Shahid M Amin
INTERNATIONAL relations, like human relations, can at times be very complicated. What seems good turns out to be bad and what seems bad may turn out to be good. Afghanistan is a case in point. When the Soviet Union sent armed forces to Afghanistan in 1979 to protect the crumbling Communist regime, there was condemnation worldwide. Pakistan saw the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan as a direct threat to Pakistan’s own security. In opposing Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, our logic was as follows.
Firstly, the seizure of power in Kabul by the miniscule Communist party was both illegitimate and unacceptable. The Afghan people had risen in revolt against a regime practicing an alien ideology that violated the Islamic and cultural values of the Afghan people. Secondly, the PDPA regime was a mere puppet dancing to the tune of its paymasters in Moscow. When the regime was about to collapse, the Soviets decided to intervene militarily to consolidate their stranglehold over Afghanistan. Thirdly, we were indignant that a brother Muslim people were being kept in bondage through the use of brute force, resulting also in the heavy influx of Afghan refugees into Pakistan. Fourthly, we argued that Afghanistan itself was not the prize for the Soviets. It was only the stepping stone to warm waters and oil riches of the Persian Gulf. Pakistan with its porous borders would, therefore, be the next target for an expansionist Soviet Union.
This line of thinking was not unique to Pakistan but was also accepted by most states in the world, as shown by the repeated condemnation of Soviet occupation by over 100 states at UN General Assembly. No doubt, this turn of events rescued the military ruler General Ziaul Haq from international isolation. But Pakistan’s national interests were the real consideration. Our support for Afghan Jihad was morally and legally justified and made sense on strategic grounds. The US was also opposed to Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan but that was more in context of bleeding the Soviets in guerilla warfare and converting Afghanistan into their Vietnam. Against this background, the Mujahidin leaders were greeted by President Reagan at the White House. Osama bin Laden was among the Arab volunteers who joined the Afghan Jihad. A mutuality of interests had brought Pakistan, USA, Afghan Mujahidin and Osama in an alliance of convenience.
Once the Jihad succeeded and the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the mutuality of interests ended. The US was now more focused on rolling back Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability. It applied all kinds of sanctions on Pakistan to do so. The extremist Islamist agenda of the Mujahidin and Osama worried the US and the West. Al-Qaeda emerged as a major security threat. Some observers note a duality in USA first supporting the Mujahidin and Osama, but later turning against them. The apparent reason was that the common purpose was no longer there after Soviet withdrawal. The same happened to Pakistan. After the Afghan Jihad, we found that some of these Mujahidin and Osama turned into Frankensteins who threatened Pakistan’s law and order (and continue to remain a serious problem for our security). So what was a good thing at one time turned into a bad thing later on. Some people think that we should not have opposed the Soviets in the 1980s. But in that case, the Soviets would have retained full control of Afghanistan, posing the threats to Pakistan and the region, outlined above. The conclusion: life is very complicated and there are no easy solutions.
Take the present complex situation in Afghanistan. One possibility is that Afghan Taliban might again rule Afghanistan. But will Afghanistan have peace, since the high probability is that the non-Pakhtuns –Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras– comprising the Northern Alliance, would oppose Taliban rule. The civil war would continue in a new shape. The world community will be unwilling to coexist with a Taliban regime. The extreme Islamist, anti-women and anti-democratic policies of that regime would be opposed by most countries. A Taliban regime could become the nursery and sanctuary for Islamist extremists and terrorists from all over the world. For these reasons, the anti-Taliban groups will receive help from Iran, India, the Central Asian States and possibly Russia, USA and even China.
Some analysts are pleased with prospects of a US defeat in Afghanistan and believe that Taliban rule would give us ‘strategic depth’. In actual fact, an American exit from Afghanistan and a second spell of Taliban rule would not decrease our security concerns. The first Taliban regime never paid heed to Pakistan, nor will a second such regime. With a continuing civil war, more Afghan refugees might arrive in Pakistan. Our own terrorists of various hues would find sanctuaries in Afghanistan. And if Pakistan were to befriend such a Taliban regime, we could even be declared a terrorist state. Under the circumstances, continued US/NATO presence in Afghanistan will be a lesser problem if the alternative is Taliban rule, in which extremists run riot.
Pakistan is particularly vulnerable to Islamist extremism and terrorism, which has hurt us so badly and has become a major problem in conduct of our foreign policy. We should look at developments in Afghanistan dispassionately. The lesson of recent history is that we have burned our fingers when we get involved in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Our security will be best ensured when there is peace and stability in Afghanistan, which will come with the establishment of an Afghan government including all ethnic groups, including the majority Pakhtuns.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.