imports and ease the strain of nationwide fuel shortages. That vulnerability would become overtly clear in the fall of that year.

The onset of the embargo contributed to an upward spiral in oil prices with global implications. The price of oil per barrel first doubled, then quadrupled, imposing skyrocketing costs on consumers and structural challenges to the stability of whole national economies. Since the embargo coincided with a devaluation of the dollar, a global recession seemed imminent. U.S. allies in Europe and Japan had stockpiled oil supplies, and thereby secured for themselves a short-term cushion, but the long-term possibility of high oil prices and recession precipitated a rift within the Atlantic Alliance. European nations and Japan found themselves in the uncomfortable position of needing U.S. assistance to secure energy sources, even as they sought to disassociate themselves from U.S. Middle East policy. The United States, which faced a growing dependence on oil consumption and dwindling domestic reserves, found itself more reliant on imported oil than ever before, having to negotiate an end to the embargo under harsh domestic economic circumstances that served to diminish its international leverage. To complicate matters, the embargo’s organizers linked its end to successful U.S. efforts to bring about peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Partly in response to these developments, on November 7 the Nixon administration announced Project Independence to promote domestic energy independence. It also engaged in intensive diplomatic efforts among its allies, promoting a consumers’ union that would provide strategic depth and a consumers’ cartel to control oil pricing. Both of these efforts were only partially successful.

President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recognized the constraints inherent in peace talks to end the war that were coupled with negotiations with Arab OPEC members to end the embargo and increase production. But they also recognized the linkage between the issues in the minds of Arab leaders. The Nixon administration began parallel negotiations with key oil producers to end the embargo, and with Egypt, Syria, and Israel to arrange an Israeli pullout from the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Initial discussions between Kissinger and Arab leaders began in November 1973 and culminated with the First Egyptian-Israeli Disengagement Agreement on January 18, 1974. Though a finalized peace deal failed to materialize, the prospect of a negotiated end to hostilities between Israel and Syria proved sufficient to convince the relevant parties to lift the embargo in March 1974.

The embargo laid bare one of the foremost challenges confronting U.S. policy in the Middle East, that of balancing the contradictory demands of unflinching support for Israel and the preservation of close ties to the Arab oil-producing monarchies. The strains on U.S. bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia revealed the difficulty of reconciling those demands. The U.S. response to the events of 1973–1974 also clarified the need to reconcile U.S. support for Israel to counterbalance Soviet influence in the Arab world with both foreign and domestic economic policies.

The full impact of the embargo, including high inflation and stagnation in oil importers, resulted from a complex set of factors beyond the proximate actions taken by the Arab members of OPEC. The declining leverage of the U.S. and European oil corporations (the “Seven Sisters”) that had hitherto stabilized the global oil market, the erosion of excess capacity of East Texas oil fields, and the recent decision to allow the U.S. dollar to float freely in the international exchange all played a role in exacerbating the crisis. Once the broader impact of these factors set in throughout the United States, it triggered new measures beyond the April and November 1973 efforts that focused on energy conservation and development of domestic energy sources. These measures included the creation of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a national 55-mile-per-hour speed limit on U.S. highways, and later, President Gerald R. Ford’s administration’s imposition of fuel economy standards. It also prompted the creation of the International Energy Agency proposed by Kissinger.

Shuttle Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1974–1975

In January and May 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger engaged in “shuttle diplomacy,” a term coined by the members of the media who followed Kissinger on his various short flights among Middle East capitals as he sought to deal with the fallout of the October 1973 war. After three weeks of fighting, a ceasefire found Israeli forces entangled with the Egyptian and Syrian forces. This presented President Richard Nixon and Kissinger with an opportunity to play a lead role in disengaging these armies from one another and possibly laying the groundwork for further steps to peacefully resolve the 25-year conflict. In January 1974, Kissinger helped negotiate the first Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement in eight days, and in May, he arranged a Syrian-Israeli disengagement after a month of intense negotiations. Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy secured one last deal in September 1975 with the conclusion of a second Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement.

The map of the second disengagement agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1975. (Office of the Geographer, U.S. Department of State)The map of the second disengagement agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1975. (Office of the Geographer, U.S. Department of State)

The origins of the first shuttle started with Israel’s proposals for disengagement with the Egyptians on January 4 and 5, 1974. Israel’s proposals demonstrated to Kissinger that the two sides were close enough for him to engage in intensive diplomacy between Jerusalem and Cairo to find a way to negotiate a solution. Nixon, who had become severely distracted by the growing Watergate crisis, encouraged Kissinger to make the trip, but Nixon’s involvement in this negotiation and the ones to follow before his resignation was minimal.

On January 11, Kissinger arrived in Aswan, Egypt where President Anwar Sadat worked during the winter. The negotiations would center around three key items: first, where the forward line of each army would be located; second, the size of the zones where armor was to be limited; and third, the types of armor to be limited in these zones. The Israelis also wanted the Egyptians to reopen the Suez Canal and sought assurances guaranteeing Israeli passage through the Suez Canal, the Straits of Tiran, and Bab el-Madeb. Furthermore, Israel desired Egypt to reconstruct cities along the Suez Canal so as to ensure that the danger to Egyptian civilian populations would deter Egypt from starting another war. Kissinger shuttled between Israel and Egypt for a week, reaching an agreement on January 18. The highlights of the agreement included limited Egyptian and Israeli forces divided by a U.N. buffer zone on the east bank of the Suez Canal. Egypt also agreed to most of the assurances that Israel had requested.

Following the conclusion of this Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement, commonly known as Sinai I, U.S. attention moved to Syria, the other country with armies entangled with Israel’s forces. Kissinger hoped moving on the Syrian-Israeli front would lead the Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) to lift the oil embargo they had imposed on the United States in retaliation for American assistance to Israel during the war.

Unlike the relatively short negotiations that led to the Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement, negotiations for a Syrian-Israeli disengagement proved far more arduous and took much longer. By March 18, OPEC lifted the oil embargo, but it would be subject to review on June I. With a need to show progress in negotiations between Israel and Syria before then, Kissinger moved forward in laying the groundwork for another shuttle. Through the end of March and most of April, Kissinger met separately in Washington with Israeli officials and a senior- level Syrian emissary to discuss the groundwork for negotiations.

By the end of April, Kissinger decided the time was right to begin his second shuttle in the Middle East. On May 1, he left for Jerusalem to begin nearly a month of intense negotiations between the Israelis and Syrians. The negotiation centered on the town of Quneitra in the Golan Heights, three kilometers within the zone Israel had captured during the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Since Quneitra did not include any Israeli settlements, the Syrians wanted the town returned as part of any agreement, as well as the territory taken during the October war. After the first week of negotiations, the Syrians and Israelis had shared with Kissinger their views of a line of disengagement. They were close to one another; however, control of Quneitra and three hills that surrounded the town remained the key stumbling block. By mid-May, both sides had agreed to compromises that put their proposals within a few hundred meters of each other, and Israel had assented to a civilian Syrian presence in Quneitra. Despite the progress, neither side would close the gap needed to complete an agreement. On May 16, Kissinger offered an American proposal that sought to find the common ground necessary to reach a compromise. Both sides wanted modifications to this American proposal, however, and negotiations dragged on for another two weeks with Kissinger almost ceasing the negotiations on three separate occasions. Finally, on May 31, Syria and Israel signed a disengagement agreement.

On August 9, Nixon resigned the presidency, and Vice-President Gerald Ford assumed the office while keeping Kissinger on board as both Secretary of State and National Security Adviser. During the fall, much to the U.S. Government’s disappointment, an Arab summit in Rabat, Morocco virtually eliminated any hopes of a Jordanian-Israeli agreement. The Arab representatives announced a resolution on October 28 that recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole representative of the Palestinian people and affirmed its right “to establish an independent national authority over all liberated territory.” Despite previous Jordanian efforts during the year to engage the Israelis in negotiations over the West Bank and Jerusalem, this resolution forced King Hussein to defer to the PLO in future negotiations with Israel over the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

With Jordan no longer in a position to press the United States for a negotiation with Israel, and Israel unwilling to talk with the PLO, Sadat convinced President Ford and Kissinger that they should spend 1975 pushing for a second agreement between Israel and Egypt over the Sinai. Unlike Sinai I, however, negotiations for this second agreement proved far more challenging and lasted several months. After initial discussions with the Egyptians and Israelis, Ford concluded that the Israelis were not as forthcoming as Egypt, and in March, he called for a reassessment of U.S. policy towards Israel. This sparked an outcry from the U.S. Senate, and Ford backtracked during the early summer. Ultimately, by August, an agreement was within sight, and Kissinger finished the second Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement, known as the Sinai Interim Agreement or Sinai II, which Egypt and Israel signed on September 4. This agreement led to the withdrawal of Israeli forces further east in the Sinai and a U.N. buffer zone put in the place of the Israelis. The agreement also committed major U.S. resources through the establishment of three manned stations and three unmanned electronic sensor fields in the Sinai.

Camp David Accords and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process

The Camp David Accords, signed by President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in September 1978, established a framework for a historic peace treaty concluded between Israel and Egypt in March 1979. President Carter and the U.S. Government played leading roles in creating the opportunity for this agreement to occur. From the start of his administration, Carter and his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, pursued intensive negotiations with Arab and Israeli leaders, hoping to reconvene the Geneva Conference, which had been established in December 1973 to seek an end to the Arab-Israeli dispute.

President Jimmy Carter with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David, Maryland in September 1978. (Jimmy Carter Library)President Jimmy Carter with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David, Maryland in September 1978. (Jimmy Carter Library)

As Carter and Vance met with individual leaders from Arab countries and Israel during the spring of 1977, negotiations for a return to Geneva appeared to gain some momentum. On May 17, 1977, an Israeli election upset stunned the Carter administration as the moderate Israeli Labor Party lost for the first time in Israel’s history. Menachem Begin, the leader of the conservative Likud Party and the new Israeli Prime Minister, appeared intractable on the issue of exchanging land for peace. His party’s commitment to “greater Israel” left Carter with an even more challenging situation during the summer of 1977.

In addition to the new reality of a Likud government in Israel, long-standing rivalries among Arab leaders also played a role in blocking substantive progress in negotiations for a Geneva conference. By early November, Egyptian President Sadat found himself frustrated by the lack of movement and made a dramatic move, announcing on November 9 that he would be willing to go to Jerusalem. This move stunned the world. Sadat would attempt to break the deadlock and to engage the Israelis directly for a Middle East settlement, eschewing any talk of returning to the Geneva Conference. Sadat’s visit led to direct talks between Egypt and Israel that December, but these talks did not generate substantive progress. By January 1978, the United States returned to a more prominent negotiation role.

During the spring and early summer of 1978, the United States attempted to find common ground with regard to Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, West Bank, and Gaza. Egypt insisted on an Israeli withdrawal to June 4, 1967 borders in exchange for security arrangements and minor border modifications. Israel rejected Egypt’s insistence on withdrawal, especially from the West Bank and Gaza. It argued instead for some form of Palestinian autonomy during a five-year interim period followed by the possibility of sovereignty after the interim period expired. The impasse over the West Bank and Gaza led Carter to intercede directly in an attempt to resolve the deadlock.

By July 30, as Sadat expressed disappointment over the progress of negotiations and a desire to cut direct contacts off with the Israelis, Carter decided to call for a summit meeting. This meeting would bring Sadat, Begin, and Carter together at the presidential retreat in Maryland at Camp David. On August 8, the White House spokesman formally announced the meeting, which both Begin and Sadat agreed to attend in September.

The Camp David Summit, held from September 5–17, 1978, was a pivotal moment both in the history of the Arab-Israeli dispute and U.S. diplomacy. Rarely had a U.S. President devoted as much sustained attention to a single foreign policy issue as Carter did over the summit’s two-week duration. Carter’s ambitious goals for the talks included breaking the negotiating deadlock and hammering out a detailed Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. To this end, U.S. Middle East experts produced a draft treaty text, which served as the basis for the negotiations and would be revised numerous times during the Summit. The talks proved extremely challenging, especially when the trilateral format became impossible to sustain. Instead, Carter and Vance met with the Egyptian and Israeli delegations individually over the course of the next twelve days.

The talks ranged over a number of issues, including the future of Israeli settlements and airbases in the Sinai Peninsula, but it was Gaza and the West Bank that continued to pose the most difficulty. Specifically, the delegations were divided over the applicability of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 to a long-term agreement in the territories, as well as the status of Israel’s settlements during projected negotiations on Palestinian autonomy that would follow a peace treaty. In the end, while the Summit did not produce a formal peace agreement, it successfully produced the basis for an Egyptian-Israeli peace, in the form of two “Framework” documents, which laid out the principles of a bilateral peace agreement as well as a formula for Palestinian self-government in Gaza and the West Bank.

While the conclusion of the Camp David Accords represented significant progress, the process of translating the Framework documents into a formal peace treaty proved daunting. As with the Summit, Carter’s hopes for rapid progress were high, and the President hoped that a treaty text would be concluded in a matter of days. However, the controversy that developed between the Carter administration and the Begin government over the duration of an agreed freeze in the construction of Israeli settlements was quickly followed by the administration’s failure to win support from Jordan or Saudi Arabia for the Accords. Beginning in October, a series of talks in Washington broke down as a result of Israeli concerns over the timing of their withdrawal and Egyptian reservations regarding the impact of a peace treaty on its obligations to other Arab states. Other regional developments, especially the Iranian Revolution, distracted U.S. policymakers and raised Israeli concerns about its oil supply, resulting in an impasse during the winter of 1978–1979. After Begin’s visit to the White House in early March failed to break the stalemate, Carter traveled to Israel on March 10. Having previously secured Sadat’s consent to negotiate on behalf of Egypt, the President engaged in three days of intensive talks with the Israelis. As a result of a series of compromises, notably a U.S. guarantee of Israel’s oil supply, omitting references to a “special role” for Egypt in Gaza, and Israeli agreement to make a number of unilateral gestures to the Palestinians, the U.S. and Israeli delegations agreed to a treaty text on March 13. Sadat quickly assented to the agreement and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty was formally signed on March 26.

Although a landmark event, the successful conclusion of the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty represented the high-water mark for the Peace Process during the Carter Presidency. After March 1979, the issue would not receive the same level of U.S. attention due to the competing demands of crises, especially those in Iran and Afghanistan, as well as Carter’s desire to reduce his personal involvement in the next round of negotiations devoted to Palestinian autonomy. For those talks, Carter appointed a “special negotiator” to represent the United States; former Special Trade Representative Robert Strauss served in this role briefly before being replaced in the fall of 1979 by Sol Linowitz, who had previously helped negotiate the Panama Canal treaty. The talks failed to produce much as Palestinian representatives refused to participate, and the gap between Egyptian and Israeli positions on Palestinian self-government, not to mention their respective stances on Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank and the legal status of East Jerusalem, proved unbridgeable.

The Angola Crisis 1974–75

After a successful military coup in Portugal that toppled a long-standing authoritarian regime on April 25, 1974, the new rulers in Lisbon sought to divest the country of its costly colonial empire. The impending independence of one of those colonies, Angola, led to the Angolan civil war that grew into a Cold War competition. The Angola crisis of 1974–1975 ultimately contributed to straining relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Cuban and Angolan soldiers are shown during a weapon practice session at a training center. (AP Photo)Cuban and Angolan soldiers are shown during a weapon practice session at a training center. (AP Photo)

Three main military movements had been fighting for Angolan independence since the 1960s. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) was a Marxist organization centered in the capital, Luanda, and led by Agostinho Neto. The National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), led by Holden Roberto, was based in the north of the country and had strong ties to the U.S. ally, Mobutu Sese Seko, in neighboring Zaire. The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), an offshoot of the FNLA, was led by Jonas Savimbi and supported by the country’s largest ethnic group, the Ovimbundu. Following the Portuguese coup, these three revolutionaries met with representatives of the new Portuguese Government in January 1975 and signed the Alvor Agreement that granted Angolan independence and provided for a three-way power sharing government. However, trust quickly broke down among the three groups, and the country descended into civil war as each vied for sole power.

The crisis in Angola developed into a Cold War battleground as the superpowers and their allies delivered military assistance to their preferred clients. The United States supplied aid and training for both the FNLA and UNITA while troops from Zaire assisted Holden Roberto and his fighters. China, also, sent military instructors to train the FNLA. The Soviet Union provided military training and equipment for the MPLA. During the summer of 1975, the Soviet-supported MPLA was able to consolidate power in Luanda and oust the U.S.-supported FNLA from the capital, but the FNLA continued to attack. The remaining Portuguese troops failed to stem the violence. When MPLA leader Neto announced November 11, 1975 as the day of Angolan independence, Lisbon decided to withdraw its troops on that day.

The MPLA also had long-established relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Before November 11, the MPLA had negotiated with Castro for Cuban assistance. At the same time, UNITA, which enjoyed U.S. support, approached the Apartheid government in South Africa for military reinforcement. Pretoria, with the aim to end the use of Angola as a base for rebels fighting for the independence of South Africa-occupied Namibia, contributed forces that entered southern Angola in October and made rapid progress toward the capital. In response, Castro sent Cuban Special Forces to halt the South African advance and succeeded in drawing attention to the fact that the United States had provided support to a group that now accepted assistance from an Apartheid government.

The U.S. Government had encouraged the South African intervention, but preferred to downplay its connection with the Apartheid regime. However, once Pretoria’s involvement became widely known, the Chinese withdrew its advisers from the region, and the Ford Administration was faced with domestic resistance to the U.S. role in the Angolan conflict. President Gerald Ford had requested Congressional approval for more money to fund the operation in Angola. However, many members of Congress were wary of intervening abroad after the struggle in Vietnam, others wished to avoid the South Africa connection, and still others did not believe the issue was important. In the end, Congress rejected the President’s request for additional funds. South Africa withdrew its forces in the spring of 1976 and the MPLA remained as the official government of Angola. Still, Jonas Savimbi and UNITA continued an insurgency until his death in 2002.

During the period of the Angolan crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union were still enjoying a brief thaw in their relations, in an era referred to as détente. During this time, Washington and Moscow had reached a series of agreements that aimed to reduce tensions between the two superpowers. However, by 1974, strains on bilateral relations had already compromised U.S. support for détente and the crisis in Angola served to accelerate this trend. From the U.S. point of view, one of the aims of détente was to draw the Soviet Union further into the international system so that Washington could induce Moscow to show restraint in its dealings with the Third World. The Ford Administration believed that Cuba had intervened in Angola as a Soviet proxy and as such, the general view in Washington was that Moscow was breaking the rules of détente. The appearance of a Soviet success and a U.S. loss in Angola on the heels of a victory by Soviet-supported North Vietnam over U.S.-supported South Vietnam continued to erode U.S. faith in détente as an effective Cold War foreign policy.

The U.S. failure to achieve its desired outcome in Angola raised the stakes of the superpower competition in the Third World. Subsequent disagreements over the Horn of Africa, and Afghanistan contributed to undoing the period of détente between the Soviet Union and the United States. Additionally, the Angola crisis also ended a recent thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. Response, 1978–1980

Youtube documentary: ‘Soldiers of God’ 1977-1988

At the end of December 1979, the Soviet Union sent thousands of troops into Afghanistan and immediately assumed complete military and political control of Kabul and large portions of the country. This event began a brutal, decade-long attempt by Moscow to subdue the Afghan civil war and maintain a friendly and socialist government on its border. It was a watershed event of the Cold War, marking the only time the Soviet Union invaded a country outside the Eastern Bloc—a strategic decision met by nearly worldwide condemnation. While the massive, lightning-fast military maneuvers and brazenness of Soviet political objectives constituted an “invasion” of Afghanistan, the word “intervention” more accurately describes these events as the culmination of growing Soviet domination going back to 1973. Undoubtedly, leaders in the Kremlin had hoped that a rapid and complete military takeover would secure Afghanistan’s place as an exemplar of the Brezhnev Doctrine, which held that once a country became socialist Moscow would never permit it to return to the capitalist camp. The United States and its European allies, guided by their own doctrine of containment, sharply criticized the Soviet move into Afghanistan and devised numerous measures to compel Moscow to withdraw.

Soviet combat vehicles move through Afghanistan. (Department of Defense)Soviet combat vehicles move through Afghanistan. (Department of Defense)

In the summer of 1973, Mohammed Daoud, the former Afghan Prime Minister, launched a successful coup against King Zahir. Although Daoud himself was more nationalist than socialist, his coup was dependent on pro-Soviet military and political factions. Since 1955 Moscow had provided military training and materiel to Afghanistan; by 1973, a third of active troops had trained on Soviet soil. Additionally, Daoud enjoyed the support of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), founded in 1965 upon Marxist ideology and allegiance to Moscow. In 1967 the PDPA split into two factions: the Parchamists, led by Babrak Karmal (who supported Daoud), and the “Khalqis” led by Noor Taraki. For the next five years, Daoud attempted the impossible task of governing Afganistan’s Islamic tribal regions, while also struggling to reconcile the PDPA split. But the more radical Khalq faction never fully recognized Daoud’s leadership, while Karmal viewed the coup largely as a means to consolidate his own power. In response, Daoud hoped to mitigate both of these threats by steering Afghanistan away from Soviet influence and improving U.S. relations, while decreasing the influence of radical elements in the government and military.

Daoud’s middle course ended in disaster. On April 28, 1978, soldiers aligned with Taraki’s “Khalq” faction assaulted the presidential palace, where troops executed Daoud and his family. In the following days Taraki became the Prime Minister, and, in an attempt to end the PDPA’s divisions, Karmal became Deputy Prime Minister. In Washington, this Communist revolution was met with alarm. The Carter administration recognized that Taraki would undo Daoud’s attempt to steer Afghanistan away from Moscow, and it debated whether to cut ties with Afghanistan or recognize Taraki in the hopes that Soviet influence could be contained. Although the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Zbigniew Brzezinski advocated the former course, Carter supported the Department of State’s advocacy of recognition. Shortly after the revolution, Washington recognized the new government and soon named Adolph Dubs its Ambassador to Afghanistan. Until his kidnapping and death at the hands of Afghan Shia dissidents in February 1979, Dubs strongly pursued good relations with the Taraki regime in the hopes that U.S. support would keep Soviet influence at bay.

Once again, the tumult of internal Afghan politics complicated both U.S. and Soviet jockeying. In the summer of 1979, Hafizullah Amin, a longtime ally of Taraki who became Deputy Prime Minister following the April Revolution, received word that Babrak Karmal (Daoud’s early supporter) was leading a Parcham plot to overthrow the Taraki regime. Amin took the opportunity to purge and execute many Parchamists and consolidate his own power. Complicating matters further, this internal strife damaged the Kabul Government’s major national program, namely, to bring the Communist revolution to the Islamic tribal areas beyond Kabul. By the winter of 1978, this program was met by armed revolt throughout the country. In response, Amin and Taraki traveled to Moscow to sign a friendship treaty which included a provision that would allow direct Soviet military assistance should the Islamic insurgency threaten the regime. This insurrection intensified over the next year and it became increasingly obvious to the Soviets that Taraki could not prevent all-out civil war and the prospect of a hostile Islamic government taking control. By mid-1979 Moscow was searching to replace Taraki and Amin, and dispatched combat troops to Bagram Air Base outside of Kabul. This move prompted the Carter administration to begin supplying non-lethal aid to Afghan mujahedeen, or Islamic insurgents. In August, a high-ranking Soviet military delegation arrived in Kabul to assess the situation. U.S. officials interpreted this mission as one last Soviet attempt to shore up the Taraki regime, and also an opportunity to devise a military takeover. Regarding the latter, most analysts in Washington believed that such a move remained possible but unlikely.

But this calculus was bound to change. Amin sensed the Soviet mission was designed to strengthen Taraki at his expense. In response, forces loyal to Amin executed Taraki in October—a move that infuriated Moscow, which began amassing combat units along its border. At this juncture Washington was still unsure how to interpret the Soviet maneuvers: was the Soviet Union planning a full takeover or did it remain committed to preserving the April Revolution? Analysts remained skeptical that Moscow would occupy the country given the political and economic costs. By the winter of 1979, faced with mutinies and an uncertain leadership, the Afghan Army was unable to provide basic security to the government against the onslaught of Islamic fighters nearing Kabul. By that point the Soviets were sending in motorized divisions and Special Forces. Washington demanded an explanation, which the Soviets ignored. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the invasion began. Soviet troops killed Amin and installed Babrak Karmal as the Soviet’s puppet head of government.

Although the Carter administration had closely watched this buildup from the outset, its reaction following the invasion revealed that, until the end, it clung to the hope that the Soviets would not invade, based on the unjustified assumption that Moscow would conclude that the costs of invasion were too high. In response, Carter wrote a sharply-worded letter to Brezhnev denouncing Soviet aggression, and during his State of the Union address he announced his own doctrine vowing to protect Middle Eastern oil supplies from encroaching Soviet power. The administration also enacted economic sanctions and trade embargoes against the Soviet Union, called for a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and stepped up its aid to the Afghan insurgents. 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.


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