The long war

Pakistan’s response to the newly emerging social and economic challenges in the1980s was one of indifference; it was only concentrating upon the Afghan war effort, thus neglecting the challenges

The long war

There is a serious challenge of terrorism before us today, for which apparently no short-term solutions are available. Pakistan’s involvement in the long Soviet-Afghan war created many terrorism-related problems. Basically, it was a Cold War engagement that turned violent beyond all estimation. One often wonders at the justification of entering the war and the formation of entangling alliances with groups and countries. Any aims and objectives that Pakistan might have hoped to achieve are nowhere in sight. Instead we are left with seemingly irresolvable problems. In spite of the damage this war has done to our nation, we are unable to disengage ourselves from it. The Cold War engagement in Afghanistan gradually became more violent over time, with both the US and USSR committing more of their resources to an uprising by the Afghan Islamic groups against the socialist reforms initiated in 1978 by the government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) headed by Nur Muhammad Tarakai. These reforms were imposed on the conservative social structure of the Afghan nation. The popular uprising against socialist ideology in neighbouring Afghanistan was posing concerns for the USSR, as it had the possibility of spreading to the USSR itself. This time it was a threat to the Soviet territory that had to be taken care of. The uprising was getting more popular and, at the same time, growing more violent. In March 1979, many Soviet advisers and their families living in Herat were killed by a contingent of the Afghan army deployed in the Herat garrison to protect these very Soviet officials. This Afghan army group was headed by Captain Ismail. This shook the confidence of the USSR. Some 24,000 Afghans lost their lives in revenge attacks by the Afghan government aided by Soviet resources.

The Islamic groups in Afghanistan were joined by the mujahideen who had links in Pakistan. The US was watching the situation in Afghanistan and thought it an opportunity to take the Cold War onto the very borders of the Soviet Union. The next battleground of the two superpowers was to be Afghanistan. The kidnapping and murder of the US ambassador, Adolph Dubs, in Kabul in February 1979 firmed up the US’s decision to interfere in Afghanistan. The US suspected a Soviet role in this murder. Months before the invasion by the USSR army in 1979, President Carter, on July 3, 1979, authorised financial aid and non-lethal equipment to the uprising. Years later, Zbigniew Brezinski, the national security advisor to President Carter, stated that it was his idea to support the Afghan rebel groups hoping to draw in the Soviet Union militarily to Afghanistan.

The Soviet army entered Afghanistan in December 1979. Brezinski, in a note to President Carter, called this intervention an “opportunity to give the USSR its Vietnam War”. Pakistan became the frontline state in this fierce Cold War engagement. We had entered a proxy war, the other people’s war, as some would prefer calling it. The Afghan war was to continue as part of the Reagan Doctrine, a doctrine of containment of communism and the USSR. From the 1980s onwards, armed militias fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan started making their appearance in Pakistan. The militias were allowed to display their numbers and arms here within Pakistan to impress upon the world that we now had strategic assets and depth. The militias had scant regard for the laws of Pakistan. Whether we had any strategic depth or not, one thing was certain: our citizens felt scared and insecure in the presence of such an unhindered display of arms. The writ of the government was being challenged and state functionaries started feeling helpless before such a display of arms by these groups. The militias had to recruit for the Afghan war and hence their movement was to be facilitated. An informal policy evolved based on facilitation and appeasement. The mujahdeen had become so important for the US that President Reagan, in 1983, called the mujahideen “courageous freedom fighters” and “an inspiration to those who love freedom”. It was during these times that the already lawless tribal areas became a repository of arms. By 1985, the US was spending some $ 600 million on Afghan covert operations. No US troops were involved in frontline fighting. For the west it was a war in a faraway land; they knew little of our sufferings, in terms of psychological, economic and social problems.

Pakistan’s response to the newly emerging social and economic challenges in the 1980s was one of indifference; it was only concentrating upon the Afghan war effort, thus neglecting the challenges. Arnold J Toynbee in A Study of History has discussed the issues of challenge and response. The civilisations that have an imaginative response to a challenge are likely to grow and prosper. In our case, all along, the response has been inadequate. The conclusions according to the laws of history might not be in our favour. Besides the economic and social challenge, a far more serious challenge awaited us. During the mid-1980s the challenge of militant sectarianism was taking hold of our society. This was one of the consequences of the Afghan war. The police did not possess the equipment, training or numbers to contain sectarian militancy. Sectarian incidents would draw a few clichés from the government like being perpetrated by a ‘foreign hand’. Instead of viewing the sectarian situation in the proper strategic perspective, governments portrayed the sectarian situation as an administrative issue; the blame many a time was placed unfairly on individual administrators for their failure to secure law and order in their respective area of duty.

Once the US and USSR disengaged from Afghanistan in 1992, leaving that country in chaos, Pakistan enjoyed major influence in Afghanistan. It was influence that Pakistan had wanted for decades, yet this placement brought no appreciable benefits for Pakistan. The best efforts could not install a stable, acceptable government in Afghanistan. Pakistan itself faced many problems like fragmentation of society, an unstable economy, a sectarian divide and a fragile law and order situation. Even worse, the war created fear and insecurity, which started ruling over the psyche of our people. Even in Afghanistan we had become an unwelcome country. In September 1995, the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul was damaged by a pro-government mob, protesting Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. One person died during the attack and Pakistan’s ambassador in Kabul received injuries. However, a Taliban government was installed in 1996.

The events of September 2001 placed before us difficult and limited options in Afghanistan and the war on terror. The limited and unfortunate options had their basis in Pakistan’s active engagement in the Soviet Afghan war in 1979. Instead of entering what was basically a Cold War engagement, we could have been a far better nation by concentrating on education and social/economic development. Each passing day we still ask the purpose of entering the long Cold War in 1979.


The writer is a former inspector general of police. He can be contacted at