President Joe Biden at Oval Office.
At the high noon of the jihad in Afghanistan, as the Soviet Union prepared to pull its battered armies back home, the author of that long war sat down to script its coda. “The Soviets were unable to resist pressure to quit Afghanistan, but they will now seek other means to control some or all of that country,” said Pakistan’s military chief, General Akhtar Abdul Rehman Khan, his thinking recorded in a secret diplomatic cable from 1988. The Soviets would now, he went on, try to divide the Afghan jihad, thus allowing President Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai to hang on. Failing that, the Soviets would partition the country on ethnic lines.
The General had an alternative script ready: An Islamic republic, embedded in an Islamic league. “An Islamic republic in Kabul”, Khan argued, “would join with Pakistan, Turkey and Iran, once the latter comes to its senses, in an Islamic economic and political bloc which could serve as a barrier to regional Soviet ambitions. It could also act as a rival to Indian plans for regional supremacy”.
In the margin, the United States ambassador to Islamabad, Arnold Raphel, scrawled a one-word analysis of the General’s argument: “Nonsense”.
Looking out at a nation more divided, arguably, than at any time since its Civil War of 1861-1865, President Joseph Biden likely has little inclination to turn his gaze east. Inside weeks, though, he will have to determine whether the United States should remain committed to military withdrawal from Afghanistan, scheduled to be completed by May. As second-in-command to President Barack Obama, Biden had called for an end to United States military involvement in the war in Afghanistan, pushing back against commanders who believed, wrongly, that enhanced force levels would defeat the Taliban.
The Taliban, though, has used peace negotiations with President Donald Trump to unleash unprecedented violence against the Afghan state, without delivering on promises to evict global jihadist groups like al-Qaeda. There’s been no progress towards a ceasefire and power-sharing arrangement, the key goals of the negotiations.
For months now, India has been engaged in dogged attempts to craft a way back from the abyss that now confronts Afghanistan. To Islamabad’s ire, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met earlier this month with a spectrum of key leaders in Kabul, seeking to develop a consensus on keeping the Taliban from seizing power. New Delhi just doesn’t have the resources, though, to sustain the government in Kabul alone.
In essence, Biden has a stark choice: To commit the resources, and lives, it will take to defend the Afghan government the United States helped birth after 9/11, or to subcontract the regional order to Pakistan. The secret diplomatic cables of 1988 give good reason to worry his call will be tactically expedient—but strategically catastrophic.
Little has been said in public on what Biden intends to do: In his only comments on the issue, the President’s nominee for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, said he needed to “look carefully at what has actually been negotiated”. “I haven’t been privy to it yet,” Blinken added.
It is likely some key figures in Biden’s administration believe a renewed and expanded relationship with Pakistan’s military could hold the keys to the problem.“I had a good relationship with General [Parvez] Kayani,” Biden’s nominee for Defence Secretary, former Central Command chief General Lloyd Austin, said in 2019. “I had a great relationship with General Raheel [Sharif]. We bonded right away and we could have frank and tough conversations one on one.”
“We’d get these two big guys together in General Raheel’s office in Pindi [Rawalpindi],” former United States ambassador Richard Olsen recalled, “and I would just be kind of sitting there and watching the dynamic. But I thought it was very effective, very effective.”
There’s reason to doubt the effectiveness of male bonding as a tool of geopolitical strategy. In one extraordinary passage, Olsen claims the 2014 massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar “hardened the resolve of Pakistanis across the board to really go after the TTP [Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan] and many other groups”. In his very next sentence, Olsen conceded the results were, in fact, less than stellar: “I wish it had resulted in a complete break with the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani [Network]. It did not, you know, unfortunately”.
Austin added: “We wish they would have gone further with the Afghan Taliban. They did not.”
Exactly what reason there is to believe the Generals will change course now is unclear. The years since have, indeed, seen Pakistan’s military and intelligence services resume dealmaking with the TTP—even blaming India, not the jihadists, for the 2014 massacre, in the face of findings by the country’s own judicial authorities. Even though there has been some show action against the top leadership of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, the infrastructure and operational reach of anti-India jihadist groups remain intact.
The case for renewing the once-intimate United States-Pakistan relationship, frayed by aid cuts under Trump, is theoretically compelling. Binding Pakistan the United States embrace, the argument goes, gives Washington influence over Islamabad’s actions—meeting counterterrorism concerns, tempering the risk of crisis with India and, most importantly, limiting China’s influence. “I don’t think it’s really in our long term strategic interests to have a hardening of lines of alliance in South Asia,” Olsen has argued.
Elegant as the reasoning might be, though, there’s some distance between theory and practice.
For Indian diplomats of a certain vintage, the arguments in Washington will be tediously familiar. From June 1988, in the midst of a historic rapprochement with Washington, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi privately began to voice concerns about the direction General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan was headed in. He worried, diplomatic cables show, about Islamabad’s accelerated pursuit of nuclear weapons, its suppression of democratic institutions, and its Islamisation programme. New Delhi, the Prime Minister said, could “live with any kind of Government in Kabul which is not run by extreme Islamic fundamentalists”.
In the months that followed, the United States ambassador to New Delhi, John Dean, reported that the prime minister was becoming increasingly concerned that Washington was seeking to “undermine his efforts”. Both Dean and Raphel, moreover, warned that Washington’s unconditional support to Islamabad was empowering the most extremist groups of Afghan jihadists, destabilising the region.
For his efforts, Dean earned a stern put-down from Secretary of State George Schultz. Washington, he wrote, did not with for India “to engage itself in an operational way in seeking to shape the internal political arrangements in Afghanistan”.
In September 1996, Najibullah—forced to take refuge at the United Nations’ premises in Kabul after Soviet Union’s financial assistance was terminated—was beaten to death, but not before someone pulled out a knife and severed his genitals. His bloodied body was dragged behind a truck, and then hung from a traffic light for the edification of the passing public.
Glyn Davies, the United States spokesman, regretted the violation of the United Nations’ sovereign protections in Kabul, and Najibullah’s murder, were merely “regrettable”. There was “nothing objectionable” about the new regime; its Shari’a-based regime was, he promised, only “anti-modern”, not “anti-Western”. In time, Davies went on, the US hoped the Taliban would “form a representative interim government that can begin the process of reconciliation nationwide”.
The reason for this tepid response is well known. In 1994, the administration of Bill Clinton had sought accommodation with the Taliban, hoping to facilitate energy giant Unocal’s efforts to build an ambitious pipeline linking Central Asia’s vast energy fields with the Indian Ocean. In April 1996, Robin Raphel — then Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, and later Barack Obama’s ambassador for non-military aid to Pakistan, visited Kabul to lobby for the project. Later that year, she was again in Kabul, this time calling on the international community to “engage the Taliban”. Raphael later had these words for sceptics: “The Taliban does not seek to export Islam, only to liberate Afghanistan”.
Muhammad Ghaus, the Taliban’s foreign minister, led an expenses-paid delegation to Unocal’s headquarters in Sugarland, Texas, at the end of 1997. The clerics, housed at a five-star hotel, were taken to see the NASA museum, several supermarkets and the local zoo.
Even as a State Department report described the Taliban’s guest, Osama bin Laden, as one of the “most significant sponsors of terrorism today”, the regime was never declared a State sponsor of terrorism. “The truth”, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright later wrote, “was that those [attacks before 9/11] were happening overseas and, while there were Americans who died, they were not thousands and it did not happen on US soil”.
General Khan’s successors got their Islamic Republic—not because the United States was impressed by their strategic reasoning, but because it lacked the will and interest to impose an alternative outcome. That dystopian Islamic Republic, in turn, paved the road to 9/11, lighting fires which still burn along a great arc of States from East Asia to the Middle-East.
Foreign policy, the story of how this came about teaches us, is shaped not only by imagination or will, but also constraints of resources and interests that evolve at glacial speed. Elected on the promise of replacing his predecessor’s toxic policies with new ones based on principles and ethical values, President Biden is likely to find himself singing sad old tunes with which the world is depressingly familiar.