The March of Folly in Afghanistan, 1978-2001
Salman Haidar ·       

For over two decades Afghanistan has been the cockpit of a struggle between mighty contestants. In the process, the country has suffered great calamities and the entire region has been sucked into the vortex of its affairs. The current hunt for the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda is only the latest chapter in this grim tale. When the Afghan crisis first took shape, Mr. Jagat Mehta was India?s Foreign Secretary and thus had a hands-on role in shaping India?s response. Later, as academic analyst and commentator, he continued to address the issues in a number of articles that have now been gathered together in the present volume.

In the pieces gathered here, Mr Mehta has consistently looked beneath the surface at the underlying logic of events, and has evaluated policy choices on that basis. The Cold War came to have its epicenter in Afghanistan, so the strife in that country had extremely complex connotations. The rival Super Powers saw the local situation through their respective prejudices and preconceptions, with the result that they plunged into confrontational actions that served the larger purpose of neither. The irony was that this came about despite the acknowledged convergence of interest between them, as seen in the institutionalized restraints that they had negotiated among themselves. Herein the source of their ?Folly?, a concept the author borrows ? with acknowledgement ? from Barbara Tuchman to describe the willful pursuit of a course that is damaging to the inherent interest of the party concerned.

The initial act of Folly from which much else flowed was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979. Mr Mehta sees this as essentially defensive in intent, brought about by the suspicion that Afghanistan was about to jump into the other camp. Historic fears about the soft Soviet under belly were revived. It was a disastrous misperception ? a favourite word, something of a leitmotif through the book ? that failed to see that fervent Afghan nationalism would not permit the country to become anyone?s camp follower. Its independence would have served real Soviet interests better than Moscow?s vain effort to set up regimes friendly to its cause in Kabul.

For America, the Soviet move conjured up the phobia of a renewed Russian drive to the sea, the historic search for a southern warm water port. Moreover, it came at a time when the revolutionary regime of Imam Khomeini had severely hurt American sentiments and interests in the region. It was thus inclined to attribute the worst possible motives to the Soviet Union and was in a mood to hit back.

To this end, it re-armed Pakistan and made it the base for its covert operations in Afghanistan. This was Folly, for it severely unsettled other regional countries, especially India, and could only harm the long-term interests of America itself. Pakistan used the infusion of American arms and money to resume its confrontational policy towards India. Attempts that were current at the time in which the author had a role, and which held promise of a real improvement in bilateral relations, came to nothing.

As for India, purely domestic considerations led Mrs Gandhi to disregard India?s traditional support for the independence of small countries and to condone the Soviet invasion. This resulted in a grievous loss of moral stature and rendered India incapable of the diplomatic initiatives it could have taken. It also added to Pakistan?s alarm by raising the fear of being caught in a pincer between India and the Soviet Union, and this only added to the problems and tensions of the region.

Mr Mehta has been a consistent advocate of what he calls ?prophylactic diplomacy? and of a regional solution to the problem. Timely measures to head off trouble were needed in Afghanistan so that all the parties understood each other adequately and did not blind themselves through misperception. But this was not to happen. Neither was there any chance for the regional and non-aligned initiative that Mr Mehta proposed, for reasons that he himself provides, principally that India, the necessary linchpin of such an effort, was in no position to play its part. It was seen as being too firmly aligned with the occupying external power.

It is a sorry and a salutary tale of lost opportunities. A heavy price had to be paid, by Afghanistan above all, and by the region as a whole. Mr Mehta sees the larger picture and made a personal effort to halt the slide. His is an idealistic view of the scope for diplomacy even in these adverse circumstances to reconcile and eventually build co-operation among adversaries. But eventually he, no more than others, could do little beside watch as the big battalions, Folly notwithstanding, were marched into destructive combat.

Afghanistan was the final battleground of the Cold War, a fatal encounter for the Soviet Union. America was clearly determined that its opponent should pay the full price for its invasion of that country. The convergence of interest between the Super Powers, which Mr Mehta rightly discerns, was in the final analysis less compelling than the divergence. And as America prevailed in the struggle, it can be argued that Folly marched with the Soviet forces alone, not with both parties. Similarly, not everyone will agree with the author that 1980 was a propitious time to settle Indo-Pak problems, or that the Non-Aligned initiative he suggested was anything but utopian. There are no final answers here or anywhere else, but much to stimulate thought and discussion.

Finally, Mr Mehta comes up with an interesting proposal aimed at making Afghanistan into an area of reconciliation in South Asia. He suggests that there should be a joint Indo-Pak effort to remove the millions of mines strewn across Afghanistan. This would be of immense practical benefit to the people of the country and could be the seed of a larger process of reconciliation in the region. Perhaps someone in authority is listening.