The roots of the Afghan tragedy

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

PTV informed its viewers on August 17 that the death anniversary of Pakistan’s late military strongman, General Ziaul Haq, was observed in Islamabad at his grave where many people had gathered to pay homage to him.

PTV also reported that in the gathering Ziaul Haq’s role in Afghanistan was specifically lauded. It seems there are many in Pakistan who have not learnt from history and still approve of the country’s involvement in the Afghan imbroglio which has brought us so much misery.

In December 1979, when the Russians intervened in Afghanistan it was difficult to find many Pakistanis who did not condemn the Soviets for their military action. If the same mindset still persists, the advantage of hindsight notwithstanding, all one can say is that we have not learnt from history.

More is known today about the notorious US-Pakistan military adventure in Afghanistan in the eighties, thanks to secret documents being opened to public scrutiny, numerous memoirs and candid interviews by people who masterminded the policy. We also know that the impression that was created at the time that the Russians had invaded Afghanistan to bring it under their occupation was a myth. It provided the Americans the justification to retaliate by arming the Mujahideen to drive out the invaders. In the early eighties when Pakistan vehemently denied officially training the Mujahideen and supplying them arms — as it does today for the militants in Kashmir — it was an open secret that the CIA and ISI were collaborating in arming and training the Mujahideen.

Afghanistan proved to be a festering wound for the Russians and is now hailed in American circles as a master stroke of its military/foreign policy that made Afghanistan the “Soviet Union’s Vietnam”. The resistance by the Mujahideen sapped the Russian strength and led to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from this woebegone country. This strategy ultimately resulted in the collapse of the USSR. It also spelt the end of the Cold War and the emergence of America as the sole superpower. In 1989-90 there was boastful talk of pax Americana and the end of history and so on. Naturally, this was a victory for America. But now we know it was a Pyrrhic victory.

But what about Pakistan? Did General Zia do a good turn to Pakistan by leading it into a covert war with a superpower which also happened to be its neighbour? A narrow strip of the Wakhan corridor divided the two countries which also had a history of adversarial relations. Was America’s victory also a victory for Pakistan? At that time, the western media and thinktanks were flooded with reports and analyses of the Russian expansionist strategy in its quest for a warm water port on the Indian Ocean. Pakistan provided the shortest route and so it was expected to be the next to fall before the Soviet war machine. Although the army was in power in Islamabad, and it has always boasted of many military strategists on its rolls, none of the wise heads stopped to ponder that 19th century concepts were outdated in the late 20th century when technology and sophisticated weapons had transformed war methodologies.

The fact is that Ziaul Haq’s motives in Afghanistan were quite different from what they were made out to be then and even now. We were told that he was fighting a jihad against godless communism. The Mujahideen, as the champions of the faith, were the first line of defence for Islam which was in danger. But a closer look at the happenings of those days tells us a different story.

The war in Afghanistan did not begin on December 24, 1979 when Babrak Karmal, rode into Kabul on a Russian tank. In his memoirs, From the Shadow, the former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, wrote that American intelligence agencies started their subversive operation in Afghanistan six months before the first Soviet soldier stepped on Afghan soil. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, confirmed this in an interview he gave to Le Nouvel Observateur (January 21, 1998).

He said, “According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahideen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise. Indeed, it was July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.” He goes on to say that the Americans knowingly increased the probability of a Russian intervention.

Obviously, the great game in Afghanistan was being played out once again and the American strategy was to provoke the Russians into entering Afghanistan and thus be trapped there. Brzezinski called the secret American operation an “excellent idea” in the wider world view of global politics.

What benefit did Pakistan draw from the American strategy? None whatsoever. In fact it brought devastation and ruin to the country. Had Pakistan refused to join hands in this war of proxy between the two superpowers in Afghanistan, Washington could not have used it as a conduit to funnel millions of dollars worth of arms — said to be 65,000 tons per annum in 1987 — to the Mujahideen.

The American CIA agents could not have used Pakistani territory to set up training camps and induct ISI officials to train the Mujahideen, plan the operations and accompany them across the border to supervise the attacks. It is reported that as many as 11 ISI teams would be in the field at one time. Muslim extremists from around the world were recruited According to journalist and writer Ahmed Rashid, in 1982-1992 some 35,000 Muslim radicals from 43 Muslim countries in the Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia and the Far East joined the jihad. Many more came to study in the madressahs that mushroomed in Pakistan.

The situation we have on hand today is a legacy bequeathed by General Ziaul Haq. The chickens are coming home to roost. Afghanistan is a fragmented society. The composition of its population is multi-ethnic and it was inevitable that any meddling in its affairs would suck Pakistan into the internecine infighting in that country. The emergence of the Islamist militants, the influx of foreigners in the area and the Kalashnikov and heroin culture that are the bane of Pakistan today are a direct result of Zia’s ill-conceived Afghan policy.

Not only have these factors destroyed the fabric of Pakistani society, they have also led to the present international crisis and the confrontation between Islamic extremists and the West. Most important, by being a party to the destruction of the Soviet Union, Pakistan helped undermined the bipolar/multipolar system of international politics.

Although the division of the world into two camps in the Cold War years had created a state of tension between the two sides, that had worked to the advantage of the smaller Third World countries. It prevented any one superpower from dominating over any part of the world without evoking a reaction from its rival. The other superpower always acted as a countervailing force and could not be ignored. The need to maintain a power equilibrium had worked in the Cold War years to the advantage of the smaller countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The American hegemony we witness today can destroy the world especially if America is led by a leader who is short-sighted and is driven by cupidity, self interest and selfishness. Only an in-depth analysis can lay bare the factors that drove Ziaul Haq to toe the American line in Afghanistan. But this is certain: it was not in the national interest of the country. It was perhaps his own narrow personal need for political survival which became possible with American support. Without the role Pakistan played in Afghanistan, this support would not have been forthcoming.