1979-1989: Response to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

Joe Biden supported funding the mujahideen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 01:  Mujahedin rebels in the area between Kabul and Jalalabad in Afghanistan in February, 1980.  (Photo by Alain MINGAM/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Mujahideen rebels are seen in the area between Kabul and Jalalabad in Afghanistan in February 1980. Photo: Alain Mingam/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

After the Soviet Union began its 1979 invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, Joe Biden supported some of President Jimmy Carter’s responses, including an embargo on grain shipments to the Soviet Union. “This should be an indefinite program, and we go back to the Cold War as long as the Soviets remain in Afghanistan,” Biden said in January 1980. There was widespread consensus that the embargo hurt U.S. farmers more than the USSR, and it became a weakness for Carter in the 1980 election, when his opponent Ronald Reagan pledged to reverse the policy. After winning, Reagan ended the embargo in 1981 and was determined to move from Carter’s use of food as a weapon to more robust support for the Afghan mujahideen.

Biden voted in favor of a request by the Reagan administration to increase aid to Pakistan by waiving prohibitions on financing nations that had active nuclear weapons programs. Aid to Pakistan had been cut off in 1979 due to the country’s imports of equipment for uranium enrichment. The Biden-backed waiver would have sweeping ramifications since it facilitated the CIA’s assistance to Pakistan’s intelligence service, which was coordinating the battle against Soviet occupation using forces Reagan proudly called “Afghan freedom fighters” — better known as the mujahideen. The bill Biden supported authorized Reagan to provide more than $3 billion in military and other assistance to Pakistan from 1981 to 1987 “if he determines that to do so is in the national interest of the United States.” The funding, the bill stated, was necessary “in order to assist Pakistan in dealing with the threat to its security posed by the Soviet presence in Afghanistan.”

In 1982, Reagan proclaimed March 21 to be Afghanistan Day. “To watch the courageous Afghan freedom fighters battle modern arsenals with simple hand-held weapons is an inspiration to those who love freedom,” Reagan declared in 1983. “Their courage teaches us a great lesson — that there are things in this world worth defending.”

Biden later supported the 1985 Pressler Amendment, which required the president to certify on an annual basis that “Pakistan does not possess a nuclear explosive device and that the proposed United States assistance program will reduce significantly the risk that Pakistan will possess a nuclear explosive device.” The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh later reported: “The certification process became farcical in the last years of the Reagan Administration, whose yearly certification—despite explicit American intelligence about Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program—was seen as little more than a payoff to the Pakistani leadership for its support in Afghanistan.” Hersh added that “the political leadership of the United States, flagrantly violating the law, had permitted Pakistan to buy restricted items inside the United States for its nuclear arsenal” and charged that “senior officials of the Reagan and the Bush Administrations chose not to share the intelligence about nuclear purchases with Congress.” In 1990, President George H.W. Bush was unable to certify that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear explosive device.

In 2008, in recognition of his “consistent support for Pakistan,” Biden was awarded the Hilal-e-Pakistan award by then-Pakistani President Asif Zardari, the country’s highest state honor.

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