The U-turns of usurpers

Did Pakistan's strategy as a major supporter of the Taliban actually change after September 11, 2001?

The U-turns of usurpers
I recently watched that redoubtable commentator Orya Maqbool Jan expressing his views on TV regarding Manzoor Pashteen and his Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement. This senior analyst contended that, prior to General Musharraf’s notorious “U-turn” policy of September 2001, Pakistan, and especially Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta, had enjoyed extraordinary peace and harmony. All this was blown to shreds when, following a threatening telephone call from the American president, Musharraf changed his policy and decided to oppose the Taliban.

Clearly, either I misheard him or his memory had lapsed. Did he forget that, for example, the Karachi he referred to is the city whose residents had been dodging Kalashnikov crossfire throughout the 1980s and 1990s? The double bombing in Bohri Bazar reduced over 100 of my fellow citizens to pieces of meat back in July 1987. The FIA Centre in Saddar was bombed in 1991. I happened to be in the girls’ school next door, where my wife teaches. The children’s ward at Jinnah Hospital was also bombed in 1991. The Civil Hospital, the city courts, the stock exchange, the offices of the daily Jang, and dozens of other places suffered bomb attacks throughout the 1990s. Peace in Karachi before 2001? Indeed!

Much has been made of this clichéd “U-turn on a single telephone call” story after the September 11, 2001 terrorist atrocity in New York. But it is still not clear whether that infamous call was made by President Bush, Secretary Powell Advisor Rice or Under-Secretary Armitage, or a deafening chorus of all of these on a conference line. General Musharraf is said to have immediately snapped to attention and executed his legendary foreign policy U-turn.

Did he, though?

By his own statement, he in fact “war-gamed” the options and then took his decision. Now, you cannot war-game anything in the tick of a telephonic moment. Musharraf must have taken at least some measurable time to identify and analyse the costs and benefits, perils and pitfalls, of the many finely nuanced options before deciding anything. Nor could he have done much war-gaming without holding in-depth discussions with at least GHQ, the Corps Commanders and other service chiefs. All this consultation must logically have preceded that mythic telephone call or must have occurred between several such calls.
By 1979, not only had Pakistan under Zia outlived its utility to the US, it was firmly out of favour with them, and with most other countries

And, please let us be clear on another point. Was there in fact a U-turn? Did Pakistan’s strategy as a major supporter of the Taliban actually change?

As everyone, besides Orya Maqbool Jan, seems to have realised by now, Musharraf’s support to the Taliban did not change; it merely became clandestine. As all records and memoirs of the Winter War of 2001-2002 show, Al Qaeda and the Taliban consciously fled south and east from the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) intense ‘daisy-cutter’ bombings, to find safety in Pakistan. Osama bin Laden was killed here 10 years later, Mullah Omar died here 12 years later and Ayman al-Zwaheiri is believed to be still at large. Here, these warriors groups mounted a savage insurgency, against which our army has been firmly fighting back.

Therefore, there was no U-turn by Musharraf in 2001, merely continued clandestine support of the Taliban assets who had helped project Pakistan’s ‘strategic depth’ into Afghanistan. If there was any U-turn, it was by the American president, who reversed a principled disapproval of usurper regimes to becoming a ‘tight buddy’ of General Musharraf. This was a fundamental change: An American U-turn, in fact.

Now, in our country’s chequered history, there have been other twists, turns, and U-turns. Observe the early years of the illegitimate regime of General Ziaul Haq, the first military chief to defy Article 6 of the Constitution. A right-wing rebellion had occurred in the Panjshir valley of Afghanistan against the government of Sardar Daoud Khan. Afghan government forces easily defeated and drove out the rebels, who had earlier found shelter in Pakistan.

In April 1978, the Dauod government was overthrown in a left-wing coup (dubbed ‘The Saur Revolution’). The new government initiated a series of radical reforms aimed at modernising Afghan society and uprooting feudalism in that country, thereby coming into conflict with their own ulema, tribal chieftains and landowners. By October, resistance to the PDPA reforms had become open revolt. By March 1979, a major insurgency in Herat, led by Ismail Khan, was assisted by the Panjshiris, now operating with Pakistani help.

On our side of the border, the unconstitutional Zia regime had long outlived its self-assumed ninety-day mandate and was exploiting a self-proclaimed Islamisation project as pretext for clinging to power and for hanging, flogging, lashing, and imprisoning Pakistan’s citizens.

By 1979, not only had Pakistan under Zia outlived its utility to the US, it was firmly out of favour with them, and with most other countries. The perverse atrocity of the hanging of a former prime minister had served to consolidate the world’s outrage.

At about this time, the raids into Afghanistan of the Panjshiris, in support of Ismail Khan’s insurgency there, offered convergent opportunities. Zia saw the chance of using these anti-Communist Islamist guerrilla bands as a means of gaining acceptance for his regime with the US and other governments, as well as for securing large inflows of military and other aid. US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski saw the chance of preparing what he called his ‘bear trap’. In that fateful month of April 1979, the Afghanistan government entered into a mutual defence treaty with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). That treaty was invoked against the attacks by the Mujahideen from Pakistan in December that year. The Soviet Army entered Afghanistan on December 24, 1979.

From the published memoirs of former CIA director and later US defence secretary Robert Gates, we learn that the CIA began to arm and train the Mujahideen six months before the Soviet deployment. President Carter’s executive order of July 3 authorised CIA covert operations and funding for the Mujahideen, to be channelled through Pakistan. Still more funds, from Saudi Arabia and other countries, were to flow in, topped-up in due course by ‘bonuses’ from heroin and illicit arms trades.

Brzezinski would later recall, “That secret operation...had the effect of drawing the Soviets into the Afghan trap...The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviet Union its Vietnam War.” The rest — comprising nearly 40 years of warfare, insurgency, terrorism, anarchy, state failure, enormous refugee displacements, human misery and millions of lost lives — is, as they say, history. And these frightful processes are still going on, still spreading.

My question is: in those fateful days of April 1979, who actually took the decisive U-turn that led the region in which we live down this horrific path? Much as one would like to point that particular finger at Ziaul Haq, the fact is that he, just as Pervez Musharraf in September 2001, was entirely consistent to one thing and one thing only: his personal survival in power. Nothing else mattered to either of these usurpers. Against this supremely selfish consistency, the U-turns were in fact taken by others, in other countries. And these have plunged much of the world into anarchy and bloodshed.