Afghanistan's continuing spiral of violence highlights importance of Rajiv-Zia-Najibullah efforts of 1987

2017 is a significant year in the history of Afghanistan and South Asia. Apart from other events in the region, the year is significant because the war in Afghanistan has become bigger and more complex. It is therefore relevant to remember that this year marks the 30th anniversary of the first serious peace effort for post-Soviet and post-Cold War Afghanistan.

International efforts have begun in the midst of renewed violence and weakening grip of the "national unity" government of Kabul. However, one thing is clear — only through an internal process of discussion and consensus guaranteed by external stakeholders can Afghanistan be stabilised.

US forces in Afghanistan. AP representational image

US forces in Afghanistan. AP representational image

In this context, the lesson of the "scenario" process started by the US, India, Pakistan, Soviet Union and the government of President Mohammad Najibullah in 1987 shows how attempts for normalisation can succeed or fail.

The scenario or a plan for national reconciliation in Afghanistan grew slowly from the idea of "non-interference and non-intervention" as framed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who first articulated this vision soon after coming to power for her final term in 1980. Other stakeholders quickly championed the same method.

The vision finally took shape after the arrival of Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister in the winter of 1984. The Geneva dialogue process under the watch of the UN-appointed negotiator Diego Cordovez also made some progress from 1985, as Rajiv Gandhi pitched in with a back channel dialogue on Afghanistan to connect the Soviets with the American leadership. The process was both regional, as it included Rajiv and Zia, and global because of the related cold war angles.

The peace process finally began to take concrete shape in 1987 when the Americans — both public and private individuals — began to invest in the possible coalition government in Kabul that would take charge immediately after Soviet evacuation during 1988-89. However, it failed, paving the path for endless violence in Afghanistan.

Participants in the programme, formally known as 'Scenario for an Accelerated Process of National Reconciliation', themselves did not speak about it initially, as most of the negotiations were conducted under strict secrecy as back channel talks. They probably kept quiet about this venture as it did not produce the intended result.

Some, like the Pakistani diplomat Jamsheed Marker, who helped me for my book, even said that the attempt was not serious. However, papers from the collection maintained by former US ambassador to India John Gunther Dean show otherwise. Even Cordovez himself indicated the scope of that peace process was extensive and expensive.

Three decades have passed since the first serious attempt for peace in Afghanistan. The civil war has continued ever since. Several governments have been formed in Afghanistan, but none has addressed the core requirements of the country: Peace, unity and development. Surprisingly, the issues that came up during that attempt remain unaddressed even now. Afghanistan remains a playground for forces over whom the Afghans have no control.

The post-9/11 discourse, right from the beginning, tried to erase the legacy of that peace-building exercise as it belonged to another geopolitical age where the US was caught in the Cold War. The other reason for not highlighting that effort, which also came to be known as the 'Zahir Shah formula', perhaps stemmed from the fact that it did not supplement US-led efforts in contemporary Afghanistan. The 'Zahir Shah formula' included a multi-tier political structure in Afghanistan which would be led by the titular king.

Apart from Rajiv Gandhi, President Zia, a few others, including oil czar Armand Hammer of Occidental Petroleum Corporation, took part in the background talks. Given Rajiv Gandhi's deep involvement in this negotiation process, the post-Cold War and post-9/11 narratives of Afghanistan make full sense from India's point of view, when viewed through Rajiv's perspective. It is by finding out about India's role and the role of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi that one can explain the peace process of 1987-88.

In Hammer's letter to Vice-President George HW Bush on 26 February 1987, the coalition government was conceived to include a State Council consisting of the king, representatives of seven Afghan Mujahideen groups in Pakistan, Afghan rebels in Iran, and even three representatives of the communist section of Afghanistan. Under the plan, the prime minister was to be elected by the State Council and the Cabinet was to be appointed by the prime minister with approval of the State Council.

"The above government, in whatever form it takes, would be a transition government guaranteed to last no more than a certain amount of time, after which popular elections must be called. The transition government would write a new Constitution and supervise the repatriation of refugees into Afghanistan. It would administer aid from foreign nations and would work closely with the UN Observer Group which would be established to supervise the Soviet withdrawal and assure that there is no outside interference," Hammer wrote in his letter to Bush.

John Gunther Dean said that South Asia was supposed to have a different future after the 1980s, and all parties at some point had agreed on a plan of stability for Afghanistan.

The story in brief is about international drama that takes place when Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister of India. Bilateral India-US cooperation was unprecedented in 1985 but the US obviously wanted the prime prize of South Asia — Afghanistan. Washington wanted Rajiv to connect US with the Soviets as the other regional players were not acceptable to both sides.

General Zia faced jeopardy at home from Benazir Bhutto's political return and terrorism by various groups including the Al Zulfikar, that wanted to overthrow him. So Zia also agreed to cooperate for some time and all sides agreed to have a coalition government in Afghanistan. This preparatory phase continued between 1985-1986. By 1987, major background work began, on installing exiled Afghan king Zahir Shah as the titular head of a coalition government which would compose of all political sections of Afghanistan, including the Mujahideen factions and the government of president Najibullah.

Afghanistan was the most important trophy for the US in the 1980s. US wanted to secure Soviet evacuation of Afghanistan. For that, they ensured India's friendship. However, very soon, political assessment ensured that US would not support India over Pakistan's plans for Afghanistan.

The script for peace in Afghanistan was hacked by India-Pakistan problems. The latter's clandestine nuclear activities were discovered by the CIA. But the punishment came not for Pakistan. US turned against India in a significant moment in bilateral history in 1987. As Rajiv Gandhi left negotiations with the US, he charted his own course on Afghanistan. His assessment on Afghan president Mohammed Najibullah proved to be right, as he proved to have greater chance of survival as opposed to western expectations.

Rajiv's decision to have his own parallel peace talks in Kabul wrecked the peace plan that he had championed earlier, in collaboration with the US, and Pakistan, and sent out regional shockwaves.

On 10 April, 1988, a major ammunition dump in Pakistan exploded, destroying the supply for Afghanistan's Jihad. It was followed by sectarian disturbances that lasted weeks. General Zia won the Jihad in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan but was left with Pakistan in an unprecedented phase of crisis.

In his last interview, on 13 August, 1988, Zia famously accused India of joining the Afghan game late and for pushing hard unnecessarily. Four days later, on 17 August, 1988, Zia died in an infamous air crash, an apparent assassination. Peace talks had ended up in suspicion and sabotage. A new chapter of regional disturbance began in August 1988, which was very different from the conventional fight that South Asia had witnessed until then. However, it needs to be acknowledged that Rajiv Gandhi displayed boldness in crafting a U-turn on foreign policy, when he sensed that it would serve India's long-term interest.

Rajiv Gandhi was the only one with the full knowledge of India's role in the Afghan peace process. His assassination on 21 May, 1990, silenced that narrative. But his colleagues, like former ambassador Ronen Sen and John Gunther Dean, helped revive the story in 2017. President Najibullah was killed by the invading Mujahideen forces on 21 September, 1996.

Rajiv Gandhi, Mohammed Najibullah and General Zia pursued power in their own ways, but the war that their attempted diplomacy triggered continues. None of the key participants in the "scenario" solution on Afghanistan are alive, but for John Gunther Dean, who, at 91, has been vocal about that missed opportunity for peace and stability in Afghanistan.

After three decades, as Afghanistan faces a new phase of conflict, but it is clear that only an inclusive solution like the one championed by Rajiv-Reagan and Zia-Najibullah under the 'Zahir Shah Formula' alone can ensure stability and peace for the trouble-torn country.

Kallol Bhattacherjee, author of The Great Game in Afghanistan: Rajiv Gandhi, General Zia and the Unending War, spoke at ORF, an independent public policy think-tank in Mumbai. The above article is made of excerpts from his speech.


Published Date: Aug 17, 2017 04:30 pm | Updated Date: Aug 17, 2017 06:33 pm


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