Mr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, an Islamabad-based physicist and writer, published a piece in Dawn on 31 July titled “Who messed up Afghanistan?” He posits that while “Russia (note: Mr. Hoodbhoy’s reference to the Soviet Union since the Russian Federation didn’t exist as a sovereign international entity at the time) and America are primarily responsible for Afghanistan’s tragedy…Pakistan cannot be exonerated either” because of the role that it played in supporting the CIA’s covert operations there in the 1980s. Had Islamabad not done so, he speculates, “left to themselves Afghan communists and the ‘Saur Revolution’ of April 1978 would have self-destructed within two to three years.”
Mr. Hoodbhoy also dismisses concerns that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan posed a threat to Pakistan’s security, describing these worries as “a deliberate fabrication” and noting the “supreme irony” that “when a slightly different brand of godless communists did eventually reach the coveted waters, the heavens didn’t fall.
In fact, an eager and willing Pakistan rolled out the red carpet upon which the Chinese walked down to Gwadar.” The respected physicist and writer are implying that Pakistan had ulterior motives for allying itself with America’s covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He all but admits this when writing that “Pakistan was savoring both the importance Afghanistan had brought to it and the planeloads of cash flying in.”
Reasons for Korybko’s disagreement
In order to atone for what he seems to regard as its self-interested geostrategic sins that inadvertently contributed to decades of destabilization, Mr. Hoodbhoy concludes that “Instead of a second Taliban government, Pakistan’s long-term interest would be served far better by a constitution-based democracy in Afghanistan.” That’s because, in his view, “If Afghanistan is ever to become a civilised country, it must be governed by a constitution allowing freedom of expression, elections, power sharing, and human rights alongside Islamic basic values. Wild-eyed men who have forcibly seized power will lead the country from one disaster to the next.” As could have been expected, Mr. Hoodbhoy’s article generated a lot of discussions.
I disagree with the primary thesis of his work and wanted to articulate the reasons why in this present piece. As an American who’s finishing up his Ph.D. at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO, run by the Russian Foreign Ministry) on “Russian-Pakistani Relations In The Context Of Contemporary International Politics”, I humbly consider myself to have a deep understanding of all three countries’ foreign policies, especially with respect to the 1980s Afghan War.
Although each of them made mistakes that unwittingly contributed to worsening the Afghan Tragedy, I don’t exactly fault any of them per se since the rationale behind their respective policies was theoretically sound and based on perceived security dilemmas at the time.
This concept refers to the external perception (keyword) that one state’s defensively intended actions constitute an offensive security threat to others, whether latent or actual. In my view, America, Pakistan, and the Soviet Union (USSR) were all operating under these premises when it came to the 1980s Afghan War even if some policymaking forces such as those in their military-intelligence communities might have planned to take advantage of certain processes for ulterior (offensive) ends after some time.
To explain it in practical terms, the USSR was concerned that preexisting identity tensions between secular and religious forces in Afghanistan could spread into its Muslim-majority “soft underbelly” of Central Asia if they weren’t contained.
It deserves mentioning that former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted in a 1998 interview with Counterpunch magazine that “According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979.
But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion, this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.”
Looking back at Soviet’s intervention in Afghanistan
Critics of “Operation Cyclone”, as the CIA’s Pakistani-backed anti-Soviet proxy war came to be called, claim that this proves that the entire war was unnecessary and that there were no genuine grassroots reasons why any Afghan would fight against their communist government. This is a false portrayal that oversimplifies a very complex strategic situation for political reasons.
It might very well have been that the Soviet-backed government could have eventually crushed the rural religiously driven resistance to their communist rule even without direct Soviet support had Operation Cyclone not commenced, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Afghanistan was already beset by very intense identity differences at the time.
The US exploited these for geostrategic reasons that can only be speculated upon but might have been premised on stopping the Soviet tide that was sweeping the “Third World” (nowadays referred to as the “Global South”) at the time. The short-lived period of Detente saw the Soviets make rapid advances in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.
The CIA might have calculated that provoking a Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (which was subsequently portrayed as an “invasion” despite being at the request of the incumbent Afghan government) could have slowed down this process and created the eventual opportunity to reverse it, perhaps even turning the religiously driven anti-communist resistance inward towards Soviet-controlled Central Asia.
Pakistan actively participated in these operations since it feared the consequences of a strong Soviet-backed communist government in Kabul which didn’t recognize the Durand Line separating their two countries. Traumatized by India’s Soviet-backed invasion of then-East Pakistan less than a decade prior, which saw Mukti Bahini militants function as the proverbial tip of the spear for provoking a conventional conflict, Pakistan wanted to do everything within its power to prevent that scenario’s replication on the rest of its territory. Its leadership had no trust in Indian or Soviet intentions and couldn’t have responsibly let a strong Soviet-backed communist government remain in power in Afghanistan lest it is caught between the two and dismantled.
It didn’t matter whether or not the Soviets really had any plan to eventually have their Afghan puppet state annex Balochistan and the majority-Pashtun-populated regions of Pakistan. All that’s important is that a credible risk existed in principle as established by the East Pakistani precedent of a neighboring Soviet-backed government launching another Hybrid War on Pakistan that exploits preexisting identity tensions for the purpose of provoking a conventional invasion (this time potentially a two-pronged one) aimed at completely dismantling the state. The US was presumably aware of its Pakistani ally’s concerns and therefore calculated that it would support Operation Cyclone due to the security dilemma that it had with India and the USSR.
Points to be noted
It’s important at this point to contest Mr. Hoodbhoy’s remark related to the implied hypocrisy of Pakistan fighting a proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan while partnering with China despite the latter’s similar communist ideology. The USSR had a history of imposing its atheist worldview onto all of its partners to differing extents. By contrast, China never followed in its footsteps and did the same with any of its growing number of partners, especially in the Global South.
Pakistan, therefore, had no reason to perceive Chinese intentions as being hostile despite ideological differences between their two leaderships. It, therefore, wasn’t hypocritical of it to fight the Soviets while partnering with China. In fact, it made perfect sense at the time.
The Soviets, for their part, feared the consequences of Afghanistan’s rural religiously driven resistance expanding their anti-communist operations into Central Asia in the event that they successfully overthrew their Moscow-backed government. The USSR therefore took the calculated risk to directly intervene in Afghanistan to avert that worst-case scenario.
There might have speculatively been some within its military-intelligence structures who expected to eventually exploit a successful outcome of that conflict to put further pressure on Pakistan following the Mukti Bahini Hybrid War model, but this doesn’t appear to have been the conscious motivation of its intervention at the time. Even so, “mission creep” might have turned it into a fait accompli.
In any case, observers shouldn’t forget that while Afghanistan was exploited as a pawn in what Brzezinski later described as the so-called “grand chessboard”, this was only made possible by its preexisting identity tensions between urban communist-secular forces and the religiously driven rural members of society.
Had this state of affairs not already been present in Afghanistan, whether naturally occurring and/or externally encouraged, then it’s unlikely that the same confluence of security dilemmas would have occurred which ultimately resulted in the Afghan Tragedy. All of the foreign players involved in that conflict inadvertently contributed to worsening everything, though their intentions were arguably defensive at the time even if they were perceived otherwise.
Therein lies the crux of many international conflicts since it’s impossible to assess others’ strategic intentions with perfect accuracy, let alone whenever they’re a rival. The US thought it could deal an asymmetrical blow to the Soviet’s rapid advance across the Global South during the final days of Detente.
Pakistan, meanwhile, wanted to prevent the worst-case scenario of being sandwiched between a strong Soviet-backed communist government in Afghanistan and Soviet-backed India, which could have dangerously led to a replication of the Mukti Bahini scenario and thus the state’s complete dismantlement. As for the USSR, it feared the Central Asian consequences of Afghanistan’s religiously driven rural resistance overthrowing their communist government.
The perfect storm was therefore in place, which makes it ironic that the CIA’s Pakistani-backed efforts were referred to as Operation Cyclone. Every foreign party took advantage of different Afghan factions in order to advance their own defensive interests (albeit interpreted as offensive ones by their opponents) as determined by their perception of the complex security dilemmas that converged in that country at the time.
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The outcome is that everyone eventually lost. The Soviets retreated and then collapsed soon thereafter, the US was later targeted by Afghan-sheltered Al Qaeda operatives, and Pakistan became the scene of one of this century’s most ferocious terrorist campaigns during the early 2000s to mid-2010s.
Explaining in terms of school of thought
In terms of International Relations theory, all of these security dilemmas can be explained by the Constructivist school which deals with ever-changing perceptions, whether of threats or whatever else. The Neo-Realist one which concerns power and security was secondary despite most observers believing that it ranks before the Constructivist school.
That’s because Mr. Hoodbhoy is correct in assessing that “With a failing economy the Soviets had no capacity to move any further, much less another 800 kilometres to the coast.” Likewise, the Americans were also weak during the end of Detente but for different reasons and couldn’t have realistically threatened Soviet-controlled Central Asia in a conventional sense from their hoped-for base in Afghanistan.
Instead, it was the interplay between perceived American, Pakistan, and Soviet threats that converged in Afghanistan which influenced each player to undertake the course of action that they did. Superficially, some might argue that this lends credence to the Neo-Liberal school which preaches that countries that share the same institutions and values tend to support one another (i.e. anti-communist America & Pakistan vs. the communist USSR).
While compelling to an extent, that argument is discredited in this context by the close nature of Chinese-Pakistani relations even at that time despite their vastly different values. Their shared security threats vis-a-vis India and the USSR, as well as respect for one another’s sovereignty, help explain that.
In the present day, the strategic situation is becoming altogether different. I explained the US’ grand strategic motivations for invading Afghanistan in my earlier analysis about “Why America Couldn’t Win Its War In Afghanistan”. The divide-and-rule Hybrid War plans that the one-time unipolar hegemon had couldn’t be fulfilled for the several reasons described in that piece but which are beyond the scope of the present one.
In response to those failures, the US is currently transitioning from pursuing geopolitical goals to geo-economic ones as evidenced by its recent establishment of the “New Quad” that’s explicitly focused on regional connectivity instead of exacerbating regional divisions like its prior policy was interpreted as attempting to do.
Intriguingly, this is leading to a convergence of geo-economic interests in Afghanistan between America, China, Pakistan, and Russia, which I explained in my recent analysis about “How The US, China, India, Paksitan, And Russia Are Reshaping South Asia”. Of relevance to the present piece, February’s agreement to build a Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway brings together those four’s interests.
America aims to utilize PAKAFUZ to expand its economic influence northward into the Central Asian Republics, China conceptualizes the project as the northern expansion of CPEC, Pakistan has the same economic goals as America and China, while Russia wants to expand its economic influence in the other direction towards the Indian Ocean Region.
For the first time in history, the most pertinent players in Afghanistan no longer have irreconcilable zero-sum goals. On the contrary, they’re mutually complementary and embodied by the same trade corridor, PAKAFUZ. Although some influential policymaking forces in the US’ military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (“deep state”) might still silently wish to revive their self-interested divide-and-rule goals at a later date, they’re comparatively much more powerless to do so than at any prior time.
This observation strongly suggests that a turning point might have finally been reached for bringing an end to the Afghan Tragedy. All that’s needed is a political solution endorsed by the Extended Troika that not coincidentally consists of all four of those states.
Same region but different motives
Never before have America, China, Pakistan, and Russia coordinated their efforts on a single issue, to say nothing of one as geostrategically significant for shaping the future of Eurasia as ending the Afghan Civil War. Officially speaking, no party has any favorites even though one might argue that some of them do have their unspoken preferences over who they’d like to see in power when the war ends.
Nevertheless, these differences aren’t irreconcilable like before since they all nowadays have pragmatic ties with the same Taliban which emerged from the 1980s Afghan War that each of them participated to different extents. This means that they can work with either that group and/or the incumbent Kabul authorities to advance their PAKAFUZ plans.
Mr. Hoodbhoy believes that Pakistan is partisan towards the Taliban, which is his right and anyone else’s to believe even though Prime Minister Imran Khan officially said otherwise. The respected physicist and author believe that supporting the Taliban isn’t in his country’s long-term interests as much as supporting a “constitution-based democracy in Afghanistan” would be.
The point in bringing this up is to contest his innuendo that Pakistan should somehow turn against the Taliban by taking Kabul’s side instead. I personally believe that the country should do as much as possible to implement Prime Minister Khan’s official policy of remaining neutral and pragmatically working with whoever comes to power instead of openly playing favorites.
Anticipating the future in Afghanistan
Given the entrenched preexisting identity differences in Afghanistan that were only exacerbated over the decades through different degrees of foreign intervention (predicated as it all was on defensive motivations driven by their perceived security dilemmas despite being perceived offensively by some others [the exception being the US’ 2001 invasion and subsequent occupation), true peace might never prevail in that country.
There will likely always be some local conflict of an identity nature – be it ethnic, religious, political, regional, or socio-economic – that can be exploited by outside forces, but Afghanistan’s top foreign stakeholders with the exception of India don’t have any motivation to do so lest they undermine their own geo-economic interests.
Nevertheless, the emerging strategic situation is such that the four most important foreign stakeholders nowadays have converging geo-economic interests which reduce the likelihood of them taking advantage of Afghanistan (whether unilaterally, bilaterally, or multilaterally) as a theater for advancing zero-sum geopolitical goals against any of the others driven by their perception of certain security dilemmas.
No relevant security dilemmas exist anymore between America, China, Pakistan, and Russia in Afghanistan, nor are any major ones likely to materialize anytime soon. Each of their gradual embraces of geo-economic goals over geopolitical ones in this part of Eurasia is therefore setting the stage for a grand strategic breakthrough.
America, Pakistan, and Russia’s predecessor state of the USSR were each responsible in their own way for the Afghan Tragedy even if none of them ever intended for everything to play out as it did. They’ve each since come to realize that their respective interests can only be advanced through geo-economic means as embodied by PAKAFUZ and sustained through their pragmatic ties with the Taliban.
It’s less important nowadays to argue over who’s to blame more for what happened than it so to focus on how they’re working together to finally bring an end to the Afghan Tragedy. Everyone’s interpretation of history will differ as is their right, but as it presently stands, I believe that all three of them are now on the right side of history for the first time ever.
Andrew Korybko is a political analyst, radio host, and regular contributor to several online outlets. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the US strategy in Eurasia. The views in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.