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Three decades after Soviet exit

February 17, 2019

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THIRTY years ago this month, the Red Army marched back through what was then Soviet Uzbekistan into the USSR after a ruinous nearly decade-long mission in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union had invaded its southern neighbour to bail out its comrades in Kabul in late 1979. However, the intervention was an unmitigated disaster, contributing to the fall of the Soviet empire and sucking in global players in what would become one of the epic confrontations of the Cold War. The Soviet invasion destabilised Afghanistan; the country has not been able to recoup since. Closer to home, it also changed Pakistan forever as this country — under Gen Zia’s watch — became a key player in the so-called jihad, fuelled by American and Arab money. Regional geopolitics would never be the same while Pakistan’s political, social and religious fabric would undergo changes that still reverberate.

As the Soviets left Afghanistan with a bloody nose, America and its allies celebrated. However, the mujahideen — a conglomerate of Afghan resistance fighters and warlords — instead of consolidating their gains and rebuilding their country, started an internecine struggle marked by more violence and unrest. In this picture, the Afghan Taliban, a hard-line though disciplined force, stepped in to fill the vacuum created by the feuding mujahideen and took Kabul in 1996. They, in turn, were sent packing by the American invasion following the Sept 11 attacks, and ever since, the history of Afghanistan has been a sad cycle of failed nation-building and recurring violence. Today, the Taliban are once more in a commanding position, with the Americans willing to talk directly to the militia and accept it as a stakeholder in Afghan politics.

The Soviets seemed to have jumped into the Afghan quagmire in a moment of imperial overreach. There has been much soul-searching in Russia over the years, and today, it is ironic that Moscow is hosting peace talks to bring the current phase of the Afghan conflict to a close. However, where Pakistan is concerned, has our ruling elite, especially the permanent establishment that really calls the shots in this country, learnt anything from the Soviet invasion and its aftermath? Pakistan became part of the Afghan jihad, serving as a base camp for the Mujahideen. Yet, while the US soon walked away after avenging itself against the Soviets, this country was left to pick up the pieces. There is a need to acknowledge that seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan was a failed policy. If anything, instead of creating a pliant government to our west, it boomeranged and destabilised Pakistan itself. As the popular narrative goes, drugs, guns and refugees flooded Pakistan, while the jihadi culture of armed groups claiming legitimacy under the garb of faith is one of the most dangerous legacies of strategic depth. While the Russians contemplate, so should Pakistan about what was lost and what was gained in Afghanistan.

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2019