Hijack in the Hindu Kush

Discussion in 'Defence & Strategic Issues' started by Vishwarupa, Oct 24, 2014.

  1. Vishwarupa

    Vishwarupa Senior Member Senior Member

    Sep 15, 2009
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    On September 22, the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's premier spy agency, got a new chief. For General Rizwan Akhtar, the new director-general, it could be the toughest challenge of his career, especially with the neighbouring Afghanistan caught in the throes of a power transition. His mentor and former head of the ISI, Hamid Gul, would surely agree. A quarter century ago, Gul was in charge of guiding Pakistan through another tumultuous transition in Afghanistan, as the troops of the Soviet Union were about to withdraw. Back then, he made some choices that showed that even archenemies cooperated under exceptional circumstances. Unknown to most, India and Pakistan worked together for some time to find a way out of the Afghan mess. What, however, made the impossible possible was the extraordinary coordination at the highest levels that existed between India and the United States from 1985 to 1988, despite the Cold War.

    According to declassified US documents running into 931 pages, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Ronald Reagan maintained extensive contacts, through personal letters, backed by intense dialogue at all levels for four years, in a desperate attempt to resolve the Afghanistan crisis that erupted following the Soviet invasion of its southern neighbour in 1979. Early this year, the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library under the National Archives of the United States gave THE WEEK access to documents filed by John Gunther Dean, former US ambassador to India. Some of these documents would help explain how Rajiv brought the US and the Soviet Union together to end the Cold War in Afghanistan. It would also explain how the plans for a national unity government in Kabul failed, making peace short-lived.

    Rajiv started paying a key role in the Afghan crisis following his successful visit to the US in June 1985. Young and articulate, he charmed Reagan, who had by then begun his second and final presidential term. By the end of the year, Reagan, who was impatient for a diplomatic upper hand in Afghanistan, wrote to Rajiv about the various dimensions of the crisis. The letter was delivered to Rajiv personally by Dean. Thus started a series of personal communications that gave him unprecedented access to Rajiv. Moreover, the young prime minister never hesitated to send his junior foreign minister Natwar Singh, foreign secretary A.P. Venkateswaran, his diplomatic aide Ronen Sen and his friend Gopi Arora, to brief the US state department on the Indian role in Afghanistan.

    Reagan first laid out his Afghanistan plan before Rajiv in a letter dated November 21, 1986. He knew Rajiv was hosting Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Delhi a few days later. "A military solution in Afghanistan is simply not possible and... we recognise Soviet interests in a secure southern border just as we recognise the Afghan desire for self-determination,” wrote Reagan. He wanted Rajiv's help in getting the Soviet Union on board to discuss a withdrawal plan. “I urge you to use your talks with the General Secretary to discuss the need to hasten the resolution of this issue, which is of such great concern to people everywhere.”

    The game was simple, said Dean, who now divides his time between his two homes in France, in Paris and in Martinique, close to Geneva. “The CIA was running a major war against the Soviets from Peshawar. That was not possible without support from the Pakistan government and General Zia-ul-Haq. So Zia could not be used for turning military advantage into diplomatic gains," said Dean. "This was a job meant for Rajiv who had the qualities of statesmanship. But Reagan and vice president [George H.W.] Bush had other calculations apart from Afghanistan. They wanted to use Pakistan for long-term American strategy in the Arab world and in south Asia.” In an early intelligence assessment, Dean had commented on Rajiv's “western affinity” and wrote that the continued US-India bonhomie was dependent on his continuance as prime minister.

    Following the Rajiv-Gorbachev summit, a number of hectic parleys took place between Indian and American diplomats. Dean's communication to the state department on December 10, 1986, recounted a meeting he had with Venkateswaran. The foreign secretary told the ambassador that Rajiv and Gorbachev had discussed a realistic time-frame for Soviet withdrawal. The Americans wanted the Soviets to leave in three months, but Moscow demanded four years. But in talks with Rajiv, Gorbachev had come down to one and a half years, noted Dean.

    On January 7, 1987, Rajiv wrote to Reagan that Afghanistan should be independent, non-aligned and free from intervention and interference. “Gorbachev left me with the impression that the Soviet Union would like to withdraw its forces in a realistic time frame from Afghanistan, which would be non-aligned and not unfriendly to the Soviet Union." Reagan replied through another letter delivered by Dean on March 25, in which he explained the need for a “short withdrawal time-frame of the Soviets that would permit the Afghans themselves to resolve the question of a new government.” He floated the idea of a transitional government acceptable to all Afghans as well as international stake holders. It was this idea that prompted Rajiv to initiate a dialogue with Zahir Shah, the Afghan king who was living in Rome in exile. Accordingly, Natwar was sent to talk to Shah.

    Rajiv proposed a government structure, which found support from Gorbachev, Zia and Reagan. According to the plan, the transition government would be on three levels. First, there would be a state council headed by the king, which also included the mujahideen groups based in Peshawar, the two Shia groups based in Iran, the rebel military commanders and the communists. The second component was an elected prime minister and the third, a cabinet that would perform the regular duties of the government.

    The only discordant note was the Soviet insistence on accommodating its nominee, President Mohammed Najibullah, in the transitional government. Rajiv, who was not too keen on having Najibullah on board, however, impressed upon all sides that it was important to come together and resolve their differences for the sake of greater regional interest.

    The Najibullah issue was taken up by Reagan in his March 25 letter to Rajiv. Expressing “scepticism about Soviet intentions”, Reagan wrote that there was a disparity between the actions and the words of the Soviet leaders. He warned that a breakdown in talks would lead to a dirty war that would have “threatening consequences for all in the region”. Apart from the Najibullah issue, other major differences, too, gradually cropped up between India and the US. The US, for instance, ignored Indian protests against supplying Pakistan with AWACS [airborne warning and control system] aircraft, which India felt was a major threat to its security.

    As Rajiv's domestic political problems grew, his international clout took a beating. The Bofors scandal and the Ram Janmabhoomi issue sullied his image and he was looking for a breakthrough on the foreign policy front to revive his sagging fortunes. Dean said Rajiv pinned his hopes on the visit to the US in October 1987. To ensure total cooperation from his American friends, he even okayed a Kashmir visit for Dean.

    Rajiv's visit, however, turned out to be a disappointment. Reagan's health issues foreclosed the chances of any meaningful engagement with him. Years of stress had taken a toll on his health. During a lunch for the Indian guests, he was seen laughing uncontrollably. Dean said Reagan had gone deaf by then and the excessive laughing was his ploy to avoid detection of the condition. With Reagan's failing health, executive decision-making had passed on to Bush and a bunch of hard-nosed senior diplomats in the state department, who did not share the president's warm vibes with Rajiv.

    Despite the setback, Rajiv did not give up on his Afghan plan involving Shah. The Americans, too, were working on the formula, at least till the end of 1987. On November 18, Michael Armacost, undersecretary of state for political affairs, met Yuli Vorontsov, first deputy foreign minister of the Soviet Union, in Geneva and reiterated his country's faith in the Shah formula. Two days later, Rajiv welcomed Soviet Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov in Delhi, sharing the same agenda.

    The US interest in the Shah formula, however, started diminishing after it suspected a Rajiv-Najibullah-Gorbachev axis evolving in Afghanistan. Najibullah used this opportunity to secure an appointment with Rajiv, who was upset by the flourishing “security assistance” from the US to Pakistan. He was invited for a lunch meeting with the prime minister in Delhi.

    A day before the meeting, which was scheduled for December 24, Dean warned Ronen Sen that it would send a wrong message to his bosses. It was, however, too late to call it off. Sen told Dean that Rajiv was not going to discuss anything significant with Najibullah. A few hours after his lunch with Najibullah, Rajiv wrote a “merry Chrismas” message to Bush. “Dear George,” wrote Rajiv, “1988 will be a crucial year for international affairs."

    The US was not mollified and, as it turned out, the year proved to be disastrous for Indian diplomacy. As the news of India courting Najibullah spread, the Americans dropped the Shah formula altogether and went back to the UN-brokered peace deal mediated by Ecuadorian diplomat Diego Cordovez, without any further discussion with India. Dean said the US went back on its promise for an inclusive government in Afghanistan as it had already received Soviet guarantees for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

    The Cordovez channel had been on hold for three years when the Reagan-Rajiv ties were on the upswing. By going back to Cordovez and his focus on Zia as the key player in the Af-Pak theatre, the Americans made it clear that the Rajiv-Gorbachev-Reagan plan for a national unity government was shelved. It changed Rajiv's equation with Zia and killed his outreach attempts with the security apparatus of Pakistan, which was helping India deal with problems in Punjab and Kashmir. But, he still kept trying. As the date of the Geneva Accords approached, which would lead to an agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Rajiv invited Zia for a meeting to persuade him to stay the course for a national unity government in Kabul. But Zia, who now enjoyed the exclusive affection of the US, contemptuously asked Rajiv to send an emissary to Pakistan first.

    Dean said the Najibullah issue was not the reason why the US ditched Rajiv and scuttled the Shah formula. Bush and his advisers feared that the king would not be sufficiently pro-US in the long term. In a decision that would alter the destiny of Afghanistan forever, Bush and company turned to warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his seven-party Islamist alliance, which was already receiving CIA funding in their fight with the Soviet army. The Americans considered the jihadis to be “modernists”, who would “not export their revolution abroad” and would "focus on developmental work at home", if brought to power. It turned out to be a massive lapse in judgement, ultimately leading to the growth of the Taliban and the global terror network.

    As the date of the Geneva Accords came closer, India felt the chill of diplomatic exclusion. On April 10, four days before the signing of the agreement, the Ojhri ammunition dump near Islamabad exploded. The blast was so severe that for weeks Islamabad's posh neighbourhoods remained deserted as search continued for unexploded bombs. The signing of the Geneva Accords, however, went ahead without any hitch. Afghanistan and Pakistan signed the agreement on April 14, with the US and the USSR as guarantors. India was the most notable absentee that evening in Geneva. Also missing was Shah and other moderate Afghan leaders.

    A few days later, on April 25, Dean had a special guest at Roosevelt House, his official residence in Delhi. Ronen Sen met Dean to give him a realistic assessment about the fundamentalists who had gained in stature following the Geneva Accords. He said Hekmatyar and his Peshawar alliance would ruthlessly impose Islamist rule in Afghanistan, which could trigger a regional crisis. As he stood up to leave, Sen delivered a shocker. “The explosion and fire in the ammo dump near Islamabad was not an accident,” he said.

    Later that evening, Dean sent a cable to Washington, reporting Sen's analysis of the Geneva Accords and the Ojhri blasts: “It [the blast] was intended as a shot across the bow of Pakistan by forces opposed to the Peshawar Alliance. The message it was designed to convey was that if Pakistan wanted to play in the Afghan ballpark, then others could play in Pakistan. Pakistan would see the merit in greater consultation with India on Afghanistan.... India and Pakistan were both unavoidably part of the Afghan equation.”

    Dean said the Americans were wrong not to show even the minimum courtesy to Rajiv after having used him for their job in Afghanistan. “Ronen did not shock me with his comments as our short-term solution had angered a lot of stake holders in the region. Rajiv was always willing to strike a compromise deal with the US on Najibullah. It was Reagan and Bush who failed to strike a deal and began looking at what was to come after the victory in Afghanistan," said Dean.

    Sen's apprehensions soon proved right. On August 5, Arif Hussein al Husseini, the tallest Shia leader of Pakistan, was assassinated, triggering sectarian unrest in Karachi, Peshawar and other cities. The anti-US Husseini was a favourite of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and a rising star of the Islamic world. A few days later, on August 17, Sen was in Rajiv's office when he received an urgent report from the Military Intelligence and RAW that a non-secure communication had been received by the Pakistan military headquarters in Rawalpindi which said that an aircraft with General Zia on board had crashed near Bahawalpur.

    The mysteries of those violent days are not yet solved. Dean began an investigation into Zia's death which finally led to his resignation from the US diplomatic service in 1989 after he accused the Israeli security services based in Peshawar of engineering the crash. Dean's assessment was based on the information that the CIA had allowed Israeli intelligence agency Mossad to set up units in Peshawar to carry out sabotage targeting Pakistan, Afghanistan and central Asia, which had emerged as a hub of anti-Israel activities. In response, Dean's mental health clearance was withdrawn by the state department and he chose to resign, not wanting to escalate the crisis. He was later cleared by the state department. In 2003, former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter asked Dean to dedicate his papers to the National Archives of the United States where they were to be under the supervision of the CIA and the State Department. His autobiography Danger Zone: A Diplomat's Fight for America's Interests was published in 2009.

    As violence erupted in Pakistan and the Islamists tightened their grip on Afghanistan following the Geneva Accords, Reagan wrote to Rajiv one last time, said Dean, requesting an urgent meeting in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting of 1988. Smarting from the Geneva rebuff, Rajiv refused to oblige the elder statesman, marking the end of a series of botched attempts to bring peace to one of the most volatile regions in the world.

    A costly miss, for which the world continues to pay to this day.

    The Week | Hijack in the Hindu Kush


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