Feb. 15, 1989 A day uncelebrated by most, marked the departure of the last of the 115,000 Soviet soldiers from Afghanistan after ten years of military engagement. Many in the secretive government inner-circles of Washington, Riyadh and Islamabad did not mind the general lack of festivity that Wednesday morning. For them, the last battle of the Cold War had just been called over, and they had won. The defeat of the Red Army by such hands, though they had never officially fought, was probably enough to commemorate anyway. The U.S-Saudi-Pak troika had dug the grave of the Soviet Union in the mountains of Afghanistan, even though the USSR had not officially expired.
But all the credit for the ouster of the Soviets cannot go to a bunch of hushed-up spy types. The USSR”s grave had been dug by undertakers, the mighty Mujahideen, who Reagan would laud as “freedom fighters” in his State of the Union addresses. Armed, financed and trained by the U.S. inspired troika, these rag-tag heroes would eventually sprout a group whose name sounds so familiar these days: the Taliban.
The Back Burner Monster
The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan probably the ultimate goal of the U.S. strategy there and a laid-back Gorbachev in the Kremlin lead to Afghanistan being left out of the U.S. “national interest” paradigm. For the lethally armed and battle-hardened Mujahideen, the ten-year long military, intelligence and finance based relationship with America now seemed like a one night stand, with the U.S. walking away almost as soon as its goals in the region were satisfied. The political vacuum in the country was imminent, and so it came. The fall of the USSR in late 1991 gave another impetus to this group, who were now trying to come to terms with power-sharing basically fighting for the crumbs over the table the Russians had left.
Inevitably, violence ensued. Battle lines were drawn between groups, mostly split along religious lines. All armed up with no one to fight but themselves, the former Mujahideen found Afghanistan in a civil war, drought, a refugee exodus, and the overthrow of the quasi-government which was a de-facto successor after the Soviets followed. By 1996, the Taliban, student-warriors from seminaries in Pakistan, the same seminaries which had been the hot-bed for recruiting the Mujahideen for the anti-Soviet Jihad in the “80s, were ruling over the capital, Kabul. C”est la vie.
The Spill-Over Effect
The story of the Soviet invasion the U.S. involvement, the Saudi and Pakistani connection, the political and military vacuum after the Soviet withdrawal is not just about Afghanistan. The whole escapade has caused a spill-over effect which not only affected New Yorkers and Pentagon officials on September 11th, but which has also steered the Central Asian and South Asian region into bitter conflict and instability.
The Daily met with Javed Nazir, a journalism fellow at the University and an outspoken journalist from Pakistan. Nazir”s personal life seems intertwined with the volatile events of the region. As founder and editor of the Frontier Post, a liberal Pakistani daily, Nazir found himself out of a job last year when his newspaper was burnt down for publishing a controversial letter. Radicalized Islamist elements opposed to a liberal press were believed responsible for the attack. Currently working on a book about the minorities in Pakistan, Nazir”s insight has much to offer American readers about the precariousness in the region.
The crux of what Nazir has to say inspired the title for this piece. The second coming, from a U.S. perspective, is indicative of this second instance the U.S. is getting involved in Afghanistan. Like last time, the involvement will not be limited to that country alone. Spill-over effects are as threatening extra-region context this time as they were in the “80s.
The First Coming
Eerily familiar are the circumstances which envelope the nations involved. Central again to the issue is Pakistan. An Islamic republic of a hundred and fifty million, Pakistan seems to be at the same cross-roads as it was in 1979. Pervaiz Musharraf , the current President, is a military dictator. As the commander in chief of the armed forces, Musharraf came to power in 1999 in a bloodless coup, oustering the popularly elected but thoroughly retrogressive and corrupt government of Nawaz Sharif. Now, Musharraf is getting into the same courting dance which another dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq had been seduced into by the U.S. in the 80″s.
Haq had grabbed the reigns of power in the 1977 when he engineered a coup to oust the first democratically elected prime minister, Zulfi Bhutto. Seeking foreign and domestic legitimacy, Haq was interested in creating a popular base for his regime by merging Islam into politics. One way of doing this was to give aid to the exiled Afghan fundamentalist leaders in Pakistan. . This fell in perfectly with the ambitions of the founder of the American strategy, Zbigniew Brzezinski, U.S. national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, for whom this was a immense opportunity to export an amalgamated philosophy of nationalism and Islam to the Muslim Central Asian states and Soviet republics, all in order to atrophy the USSR.
With the U.S. watching his back, Haq went on to create an order of absolute military government. “In power, Haq was largely responsible for distorting Pakistan”s democratic set-up,” Nazir said. “To keep control, he encouraged fragmentation of civil society on a massive scale. He chased out the democratic parties and exiled its leaders, frustrating democracy for ten long years. He gave power to the Mullahs, passed constitutional amendments that gave him absolute power to dissolve any elected government, and used Islam to excuse his dictatorship. This was the “Islamization of Pakistan.””
True, Haq and his American and Saudi backers sired the region”s monsters. But from the Pakistani perspective, their most lasting legacy was the militarization of a country already teetering on ethnic strife. In Pakistan today, the military is akin to god. The intelligence wing of the army, the Inter Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, defines the role of the ultimate praetorian agency. It is also answerable to no one. Unlike the CIA, there are no Congressional appointments. Dark figures rule that turf.
“The ISI has devised and implemented its own political agenda,” Nazir said. “With the CIA, it was in charge of training the Mujahideen. But after that, the ISI has interrupted the democratic process time and again in Pakistan.” The anti-communist purpose had been lost after the achievement of objectives. The military became a self-indulgent animal and turned towards its own country.
In 1988, Haq and his military cronies were blown up in a mysterious plane explosion, along with the American ambassador, but the damage had been done. A precedent for the military had been set: The armed forces” interests came first everything else was second. So, in a country where there already were twice as many soldiers than teachers, where a hundred million did not have access to even clean drinking water, the acquisition of M-1 tanks and F-16s got more precedence than the humanitarian breakdown. The U.S. supplied these and more at throw-away prices a small cost to the Reaganites, who were smelling communist blood in the Afghan mountains.
Meanwhile, Pakistanis suffered. The drug trade from the so-called Golden Crescent which runs between the Pak-Afghan border pumped millions of dollars of black money and white narcotics into the country. The arms trade, caused by the surplus of weapons brought with “Reagan bucks,” was utilized by local militias and ethnic factions to terrorize cities. Karachi, Pakistan”s largest city of 14 million, was especially engulfed in the “Kalashinkov Culture,” the name dedicated to the popularity of the AK-47 assault rifle and its use by sectarian elements. More people died in that city alone than did in both Intifada 1 and 2. Out in the frontier facing Afghanistan, the social fabric was torn by the influx of millions of Afghan refugees. “Sectarianism flourished. The democracy, dependent as it was on the military, was in suspended animation,” said Nazir. “In the political chaos, the military gained the highest of power. No local institution, especially with the destruction of the judiciary, could save the country.” But parliament meddling, threatening judges, and sacking elected representatives were not the only bad habits of the military government.
It was under Haq when the Pakistani nuclear program gained momentum. “The U.S. had a benign eye for Pakistan when it came to nuclear weapons under Haq,” said Nazir. “In 1998, when Pakistan went officially nuclear, U.S. sanctions were slapped on the country, basically because Pakistan had served its purpose. The Russians were gone, the Cold War was over.”
By this time, what was also over was the claim of morality when it came to U.S. foreign policy in the Pak-Afghan diad. Not that realpolitik has a soul, but the fact of the matter was, and remains, that Pakistan and Afghanistan, the last battlegrounds of the Cold War, were left to clean up on their own the mess a mess the U.S. had had an interest in creating. The situation there was reflective of the “use and abuse” U.S. stance in foreign policy. The Reagan administration had given arms, money and more than anything, legitimacy, to an absolute dictator. With American muscle behind him, the dictator had gone on to make an unprecedented political mess. A power vacuum came about with his death, and the U.S., instead of keeping an active and progressive interest in the region nurturing its weak democratic institutions, let it all be. The Pak military became the end-all of all sytems of governance and went on to complete the Frankenstein the U.S. had left half-completed in the shape and form of the Taliban.
The Question of Choice
Was there a choice? Did U.S. policy makers at the time the time of the Soviet invasion have a choice of not intervening in Afghanistan? Probably not. Not with Reagan in office. Not after what the Soviets had done, unofficially, in Vietnam. Not with the “Evil Empire” segment which was running through U.S.”s political pop-art.
So then, if they had to intervene, did they have a choice of not sponsoring the most radical elements in Afghanistan? Yes, they did. At the time of the invasion, there were several nationalist and/or secular Afghan factions who were anti-Soviet. The US did have the choice of courting these more moderate elements, yet Washington chose the most fundamentalist organizations in this network, probably under the belief that rabid religious hard-liners make the best commie-killers. Add a little bit of Soviet-atheism to the equation, and you would have the staunchest ally. We all know how that turned out. But what choices does the U.S. geo-strategists have now?
The Second Coming
“This is a case of deja vu,” Nazir said. “This time, there is another dictator in charge. Once again, the U.S. is willing to finance and buy and Pakistan”s support.” Engaging the Taliban, capturing Osama bin Laden and trying him in Manhattan”s 3rd District Court is obviously not the solution, as clichd as that sounds. But where does the long term solution lie?
“Not in carpet-bombing Kabul,” Nazir said. “Nor in calling this a crusade or a war.” Nazir is correct. Jingoism doesn”t deal with the many grey-areas in the equation. There is always the neighbor-issue. Russia, China and Iran might love to see the Taliban go, considering that they have had to militarily engage with Taliban-backed insurgencies in their regions (or directly with the Taliban, as is Iran”s case). But would they tolerate a long-term U.S. military presence in the region? Furthermore, as Nazir points out, would the Pakistanis tolerate such a presence? The U.S. engagement in Pakistan and Afghanistan should not forget to add what was left out of the recipe in the “80s. “The intelligentsia in Pakistan needs to be taken into confidence,” Nazir said. “Democratization needs to be encouraged, along with planning the reconstruction of Afghanistan.” Consistency, which has been lacking practically and morally in the U.S. foreign policy, needs to be instilled. “The U.S. needs to reappraise its foreign policy. It should indicate in a very strong way to the Muslims across the world that it is now seeking different objectives. That means gradual withdrawal of support to the retrogressive governments like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. That means avoiding radicalizing local people in countries like Pakistan where the U.S. is going (to engage). And that means rethinking its support to Israel, which is connected to all of this.” Nazir is correct. If support for foreign retrogression for U.S. “national interest” and the “selective morality” element in foreign policy continues, then we can all get ready for long-term engagement instead of long-term peace. Period.
Two weeks from Sept. 11 might be as good a time as any to reflect on such notes. Back in 1999, Dilip Hiro, in writing an article for The Nation, quoted Richard Murphy, the assistant secretary of state for the Near East and South Asia during the two Reagan administrations as saying that “we did spawn a monster in Afghanistan.” He went on to mention that this “monster” of violent Islamic fundamentalism had now grown tentacles that extended from western China to Algeria to the east coast of America, and that its reach was not likely to diminish without a great deal of the United States” money, time and patience, along with the full cooperation of foreign governments. I hate adding the loss of life on his list of requirements, as much as I abhor the acts which propelled me to write this. Still, the second coming can be employed properly to keep that list short.
Waj Syed can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.