Small Wars Journal

Milton Bearden's Requiem for a Russian Spy

In an article in Foreign Policy, Milton Bearden, former CIA case officer and station chief in Pakistan from 1986-1989 during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, writes a requiem for the spy that was his Karla.

On the second-to-last day of March, Leonid Vladimirovich Shebarshin, the former head of the KGB's foreign intelligence arm and chairman of the KGB -- for a single day in the turmoil of the August 1991 coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev -- died in his central Moscow apartment, apparently taking his own life. ...

His death marks the end of an era, the passing of one of the most thoughtful, cultured, and effective leaders of the redoubtable Cold War KGB. He was a master spy, a central figure in the tumultuous half-century contest between the CIA and the KGB, and a true believer in the Soviet dream until the very end. He never wavered; he never apologized.

Categories: Soviet Union - KGB - CIA - Afghanistan


Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 06/28/2012 - 2:31am

In reply to by Rick

That's a fair point and it is an annoying tic of some commentators and reporters to constantly refer to that conflict, and yet, curiously, not in a way that might be helpful, IMO.

OTOH, I found the following SWJ article extremely interesting and helpful (the Americanization of British doctrine when talking about Iraq/Afghanistan?):

<blockquote>The reference to Vietnam is a deliberate cue. The third argument is that we have been here before. Observed through a long telescope it is difficult to peer at Afghanistan and not wonder whether someone is attempting an exercise in ‘Vietnam Take Two’. Every aspect of the current Anglo-Saxon counter-insurgency strategy has roots in Vietnam: Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), pacification, the Marine Combined Action Platoons (CAPs), Clear and Hold, Find and Fix, the special force Phoenix program, the railliers (Viet Cong re-integrees), the Popular Forces, the panoply of advisory and assistance initiatives, the economic and military aid programs, and not least, the maddeningly fraught relationship between the US Embassy and South Vietnam’s succession of leaders. From 1960 – when the VC irrupted after a dormant period – there was unanimity that the war was going to won or lost in the countryside. What followed was a grand and tragically doomed experiment in attempting to ‘secure the population’. In the end, the naysayers were proved right.</blockquote> (The Simple Truth? Securing the Population as a Recent Invention by Sergio Miller.)

So, supposedly modernization theory is discredited back in the 50s and 60s or whatever, and yet, I seem to find it everywhere everywhere around here: the idea that if we intervene economically and with development aid as a third party, we in the US or NATO or the EU can shape the trajectory of a nation's development in some essential way.

But I dunno, stuff like intellectual histories is complicated business. (For instance, searching for papers on modernization theory and CORDS is interesting. Probably pretty pertinent to the EM Burlingame "Venture Capitalist" discussion going on in a different comments section around here. But again, I don't know. Only an interested layperson. I don't study this stuff formally.)…


Wed, 06/27/2012 - 11:50am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

I suspect in context as reported in the WP, Amb. Rice's comments were meant to deflect any parallel that Afghanistan might be Obama's Viet-Nam?

Although like LBJ, Obama did take over a conflict started by a previous administration, and also gave his generals what they always want, but never feel they have enough of . . . more troops.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 06/27/2012 - 9:36am

And as long as we are talking about institutional memories and "hang-ups," this post by Tom Ricks at Best Defense is interesting:

<blockquote>"What does that have to do with me and the world we're living in today?" inquires Susan Rice, American ambassador to the United Nations.

Remarks like that worry me. Just because you weren't alive during the Vietnam War doesn't mean you won't go down that road. I generally am a fan of the Obama administration, on both domestic and foreign policy. But the one thing that gives me the creeps is their awkward relationship with senior military officials. Mistrusting the Joint Chiefs, suspecting their motives, treating them as adversaries or outsiders, not examining differences -- that was LBJ's recipe. It didn't work. He looked upon the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a political entity to be manipulated or, failing that, sidelined. That's a recipe for disaster, especially for an administration conspicuously lacking interest in the views of former military officers or even former civilian Pentagon officials.</blockquote>…

I was struck by the level of, well, arrogance in that interview with Amb. Rice. (And other R2Pers.) Perhaps the sahibs/memsahibs of the internationalist community ought to examine their own beliefs before pontificating on the hang-ups of others.

Yes, I know that's rich coming from me, but trust me, I get that I have intellectual hang-ups. I truly get it. I just can't seem to get over it, sometimes....

Er, how did I end up here from an article on the KGB?

Oh, I know. All three comments of mine are about romanticizing internationalism as viewed from a Western perspective and the hubris of DC types.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 06/27/2012 - 9:05am

The following might help to "flesh out" some of my previous comment:

<blockquote>Josef Korbel may be one of the most influential Americans you've never heard of. He died in 1977, but his legacy lives on in his two most famous students: his daughter, Madeleine Albright, and his star pupil at the University of Denver, Condoleezza Rice.

Korbel was an up-and-coming Czech diplomat in 1948 when the communists staged a coup in his country. He fled Europe and ended up at the University of Denver, where he went on to found the school's Graduate School of International Studies.</blockquote>

I guess I am really using this post to go off on intellectual histories and institutional memories and how that might affect policy-making.

Have we taken on a European and British understanding of that part of the world that is not optimal for American military interests? In a sense, the Cold War papered over basic differences between the former colonialists and ourselves as former colonials. Or am I being unfair?

(Sorry about changing my comment so much but preview isn't working so well for me, but "save" is.)

The Bearden article is excellent.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 06/27/2012 - 9:23am

A chivalrous and thoughtful read, indeed, which makes what I am about to write seem churlish and difficult but I have to ask the question:

Did a certain level of romanticization of the Cold War by the CIA, DOD, State Department, etc., lead to some of our difficulties in Afghanistan?

I am reading two books that raise uncomfortable questions about current decision-makers in our various institutions:

<em>Gandhi and Churchill</em> by Arthur Herman and <em>Danger in Kashmir</em> by Josef Korbel (father of Madeleine Albright and mentor to Condoleeza Rice).

Fears of Russian (British Raj) and Soviet (Cold War) infiltration into India are easy parallels to make and not particularly novel, but I wonder how much of current 2012 military policy reflects the basic DC sense of Western blocs against an Eastern blocs, the continued belief in the primacy of the MidEast to American foreign policy even as the reality is that it is no longer as important to American interests as it once was, the continued close relationship between DC and the Saudis, and so forth. It is hard to begin the 21st century when policy and decision-makers are stuck in a narrative that has its basis in the 19th and 20th centuries and is not entirely reflective of the changing nature of our own power as Americans. I am not talking about declinism, but what it will take to stay strong.

In particular, Korbel's book from the 50s features a chilling passage--in retrospect--in which Nehru warns the US against the militarization of the subcontinent, or at least, contributing to it (other actors were involved and various countries have their own agency). The basic warning from Nehru-- and he got it right, even if he got other things wrong -- continues to be unheeded by today's State Dept. and others who cannot stop trying to create blocs in that part of the world

It won't work in this multipolar twenty first century world and a global NATO will sap our power as Americans.

Nonetheless, I would like to see this train of thought properly studied. I think the basic neuroses still exist in our institutions.

Sorry for the tangent, except, I don't think it is. Romanticizing the Cold War, how much has this affected our policies? I mean, the article talks about "conducting a symphony" in a sense. But a proxy war is not a symphony between CIA and KGB. It means using people who never directly harmed American citizens as, well, proxies. And that means killing. It wasn't a symphony. Look, I'm a huge fan of Reagan and continue to be (other cold warriors, I'm not such a fan of) and the language used at that time was fine as Cold War propaganda, but we shouldn't fool ourselves today. It was dirty business. We won, but we won clean in some places, dirty in others. Let's be honest about it.