Rear View: A missing government, an international crisis

As the Red Army crossed into the land of the Afghans, for the US Pakistan turned almost overnight from a pariah country into a ‘frontline state’ in the war on ‘godless Russians’.

Written by Inder Malhotra | Published: October 13, 2014 12:06 am
Former PM Indira Gandhi (Source: Reuters) Former PM Indira Gandhi (Source: Reuters)

Just the other day, I had tersely mentioned in this column (‘The return of Indira’, IE, September 29) that the eight-day interregnum between Indira Gandhi’s triumph in the 1980 elections and her assumption of office for astrological reasons had caused this country an international problem. It’s time to explain this, if only because what happened was extremely troublesome, and some of the highly pernicious fallout persists.

It was on December 26, 1979 that tanks and troops of the former Soviet Union rolled into Afghanistan, the traditional buffer between the Indian subcontinent and Russia over which the “Great Game” was played ever so often during the British Raj. India was then in the throes of a hard-fought election, and nobody had time to worry about this admittedly grave development. The rest of the world was outraged by the Soviet invasion of a small neighbour. A debate on Afghanistan in the UN General Assembly was scheduled for early January 1980. The Indian ambassador to the world body, Brajesh Mishra (who later played a crucial role in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government) was screaming for instructions, but New Delhi had virtually no government. Technically, Charan Singh was still prime minister. But no one took him seriously.

Then foreign secretary R.D. Sathe and his colleague, Eric Gonsalves, had the greatest difficulty in reaching Gandhi because every inch of her residence was occupied by crowds celebrating her return to power by beating drums, sounding bugles and shouting slogans. She herself was surrounded by senior Congress leaders. However, she entrusted the task of preparing the brief for the UN speech to two of her trusted foreign policy advisors, G. Parthasarathy and T.N. Kaul. Both were pronouncedly pro-Soviet. Consequently, the speech that the Indian representative made at the UN was “excessively understanding of the Soviet Union” and was therefore criticised abroad and even at home.

During her previous 11-year innings, Gandhi had continued her father’s policy of maintaining close and friendly relations with the Soviet Union, but she never endorsed the wrongs done by Moscow. On taking the oath of office, she busied herself with correcting the “distortion” in what India had said at the UN. President Giscard d’Estaing of France was the first foreign head of state to visit India after her return to power. The joint statement on the Afghan issue that the two issued was so fair that it later became the consensus on the subject at a meeting of the non-aligned movement’s foreign ministers in Delhi. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan subscribed to it. Meanwhile, the veteran Soviet foreign minister who later became his country’s president, Andrei Gromyko, had rushed to Delhi. His meeting with the prime minister ended in high drama. She listened to his masterly presentation of the Soviet case most attentively but remained silent at the end of it. After a brief interval, he asked: “Madam, what do I tell Mr Brezhnev?” To this her reply was classic Indira: “On this, I cannot help you.”

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So far, so good. But there was nothing good about the twists and turns the Afghan problem took from the moment the Soviet Union invaded the rugged country in the Hindukush. The Russians eventually withdrew in 1989. Yet, despite America’s longest and hugely costly war in Afghanistan that began in 2001, the Afghan problem still haunts the world in general and the region of which India is the largest member in particular. We will briefly return to this matter presently. What needs to be taken up first is the effect that Moscow’s action in 1979 had on the country on our western border, Pakistan, and consequently on our security.

Quite clearly, 1979 had been a landmark year in Pakistan, too. Having overthrown  Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the country’s first elected but authoritarian and erratic prime minister, two years earlier, military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, who Islamised Pakistan more zealously than anyone before him, executed Bhutto on April 4, 1979 after what a former US attorney general had called a “travesty of a trial”. The whole world was appalled. The US stopped all economic and military aid to its “most-allied ally” since 1954. In the Army House in Rawalpindi from where he ruled the country, Zia squirmed in the torment of being both isolated and condemned. How was he to know that his luckiest moment was round the corner?

As the Red Army crossed the Salang Pass into the land of the Afghans, for the US, Pakistan turned almost overnight from a pariah country to a “frontline state” in the war on the “godless Russians”. Rather unwisely, then President Jimmy Carter offered Islamabad economic aid worth $300 million. Zia rejected it as “peanuts”. Nobody missed his allusion to the fact of Carter being a peanut farmer. Soon enough, the first tranche of economic-cum-military aid to Pakistan soared to $3.2 billion. What delighted Zia and his cohorts even more was that the Americans also decided to convert the fight against the Russian invaders into “an anti-Soviet jihad”.

For this purpose, jihadists and mujahideen were mobilised throughout the Muslim world. The CIA and other American agencies  were generous with the supply of arms and money to both Pakistan and volunteers for the jihad, who were also trained suitably. Zia  was confident that when the war against the Russians ended, countless mujahideen would be available to him to make terrorism an instrument of his foreign policy.

Ironically, one of the mujahids most loved by the CIA was someone named Osama bin Laden.

As is America’s wont, it packed up and left Afghanistan as soon as the last Soviet soldier withdrew. Pakistan was now master of the area and was quick to organise the Taliban under the leadership of Mullah Umar. Benazir Bhutto’s minister of the interior, General Naseerullah Babar, led the Taliban’s triumphant drive from Kandahar to Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. The Americans thought of Afghanistan again only when the Twin Towers were brought down in New York and the Pentagon was singed in Washington. The rest, as they say, is history.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.

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