The looking glass of history in Afghanistan

The reason for the U.S.’s failure is no different from that of the Soviets; India too can hardly impact the ground situation

August 09, 2021 12:02 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:29 pm IST

Members of an Afghan Mujahideen patrol moves through the rocky mountainous area in Kunar province, Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan recently as they continue to attack and resist the Soviet intervention in their country. PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Members of an Afghan Mujahideen patrol moves through the rocky mountainous area in Kunar province, Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan recently as they continue to attack and resist the Soviet intervention in their country. PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985. By then Soviet forces had been in Afghanistan for over five years. They had failed to successfully combat the mujahideen groups, most of whom were based in Pakistan. The mujahideen received crucial support from the United States but the critical factor was their Pakistan base. Secure with the U.S. fully behind it, Pakistan knew that the Soviet Union would not risk crossing the Durand Line to take armed action on Pakistani territory.

In his insightful book, The Great Game in Afghanistan: Rajiv Gandhi, General Zia and the Unending War , Kallol Bhattacherjee records that immediately after becoming the Soviet Union’s supreme leader, Mr. Gorbachev had met the Pakistani dictator in Moscow. He had warned him that “Moscow would ensure that Pakistan faces the consequences of backing the mujahideen”. Zia was unfazed by the threat because he knew that the new Soviet leader was posturing.


From the USSR to the U.S.

Thirty-two years later, the wheel of history had turned. It was the United States which was bogged down in Afghanistan. For 16 years it had, despite a military surge, failed to quell the Taliban insurgency even though the group merely had the support of Pakistan. The reason for the U.S.’s failure was no different from that of the Soviets. It could not carry the war into the territory of Pakistan, now armed with nuclear weapons; destabilising such a state would have incalculable consequences.

Now, a new U.S. leader, President Donald Trump announcing his Afghanistan policy in August 2017, said , “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond. Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbo[u]r criminals and terrorists.” He followed this with a tweet on new year’s day 2018 accusing Pakistan of “lies and deceit”. For sometime, the Pakistani leadership was concerned by the mercurial Trump but then realised that his were empty threats, signs of the U.S.’s frustration. It continued with its Afghan policy as before.

A thread in these approaches

Within a year of taking over, Mr. Gorbachev was convinced that the Soviet Union’s Afghan quest was futile. In February 1986 he told the Communist Party that Afghanistan had become a “bleeding wound”. He now decided to prepare for the retreat of the Soviet forces. His aim was to have an orderly withdrawal. He also abandoned the idea of leaving behind a “socialist” government and sought to have a broad-based one which would include the mujahideen.


Fourteen months after warning Pakistan of serious consequences in his August 2017 policy announcement, Mr. Trump too caved in and authorised talks between U.S. diplomats and Taliban representatives in Doha. In these talks, the U.S.’s principal objective was to secure a Taliban guarantee that it would not harbour international terrorist groups in territories under its control. And, like the Soviet Union over three decades ago the U.S. too accepted the idea of an Afghan interim administration which included the Taliban. The February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement , which Mr. Trump’s successor President Joe Biden has honoured, marked the strategic defeat of the world’s pre-eminent global power. It was reminiscent of the Geneva Accords of 1988 which were a strategic defeat of a then superpower, the Soviet Union. They both paved the way for the safe withdrawal of foreign forces.

From 1986 to 1988, the Soviets tried hard to put in place an inclusive government in Afghanistan. Najibullah, a forceful if brutal Afghan leader of Pashtun ethnicity, became President in 1986. He virtually abandoned communist ideology for Afghan nationalism and stressed the country’s Islamic heritage. He reached out to all sections of Afghan society. The U.S. and Pakistan seemed to go along with the idea of an inclusive government as long as the final assurance of Soviet withdrawal was not gained.

The Indian initiative

Significantly, India too advocated a broad-based government and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was in the forefront in advocating it. India took active measures, including contacting the former King Zahir Shah, living in exile in Rome, to lead it. This annoyed the U.S. and Pakistan. Both wanted India to assume a non-operational position on Afghan developments and restrict its role to pressing the Soviets to leave. Once it became clear that Pakistan wanted a mujahideen government without Najibullah’s participation or Zahir Shah’s leadership, India decided to fully support the Najibullah government. This even before the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan in February 1989.


As part of its outreach to all Afghan parties in 1987 and 1988, India was also in contact with the mujahideen. In February 1988, Rajiv Gandhi met Peter Galbraith, a staffer with the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and whom he had known from his youth. Mr. Bhattacherjee records, “To Galbraith’s surprise, Rajiv said that India had reached out to all sections, including the mujahideen inside Pakistan and Afghanistan and was now assessing the entire formula for a broad-based government in Kabul”. This shows that Rajiv Gandhi pursued the requirements of realpolitik: even while firmly supporting Najibullah he was not averse to acknowledge, at the highest political level, that if Indian interests demanded so, India would not hesitate to do business with any Afghan group howsoever regressive its ideology.

India’s 2021 Afghan dilemma mirrors, to an extent, the one it faced post the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. There is a major difference though. In 1989, Kabul was led by a strong Afghan leader, Najibullah, who had the capacity to hold the situation together with Soviet assistance. That was forthcoming, for while the Geneva Accords provided that neither side would help their protégés, they continued to do so. Thus, for three years, Najibullah kept the mujahideen at bay. It was with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the political unity of Kabul frayed. With that the army fragmented, paving the way for the mujahideen to take over in April 1992. Soon enough, intra-mujahideen conflict resulted in complete instability in the country. That set the stage for the rise of the Taliban with Pakistani assistance. The internecine mujahideen hostilities, fortunately, provided India strategic opportunities to influence the ground situation in Afghanistan along with Iran and Russia. But fortune does not smile at all times.


Afghanistan today

Now, like Rajiv Gandhi in the 1986-1988 period, Indian foreign policy and security managers are advocating the formation of an inclusive government. So, ostensibly are the western powers including the U.S. The problem is that Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani is no Najibullah. His capacity to hold Kabul together is questionable. Besides, the Kabul political elite is at odds with itself and if it frays, will the Afghan National Security Forces remain united? The extent to which the U.S. will be willing to support Kabul post August 31 (the date of complete withdrawal) remains to be seen. This situation of total flux could have been easily foreseen. Equally, the need for maintaining open and direct contacts with all Afghan political parties could also have been anticipated only if pragmatic and correct strategic attitudes had guided Indian policy.

Notwithstanding all the appropriate diplomatic noises India may make, it has now no real capacity to impact the ground situation in Afghanistan. And, even if the best option for India comes to pass — the formation of an inclusive government — its absence of open contacts with the Taliban will place it at a great disadvantage.

Vivek Katju is a former diplomat

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