PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The U.S. government Friday took the wraps off the quieter side of its role in the Afghanistan war, disclosing details of a $220-million program of supplying the Afghan rebels with everything from Tennessee pack mules and anti-communist textbooks to field rations and chickpeas.
The disclosure came at a hastily arranged press conference with U.S. Ambassador Robert Oakley and the project director, Henry B. Cushing, in the course of a visit to this Pakistani border city that has been the supply point for the guerrillas in their nine-year-old war in Afghanistan.
Cushing, of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the humanitarian aid to the Afghan resistance is the largest such project in recent U.S. experience, larger than the aid given to the Contras of Nicaragua and the resistance movement in Cambodia.
"It wasn't a secret program," Oakley said. "It was just a quiet program."
He said that details of the project were never openly discussed in order to prevent attacks on supply convoys and on the health centers and schools built in Afghanistan with U.S. help.
Cushing was asked why the United States was making details of the program public now, and he replied: "The Russians are gone. Now more openness can be exercised."
The last of the Soviet forces, which entered the country in December, 1979, and numbered about 115,000 at their peak, left Afghanistan on Wednesday.
Independent analysts speculated that disclosure of the program was a tactical U.S. diplomatic move to dilute criticism of President Bush's decision to continue supplying arms to the Afghan rebels. Over the years, the United States has provided the rebels with arms valued at about $2 billion, something Washington justified on the basis of the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan.
Bush said the decision to continue to send arms to the rebels after the Soviet withdrawal was based on the Kremlin's continuing to furnish weapons, including missiles, to the Marxist government of President Najibullah from stockpiles left by Soviet forces.
Najibullah attacked the U.S. decision. Appearing Friday on Afghan TV, he offered to return the Soviet weapons if the rebels will agree to lay down their weapons and negotiate. The rebels have refused such offers in the past.
At the press conference here, Oakley and Cushing said that the time had come for the United States to take credit for the "other side of our role in Afghanistan."
They said Congress had authorized $8 million for the program in 1984 and that the program had grown to a level of $68 million this year. Cushing said the program was loosely structured, enabling "quick shortcuts" to be made in its administration.
Many customary bureaucratic requirements were waived, the officials said, together with regulations on competitive bidding and registration of the contractors who brought the supplies in.
"We were very careful," Oakley said, and added that "remarkably little" was stolen, diverted or wasted through corruption or inefficiency.
No Americans were allowed to enter Afghanistan. The supplies were monitored by U.S.-trained Afghans and other foreigners who moved them into the country.
Several American aid workers in Peshawar have complained recently that the program would be more effective if Americans were allowed to cross the border, and they have appealed for a change in the policy. But Oakley said there would be no such change.
"The program is working well now," he said. "If we send a flood of Americans in there, we might muck it up.
"In Vietnam, we had Americans everywhere doing everything with blueprints, and we created something that was totally false. We created a tremendous amount of animosity which . . . certainly did not help Vietnam."
Oakley, who served as a State Department political officer in Vietnam in the early 1970s, added that the strength of the Afghan program was the fact that "it was all done through Afghans and by Afghans."
The project, which Oakley said will continue and which he hopes will be expanded in the future, was divided into four sections: health, education, agriculture and general commodities.
Among the more unusual items in the commodity category were 900 Tennessee pack mules, valued at nearly $1 million, that were used to move supplies through mountainous areas. Tens of thousands of dollars more were required to bring the mules here from the United States and to train Afghans in their care and handling.
Cushing confirmed reports that on occasion there was a blurring of the distinction between the humanitarian aid project and the arms pipeline.
"A mule can carry a lot of things," he said, "and a gun is small enough for a mule to carry. . . . There may well have been some commingling. But we weren't in any way deliberately involved in any covert activity."