Just a few weeks before he died in the plane crash with Zia ul-Haq, even General Akhtar Abd ul-Rahman Khan was anxious over the possibility of a shift in US policy under a new administration. General Khan had engineered and administered the secret war in Afghanistan, first as director of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and then as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. “The outcome of the war in Afghanistan may not be decided by November,” he told us. “We can only hope that the US will continue to see the great benefits of the mujahidin’s victory.”
The expectation of change in Washington may be based on an outdated perception of US policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1981, when Washington resumed its close ties to Islamabad with $3.2 billion four year package of military and economic aid, Pakistanis correctly assumed this was a function first of the loss of a US ally in Iran and, second, of the challenges and opportunities presented by the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. In Congress, supporters of the secret war were motivated largely by their wish to bleed the “evil empire." Once the Soviets leave Afghanistan, the corollary went, there would be a devaluation of Pakistan in American eyes.
The secret war in Afghanistan yielded unexpected dividends to the US. It brought much international discredit to the Soviet Union; gave America access to dozens of Russian soldiers who were interrogated for weeks in safe houses in Peshawar, Quetta and Islamabad; and provided an unusual opportunity to observe the Soviet army and weapons at war. The “bleeders” in Congress helped create a bipartisan consensus behind the Reagan Doctrine of low intensity warfare, a consensus which Washington had rarely enjoyed since the 1960s. As the war progressed and covert aid to the mujahidin expanded to a whopping annual $650 to $750 million, the goals of US policy became more ambitious and more complex than they were at the beginning.
By the fall of 1986 when it introduced into Afghanistan the first advanced American-made arms (Stingers, long-range rockets and artillery), US involvement aimed not merely at removing the Soviet presence but substituting US hegemony over that landlocked country that borders the USSR.
The reasons are not hard to surmise. A primary concern is Iran, and the American expectation of playing a decisive, covert role there in the near future. It is noteworthy that although it had the temptation and the opportunity, the US did not sponsor Iranian contras against the Islamic Republic. Instead, it adopted a cautious policy of indirect and limited pressure — fanning the fires of war with Iraq and an occasional “flag-showing” in the Gulf.
This policy was based on two assumptions. First, that a US intervention against Khomeini would mobilize Iran, and at least prove costly or at worst lead to greater Soviet influence in strategic Iran. The second assumption is that the Islamic revolution is millenarian in character and devoid of a functioning, modern ideology. Therefore, sooner or later it will exhaust itself. Instinctively anti-commuinist but lacking a radical alternative ideology, a significant number of Iranian leaders and institutions will then seek accommodation with the capitalist West. In the struggle for power which is likely to ensue after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the US must be prepared to play a pivotal role. The Iran arms sales betrayed Washington’s expectation of instability and change, and eagerness to win back lost hegemony. A pro-US regime in Kabul could give Washington extraordinary advantages along Iran’s eastern frontiers, which is inhabited by kindred Persian-speaking peoples on both sides.
Washington also assumes that the USSR is entering a period of unrest, much of which will revolve around the nationalities question. A mujahidin victory in Afghanistan could put the US in a position to exploit these dissensions.
Pursuit of these new-found strategic goals requires Pakistan’s continued participation in Afghanistan’s civil war. The civilian opposition in Pakistan — notably Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party — does not oppose Zia’s Afghan policy in any fundamental way. Bhutto will likely win if elections are held in November, but the return of civilian rule should not present any obstacle to US designs in Afghanistan.
The challenge to US policy may come from an unexpected quarter — the army itself. General Mirza Aslam Beg, who succeeded Zia as Pakistan’s army chief, insists that politics and government are “the sole domain of the politicians.” The swift manner in which General Beg and the air force and navy chiefs appointed Ghulam Ishaq Khan, chairman of the senate, as the acting president of the country, was an indication of their commitment to the country’s constitution. Addressing a press conference three days after Zia’s death, Ishaq Khan publicly credited the military for supporting the elections.
Factional disputes and political divisions in the Pakistan officer corps remain unknown. Repeated purges suggest that the highly politicized, pro-US high command has failed to clean it completely of the professional and nationalist elements who see continued involvement in politics as hurting army professionalism and Pakistan’s national interests. These elements may have found a representative in General Beg. Their views reportedly gained in the summer of 1988, after Zia dissolved the National Assembly and dismissed the cabinet of Prime Minister Junejo. There was disagreement also on the advisability of continuing Pakistan’s involvement in the Afghan civil war after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces had begun. In early July, reliable sources say, nearly 100 army officers were suspended and confined, presumably because they were suspected of dissent. General Beg, the new army chief, is believed to be sensitive to the views of the most professional among the military officers.
In contrast to Pakistani delight at the army chiefs outspoken commitment to civilian rule and democracy, Washington has rather conveyed its misgivings on General Beg’s appointment. A senior Pentagon official who knows Beg warned that “he’s independent-minded and unpredictable; unlike other Pakistani generals he hasn’t been particularly friendly with us.” There is widespread fear that “if he decided to seize power he could not be counted on to continue close military cooperation with the US.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor and a major architect of US policy in Afghanistan, worried recently that “Pakistan may first be intimidated into forsaking the goal of a truly independent Afghanistan.” “Help Pakistan stay on course,” he advised. Jeanne Kirkpatrick joined the anxiety chorus: “Zia was very important to the whole geopolitical stratetic constellation of the region, very important to the freedom fighters of Afghanistan. His death raises the question whether Pakistan can continue to as strongly support the mujahidin.”
What worries many Pakistanis is not the decline in US involvement in Pakistan, but the danger of US intervention to support an internal military coup against General Beg.
The US can probably find accomplices for this in Pakistan. Prominent Zia loyalists, determined to retain power, are grouped in the Muslim League splinter whose leaders head provincial governments. Men like General Fazle-Haq (former general and member of Zia’s own guard), Nawaz Sharif (industrialist who is the Punjab chief minister) and Dr. Mahbub ul-Haq (the present minister for planning and finance and Zia’s most prized technocrat) combine power, opportunism and shrewdness. With US support, they can drag Pakistan back on the road of “guided democracy.”