By Mosharraf Zaidi
December 11, 2018
The Pakistani state’s claims of hybrid warfare or fifth generation war may be debatable. But the definition of what the Americans have been doing in Afghanistan since 2001 is not disputed.
As the US war in Afghanistan begins its 18th year, Pakistanis would be wise to go back and take a look at history. Pakistan has been tarred and feathered for American failure in Afghanistan for so long that an entirely ahistorical narrative about what has taken place there in the last four decades seems to have been swallowed whole by many Pakistanis. Those that do not learn from history are bound to repeat it. But what if your concept of history is retro-fitted to suit narratives that seek for history to begin on September 11, 2001. Or in May 1997?
In the Associated Press reporting of the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif to the Taliban on May 24, 1997, it states that: “The capture of Mazar-e-Sharif … unites nearly all of Afghanistan under one authority for the first time since the Soviet army withdrew in 1989”.
“On the lead tank was Gen Malik Pahlawan, who until the past few days was Gen Dostum’s second-in-command. His defection to the Taliban on Monday marked the beginning of the northern warlord’s downfall. It was not clear as the troops rolled in how many among their number were mutinous Dostum troops – and how many were Taliban fighters”.
Of course, in the retro-fitted version of history, such reporting is problematic because the Taliban are supposed to be Pakhtuns trained, armed and financed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in pursuit of an Islamic emirate as the gateway to Central Asia. The Taliban’s greatest (and most gruesome) victory to date, however, was lead by a man who had crossed over from Gen. Rashid Dostum’s camp on the eve of the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif. Perhaps factors other than some inexplicable evil within Pakistan helped fuel at least some of the violence in Afghanistan in the late 1990s?
Of course, as soon as the word Taliban appears, cognitive blinders go up, and it becomes difficult to be objective. The Taliban are a brutal, murderous and nasty group that should never have been near the reins of power over any people – much less an Afghan people who, by the time Mullah Omar took over Kabul in 1996, had already suffered two decades of a needless, cruel and unforgiveable war. But this war was not created by the Taliban, or by the US or the CIA, or by Pakistan or the ISI, or any of Pakistan’s Arab and Gulf allies. The war imposed on the Afghan people was by the Soviet Union and its various proxies that tried to run Kabul from 1978 to 1992.
Some folks believe that Pakistan’s advocacy of an inclusive approach to reconciliation talks in Afghanistan is code for wanting the old Taliban guard to take over Afghanistan again. The suggestion is often accompanied by claims about Pakistan’s ideological conviction, or its appetite for expansionism or its fears of ethnic nationalism. All of them may be partly true. But Pakistan’s advocacy of inclusive and participatory engagement with all Afghan parties and groups has been around for longer than the Taliban have existed.
Perhaps part of Pakistan’s advocacy is rooted in four decades of experience that suggests that, without an inclusive and broad-based solution, Afghanistan will remain mired in conflict.
To examine, let’s go to that Pakistan-loving newspaper, the New York Times. In a story published on September 27, 1987, Paul Lewis and an unnamed correspondent wrote an article titled, ‘Pakistan Suggests a UN Force for Afghanistan’. In it, they write: “Mr Junejo warned that the Afghan ‘freedom fighters will want to rule’ when the Russians pull out. But he said ‘they can’t rule alone’, adding that a political system must be constructed that ‘looks after the others’, meaning supporters of the present government”.
The popular narrative about Pakistan’s role back then was that of a conduit for American support to the Mujahideen, including all seven of the Tanzimat that made their home in Pakistan from 1978, and whose remnants in various forms today all curse their luck for having Pakistan as a neighbour, a host, and the place where they seek shelter, livelihoods, education, health and a better life. But the truth about Pakistan’s role is a little more complicated.
The Afghan Mujahideen were never particularly keen to toe the Pakistani line, no matter how enamoured their American and Pakistani intelligence brothers were with them. Afghans are an independent and sovereign people that engage in warfare in pursuit of their self interest. The constant allusion to Afghan conflicts, big and small, as proxy warfare, ignores this basic and fundamental fact. Attempts by any party, including boastful Pakistanis, to frame the Taliban as being within the control of Pakistani handlers are about as accurate as claims of the Mujahideen being proxies of the Pakistan of the 1980s and 1990s.
On January 18, 1988, Richard Weintraub reports for the Washington Post on some of the Mujahideen reactions to Pakistan’s advocacy back then of the need to be inclusive and for the Mujahideen to cooperate with the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party in Kabul. In a story titled, ‘Afghan Rebels Reject Power Sharing in Kabul’, Weintraub quotes Younis Khalis: “Out of the question. We’ll not be able to show our face to thousands of our countrymen who have lost their fathers, brothers and sons in eight years of war against the kafirs”. Other Afghan mujahideen were equally unhappy. In the same story, Weintraub quotes Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: “We do not expect our Muslim brothers in Pakistan to ask us to share power with Soviet puppets”.
Weintraub also reports Gen Zia and the then prime minister Junejo as being of the same voice and view, “Pakistani President Mohammed Ziaul Haq and Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo said the mujahidin must make at least temporary compromises with some members of the ruling People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan”, and quotes Gen. Zia as saying that the Mujahideen “realise the need for pragmatism” and that an interim government including members of the ruling party is “not much of a price in my opinion”. Weintraub then quotes PM Junejo bluntly addressing the Mujahideen saying: “You must accept reality.” He and Zia indicated that a Soviet withdrawal was conditional upon participation in a new government by the People’s Democratic Party.
The military and its chosen civilian leader began 1988 on the same page. But in April, the Ojhri camp tragedy occurred. Reporting the story for the New York Times – titled ‘US Officials Link Pakistan Blast to Kabul Regime’ – Michael R Gordon reports on April 17, 1988 that “A defence department official said the explosion fits a pattern of recent attacks against military and civilian installations in Pakistan by agents of the Kabul regime”.
Of course, PM Junejo and Gen Zia changed pages quite dramatically after Ojhri camp. Junejo’s attempts to pursue some notion of accountability proved to be too much for Gen. Zia. On May 29, 1988, Junejo Sahib was dismissed from office. On August 17, less than three months later, Gen Zia died in an airplane crash that also claimed the life of, among others, the US ambassador at the time, Arnold Raphel.
Today, neither Zia nor Junejo is with us. Nor indeed are many of the key actors or defining conditions of the Geneva Accord that was supposed to have avoided the civil war of the early 1990s, and the Taliban regime that came after it. Fair reporting on Pakistan and US understanding of the country’s complexities and needs are also long dead. Little has survived since the 1980s and 1990s. But three things endure.
Pakistanis continue to live in mystery about events like Ojhri Camp and the C-130 in Bahawalpur.
Americans continue to want to cut and run from Afghanistan.
And Afghanistan continues to be ravaged by a war between Afghans themselves.
Mosharraf Zaidi is an analyst and commentator.