Excerpt: The Great Game in Afghanistan: Rajiv Gandhi, General Zia and the Unending War by Kallol Bhattacherjee

In his new book, Kallol Bhattacherjee suggests that if the US hadn’t betrayed India during the Rajiv Gandhi years, Afghanistan and South Asia would now be more peaceful.

books Updated: Jun 17, 2017 08:42 IST
Kallol Bhattacherjee
Kallol Bhattacherjee
Hindustan Times
Rajiv Gandhi,Zia-ul-Haq,John Gunther Dean
PM Rajiv Gandhi and General Zia ul Haq at Palam on 17 December, 1985 -(Sinha/HT Photo)

The idea behind this book is not to find out the killer or killers of Zia-ul-Haq, who gave Pakistan perhaps its biggest strategic victory but who also led his country to a much greater crisis after the Geneva Accords, in his endless quest for ‘strategic depth’. Zia had deadly enemies in New Delhi, Moscow and Kabul but the fact is that many others too could have plotted to take out Zia. However, Zia could have avoided the fate of dying in an air crash had the internationally backed plan to have a coalition government in Kabul, representing all sides in Afghanistan, been implemented.

We will never know what Rajiv Gandhi and Mohammed Najibullah discussed over lunch on 24 December 1987. The substance of that meeting must have been significant enough to accord a grand welcome to Najibullah on 4 May 1988.

Some of these details perhaps are locked away in the old Soviet papers that will be known in due course of time. However, what we have is Sen’s cryptic analysis of 23 April 1988 indicating that Zia was told of the new reality through the Ojhri blast that if he left his home turf in Pakistan in his quest for a ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, it would become a playground for his rivals. The message to the US ambassador, Sen told me, was delivered following instruction from Rajiv Gandhi. Moscow, New Delhi and Kabul shared the same sense of animosity towards Zia.

While Pakistan recovered slowly from the political turmoil triggered by Zia’s apparent assassination, rumours abounded. On 26 August, the Muslim reported the news of two Russian helicopters landing in Pakistan. It was reported that six occupants of that helicopter, including an Indian, were arrested by Pakistani forces. After the downing of Rutskoi’s MiG-23 on 4 August, this was the second incident involving Soviet personnel. But it was the only incidence of the arrest of an Indian in Pakistan during that time.

Less than three-and-a-half years later, Alexander Rutskoi would become a powerful Russian figure and would go on to be the leader of a nationalist group in the Kremlin, finally becoming a vicepresident in post-communist Russia. He could pursue his career, thanks to the exchange of prisoners in Islamabad a day before Zia died in the air crash. But the Indian arrested in the Parachinar area remains unaccounted for till now.

Meanwhile, Pakistani authorities had their version of the murder of Al Husseini. The killer of the Shia preacher was also a Shia, said General Mirza Aslam Beg during a meeting with the new US ambassador to Pakistan, Robert Oakley, who had been hurriedly sent to Islamabad after Ambassador Arnold Raphel’s death. General Beg informed the new US ambassador that the murderer had apparently confessed that the crime was a hit job by the KHAD, the intelligence agency of President Najibullah.

Meanwhile in Delhi, Dean spent a few days following the air crash of 17 August discussing the condition of South Asia with colleagues in Delhi’s diplomatic circle. He discussed the air crash and the dangerous nuclear race in South Asia with Ambassador Edmund Hillary of New Zealand, with other diplomats and with General Krishnaswamy Sundarji, the chief of staff of the Indian Army. Discussing the mysterious air crash, which bore signs of a carefully plotted assassination of the entire top brass of the Pakistani state, Sundarji blamed the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.

A few years later, General Sundarji, however, had changed his theory on the air crash and told Dean that the Americans were behind it. ‘You (the Americans) did it,’ he told Dean on 25 June 1993 when he and his wife Vani came to visit the Deans at their large Paris home. Ever since Zia’s death, Dean and his contemporaries have blamed a number of actors for the assassination of President Zia. But without evidence such suspicions have remained just that, suspicions. What, however, appears plausible is that the external enemies of Pakistan probably were aided by internal elements who executed the air crash.


With the situation spiralling downward in India as Rajiv Gandhi dealt with his growing unpopularity and the removal of Zia from Pakistan, Dean prepared two memos for Reagan and Shultz. The first was titled ‘What can be done to send the right signals to India?’, and the second was focused on the conjectures and possible plots and conspiracies behind Zia’s assassination, which could precipitate a regional crisis in South Asia. With these two papers ready, Dean sought urgent official appointments in the White House and the State Department. In the meanwhile, a new ambassador, John R. Hubbard, was appointed to replace Dean in Delhi.

(from left) US Ambassador John Gunther Dean and Dr Otis Bowen, US Secretary of Health and Human Services, with Rajiv Gandhi. (HT Photo)

Dean felt that the Reagan administration had abused his professional career built over some of the exceptional conflict zones in Africa, South-East Asia and the Arab world to serve its own interest and that having used him, they were eager to retire him. But Dean did not like the idea of going down without confronting Shultz and he wanted to know why the peace plan for Afghanistan, which was being discussed from 1985 to the summer of 1987, was shelved unceremoniously, why the US did not pressure President Zia to adhere to the Geneva Accords and why the US had supplied weapons to Pakistan even after Soviet leader Gorbachev declared his plan for a fast withdrawal from Afghanistan?

The confrontation in Washington DC that Dean was headed towards was expected but not planned. But Dean would have liked that conversation to take place to clear his name of the failed diplomacy in South Asia with which he was otherwise going to be associated.

By then Dean had become a liability and not even the embassy of the United States in New Delhi was in his control. A few days before his planned trip to the US, service on the secure telephone lines between his office and the State Department went dead. He hoped that the mechanical failure would be rectified and issued several orders for quick work, but his staff refused to obey. Nobody seemed to pay attention to him anymore. On 10 September, Dean requested for tickets and they soon arrived.


Martine had observed the meltdown around her husband and had kept quiet all this while. But sensing that her husband was hurtling towards a clash with the ruling elite in Washington DC, Martine asked Dean to cancel his trip.

‘We can take a break and go for a vacation,’ she suggested. In all the four decades that she saw her husband conduct serious diplomacy, Martine never stepped into his realm, always maintaining a distance between his work and her passion for art, cookbooks and travel. But in the first fortnight of September 1988, Martine repeatedly asked Dean to end his ambassadorship quietly and to proceed to a quiet retired life in their homes in Paris and Switzerland.

But nothing could stop Dean from catching the flight to Dulles Airport. Dean had been handed out ‘phony’ confirmation letters as bait from the administration and the first thing that he was told at the airport was that his meetings with Shultz and Bush had been cancelled. Dean was told that he had the option of either going on a break and subsequent retirement or be placed at a facility for the mentally ill in the United States. George Vest, the director general of the foreign service, revealed the astonishing information that the doctors under his command had determined (without even seeing Dean in person) that he had suffered a terrible psychological breakdown, which left him incapable of performing critical diplomacy. Without giving Dean the time to respond or seek legal help, the State Department took away Dean’s medical clearance necessary for his service. A whole host of psychiatrists and doctors working for the State Department had done the necessary paper work and within a few days of Dean landing in Washington DC, he was certified mentally deranged.

Dean is hesitant to speak in detail about the painful personal experience, but he states that the whole charade was meant to keep him away from approaching the media or hold any press conference in Washington DC over the South Asian policy of the Reagan administration, which was going to be exacerbated during the next presidency of George HW Bush. For some time, the State Department even toyed with the idea of sending Dean to an asylum. Thankfully that thought was discarded as Dean suggested that he had no further interest in this charade of tests and physical exercise and would like to go to his home in Paris or Switzerland.

Kallol Bhattacherjee (Courtesy HarperCollins)

Dean said: ‘This was the kind of technique that the Stalinist regime used to silence its critics in the Soviet Union. I could not imagine that these methods could be employed by an American administration on one of its senior foreign service officers.’

The entire set of expensive procedures to declare one of the senior American diplomats mentally unstable and unfit to serve was unnecessary. It is true that he felt that the US was responsible for the current state of affairs in South Asia and he wanted to have a chat with his bosses over why for nearly three years, they pretended to be ready with a peace plan for Afghanistan backed by all the regional players and why finally they turned around to support President Zia’s plans to arm Pakistan to the teeth. But he was by no means desperate for the job. He had served more than four decades as a diplomat and though diplomacy did not turn him into a billionaire or a multimillionaire, he definitely was confi dent of leading a comfortable post-retirement life.

Dean was aware that presidents and secretaries had greater and more complex things to worry about and sometimes they had to disregard and dismiss the suggestions of the diplomats. ‘I considered myself privileged to have served five presidents as chief of mission. I would leave if asked,’ he stated. But apparently a letter of resignation would not serve the purpose. Dean ‘had to be cut off – completely – from anyone who might want to hear my thoughts about the controversies on the subcontinent of Asia. It was too much of a risk to set me free, where I could talk to newspaper reporters or old colleagues from the foreign service or officials from India or any other government.’


The series of cataclysmic incidents in the summer and monsoon of 1988 were possible because they were moves and countermoves in a fast-unfolding sequence of a war which was to last for the next three decades. But very few people in the capitals of South Asia or beyond had the full picture of the genesis of the crisis. Dean was one of the few with the encyclopedic knowledge of the crisis. From his office, Dean had collected all the papers over the past few years that gave him the ability to put together the jigsaw puzzle of South Asia. He realized that the costly dirty war which had escalated with Zia’s betrayal of the Soviet Union after the Geneva Accords had begun earlier when the American government wasted no time in betraying Rajiv Gandhi’s support to an internationally backed coalition government in Kabul. He understood that while the American administration required fall guys in an election year to blame for the blowback expected from Afghanistan, they were unwilling to introspect and understand that some of the actions taken by the American leaders were responsible for the fight that broke out.

Read more: Who killed Zia-ul-Haq?

‘President Reagan obviously had his domestic politics in mind and he did not understand the complexity of Afghanistan and South Asia,’ Dean said, reflecting on the developments around August 1988. By 1988–89, the Americans had begun to realize that the support to the mujahideen had been stretched for too long and the Pakistani demand to arm the anti-Kabul fighters was proving to be costly. Dean was sympathetic to Rajiv Gandhi’s concerns over Pakistan and the terrorism that was emanating from Afghanistan.

Watch: In conversation with author Kallol Bhattacherjee

High-profile careers were ending – Ronald Reagan was giving way to George HW Bush – and the end of the cold war meant a whole array of decision makers were fast being challenged by the new world order. Zia was dead. Rajiv Gandhi was dealing with the fallout of a shaky regional order and a nosediving political career at home as elections neared. Dean, the seasoned diplomat, felt that there was nothing more left to pursue in the formal world of American diplomacy.

First Published: Jun 16, 2017 21:34 IST