After the Iraqi attack on the USS Stark in mid-May 1987, senior State Department officials scurried around the Gulf to drum up political support. Pakistan received a more significant visit. In late June, Gen. George Crist, commander-in-chief of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) arrived in Islamabad with 15 military experts for a five-day visit. It was Crist’s second visit to Pakistan in eight months, and it underlined the growing importance of Pakistan in Washington’s military plans for the Gulf.

Pakistan has become a crucial linchpin in Washington’s military escalation in the Gulf and Afghanistan. The Reagan administration has proposed a $4.2 billion aid package to Pakistan, and has promised to supply three P-3 submarine surveillance aircraft and early warning radar planes, as well as other military equipment. And the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is rapidly developing Pakistan’s strategic Makran coastline.

With the supply of 750 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghan guerrillas over the past year, the CIA has taken over responsibility for running the Afghan war from Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Washington’s involvement in the Afghan war still depends on Pakistan’s assistance, so that the annual $640 million of covert aid reaches the guerrillas. “For the first time in its history, Pakistan has the US over a barrel,” said a diplomat in Islamabad. “Pakistan can ask for whatever it wants from Washington or threaten to cut off the guerrillas.” [1]

Pakistan’s AWACS Demand

In 1987, CENTCOM’s logistical problems remain almost as acute as they were five years ago. Arab governments still do not allow Washington to base US forces openly in the region, or to move CENTCOM headquarters from Tampa, Florida, to a forward base in the region. The Pentagon has pre-positioned equipment at bases in Oman, Egypt, Kenya, Somalia and Diego Garcia. Apart from Diego Garcia, though, US personnel must adopt a low profile. CENTCOM strategy therefore depends more heavily on tactical naval and air projection.

Even that is, in Anthony Cordesman’s words, “ally limited.” CENTCOM’s seven fighter wings, two bomber squadrons and five maritime patrol air squadrons require “service facilities, forward deployed munitions, air battle management, forward air control support and army coordination.” [2] Pakistan has already provided limited facilities for these needs. In November 1986, Islamabad finally acknowledged what MERIP reported five months earlier: that CENTCOM’s P-3 surveillance aircraft had been refueling at a Pakistani air force base near Karachi. [3] The P-3 Orion is the mainstay of surface ship and submarine surveillance in the Gulf.

Since then, Washington has expressed its willingness to sell Pakistan three P-3s as part of the $4.2 billion six-year aid package it is pushing through Congress in 1987. Pakistan’s small navy has been decisively beaten in two wars with India and now holes up in Karachi harbor. Even with the P-3s and six Gearing-class destroyers from the US, and the planned purchase of three more frigates from Britain, the Pakistani navy is no match for India. Pakistani analysts believe that this buildup of the navy and the naval air arm has more to do with CENTCOM’s needs than Pakistan’s. In April, President Zia visited the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk docked in Karachi. For Pakistanis, this was a clear indication of Zia’s commitment to help the US fleet in the Gulf. They assume that the new P-3s will be fully coordinated with CENTCOM’s surveillance fleet in the Gulf.

The key to air battle management is a fleet of early warning radar planes. For two years Pakistan has been negotiating with the US to supply it with three E-3A Sentries (AWACS) at a cost of $1 billion, ostensibly in order to provide early warning of Soviet air incursions from Afghanistan. The Pakistan military has rejected a much cheaper ground-based radar system, which some Western experts claim would be equally effective. In 1986 Washington secretly battle-tested the Grumman E-2C Hawkeye over the Afghan border. The Hawkeye is a cheaper and less sophisticated version of the Sentry and adequate for the Afghan border, but Islamabad rejected it as well.

As the Soviets launched various peace initiatives in January 1987 for an Afghan settlement, they also intensified the bombing of Pakistan’s border regions, in order to pressure Islamabad to come to a political settlement. The bombing has killed some 300 Afghan refugees and Pakistani tribesmen and wounded 800 others in the past six months.

Pakistan stepped up its demand for AWACS. A flurry of diplomatic and military missions between Islamabad and Washington culminated in a letter dated April 16 from Prime Minister Muhammad Junejo to President Reagan asking for the immediate deployment of AWACS Sentries. Junejo wrote that Pakistan’s support for the Afghan cause could be in jeopardy if Pakistan did not receive the Sentries. On April 29, a Pakistani F-16 was shot down over the border, by Afghan ground fire according to the government. It was later confirmed that the plane was hit by a fellow F-16 pilot in an accidental maneuver. Nevertheless, Islamabad used the loss of the plane to maintain pressure on Washington to deliver the AWACS. The Reagan administration is eager to do so, but remains hamstrung by Congressional restrictions which forbid military equipment needed by US or NATO forces from leaving the US. Washington then offered to lease four Hawkeyes with American crews to Pakistan. Pakistan rejected this. Talks are continuing.

Although publicly Islamabad asserts that AWACS would be flown by Pakistani pilots, Western defense experts in Islamabad claim that 300-400 US servicemen would have to be based in Pakistan to handle the complex on-board computer and radar systems. The US would share all intelligence. AWACS would be able to monitor not only Afghanistan, but also Soviet Central Asia, eastern Iran and the Gulf. These AWACS would supplement the US-manned AWACS operating from Saudi Arabia. [4]

The US considers a Pakistani-based early warning system as more cost effective, efficient and with a wider monitoring range than one based in Saudi Arabia. At the outbreak of any crisis in the Gulf or Iran, such a system based in Pakistan would be invaluable. Pakistani air force pilots and technicians already work in the air forces of some 20 different countries, many of them in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility.

At present Pakistan’s overt commitment to CENTCOM is constrained by its desire not to antagonize Iran, with which it has extensive trade ties. The Shi‘i minority in Pakistan, some 20 percent of the population, is militantly pro-Khomeini and in the past has caused acute political problems for President Zia. In a real crisis in the Gulf, though, the US tilt towards Iraq would ultimately get support from Islamabad, which has some 50,000 Pakistani military personnel serving in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states. [5]

As part of the $4.2 billion aid package, Pakistan is also negotiating with Washington for the purchase of another dozen F-16 fighter bombers, in addition to the 40 it already has. Pakistan would reportedly like to purchase 60 F-16s over the next five years. The F-16s operational status will be considerably enhanced by an AWACS system.

Pakistani opposition leaders have pointed out that the introduction of AWACS could lead to a superpower confrontation involving Pakistan. India’s Rajiv Gandhi accused Pakistan of wanting to use the planes on the Indian border. Moscow and Kabul also attacked the deal, and Tehran privately expressed nervousness. Washington confided to New Delhi that any AWACS system would not be allowed to monitor the Indian border, and would be flown by US crews. India would certainly try to acquire a similar capability from the Soviet Union. If US crews operate over the Pakistan-Afghanistan battle zone, Kabul might be tempted to shoot down an AWACS.

Pakistani officials privately admit that AWACS could directly assist the Afghan guerrillas and thereby escalate the war. They can provide early warning of air attacks on the arms caravans that the guerrillas take into Afghanistan from their bases in Pakistan. The guerrillas, now armed with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, have also been given high-powered communications equipment which would enable AWACS to direct Stinger fire on Soviet aircraft inside Afghanistan. This would force Moscow to escalate the war against Pakistan.

The War in Afghanistan

The CIA operation in Afghanistan remains the one US covert war policy which has both wide support in the US and sympathy from the Islamic world. Reagan’s foreign policy failures elsewhere have turned Afghanistan into a crucial factor in US power projection and in its disarmament talks with the Soviet Union. The key to the recent escalation of the war inside Afghanistan is a willing Pakistan, which allows the US access to the anti-communist Afghan guerrillas.

By the spring of 1986, the Soviet forces in Afghanistan had achieved considerable military success against the Afghan guerrillas. Tactics included carpet bombing of agricultural regions and wholesale destruction of villages. The Soviets have created a 30-mile deep no-man’s land on the border with Pakistan. This has led to widespread food shortages and destroyed the guerrillas' infrastructure in many regions. Soviet commando operations and air strikes against guerrilla caravans bringing in CIA-provided military supplies from Pakistan have forced some guerrilla units to abandon their bases and return to the refugee camps in Pakistan, from where they can only mount short hit-and-run raids into Afghanistan.

Three moderate parties and the four Islamist parties make up the seven-party guerrilla alliance. But deep divisions have weakened their fighting ability. In Kabul, on the other hand, the new President Najibullah has proven the most effective leader the Soviets have been able to install since 1979. A year ago Pakistani diplomats privately admitted that unless the guerrillas receive more sophisticated weapons, especially US anti-aircraft weapons, the guerrilla movement could collapse in two years.

The crisis prompted a long debate within the US administration through the spring of 1986. At issue was the question of providing top-of-the-line Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghans. One top CIA official, John McMahon, deputy director of operations, resigned from the CIA reportedly because he disagreed with the decision to send in Stingers. [6]

Oliver North and the CIA had already set up their own clandestine supply line of British-made Blowpipe missiles to the Afghans. British intelligence and the CIA delivered the first shipment of 12 Blowpipes to the fundamentalist Hizb-i Islami group by late 1985, reportedly through Saudi Arabia. Since then at least 600 Blowpipes have reached the Afghans, but they did not prove as effective as the Stingers later would. [7]

The first 30 Stingers arrived by September 1986. Afghans were trained by Americans for a month in two camps, one just ten miles from Islamabad. The guerrillas were told to deploy the Stingers around the airports at Kabul and Jalalabad and only to shoot down slow-flying Soviet transport planes and helicopters. Americans on the border made sure that the missiles went into Afghanistan. Afghanistan is apparently serving as a combat testing ground for the Stingers. [8]

The first Stingers were given only to militant Islamist parties — Jamiat-i Islami, Hizb-i Islami (Younis Khalis) and Hizb-i Islami (Gulbeddin Hikmatyar). The CIA has a history of supplying these groups with the best weapons because they are more uncompromising than the moderate parties, they are more efficient on the battlefield and they have bases around key airports. Moderates and guerrilla leaders inside Afghanistan, who receive no Stingers, have resented this favoritism.

The success of the Stingers, and the peace initiatives launched by Kabul and Moscow in January 1987 (including a six-month ceasefire offer by Najibullah) prompted the US to increase supplies. By February, another 150 Stingers had arrived and were now distributed to the moderates as well. By May another 600 Stinger missiles were delivered to the guerrillas in Peshawar. [9]

The CIA’s Stinger deployment was based on key tactical changes in the conduct of the war. The missiles were to be used in an offensive mode, to bring down as many Soviet planes as quickly as possible. The US State Department estimates that the Soviets are now losing a plane a day in Afghanistan; independent estimates put the loss at about a plane every two days. Guerrilla leaders inside Afghanistan had been demanding missiles to defend their base areas and populated villages from air attack. Many of these commanders were denied the Stingers. Instead, small groups armed with two or three Stingers now go in from Pakistan, hang around air bases waiting for Soviet planes, fire their missiles and then return. [10] At the same time, some guerrillas were also trained in Lebanese-style car bombings and provided with sophisticated urban terrorism munitions. A spate of car bombings occurred for the first time this year in many Afghan cities.

These new tactics seemed designed to offset the spate of peace initiatives from Kabul and Moscow during the spring of 1987. These included offers of direct talks with guerrilla leaders, the call for Afghanistan’s ex-King Zahir Shah to return from exile in Rome and possibly head an interim government in Kabul, the possibility of a roundtable conference to include guerrilla representatives, and Kabul’s direct overtures to guerrilla groups inside Afghanistan. The February round of UN-sponsored indirect peace talks brought the crucial question of a Soviet troop withdrawal timetable much closer to Pakistan’s position.

Moscow coupled its conciliatory attitude with military pressure on Pakistan in the form of cross-border aerial bombings. The Kabul-Moscow strategy deepened the divisions between the moderates and Islamists in the Afghan guerrilla alliance. The moderates now openly support the return of Zahir Shah as the only figure who would be acceptable to Moscow and the majority of Afghans. This spurred considerable hope among the 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.


Divisions also deepened between the leaders of the Peshawar-based parties and the commanders inside Afghanistan. The commanders have not received choice weapons, such as Stingers, from the $640 million of military aid that the CIA is providing the Afghans; they accuse the Peshawar leaders of massive corruption. Much of the weapons and equipment ends up somehow on Pakistan’s arms black market. The extravagant lifestyles of some of the Peshawar leaders, reminiscent of the contra leaders in Miami, with their many homes and cars, investments in businesses in Pakistan and abroad and secret Swiss bank accounts, have disillusioned many commanders. The Islamists are stockpiling large quantities of weapons for a possible civil war in Afghanistan if they are denied power in any settlement.

US Congresspeople and Afghan charity officials in the US have also accused military officers from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of corruption. When the CIA first provided aid to the Afghans via Egypt in 1980, Islamabad stipulated that the ISI would be responsible for its distribution, and it would only recognize certain guerrilla parties. This allowed Zia to build up the Islamists at the cost of the moderates and other resistance groups among the non-Pathan ethnic minorities in Afghanistan. Since then, the ISI has developed into a government within a government, running not only the Afghan war but also dominating the numerous other internal intelligence agencies in Pakistan that monitor domestic opposition. Western diplomats now estimate that the ISI has between 70,000 and 90,000 people on its payroll, and they say this would hardly have been possible without the covert funds generated by the Afghan war.

This is why the CIA was prepared to deploy the Stingers only if they controlled the distribution themselves. Washington feared that the missiles could get into the hands of Palestinians, Sikhs or Iranians if, like other weapons, some ended up on the local black market. Analysts believe that the CIA has now superseded the ISI in the distribution of weapons generally to the guerrillas, and is more closely involved in the day-to-day running of the war than ever before.

Washington’s escalation of the war, through the supply of better and larger quantities of US weapons in the past six months, has not been matched by any indication of interest in a peace settlement. Moscow’s clear willingness to get out of Afghanistan and Kabul’s overtures to the guerrillas have all received negative responses from Washington. US officials claim that Moscow’s readiness to talk peace stems from its increasing losses; thus the war should be stepped up. Rightwing Republicans and the Pakistan military appear convinced that, given time, the Soviets can be defeated in Afghanistan or at least be forced to settle on terms dictated by Islamabad and Washington. When Deane Hinton left his post in Islamabad in May, his replacement as US ambassador was a State Department Afghan specialist, Arnold Raphel.

The major Pakistani political parties are also courting Washington, in the belief that US support is vital to their future. The civilian government of Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo, which Zia brought to power after lifting martial law in January 1986, is largely made up of feudal landlords, retired bureaucrats and military officers. The ruling party, the Muslim League, has gone out of its way to convince Washington that it is just as capable of serving US interests in the region as the military is. Last year Junejo visited CENTCOM headquarters in Florida while visiting the US. Some Muslim League cabinet ministers speak of the need for the stationing of US troops in Pakistan, in the conviction that Washington will support the League in the 1990 elections.

The leading opposition figure, Benazir Bhutto, who heads the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has shunted out older liberals and leftists in the party who oppose US policies in Pakistan. She has ordered members not to raise anti-US slogans at rallies. Her policy on Afghanistan is exactly the same as the government’s. Through officials in Washington and the US embassy in Islamabad, she has repeatedly tried to convince Washington that she would not jeopardize US policy towards Afghanistan nor question the links between the Pakistan military and CENTCOM.

The Pakistani public and many of the smaller opposition parties are demanding an immediate Afghan peace settlement and a reduction of US influence in Pakistan’s foreign policy. There is increasing resentment against the Afghan refugees, who are blamed for an influx of heroin, arms and tainted money even though many Pakistanis are also involved. The public associates every major incident of violence, ethnic rioting, crime or drugs among students with the Afghans. When Kabul-sponsored bomb blasts occur in Pakistani cities, people blame not the Russians but the Americans and the Afghan refugees for dragging Pakistan into a war the public has no interest in fighting.

The Afghan war is Moscow’s major global embarrassment. Keeping it fueled gives Washington an edge in disarmament talks and relations with the Third World. Pakistan’s strategic location and apparent willingness to go along with US policies gives Islamabad an edge as well. Officials in Islamabad are confident that they can force Washington to supply AWACS or threaten to cut off additional Stingers to the Afghans. Pakistan’s nuclear program continues despite Washington’s protests. More sophisticated US arms supplies to the military will continue, even though many of these arms will end up on the Indian rather than the Afghan border.

Washington’s leverage over regimes in Islamabad may soon be a thing of the past. The relationship is now more evenly, and more dangerously, balanced. If Washington gets bogged down in a prolonged conflict in the Gulf, Pakistan could well become the first Muslim state capable of dictating terms to Washington, in a way marginally similar to what Israel has already achieved.


[1] See Ahmed Rashid, "Red Alert on Hawkeye Deal," Sunday Observer, May 10, 1987.
[2] Anthony Cordesman, “US Strategic Interests and Rapid Deployment Forces,” in Hafeez Malik, ed., International Security in Southwest Asia (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1984).
[3] See Ahmed Rashid, “Pakistan and the Central Command,” MERIP Middle East Report 141 (July-August 1986); and Lawrence Lifschulz, “The Strategic Connection,” Far Eastern Economic Review, December 18, 1986.
[4] See my articles in Nation (Lahore), May 3 and 4, 1987, and the Independent, May 4, 1987.
[5] See MERIP Middle East Report 141 (July-August 1986) for details of Pakistani military manpower in the Gulf.
[6]< Selig Harrison remarks at a seminar of Afghan refugees at Oxford University, spring 1987.
[7] See Mark Urban, “UK and US in Covert Afghan Arms Trade,” Independent, June 17, 1987. See also Mark Urban, “Another Blowpipe Order Set for Rebels,” Independent, June 18, 1987.
[8] See Ahmed Rashid, “Missiles Menace to Pull Out,” Sunday Observer, January 25, 1987. See also Ahmed Rashid, “US Tells Zia to Stand Firm,” Independent, February 3, 1987; and “The Sting,” The Nation, February 28, 1987.
[9] Washington Post, April 5, 1987.
[10] Ahmed Rashid, “Afghans Adopt New Urban War Tactics,” Sunday Observer, March 1, 1987.

How to cite this article:

Ahmed Rashid "Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Gulf," Middle East Report 148 (September/October 1987).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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