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Trump defends Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, garbling facts in the process

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President Trump's lengthy, on-camera cabinet meeting Wednesday touched on a variety of topics, including the funding fight over a border wall, and the impending withdrawal of American troops from Syria. But in a bizarre aside, the president defended the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

"Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan," Mr. Trump said. "The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt; they went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union. You know, a lot of these places you're reading about now are no longer part of Russia, because of Afghanistan."

The Soviet Union -- which comprised not only Russia, but several other now-independent nations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia -- invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and left in 1989. However, contrary to Mr. Trump's claims, Russia was in Afghanistan to spread communism, not fight terrorists. And in the process, Soviet forces waged a brutal campaign that often targeted civilians.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan as part of a long-term effort to get a warm-water port in what was a longstanding effort to drive south," said Michael Morell, former deputy and acting CIA director and CBS News national security contributor. "It had nothing to do with terrorism." 

Mr. Trump's remark that the Soviets were "right" to invade Afghanistan is remarkable, given that at the time the U.S. strongly opposed the invasion, which occurred during one of the most contentious parts of the Cold War. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would boycott the Olympic games that year -- which were taking place in Moscow -- in response to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. During the Reagan administration, the U.S. offered support to the mujahideen insurgency fighting the Soviet invaders and their local allies.

Morell took issue with Mr. Trump on whether the USSR was "right" to invade Afghanistan, pointing out that the Soviet Union was roundly condemned by not only the international community, but by two American presidents with profoundly different worldviews.

"The harsh international reaction, including by the United States, to that invasion -- by both the Carter administration and the Reagan administration -- would suggest otherwise," Morell said.

Mr. Trump's comment that the Afghanistan invasion bankrupted Russia is also false. The Soviet economy did collapse, but it did not go bankrupt, nor was the invasion the sole cause for its dissolution. Much like the Vietnam War for the U.S., the campaign in Afghanistan made the Soviets look weak because it was unable to defeat a smaller and much less advanced force. However, several other factors also contributed to the Soviet decline, such as the drop in oil prices, political restructuring, and systemic weaknesses within its communist economy. 

Although it was only a brief comment, Mr. Trump's remarks on Afghanistan were striking given longtime U.S. policy and opinion on the Soviet invasion. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal's editorial board excoriated Mr. Trump first for mocking the other countries that sent troops to fight with the U.S. in Afghanistan. "They tell me a hundred times, 'Oh, we sent you soldiers. We sent you soldiers,'" he said. That, the Journal's editorial board said, "is a slander against every ally that has supported the U.S. effort in Afghanistan," and it pointed out that the 450 U.K. troops have been killed fighting there.

The editorial also said of Mr. Trump's statement that Russia was "right to be" in Afghanistan, "We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with three divisions in December 1979 to prop up a fellow communist government."