Looking back at Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan —Najmuddin A Shaikh

Let us be clear that the direction of the anti-Soviet jihad was determined by us. We decided after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan not to dismantle the jihadi network and to use it for other purposes. We decided to support the Taliban and thus furthered the spread of extremism in our border areas

In Pakistan, no discussion of what is happening in Afghanistan and by extension in Pakistan is now complete without reference to the American perfidy. This is how it goes.

Pakistan has shown total submission to American demands and is continuing to fight the war the latter has forced upon us. We have disregarded the fact that the Americans have shown little concern for Pakistan’s domestic compulsions and interests and even less appreciation of the sacrifices made by the Pakistani military.

Do the Americans have any genuine interest in Pakistan’s stability or, obsessed with their developing relationship with India, they are quite prepared to see Pakistan, whose leaders and people they distrust, disintegrate?

The distrust goes back in time: today’s situation in Afghanistan and in our tribal areas was created by the Americans who in their desire for vengeance against the Soviet Union were prepared to bring to these parts Islamic extremists from all over the Islamic world. Later, with the Soviets defeated and gone, America abandoned the Afghans and the Pakistanis and left us in this mess. America was involved as much in sustaining the Taliban as Pakistan.

Now, as the thinking goes, perhaps we should recognise that in Afghanistan the Americans have interests other than merely eliminating extremism and the safe havens of the Al Qaeda. They are now engaged in a new version of the “Great Game”, with Afghanistan becoming their base of operations for controlling the Central Asian States and securing the flow of the fossil fuel resources of the area not into Russian pipelines but in other directions that better suit American objectives. We are playing the role of a surrogate.

This view, incidentally, is held by moderate, educated Pakistanis, not extremists. It does seem like we, as a nation, have developed collective amnesia about the nature of our involvement in Afghanistan since our independence, but particularly since April 1978 when the Marxists took over the reins of government from President Daud in what was called the Saur Revolution.

Let’s recap.

Pakistan’s then ruler Zia-ul Haq saw the takeover as a “clear and present” danger. A Marxist government in Kabul meant undisputed Soviet control of Afghanistan. They could use that control to cut through Pakistani Balochistan to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. They would also support Afghanistan’s irredentist claims over Pakistani territory. And of course, India was in the Soviet camp and very friendly with Afghanistan too.

Pakistan then used the Afghan “mujahideen” leaders who had escaped to Pakistan and were being sustained by Maj-Gen Naseerullah Babar, then IG-FC, as tools for use against President Daud and his efforts to resurrect the Pukhtunistan issue. The idea was to funnel aid to the spontaneous insurgency that had erupted in Afghanistan against the communist takeover. We were able, with US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s assistance, to get the CIA to join our modest effort.

While many professionals agreed that the Soviet presence in Afghanistan posed a danger Zia-ul Haq also saw this as an opportunity to advance his “Islamisation” agenda within Pakistan. It was because of this that our negotiators argued that the anti-Soviet campaign had to be projected as a defence of Islam rather than as a defence of Afghan nationalism and independence. They rejected the proposal often put forward by the Americans that perhaps ex-King Zahir Shah as the symbol of Afghan independence and enjoying the support of the Pashtun tribes could be the rallying point for the Afghan resistance.

The Americans obsessed with the Vietnam syndrome acquiesced not only in this but in our demand that all assistance to the Mujahideen should be handled by us. We then got down to setting up madrassahs and training camps on our side of the border to train fighters for the jihad. These establishments were run primarily by our religious parties.

We had the power; we had the control. In one fell stroke we reduced the mujahideen parties from 29 to 7. We decided unilaterally and regardless of battlefield performance that Hikmatyar, the Jama’at-e-Islami protégé, would be the recipient of the largest aid and weapons packages. We were the Pakistani tail that wagged the American dog.

There was never in Washington and Islamabad the expectation that Afghanistan would do more than bleed the Soviets as the Americans had bled in Vietnam. No one expected that Afghanistan would become the catalyst for the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union. When that happened, we became convinced that our “statecraft” aided by “divine intervention” had brought a superpower to its knees. We were encouraged by this misplaced notion to think that we could use the same tools elsewhere.

The Americans lost interest in Afghanistan rapidly after the Soviet withdrawal. The nuclear issue then became the determinant of the US-Pak relationship and Pakistan was placed under the Pressler Amendment, which incidentally we had asked for to avoid being subjected to the cumbersome process of the Glenn-Symington Amendment.

Hence the Pakistani perception that Pakistan having served its purpose was discarded like Kleenex.

We, however, remained deeply engaged in Afghanistan and maintained the wherewithal needed for such engagement. We ignored the deleterious impact this was having on our domestic polity. It is now no secret that, Afghanistan apart, the assistance required by the spontaneous uprising in Indian-occupied Kashmir also made it necessary to maintain and enhance rather than dismantle the anti-Soviet jihad machinery.

We could not bring about unity among the jihadi parties. Their internecine quarrels after Najibullah’s ouster caused greater devastation in Afghanistan than had occurred during the decade-long Soviet occupation. When the Taliban appeared on the scene in Afghanistan and were welcomed by the Afghan people we jumped on the bandwagon, ignoring again the blowback of this for us.

Given our assistance to the Taliban and given their conduct, we became alongside the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan a pariah state, barely escaping being put on the list of terrorist states. Peshawar became the city to which the origin of virtually all terrorist incidents in the West were attributed by western intelligence agencies.

Our tribal agencies, the staging ground for support to the anti-Soviet jihad but also for our support for the Taliban became Mullah-dominated. The process was hastened by the introduction of adult franchise without at the same time opening the area to the political parties.

On the eve of 9/11, the world was talking about preventing the “Talibanisation” of Pakistan while observers were debating whether cities like Chaman in Balochistan had slipped as much into Taliban control as Kandahar in Afghanistan.

Let us therefore be clear that the direction of the anti-Soviet jihad was determined by us. We then decided after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan not to dismantle the jihadi network we had created and to use it for other purposes. We decided to support the Taliban and thus furthered the spread of extremism in our border areas.

The American abandonment of the area was criminally negligent; their actions in other parts of the Muslim world were equally harmful; their decision to let Osama bin Laden seek asylum in Afghanistan after his expulsion was inexplicable. Much other blame can be apportioned to America but we too must acknowledge that the misguided policies and ambitions of our leaders have played the principal part in bringing us to our present sorry pass.

Next week the situation in Afghanistan and America’s objectives.

The writer is a former foreign secretary

Source: Daily Times, 29/8/2008

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