Originally posted December 2009
The monumental defeat of the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan and its withdrawal in 1988-89 and the collapse of the pro-Moscow communist regime in Kabul in April 1992 did not usher in an era of peace and stability for the Afghan people. The fighting among the former mujahidin groups in the first half of the 1990s and the rise of the Taliban and resistance against them in the second half of the decade have been generally referred to as a “civil war.” A more appropriate term, however, would be “imposed civil war.” If not for Pakistan’s encouragement and support for certain Afghan groups to wage war, the situation would have been entirely different.
The disengagement of both the Soviet Union and the United States from Afghanistan allowed Pakistan to almost totally replace interference from the North with interference from the South in the 1990s. (Iran and Uzebkeistan also interfered in Afghanistan, though their meddling paled in comparison to that of Pakistan.) It is important to emphasize that Pakistani meddling in Afghanistan dated from before the 1979 Soviet invasion. Migration of the Afghan Islamists as a result of President Mohammad Daoud’s persecution in the mid-1970s provided the Pakistani government with an opportunity to use them to hit back at the rival Afghan government. Among those Islamists, who later became leaders and prominent members of the anti-Soviet resistance movement, were two young men who chose opposite directions. While Ahmad Shah Massoud distrusted the Pakistanis and kept his distance once he realized their designs, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar became a trusted friend and ally. Massoud returned to Afghanistan in early 1979 and did not visit Pakistan again for more than a decade. Hekmatyar visited Afghanistan from time to time but stayed mostly in Pakistan. He received the lion’s share from the international assistance distributed by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and called for an Afghanistan-Pakistan confederation when Soviet withdrawal became imminent.
The ISI’s relationship with Masoud and Hekmatyar was at the heart of the post-Soviet Pakistani interference in Afghanistan and a major cause of the imposed civil war. Pakistan was hoping Hekmatyar, with all the financial and military assistance he had received, would be able to replace the Communist regime in Kabul. Massoud outmaneuvered Hekmatyar and the ISI both politically and militarily. Through skillful negotiations, he forced the Kabul regime to announce its readiness to surrender unconditionally. Instead of going it alone, however, he asked the resistance leadership in Peshawar to form a government and take power in Kabul. Hekmatyar and the ISI, who were planning a solo takeover to be followed by an offering of minor shares to others, were put in a dilemma. They could not openly oppose the formula agreed upon by the resistance leaders despite being unhappy that Hekmatyar was not offered the leadership role. Thus, Hekmatyar’s representative signed the Peshawar Agreement while he himself was hatching another plan in the vicinity of Kabul.
Hekmatyar’s plan was to launch a coup in Kabul with the help of a faction of the Communist regime which was not happy with the unconditional surrender. Unfortunately for him, Massoud learned about the coup plot and managed to insert his forces into Kabul in time, acting as the Defense Minister of the transitional authority formed in Peshawar. The coup attempt failed, and Hekmatyar was prevented from infiltrating Kabul by force. He decided to remain outside the capital, but nominated a loyalist to assume the position of Prime Minister. Ironically, it was during this time, when his Prime Minister was in the city, that he started launching rockets on Kabul. This was the beginning of the imposed civil war.
The ISI had a problem not only with Massoud, but with the whole government setup. While living in exile, Burhanuddin Rabbani, the President, had generally toed the Pakistani line. But there were times when he had defied Pakistani wishes. This author remembers well how much pressure was exerted on Rabbani and other resistance leaders to declare their support for Shah Nawaz Tani’s March 1990 coup, before its failure became apparent. In retrospect, it seems that Tani had acted in collaboration with Hekmatyar and the ISI. It was not evident then; nonetheless, Rabbani and other leaders steadfastly refused to accede to Pakistani demands. Rabbani also had defied Pakistan’s taboo against Afghan resistance leaders’ initiation of direct relationships with foreign countries. He led the resistance leaders’ delegation to Washington to meet President Ronald Reagan in June 1986, despite the ISI’s disapproval and Hekmatyar’s outcry. He also led resistance delegations to meet with the Russians in Taif, Saudi Arabia, in December 1988 and in Moscow in November 1991.
Pakistan was unhappy with the Rabbani government’s foreign policy as well. Since it had played host to millions of Afghan refugees and had facilitated international support for the resistance, Pakistan expected the new government in Kabul to look at Islamabad as a “big brother.” This was not acceptable to the Rabbani government, which sincerely wanted to have close and friendly relations with Pakistan, but not at the cost of an independent foreign policy. Especially disturbing to the Pakistani government — and particularly to the ISI — was the new government’s announcement that they wanted to open a new chapter in Afghanistan’s relations with India, despite the Indian government’s good relations with the former Communist regime. Pakistan took offense, even though the Rabbani government voiced strong support for the cause of Kashmiri Muslims. To the credit of the Indian Foreign Office, their diplomacy was mature enough to realize the delicate situation and never raise this issue with their Afghan counterparts.
In their desire to have a trusted (“puppet”?) government in Kabul, Pakistan seemed to be pursuing certain “national interest” objectives. The notion of “strategic depth” was one of them. Afghanistan serving as strategic depth for Pakistan in case of an Indian attack was first proposed by General Mirza Aslam Beg, the then-Pakistani Army Chief of Staff. In a recent article in the Pakistan Observer (January 4, 2009), General Beg defends the idea and argues that the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, Iran’s emergence as a strong player after its war with Iraq, and the end of Zia ul-Haq’s dictatorship in Pakistan had prepared the ground for the unity of these three Muslim countries “as the bastion of power, to defeat and deter the common enemies ... [and] achieve the essential element of ‘Strategic Depth.’” He blames the “enemies” for causing the civil war in Afghanistan to “defame and defeat” the unity initiative.
Establishing close relations with the newly independent Central Asian republics through Afghanistan may have been another reason for Pakistan’s desire to have a trusted friend in Kabul. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Pakistan found itself in competition with Iran and Turkey for the hearts and minds as well as the markets of the five Central Asian nations. However, Pakistan lacks direct borders with those countries and can reach them only through Afghanistan. Thus, having a friendly government in Kabul was essential for that purpose. However, peace and stability in Afghanistan was equally important. By pushing for a trusted friend in Kabul, Pakistan in fact acted to its own disadvantage. President Rabbani’s government was keen to promote Pakistan’s relations with Central Asia because it was in Afghanistan’s interest as well. Pakistan’s mistrust, however, led to the imposed civil war and the ensuing chaos and anarchy, turning close relations with Central Asia into an elusive dream for Pakistan.
As noted earlier, the first trusted friend that Pakistan wanted to install in Kabul was Hekmatyar. Massoud was unable to dislodge him from his strongholds in Char Asyab, south of Kabul. For three years, Hekmatyar targeted the city with tens of thousands of rockets that he had stockpiled and the new ones he received from the ISI. He also launched numerous ground attacks. The most serious one was in January 1994 in a joint operation with Abdur Rashid Dostom, the leader of a militia group formed during Najib’s regime and allied to Massoud until that point, and Abdul Ali Mazari, the leader of the Shi‘ite Wahdat Party. Only the ISI could bring such strange bedfellows together!
Once Pakistan realized Hekmatyar’s inability to attain power in Kabul, it designed a new plot. As Professor William Maley notes in his book, The Afghanistan Wars, General Naseerullah Babar, the then-Pakistani Interior Minister, can be considered the “Godfather” of the Taliban. However, soon after their emergence, the ISI also threw its weight behind them. ISI seemed not to have cut all ties to Hekmatyar, though. This author witnessed Hekmatyar’s genuine surprise that the Taliban had reached the gates of Kabul in late September 1996, a few months after he had finally agreed to enter Kabul as Prime Minister, and heard him murmur to the effect that the ISI had told him this would not happen. Apparently he had forgotten the old adage: “There are no permanent allies, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests!”