What we call Afghan Jihad had started much before 1979 when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan started supporting Islamist groups that were opposing Daud Khan’s government in Afghanistan, as early as 1973. By that time, Pakistan had started using America’s communism-phobia as bait, eyeing the latter’s money and weapons – the lesson the US had learnt during its dealings with the Pakistan military in the 1950s and 60s. As part of this, we had offered the US in 1972 to use our ports as their bases.
In addition to repeated appeals to the US for defense support in case of a Soviet invasion, Pakistan had also started hosting Afghan insurgent leaders in Peshawar, Quetta and Islamabad. Rabbani and Hekmatyar used to be seen visited by officials and being granted enough support to continue their activities back home. In Afghanistan, Daud had seized power after a successful coup against King Zahir Shah thereby ending Zahir’s project-democracy. For his Pashtunistan ambitions and opposition of the Durand Line – the colonial border between Afghnistan and Pakistan – the Pakistani establishment was not very keen to see Daud in power.
In response to violent treatment that the Daud government meted out to the communist-leaning People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), it had to face a popular uprising. As a result of the Saur Revolution of 1978, the Daud government was uprooted while he met a violent end. Since centuries, Afghanistan’s tribal countryside had peculiar power-relations with the Center. Kabul had always held a peripheral influence in the country’s administrative control.
What PDPA did not realize was the fact that being highly decentralized in nature, Afghanistan had historically maintained that balance between Kabul and the countryside. Making the Center very strong and in its bid to aggressively pursue rapid restructuring of the state in favor of socialism, PDPA initiated social reformation considered to be ‘non-Afghan’ by the Islamist groups. Its steps like rendering bride money unlawful, limiting the influence of the clerics and above all, strong land reforms limiting the landholdings were PDPA’s unforgiveable sins.
These errors of judgment and hasty reforms created a popular uprising against PDPA government, which was by then a divided and fragmented administration under the two factions Khalq and Parcham. After fierce conflict between Noor Mohammad Tarakai, the pro-Soviet Afghan leader and Amin on the anti-Soviet side, Kremlin decided to intervene in September 1979. Prior to it, the Troika, as is evident from the Kremlin Documents, did not agree to use force in Afghanistan.
These developments after the Saur Revolution (the military coup against Daud supported by the people) had brought USSR directly in Afghanistan while Pakistan was able to drag USA, UK and Saudi money funnelled in the proxy war that followed. The US that had been taking Afghanistan lightly till then, woke up to the danger and gladly took Pakistani bait of Soviet occupation. There came the money, the weapons, the drugs, and the trade with a lot of cash that filled many coffers in Islamabad with seepage into Afghan Islamist groups. The US dreamed of bleeding the Soviet Union, writes Hussain Haqqani so correctly in his Magnificent Delusions.
Ironically, Bhutto who had come to power on his socialist credentials – or at least the narrative – became responsible for starting the Islamist project in Afghanistan that undermined socialist agenda in Afghanistan. Using the decades old bait of ‘Soviet threat’, military dictator Zia ul Haq expanded Bhutto’s Project of Islamist Afghanistan. The threat was constructed around the 19th century ‘Warm Waters Theory’ whereby it was perceived that USSR wanted to reach the warm waters of the ocean where the ports are not frozen, which made Afghan bordering areas of British India (now Pakistan) vulnerable to Soviet occupation.
Although the theory has already been rubbished by scholars who have examined Kremlin Archives opened in the late 1990s as well as Wikileaks that has made public the American thinking on the subject. Had USSR any interest in Indus waters through Pakistan, there was nothing stopping it throughout 1950s, then 60s and after. Moreover, to reach warm water ports, occupation was not the only option available to the second ‘pole’ of the bipolar world.
Even if we accept for a moment that the Afghan threat to Pakistan’s existence was real, the big question is, was it the only option to use Islamist proxies to engage the Soviet forces? When asked, senior journalist Wajahat S. Khan emphatically nodded to a strong nay. “If there were no other option but to militarily engage the USSR via proxies, Pakistan should have foreseen the cost of the blowback of the so-called jihad in its strategic calculus,” Khan said. “The proxy warfare itself could have been conducted differently. Why were certain insurgent groups backed at the expense of others? Why the emphasis on supporting Pashhtuns and Islamists, not all Afghans. That selective process left Pakistan in the unenviable position of a unfair broker of peace when the time for talking came, and as for the blowback, it hits Pakistan every day, even now.”
The point made by Khan here is quite valid. The Pakistani-supported insurgents, commonly called Peshawar Seven, were all Sunni groups. There was sort of a coalition of other predominantly Shia groups – the Tehran Eight – supported by Iran. This selective support to Sunni, Pakhtun part of Afghan insurgency ultimately alienated all other communities in Afghanistan, who still cringe at the mere mention of Pakistan. Making it ethnic and sectarian brought radical and violent effects to Pakistan. Harboring the insurgents on the soil of Pakistan landed us in the quagmire of never-ending violence and insurgency. Giving it religious color by calling it ‘Jihad’ and bringing umpteen foreign groups including Arab terrorists (although for the US, UK and KSA they were freedom fighters at the time), destroyed the prospects of a peaceful Pakistan for a very long time.
It is still possible to reverse it. The reversal is only possible if we recognize the root cause honestly and with sincerity of purpose. If the establishment is still trying to justify its wrong-doings through its big-mouthed proxies on Pakistani media and among the intelligentsia, then one is obliged to conclude that nothing has changed in official policy. Treating the symptoms while leaving out, rather justifying the cause, is not going to take us anywhere. If you still say the Afghan Jihad was a righteous and justified cause, pardon me for saying it, but you are lying through your teeth when you say you don’t believe in good or bad Taliban.
Addendum: In my last column that appeared on January 20, an Urdu couplet of Mir Taqi Mir was mistakenly attributed to Mirza Ghalib. Please accept my apologies for the glaring mistake and thanks to all the readers who made the correction.