The Tribune - Spectrum

, August 18, 2002

A well-told tale of folly
Himmat Singh Gill

The March Of Folly In Afghanistan 1978-2001
by Jagat S.Mehta. Manohar. Pages 224. Rs 450

The March Of Folly In Afghanistan 1978-2001AFGHANISTAN provides the classic example of a country overtaken by the Cold War rivalry. It is the place where the USA and the erstwhile Soviet Union played out their personal fears and fantasies to the hilt. When neither of them got anywhere after a decade of sparring on the Afghan battlefield, they pulled out leaving a wounded and terribly bitter land that has known no peace till date.

The so-called super powers played out their careless acts on the Afghan arena from the days of the Saur Revolution of 1978 to the present times, and then pulled out of the country after their limited interests had been met, leaving the simple and unsuspecting Afghans to carry out a damage control exercise to the best of their ability.

Jagat Mehta, a former foreign secretary and an erudite Asia-watcher, has woken up the Afghan ghost and raised some disturbing questions which the Indian foreign policy mandarins in New Delhi and others the world over would do well to ponder over lest we repeat the mistakes of the past.

This writer has been an eye-witness to much of what happened during the rule of Noor Mohammed Tarakki, Hafizullah Amin, Babrak Karmal, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent 'pacification' of the country. That is why one sees in this candid and forthright account a glimmer of hope for Afghanistan, provided the outsiders, as Mehta has himself suggested, do not interfere in the internal affairs of the country.


The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, though officially they had been ‘invited’ in by President Hafizullah Amin in terms of the Afghan-Soviet Friendship Treaty. The Americans, not realising that this move was only locally oriented towards Afghanistan, rushed in to safeguard their own interests in the region as also to counter the Soviet influence at any cost. They ended up propping up Pakistan as a frontline state from where they could checkmate the designs of the Russians through a proxy war. When the Russians departed in 1989, they left behind a splintered Afghanistan, where the likes of Rabbani, Hekmetyar and Najibullah continued to battle it out overtly and covertly for the control of the Army and Kabul. Finally, the day came in the early 1990s for the victorious drive of the Pakistani-controlled Taliban and the rout of the present-day Northern Alliance into the one-fourth remaining part of Northern Afghanistan. Mehta's book ends with a short resume of the September attacks on the USA, and a quick peep into what the future could hold for Afghanistan.

Mehta rightly says that the ill-conceived Soviet invasion, which many in the USSR had spoken against even then, and the US counter-retort in arming and supporting Pakistan, led to the "remilitarisation" of the subcontinent. It was also the cause of planned assembling by the CIA and other covert agencies of the Islamic fundamentalists to carry out depredations inside Afghanistan leading to its social, economic and political degradation.

To compound matters for President Najibullah, the last pro-communist head, Pakistan’s acts of omission and commission led to the Taliban radicals overrunning the country and assuming a fragmentary and harsh control over a war-ravaged land. The Taliban misrule could have continued for long, had the Twin Towers’ bombings not taken place. In a manner similar to that of the Soviets, 22 years earlier, the USA intervened in Afghanistan and initiated military action against Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaida gangs.

Mehta's account, a reprint of papers on the region written earlier, recounts how India made its biggest diplomatic policy mistake by betraying the Afghan people and itself and by not castigating the Soviet Union at the UN for its entry into Afghanistan. He talks of his 'prophylactic' diplomacy in trying to save the subcontinent, the "Finlandisation" plan for Afghanistan at one time that he had mooted, and efforts at convincing the world polity, especially the Russians, that a neutral and non-aligned democracy in Afghanistan was the only answer for a troubled South Asia.

That Afghanistan today finds itself in a little mess only highlights the inefficacy of the foreign policy makers in Washington and Moscow, and the short-nosed policy of both India and Pakistan who, engrossed in their own firefight over the decades, have completely forgotten the welfare and well-being of a not so well-to-do neighbour.

Mehta is all for nations themselves trying to sort out their problems as and when they occur, and is of the view that the days of the godfathers are long over. Mehta's parting advice is that India and the USA should remain 'steady on the course' in finding a diplomatic solution to the travails of Afghanistan. Will the Indo-US bonding, affected post-Kargil, measure up to finding a permanent solution there? Whether this will be over and above the frontline status afforded to Pakistan in fighting terrorism and the Al Qaida is of course a different matter.

Jagat Mehta has written an extremely interesting and information-packed book. For many of us who have served there when history was in the making, nothing would be more satisfying than seeing a change of track in our diplomatic thrusts, where we once again realign ourselves to the betterment of the Afghan people. Mehta's straight-from-the-shoulder, no-nonsense account, laced with an honesty of purpose meant for every Afghani, should be compulsory reading for all Indian diplomats, who really wish to call themselves diplomats and not convenient doormats of the reigning government in New Delhi at any moment of time.

If Mehta was 'removed' from the post of Foreign Secretary in November 1979, so be it. After this book, I think, he has had the last word.