An excerpt from the recently-published 'India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present' by Shivshankar Menon.

The book cover for India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present by Shivshankar Menon
news Book excerpt Thursday, April 29, 2021 - 20:01

This excerpt from India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present by Shivshankar Menon has been published with permission from Penguin Books. 

The 1980s were an eventful and crowded decade: the external constraints that held India back in the previous decade reached their peak, and inter-ones began to be overcome. India experienced economic and foreign policy adjustments and built capabilities that would serve the country in good stead when the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the decade, leading to the most fundamental change in Asian geopolitics since decolonization. But the decade marked transformation, shifts and changes in Asia that tested Indian policy, its realism, flexibility, and judgment during Indira Gandhi’s second term from 1980 to 1984, and even more so when her son, Rajiv Gandhi, was prime minis- ter in the second half of the decade.

For India the 1980s were preceded by three significant events in 1979. In January the Iranian Revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran, a U.S. and Pakistani ally, who was replaced by a theocracy headed by a supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, opposed to the United States and the West and much more open to India. The next month, China attacked Vietnam and was defeated by the newly unified Vietnamese; this military defeat became, in the end, a diplomatic and economic victory for China in Indochina with U.S. help. Last, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December. Each of these events still reverberates today.

The Iranian Revolution remade the geopolitics of west Asia. The post–World War II order in the region had contained the regional powers, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and Turkey, within a bipolar Cold War framework, despite efforts by Egypt’s Nasser to break out of it. Through the late-sixties and seventies, as relative Soviet capacity diminished, Arab nationalist regimes were replaced in Egypt and elsewhere by autocrats or military regimes, and west Asia became an unstable component in a primarily Western-led order with a major role for Israel.

The oil boycott in 1973 was the first event that struck at the core of the Western belief that it could count on countries in the Middle East and espe- cially the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Counties (OPEC). The Iranian Revolution of 1979, however, marked a significant shift, with the dominant regional power opting out of the Western-led order. Within Iran, the revolution enjoyed mass support because it was seen as a political quest for sovereignty, rather than simply a religious takeover as portrayed in the West. The Iranians were ridding themselves of an imperialism shadowed by American hegemony and an organized coup, in 1953, that had been organized by the Central Intelli- gence Agency and had set up the Shah. Indeed, the Iranian episode was the last of the great successful revolutions in the postcolonial world, in an Islamic form.1 The course the revolutionary Iranian regime chose was the most anti-American of any state since China in the 1960s, symbolized by making hostages of dip- lomats in the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The consequences for west Asia were momentous. One reaction was the Iran-Iraq War, September 22, 1980–August 20, 1988, which set an Iraq armed and supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia to contain Iran and to prevent the contagion of her radical poli- tics spreading to Western allies in the Gulf and Levant. Pitted against the Ira- nian revolutionaries was Saudi Wahhabism, a most retrograde form of political Islam, using secular Baathist Iraq as its instrument and marking an intensi- fication of the political uses of Islam, for which the Soviets’ Afghan war was to create new and deadly instruments in the same decade. The Iran-Iraq War ended in a stalemate, leaving deep divisions and several issues critical to the future of the region undecided. West Asia now saw Shia-Sunni, Arab-Persian splits compounded by geopolitical pushback against Iran. And the aftermath was also a quest for nuclear weapons by several parties: Iran, Iraq, and Libya. All three justified themselves by pointing to the open secret that Israel already possessed nuclear weapons.

The Iranian Revolution posed no direct threat to India so long as it was not exported east. Indeed, the threats within India were actually from Sunni groups funded by Saudi Arabia and some Emirates in the Persian Gulf. The Shia in India are a minority within a minority who often feel most threatened by their coreligionists and have therefore traditionally worked with the secu- lar authorities. By the time of the Iranian Revolution, India had a significant diaspora of about 2 million Indians living and working in the Persian Gulf states, depended on the region for its energy supplies, and sought to deny adversaries like Pakistan use of the resources and religious authorities in west Asia against India. With the passing of the Shah and the coming of the revolutionary regime, India and Iran began to find strategic congruence in Afghanistan and in opposition to the radical reinterpretation of Sunni Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Western sponsors of Wahhabism and mujahideen jihad- ism in Afghanistan against the Soviets. For India, Iran has been a steady source of energy and an economic and political partner in the western periphery, and has given India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. From an Indian point of view, the revolutionary regime in Iran has overall been easier to work with than its predecessor.

On Christmas Eve 1979 the Soviet Politburo headed by Leonid Brezhnev approved the deployment of the Soviet 40th Army into Afghanistan between December 27–29, 1979. That decision was preceded by long-term instability in Afghanistan’s internal affairs marked by rivalries and jockeying among the outside powers, each working with allies within the country. In 1973 Prince Daud Khan had overthrown his cousin King Zahir Shah and converted Afghanistan into a republic. The Saur Revolution of 1978 saw the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) stage a coup, seize power, install Nur Mo- hammad Taraki as president, and begin a radical program of social engineering with Soviet support. The internal opposition to the communist regime was led by religious parties and ethnic leaders and was assisted externally by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia backed by the United States. The PDPA itself was far from united and divided into Khalq and Parcham factions. In September 1979 Tara- ki’s own foreign minister, Hafizullah Amin, had him killed. Amin reached out to the United States and Pakistan for support. Hafizullah Amin and Pakistan’s Zia-ul-Haq attempted to address the hoary issues of the Durand Line and of Pashtun aspirations and unrest in both countries.

The Soviet Union had considerable stakes to protect in Afghanistan, which was the outer ring of the Soviet periphery in the Cold War, protecting the largely Muslim central Asian republics from the Cold War alliance of CENTO, from the more recent U.S.-China anti-Soviet alliance, and, in 1979, from the threat of Islamic radicalism, which seemed to have found a new home in Iran, Afghanistan’s neighbor. And the Soviets also had considerable influence in Afghanistan, not just through the PDPA. By 1978, the Soviet Union accounted for 64 percent of Afghanistan’s total imports and 34 percent of its total exports. Total Soviet credits to Afghanistan had reached US$1.26 billion (compared to US$470 million from the United States).

In 1979 what the Soviets saw in Afghanistan was a deteriorating situation, the growing influence of their enemies, and their friendly communist govern- ment in danger. When the Soviet Army invaded, it took Kabul, killed Amin, and installed Babrak Karmal of the Parcham faction of the PDPA in his place. The Soviet intervention put an end to Zia-ul-Haq’s overtures to Amin. Zia op- posed the Soviet invasion publicly and began his two-track policy of providing clandestine military assistance to Afghan insurgents while appearing to work in public through the UN for peace and a Soviet withdrawal. The Soviet inva- sion of Afghanistan brought Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the subcontinent to the center of the Cold War contest between the superpowers.

Afghanistan mattered deeply to India, and had always been intertwined with Indian history, as the old silk routes brought invaders like Alexander and traders and poets like Amir Khusro to the rich plains of the Punjab. And yet, independent India had been a cautious participant in Afghan affairs. During the 1950s and 1960s India had not supported Afghanistan on the Pashtuni- stan issue or on the revision of the Durand Line drawn up in 1893. Nehru re- fused to comment during the 1961 Pakistan-Afghanistan crisis. Nor was King Zahir Shah supportive of India in its wars with Pakistan in 1947–1948, 1965, or 1971. He equivocated in public on the Kashmir issue. Afghanistan’s difficul- ties with Pakistan on the Durand Line and Pashtunistan issues, which led to its refusing to join the Baghdad Pact and to the Afghan tilt toward the Soviet Union when Pakistan became a critical element in U.S. Cold War strategy, had not necessarily translated into tighter India-Afghan relations.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Soviet ambassador in Delhi, Yuli Vorontsov, sought a meeting with India’s caretaker prime minister, Charan Singh. Charan Singh was not immediately available, so Vorontsov met with Foreign Secretary R. D. Sathe at midnight on December 29 seeking Indian support and understanding for the Soviet invasion. Sathe merely promised to convey what Vorontsov had said to the prime minister. When Vorontsov finally met Singh, the prime minister told him with a cold and stern expression that India could not endorse the intervention, and that the military invasion of a nonaligned country that was India’s neighbor was unacceptable no matter the circumstances. Charan Singh also advised that Soviet troops should be withdrawn as soon as possible. In public as well, the Charan Singh government described the act as “unacceptable” and urged the withdrawal of Soviet troops. But this policy did not last more than a fortnight. Indira Gandhi was waiting in the wings to take power and formed her government in mid-January. A De- cember 28, 1979, Ministry of External Affairs statement attempted a balancing act: “India has always opposed outside interference in internal affairs [It is our] earnest hope that no country or external power would take steps which might aggravate the situation.” These mealy-mouthed sentiments satisfied no one. On December 30 the ministry spokesman said: “We are not supporting or opposing anyone. We are still assessing whether the Soviet assessment that they extended their help and assistance on the request of the duly constituted authorities in Kabul is right or wrong  We have, however, taken note of the justification given by the Soviet Union.” The shift away from condemning the invasion was evident.

On January 12, 1980, in the first statement approved by Mrs. Gandhi’s advisers, even before her government was sworn in, India’s permanent representative to the UN, Brajesh Mishra, told the UN General Assembly that India had no reason to disbelieve the Soviet commitment to withdraw troops when asked to do so by the government in Kabul; that India hoped that the Soviet Union would respect the independence of Afghanistan by not keeping its troops a day longer than necessary; and, that India was gravely concerned over the response of Pakistan, China, the United States and others in arming Afghan rebels and expanding naval activities in the Indian Ocean, all of which intensified the Cold War and posed a threat to India. The Indian speech and abstention on the reso- lution condemning the Soviet invasion, which was carried by 104 to 18 with 18 abstentions, caused surprise and dismay among nonaligned circles. India was isolated and this isolation was exploited by Pakistan. The average Afghan and the non-PDPA elite in Afghanistan nursed a sense of betrayal by India. From then on, the West and Islamic countries marginalized India in international processes dealing with the Afghan crisis.

Mrs. Gandhi’s approach was determined not just by India’s need for the Soviet Union or by the fact of U.S. support for Pakistan but also by the sense that the PDPA and the Soviets were attempting to create a modern, secular, democratic Afghanistan, rather than one based on religious identity as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia sought. Such an Afghanistan would clearly be the best possible outcome from India’s point of view as it would likely fight extremism and follow a nonaligned foreign policy. That did not mean that Indira Gandhi approved of the intervention. In fact, she repeatedly made her opposition clear in private conversations with Soviet leaders such as Andrei Kosygin, where she pressed for withdrawals and timetables or a political solution.

In public, however, Mrs. Gandhi temporized right through 1980. Behind the scenes a more nuanced response was evident. Foreign Secretary Ram Sathe was sent to Islamabad in February 1980 to ascertain Pakistani thinking. He was told by the Pakistani foreign secretary, “We have different perceptions.” Later that month when Gromyko was visiting Delhi, Afghanistan was barely mentioned in the joint communiqué. It was the same during a trip to Moscow in June by External Affairs Minister Narasimha Rao and when Brezhnev came to India in December. Privately, India urged the Soviets on each occasion to begin with a token withdrawal and to specify a time frame publicly for withdrawal of the bulk of troops. In retrospect, this approach led the world to believe that India supported the Soviet Union, progressively making India less of a factor in the negotiations and on the ground.

On the ground, Pakistan funded, armed, and supported the Afghan resistance to the Soviet-backed Kabul regime with help from the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and others. The United States saw a chance to embroil the Soviets in the quagmire of a guerrilla war as payback for Vietnam. Pakistan, the reliable rear base for the resistance, insisted on channel- ing all U.S. assistance through its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to the seven mujahideen groups based in Peshawar. Among those groups, the ISI, Paki- stan’s premier intelligence agency, favored Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e- Islami and forced other groups to work with the Hizb.3 Led by General Akhtar Abdul Rehman Khan, Zia’s director general of ISI from 1980 to 1987, the at- tempt pioneered several methods of clandestine warfare that are now common place.4 Moderate Islamist leaders were sidelined and the mujahideen were made steadily more lethal. They were brutally successful in making it impossible for the Kabul regime to rule Afghanistan and extracted a toll of Soviet lives of around 15,000 dead and 35,000 injured by 1989. Estimates for Afghan civilian casualties from this phase of the Afghan wars run from 562,000 to 2 million people. Over 3.5 million refugees fled Afghanistan for Pakistan and over 1 mil- lion went to Iran.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan rescued U.S.-Pakistan relations. Just six months before the Soviet invasion, the U.S. embassy in Islamabad had been burned by a Pakistani mob while the police stood by and watched and presi- dent Zia-ul-Haq refused to take U.S. telephone calls. On April 6, 1979, Presi- dent Jimmy Carter imposed economic sanctions on Pakistan to halt its nuclear weapon program, used U.S. influence to block World Bank loans, and pres- sured France and others not to sell nuclear technology to Pakistan. But when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski argued in a December 28 memo to Carter that Pakistan was the perfect conduit to increase clandestine assistance to mujahideen groups. This, he wrote, “will require a review of our policy toward Pakistan, more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a decision that our security policy toward Paki- stan cannot be dictated by our non-proliferation policy.” Carter agreed, lifted sanctions on Pakistan, and added US$400 million in economic and military aid to Pakistan. The door was open for Pakistan to make its atom bomb. The U.S. sense of Pakistan’s utility in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan was so great that the United States chose to turn a blind eye throughout the 1980s to Pakistan’s determined quest for a nuclear weapon, aided as it was by the other ally in the Afghan fight, China. China supplied over US$2 billion worth of small arms and weapons to the mujahideen through Pakistan’s ISI, paid for by the United States. Pakistan also passed along U.S. Sidewinder missiles and launchers—shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons—to the mujahideen directly. As A. Q. Khan said in a TV interview in 2009, the Afghan war against the Soviets “provided us with space to enhance our nuclear capability. Given the U.S. and European pressure on our program, it is true that had the Afghan war not taken place at that time, we would not have been able to make the bomb as early as we did.”

“Proximity talks,” or indirect Pakistan-Afghanistan negotiations, began under UN oversight in Geneva in June 1982. By 1988 as a result of war weariness and its internal slide toward collapse, the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan. The Geneva Accords of April 14, 1988, incorporated four separate agreements: a bilateral Afghanistan-Pakistan Agreement on Principles of Mutual Relations in particular over Non-Interference and Non- Intervention; a Declaration of International Guarantees by the United States and the Soviet Union; a Bilateral Afghanistan-Pakistan Agreement on Repa- triation of Refugees; and an Agreement on the Interrelationships for the Settlement of the Situation relating to Afghanistan and Pakistan witnessed by the United States and Soviet Union. A schedule for Soviet troop withdrawals was also laid down.

By February 15, 1989, Soviet troop withdrawals from Afghanistan were complete. Two years later the Soviet Union itself was history, and the central Asian republics became independent.

When the Soviets withdrew and the United States disengaged, Afghanistan was left with no legitimate state structures, no national leadership, multiple armed groups in every locality, a devastated economy, and a people dispersed throughout the region. Despite that, much to everyone’s surprise, President Mohammed Najibullah Ahmedzai’s PDPA government in Kabul survived the Soviet troop withdrawal and showed surprising resilience for three years. Major mujahideen offensives and attempts to take towns like Jalalabad in 1989 failed. The ISI and Saudi Arabia cajoled the Peshawar groups into a shura, or coun- cil of reconciliation, which chose an interim Islamic government for Afghani- stan. Reportedly US$26 million was spent on this exercise and US$1 million a month thereafter to maintain the Islamic government.

India strongly supported Najibullah, his policy of national reconciliation, and his abandonment of the radical PDPA social agenda in the countryside, sending food, medicine, and other assistance. But once the Soviet Union fell and Soviet assistance and support ceased, the Najibullah government collapsed in April 1992. In the aftermath, the government’s own supporters rushed to curry favor with the mujahideen. This was driven home to India when Dostum, the Uzbek warlord who controlled Kabul airport, prevented Najibullah from seeking asylum in India on April 17, 1992. His family had already been granted asylum in India and prime minister Narasimha Rao had promised Najibullah safety. The UN humanitarian chief, Sevan, was sitting in an aircraft on the Kabul airport tarmac waiting to accompany Najibullah to India. But Dostum was doing deals with the advancing mujahideen forces, splitting the PDPA be- tween Pashtun and non-Pashtun factions. Dostum sealed Najibullah’s fate and did not let him board the aircraft. Najibullah subsequently sought protection in the UN compound in Kabul.

In 1992 Kabul passed to Ahmed Shah Masood, the Tajik leader from the Panjshir. On October 26, 1992, the mujahideen factions meeting in Pakistan concluded the Peshawar Accord on a rotational arrangement and proclaimed the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. This was recognized by several countries including India even though, as a wag put it, it may have been Islamic, but it was hardly a state and certainly did not rule Afghanistan. The mujahideen lead- ers had agreed to rotate the leadership, but when Burhanuddin Rabbani of the Jamaat-i-Islami took over, he decided to carry on himself, would not hand over, and ruled, shakily, from 1992 to 1996, challenged by Pakistan and his own prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ISI favorite.

By this time the collapse of the Soviet Union had buttressed regional and ethnic identities in central Asian republics and Afghanistan as well. Afghan ethnic groups, such as Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Turkmen, now had their own sup- porters abroad and countries to look to for funding, bases, and help.

Major General Naseerullah Babar, Benazir Bhutto’s interior minister, was exploring an overland route to Central Asia from Quetta to Turkmenistan through Kandahar and Herat in autumn 1994. His interests coincided with those of U.S. firms like the Union Oil Company of California, or Unocal, to access the oil, gas, and natural resources of Tajikistan and other new states, and with a broader Western desire to weaken Central Asia’s links with Russia. Unocal wanted to build a Trans-Afghan Pipeline to run from the Caspian Sea through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indian Ocean. When Babar took six Western ambassadors, including the U.S. ambassador, to see the route and demonstrate its viability while seeking funding for the project, security was pro- vided by a small band of madrassa students, the Taliban. This was the seed from which Babar and the ISI built up a fighting organization. The Pakistan Army provided them with unified command and control, firepower, training, mobil- ity, and communications. Building on Pashtun resentment of non-Pashtun con- trol of Kabul, the Taliban, stiffened by Pakistan Army regulars, overcame local warlords and captured Spin Boldak, Kandahar, and Herat in 1995 and Kabul in September 1996. One of their first acts in Kabul was to drag Najibullah out of the UN compound where he had holed up since 1992 and to execute him brutally. Eleven years later, in 2007, you could still see the lamppost on which his tortured and abused corpse was strung up.

The creation and use of the Taliban by Pakistan was supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and by the United States on the pre- text of isolating Iran and stopping the flow of drugs out of Afghanistan. The Taliban never fought the Soviet Union and were only created in the mid-1990s. Pakistan’s goal was Pashtun predominance in Afghanistan—or at least to prevent the emergence of a transnational Pashtun movement that would threaten Pakistan’s hold west of the Indus. The Taliban’s ferocity, extremism, and in- tolerance, however, dismayed many nations. Only three countries formally extended diplomatic recognition to the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghani- stan—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—all of whom had midwifed the outfit. India, Iran, Russia, and all the central Asian republics except Turkmeni- stan were alarmed enough by the Taliban into working together in support of Ahmed Shah Masood and his Northern Alliance, a grouping of anti-Taliban forces.

India had very limited relations with the Rabbani government from 1992 to 1996. Elements in the Taliban initially reached out to India but their brutality against Afghan Hindus and Sikhs soon ended that. Their training of Kashmiri, Pakistani, and foreign militants in Afghanistan in preparation for a jihad in Jammu and Kashmir was soon apparent. In 1992–1993, under Indian pressure, the United States came close to declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terror. Pakistan consequently moved many Kashmiri terrorist group bases to eastern Afghanistan.5 Pakistan was paying the Jalalabad shura and later the Taliban to take Kashmiri militants under their protection. Bin Laden was encouraged to join the Taliban in 1996 by Pakistan as he too was sponsoring bases for Kash- miri terrorists in Khost. In 1998 Mullah Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Taliban, spoke publicly, “We support the jihad in Kashmir.” This was when the insurgency in J&K was still strong. The effects of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan were brought vividly home to all of India by the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 to Kandahar on December 24, 1999, which only ended with the release of three Pakistani terrorists from Indian jails. The Taliban ex- ploited the Kashmir jihad knowing that Pakistan could refuse them nothing so long as they provided bases for Pakistani and Kashmiri militants. The Afghan Taliban, however, were resistant to some Pakistani interests and never recog- nized the Durand Line, something no Afghan government has found possible. Events in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s still reverberate today. The tools of Islamic extremism and terrorism were forged, found bases, and gained strength there, as did various counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strate- gies. The 9/11 attacks in the United States and the continuing U.S. war in Afghanistan since 2001, the longest military engagement in American history, are direct legacies of the Afghan war of the 1980s. Each of the states that spon- sored the Taliban—Pakistan, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates—has suffered direct harm from the forces unleashed.

The Talibanization of Pakistani politics is a long-term phenomenon that seems unlikely to be reversed in the foreseeable future. The effect on states in the region, particularly Pakistan and Afghanistan, weakening already fragile state structures, has been baleful and long lasting. If Soviet decline was a fact even before the war in Afghanistan, the defeat in Afghanistan certainly has-ened its collapse. The greatest victim of the terrorism spawned by the Afghan war was, of course, west Asia where radical ideologies and terrorist groups have spread.

Afghanistan poisoned U.S.-Iran relations. The U.S. reliance on Saudi Arabia and hardline Sunni elements, whom President Reagan welcomed to the White House as “freedom fighters,” gave Iran another reason to oppose the United States. Despite brief periods of cooperation in Afghanistan after 9/11 to topple the Taliban’s Islamic emirate, the United States and Iran are still unable to overcome their deep-rooted hostility playing itself out on Iran’s periphery in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and the Levant.

The war showed once again why India cannot be and is not politically neutral to what happens in Afghanistan. Among the drivers of India’s Afghan policy are the balance between Afghanistan and Pakistan, its effect on the evolving international political environment, and the evolution of Afghan politics. In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet invasion, India’s relations with Pakistan took a turn for the worse as Pakistan continued to pursue a nuclear weapons program and to apply the same covert warfare methods in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir in India. In addition, the Karakoram Highway between Pakistan and China through Khunjerab Pass was inaugurated in 1979. Indira Gandhi returned to power within fifteen days of Zia-ul-Haq’s restoring strategic equa- tions with the United States. India’s reticence in criticizing the Soviet invasion and support for Babrak Karmal’s government in Afghanistan naturally created strains between India and Pakistan and increased the distance between them.

The war against the Soviets in Afghanistan further solidified the alliance between the United States, Pakistan, China, and some Islamic countries. And that emboldened Pakistan vis-à-vis India. In 1984 Zia-ul-Haq approved a move by the Pakistan Army into the Siachen glacier area, attempting to capture sa- lients toward the Karakoram pass, to link up with the Chinese People’s Lib- eration Army (PLA), in an attempt to revive the Kashmir issue. He chose his moment with care, just after India had to send troops into the holiest Sikh shrine to clear the Golden Temple in Amritsar of terrorists in Operation Blue Star in June 1984. Mrs. Gandhi and Defense Minister R. Venkataraman neu- tralized the Pakistani effort in northern Jammu and Kashmir. Acting swiftly and decisively, they sent Indian troops to the Siachen glacier first, which India has held ever since—the highest battlefield in the world, more than 18,000 feet above mean sea level.

An Afghanistan under the Taliban was first a refuge, then a base, and finally a launch pad for Islamist extremists and terrorists from around the world, including Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, who planned and launched the September 11, 2001, attack from his base there. In many ways Afghanistan was the model or archetype for what we see of Islamic terrorism in Central Africa, west Asia, possibly central Asia, and on a smaller scale in southern Thailand and the Philippines. It was terrorists funded, armed, and trained by Pakistan and aided by the United States, who ultimately nurtured and gave sanctuary to those who bit the hands that fed them and have made Pakistan what it is today, a dysfunc- tional society with an outsize army, a feeble state backing terrorist armies and organizations as part of daily life.

Pakistanis in authority like to portray themselves as victims of terrorism. There is no denying the price in lives, in the corrosion of society, and in state fragility that Pakistan’s use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy has ex- acted. Even so, Pakistan is more fundamentally a victim of its own flawed stra- tegic vision and the actions of its own intelligence agencies than of the terrorists who were their chosen instruments. Pakistan’s consistent twin motives in its Afghan policy have been to develop “strategic depth” against India and to pre- vent the emergence of a strong movement for a unified Pashtunistan. A strong Pashtun movement in either Pakistan or in Afghanistan would threaten its hold on the North-West Frontier Province (now called Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) and the tribal areas east of the Durand Line and west of the Indus river, whose population has more in common with fellow Pashtuns across the Durand Line than with the rest of Pakistan. Neither of these Pakistani goals was achieved or now seems attainable. Instead, an unstable area is overshadowed by a mul- tipronged power sharing among tribes, extremist and terrorist groups, and the Pakistan Army. If anything, the situation is worse than the ambiguous but rela- tively stable frontier constructed by the Raj, where Indian law extended up to the Indus, Indian power extended to the Durand Line, and Indian influence enjoyed periods of strength in Afghanistan. The scholar and writer Ahmed Rashid says that Zia had dreamed like a Mogul emperor of recreating a Sunni Muslim space between infidel “Hindustan,” heretic (because it is Shia) Iran, and “Christian” Russia. Zia believed the message of the Afghan mujahideen would spread to central Asia, revive Islam, and create a new Pakistan-led Is- lamic bloc of nations. What Zia never considered was what his legacy would do to Pakistan.”

Taking the longer view, in history Afghanistan developed as a buffer state between competing empires—the Russian and British and, briefly, the Chinese—and then, during the Cold War between competing alliance systems, the Soviet and the American. Regional instability and escalating Cold War tensions tore the state apart from the 1970s onward, when it moved from being a buffer state to a battleground, the arena of superpower contention. The Soviet invasion and the fragmentation of society when communists attempted massive social change in Afghanistan broke state structures and tribal loyalties. Soviet counterinsurgency strategy, the way Pakistan channeled U.S. and Saudi aid to its favorites in the seven religious resistance bands, weakening and undermining secular and nationalist Afghan leaders, and Iran’s policy of arming Shia groups intensified divisions and contributed to the fragmentation of Afghanistan’s society, polity, and sovereignty.

Today, the question is how a fragmented and divided Afghanistan will fit into the larger consolidation of the Eurasian landmass that China is attempting through projects like the Belt and Road Initiative. Russia and China are today working together with Pakistan in Afghanistan and are persuading the Americans that the Taliban should be brought in from the cold into government. A tired America wants a face-saving way out of its very long Afghan commitment. Whether the Taliban are ready to be domesticated or to be junior partners in an Afghan government is another matter, and one does not know what price they are willing to pay to see the United States depart. U.S. patience will probably run out before the Taliban’s. Clearly, peace in Afghanistan requires including in the government the widest and most representative coalition possible, includ- ing the Taliban. But the terms on which this might be done remain unclear. While Pakistan’s goals in Afghanistan remain the same, the endless dance of the neighbors and great powers, using local partners and proxies, continues. And Afghanistan and its people continue to pay the price.

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.