A leaf from history: The Afghan war spills over

Published May 17, 2015
With Soviet troops on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan assumes geo-strategic importance ... but at what cost? —AP/File
With Soviet troops on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan assumes geo-strategic importance ... but at what cost? —AP/File

There was great flux in Afghanistan during the 1970s: a power struggle was raging between King Zahir Shahi and his prime minister, Mohammed Daud; the constitutional monarchy was on its last legs and Nur Mohammad Taraki led a revolution to turn the country into a communist republic while dissident leaders Gulbadin Hekmatyar and Burhanuddin Rabbani fled to Pakistan in 1973 and 1974 respectively.

After the overthrow of the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto-led government in July 1977, Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) General Ziaul Haq followed in the footsteps of his predecessor and visited Kabul on Oct 10, 1977. Talks concluded with the two neighbouring countries reaffirming their resolve to amicably solve all outstanding issues.

The conclusion of the Hyderabad Tribunal case had an instant bearing on bilateral ties, which was acknowledged by Daud too. The Saur Revolution, led by Taraki on April 27, 1978, pushed formal ties into cold storage once again. Daud was killed but Zia-Taraki contact was soon established. It proved to be short-lived.

With Soviet troops on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan assumes geo-strategic importance ... but at what cost?

But on the night of Dec 24, 1979, the region changed forever: Soviets troops entered Afghanistan, crossing the international border, with the pro-Soviet Babrak Karmal assuming control soon after. As a result of the Soviet invasion and the battles that followed, Afghans began migrating to Iran and Pakistan..

More than 300 camps were established in Pakistan to provide refuge to more than three million Afghan refugees. It was clear to the United States (US) that Pakistan had now been dragged into the Cold War; in the changing atmosphere, President Jimmy Carter sent a delegation to Pakistan led by national security adviser Dr Zbigniew K. Brzezinski.

Since Pakistan’s geopolitical importance had suddenly been enhanced, the American delegation spoke about renewing the 1959 agreement. The US offered economic assistance for 18 months to the tune of $400 million. Pakistan rejected this offer as “peanuts,” calling instead for strong commitment on the part of the US.

For Pakistan, the Afghan war brought much harm to society and polity. It brought a Kalashnikov culture into Pakistan, narcotics became a popular commodity, and the economy struggled to bear the burden of refugees.

In October 1980, Gen Zia visited the US to address the United Nations General Assembly. On Oct 3, he called on President Carter and discussed more assistance to Pakistan. Gen Zia explained his fears that the Afghan crisis could spill over into Pakistan.

Ronald Reagan assumed office on January 1981; the quantum of assistance and weapon supply increased but it was still short of what was needed. Unlike the previous assistance, the US provided some $2billion in covert assistance for Afghan fighters. Weapons were distributed to mujahideen through the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) headed by Lt-Gen Akhtar Abdur Rahman. It also trained the mujahideen in weaponry. The flow of US assistance was made as a covert operation through the ISI directorate.

As the war continued, diplomatic efforts were also launched in May, 1980. On June 30, 1980, Afghanistan’s Babrak Karmal presented a proposal to hold talks with neighbouring countries. The United Nations also asked its secretary general to hold negations with Afghanistan. Pakistan also engaged in the process.

Through diplomatic channels, it became possible to hold the first round of talks under UN auspices in Geneva in February 1981.

This was a tedious process. Almost 10 rounds of talks were held in Geneva till April 17, 1988, before a final round of signing the historical accord. The mujahideen did not attend the talks but Pakistan continued to inform them about various developments.

For the final act, Gen Zia wanted laid down some terms and conditions for a transitional government in Afghanistan that was to be ushered in. This created a stalemate in talks. Against Gen Zia’s wish, then Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo wanted the accord signed.

Aware of Gen Zia’s intentions, Junejo convened an all-parties conference so that political parties outside the National Assembly could also raise their voice. The majority fully backed the Geneva Accord to be signed at the earliest.

The Soviet Union had decided to pull back its troops from Afghanistan. In fact, Mikhail Gorbachev the Russian leader had informed US President Ronald Reagan in 1987 that the Soviet Union intended to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

On April 14, 1988, much against the wish of Gen Zia, the Geneva Accord was signed, bringing over a decade of war to a close. In Moscow, Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov said in June 1989 that the war cost the USSR $8b each year besides 13,300 soldiers killed and a much larger number injured. The Afghan government too suffered heavily losses; some 200,000 troops were killed, society was fragmented, and infrastructure was destroyed. The cost to the Afghan people was incalculable.

The US government paid the Pakistani government $3.2b from 1982 to 1987 in an attempt to compensate Pakistan for its losses incurred in the war. This included economic assistance and military equipment sales. In April 1984, US President George Bush told Gen Zia that Pakistan’s new-found nuclear capability could become a hurdle in Pakistan-US ties; Gen Zia assured him that the Pakistani nuclear programme was peaceful.

When this assistance was being discussed by the Congress, it approved the aid on the condition that this backing would be suspended if Pakistan transferred its nuclear explosive devices to any non-nuclear country or detonates such a device. The Congress was assured by the US government that the aid would not upset the balance of power between India and Pakistan. Pakistan also refused an American suggestion to establish US bases in Pakistan; this was accepted as the US did not want to jeopardise Pakistan’s strategic position.

For Pakistan, the Afghan war brought much harm to society and polity. It brought a Kalashnikov culture into Pakistan, narcotics became a popular commodity, and the economy struggled to bear the burden of refugees. In fact, Pakistan became a transit route for the illegal trade of weapons and drugs.

Fast forward a few decades, and the effects of the Afghan war and how it crept into public life in Pakistan have become starker. Pakistan is now facing a war with the Taliban on its soil. Never before has such a situation prevailed in the country.


Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 17th, 2015

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