04 December 2018

Diana Bolsinger, PhD candidate at The LBJ School of Public Affairs, is a Brumley Next Generation Fellow at the Strauss Center. The Fellows are now settled into their year-long research projects, and Diana shares with us today details of what she's working on:

Please tell us about your Brumley research project. What are some unexpected things you’ve run into, whether it be unforeseen challenges or surprising findings in your research?

I call my Brumley research project “Overt Action.” I’m working with the Intelligence Studies Project (ISP) and looking at the CIA’s program in the 1980s supporting the Afghan mujahedin against the Soviets. What I’m doing that’s different and exciting is looking at the program from the outside in. Instead of studying the policy—Reagan’s goals or what the CIA did—I’m looking at the different private groups around the U.S. that weighed on the program. Here you are only a few years after there was a huge scandal about unauthorized CIA activities and suddenly there’s a movement arguing the CIA was too soft, that it should be doing more. It’s a really stunning reversal. It’s tied up with an emerging human rights movement and anti-communism, but it also says a lot about the shift from the Carter to Reagan eras.
What I find most fascinating is the sheer range of politics and activities surrounding the Afghan program. You have some very liberal groups and groups far to the right of Reagan working together to press for shipping arms and aid to the Afghans. There’s a fair amount of publicity for Congressman Charlie Wilson, who was one of the most prominent activists, but it goes a lot further. There was some nastiness with a couple of the groups trying to force the firing of CIA officials they didn't think were strong enough against the Soviets. At the same time, there was some amazing support for the Afghans, as a Muslim people. You had families here in Texas, hosting Afghans getting medical treatment in their homes. Churches and synagogues were hosting speakers, raising money for Afghan refugees. I don’t know of a CIA program that had more popular support, or a time when Americans more explicitly looked to a Muslim issue as something positive and worth supporting.
As for challenges, so far, I’ve been lucky. There are some fabulous resources out there and some generous people willing to share their own memories with me. The biggest challenge may be simply getting to them all, since they’re spread across the country: Baltimore, Omaha, Palo Alto, New York… My visits so far, to the Carter and Reagan Presidential Libraries and Nacagdoches for the Charlie Wilson papers really paid off.

What do you think are the causes for this bipartisan push to support the Afghans both abroad and those living here? What it just anti-Soviet sentiment running through both sides?

That's the most interesting question! I'll have a better answer for you in a few months. Right now, I'd say it was a combination of several things coming together. On the one hand, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan just as the human rights movement was picking up steam in the U.S. The Helsinki Accords in 1975, calling on countries to respect human rights, and then Amnesty International's Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 really created more of a public focus on the issue. The Soviet invasion and occupation were so brutal and there were so many pictures in the press that were just horrible. Entire villages firebombed, dead mothers lying there, surrounded by their children's corpses--it just sparked an emotional reaction. It says something that a lot of the U.S. activism focused on very tangible, basic support: medical care, schools... I even found one pamphlet asking for donations to buy Afghan children shoes.

Then, there was the anti-Communist element. Ronald Reagan came out very strongly during the 1980 campaign against the Soviet invasion as an example of a global Communist threat. There was a fear, at least at first, that Moscow would use Afghanistan as a base to move into Pakistan or Iran and then gain control of Persian Gulf oil. And, I think, there also was the sense that Afghanistan was a place where the Soviets were vulnerable. Carter's National Security Advisor saw supporting the Afghan fighters as a chance to give Moscow "its own Vietnam," and I think Reagan's Director of Central Intelligence, Bill Casey, really took that idea and ran with it.

So, you had a combination of motives. It's fascinating because this is exactly the time when the Reagan Administration was having major battles with Congress over whether or how to support anti-Communist groups in Central America and Southern Africa. The Afghan case seemed to bring groups together in a way that was truly unique.

Before coming to UT Austin, Diana served in a variety of analytical and policy support positions in the US Federal Government, including assignments in Islamabad, Pakistan; Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina; and Seoul, Korea.

How do you think serving in the U.S. government in so many far-flung locations has shaped who you are now?

I was tremendously lucky to have the State Department hire me right out of undergrad. My husband and I have “his, hers, and our” tours. I was posted to Pakistan and Bosnia, with regular visits to India, Bangladesh, and other countries in South Asia. My husband, Dan, served in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), the Philippines, and Kyrgyzstan.. And then we were together for a lot of years in Washington and a final tour in Seoul. How did it shape me? Beyond gaining a husband, some fabulous memories, and some good friends, I’d say that living overseas has really made me more aware of what it means to be an American. Part of a diplomat’s job is explaining her own country. Why did Congress vote a certain way or what did a presidential speech really mean? I remember, for example, trying to explain the debate over the Affordable Care Act in Sydney to people who had had universal health care all their lives and couldn’t imagine anything else. It’s not a question of advocating one position or another. When you’re on the taxpayer dime, that’s not your job. It’s just the experience of looking at your own country from the outside in and trying to understand it well enough to explain it that I found so exhilarating.

Could you talk about some policy you were involved in when you were serving overseas? Perhaps you have a favorite experience?

Every tour has a different flavor. In Pakistan, I held the religious affairs portfolio. It was a fascinating time, right after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s return to democracy. I spent a lot of time talking with different religious leaders about the growing radicalization among some of the foreigners who had come to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and stayed in Pakistan. Unfortunately, some of these guys went on organize groups like into al-Qaida. My most amazing experience, though, was as part of a team observing their national elections. Democracy was so new and the voters I talked with were determined to have their say. Families literally hiking over mountains and camped out overnight to have the chance to vote. I’ve never seen that kind of hope and determination and it’s tragic that such commitment wasn’t rewarded the way it deserved.
For Bosnia, I don’t really have happy memories. I was there at the tail end of the civil war. I have immense respect for the people I met and what they endured, but it was heartbreaking to see such destruction. You'd walk down a residential street and see front yards filled with wooden grave markers because it was too dangerous for families to go further to bury their dead. There’s a lesson there for all of us on the risks of allowing our differences to grow out of control.

...As for Korea, what can I say? It was a fun, beautiful country with so much to admire. I worked in American Citizen Services, which is basically supporting Americans in the country. Our office did everything from renewing passports to walking crime victims through a foreign system or, in the worst case, packing up their things and sending their bodies home to their families. It may have been my most meaningful tour. Not always fun, but something special

What’s in store for you after finishing your program?

I'm aiming for a university position teaching foreign policy and national security. My favorite jobs have always been the ones where I can teach or coach young people. I actually took a decade out of my federal career to teach middle school and loved it, but that was nothing compared to the fun I had to teaching an undergraduate course on Terrorism right before I came to UT. First, I need to finish my dissertation, though, so one step at a time.

Thank you Diana!