How the present Afghanistan knot evokes memories of 1989
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was only one in a cluster of unconnected events in 1979 that transformed Asia and the world. Some others also stand out: the revolution in Iran; the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; the beginning of the age of globalisation represented by the election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the UK and the US respectively; and, finally, the beginning of a new relationship between the US and China.
Each of these weighs heavily on the present. In our immediate neighbourhood in Pakistan and Afghanistan, democracy deficit and foreign invasion respectively have vitiated politics and society since 1979. The understanding forged in 1979 between China and the US seems now finally to be ending. The Brexit drama is fuelled in large part both by discontents of the European idea of 1989 as of globalisation in general.
As another foreign intervention draws to a close in Afghanistan, it also evokes memories of 1989 as Soviet intervention came to an end. This had been the Soviet Union’s longest military intervention. Its origins in December 1979 lie at the end of a long season of political instability and intra-Afghan conflict. The entry of Soviet troops into Kabul was accompanied by the execution of the Afghan President, Hafizullah Amin. He had himself come to power only some weeks earlier following a coup against his predecessor, Nur Mohammad Taraki, who also was murdered after the coup. Taraki had in turn deposed (and murdered) the earlier President, Mohammad Daud Khan, in a coup in April 1978. Afghan disunity and outside interference created the conditions for foreign invasion and subsequent decades have shown how deep both these factors are.
Much like the Soviet Union did in the late 1980s, the US now contemplates the end of its longest ever military engagement. Its endgame throws up an inevitable comparison with the then Soviet Union’s diplomatic moves. Then, as now, a principal driver of the diplomacy surrounding the entire negotiation was the imperative of withdrawal. The Soviet Union had been speaking about a time frame for phased withdrawal for some years but in December 1987, President Mikhail Gorbachev’s announcement of a withdrawal within one year focused minds. This was followed by a further ultimatum in April 1988 that the withdrawal would take place with or without an agreement.
In the current US-Taliban negotiations, the feature most commented upon is the exclusion of the Afghanistan government. To many, this is the US delegitimising and eroding the standing of the government it has done so much to put in place and steadily support. In this view, it is not so much a political settlement that is being concluded as a framework for withdrawal. In 1988, too many felt that the Geneva Accords were no more than a face saver for Soviet withdrawal and not a template for intra-Afghan peace.
Two novel features of the 1988 agreement seem relevant to recall. The Geneva accords of April 1988 were signed by the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan with the Soviet Union and the US acting as guarantors. Nevertheless, Pakistan premised its signature on its existing policy of not recognising the regime in Kabul. The US similarly held that its role as a guarantor to an agreement the government of Afghanistan had just signed was not intended to “imply in any respect recognition of the present regime in Kabul as the lawful government of Afghanistan”! The second feature was equally novel. Both the Soviet Union and the US retained the option to continue military assistance to the conflicting parties — the Afghan government and the Mujahideen alliance based in Pakistan. This option was specifically intended to nullify in legal terms the principle of non-interference and non-intervention prominently mentioned in the Geneva Accord.
These two features show the enormous flexibility that can be embedded in a creative negotiating process. But they also underline what the Geneva accords really were — a mechanism for Soviet withdrawal. These two features ensured the subsequent failure to build peace in Afghanistan. The historical moment we are poised at today recalls elements of both 1979 and 1988/1989 as lack of internal Afghan consensus and legitimacy for external interference comprise an Afghan knot which is not easy to untie.
T CA Raghavan is a retired diplomat and is currently director general of the Indian Council of World Affairs.
The views expressed are personal