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Afghanistan declassified

Print edition : Jun 08, 2002 T+T-

"The government abolishes secret diplomacy... It will proceed at once to publish all secret treaties ratified or concluded by the governments or landlords and capitalists... all the provisions of these secret treaties, insofar as they have for their object the security of benefits and privileges to the Russian landlords and capitalists - which was true in the majority of cases - and retaining or increasing the annexation by the Great Russians, the government declares absolutely and immediately annulled."

THIS Decree of the Second All Russian Congress of Soviets Workers', Soldiers' and Peasant Deputies, dated November 8, 1917, came as a shock to Britain and France. More so when Soviet Russia acted on the Decree and published its secret treaties on the partition of the Ottoman Empire, exposing its treachery to the Arabs. Its lands were transformed from Turkish vilayets into British and French colonies. Under British tutelage, Palestine was to be colonised by Jews.

On December 7, 1917, the Council of the People's Commissars of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic issued an appeal "to all the Toiling Moslems of Russia and those of the East". It repudiated "the secret treaties of the overthrown Czar concerning the seizure of Constantinople... Persia's dismemberment... Turkey's dismemberment and seizure from her of Armenia..."

This was by no means the first instance in history of publication of secret documents as a weapon in diplomacy. But it is still unsurpassed for the havoc it wrought by its exposure of sordid deals of lasting consequences. Few secrets were revealed when, in 1948, the U.S. State Department published Nazi-Soviet Relations 1939-41. The Foreign Ministry of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics retaliated with two volumes of Documents and Materials Relating to the Eve of the Second World War to expose Britain's moves to appease Hitler. In 1958, Czechoslovakia published New Documents on The History of Munich. The documents revealed the superlative professionalism of Germany's Ambassadors to London and to Moscow, respectively Herbert von Dirksen and Count Frederick Werner von der Schulenberg. Both had accurately predicted their respective host government's reaction to Hitler's aggression.

These volumes comprised documents seized by the Allied troops from the German archives after the fall of Berlin. In this genre fall documents captured by Iranian students when they seized the American embassy in Teheran in November 1978 and took its staff hostage. Those who shredded the documents during the seizure little realised that the students were heirs to a centuries-old tradition of carpet-weaving. Their feat is reflected in 71 volumes of Documents from the U.S. Espionage Den published in 1982 by "the Centre for Publication of U.S. Espionage Den's Documents." They were sold in a kiosk outside the embassy building at inexpensive prices. Western as well as Indian scholarship did scant justice to them. This writer was astonished at what he discovered in the few volumes he bought during a trip to Teheran in October 1992. Volumes 45 and 46 cover U.S. relations with Pakistan. Since copies of cables from U.S. embassies in other countries nearby were sent to the embassy in Teheran, one gets a fair glimpse of American diplomacy in the region. Volumes 29 and 30 cover Afghanistan.

The scholar Edward Jay Epstein remarked that the seizure "represented one of the most extensive losses of secret data in the history of any modern intelligence service" (vide Secrets from the CIA Archive in Tehran; Orbis; Spring 1987). The volumes establish gross ineptness on the part of President Jimmy Carter and his National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. They had ample notice of Soviet intention to intervene militarily in Afghanistan, but chose to ignore it.

Epstein wrote: "Having backed the socialist government of Taraki and Amin that had seized power in April 1978, the Soviets were then facing a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Despite over one billion dollars in Soviet economic and military aid, and some 4,000 Soviet military advisers, the Afghan socialists had been unable to deal with the growing Muslim insurgency, which, as CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) documents reveal, was financed secretly by Saudi Arabia. The Soviet Union decided in the summer of 1979, as later became evident, that to suppress the rebellion it would have to take direct charge of the war, which meant replacing the Afghan leaders (who still retained some claim of independence from Moscow). In preparing this coup, the Soviets sent a series of messages to the American embassy, beginning in June (1979) through both its own Minister, V.S. Safronchuk and the East German Ambassador, Dr. Hermann Schwiesau. As the American ambassador reported in the secret section of a July 18 cable to Washington over the last 3 weeks, we had hints of a Soviet assisted internal coup both from GDR Ambassador Schwiesau and from... Safronchuk.' He explained that Schwiesau had become "One of our most important sources of... Moscow's thinking."

"The message from the East German Ambassador was stated in no uncertain terms. Moscow would not allow the socialist coup to interfere, even if it meant direct intervention. He explained: 'Safronchuk had been given the task, by Moscow, to bring about a 'radical change' in the Government' of Afghani-stan. Then, spelling out the course of action - and even giving the approximate date - he indicated that a military intraparty coup, deposing of Amin and perhaps others, is what the Soviets intend'. "

An inaccuracy must be corrected. The U.S. was then represented not by an ambassador but a charge d'affaires Bruce Amstutz (vide Vol. 29; pp. 179-181. He retired as a highly popular U.S. Consul-General in Mumbai. Epstein's censure is justified. "No one, in the cable traffic, contradicted the Soviet thesis that Afghanistan was its problem to solve. The Carter administration neither protested the planned Soviet coup nor publicly revealed the Soviet military escalations in Afghanistan that summer. Its failure to respond was presumably taken by Moscow as a tacit green light for its coup. The subsequent claims of complete surprise by President Jimmy Carter, which were accepted by Congress and the press at the time, are unfathomable in the light of this cable traffic."

IN what category do we place The Taliban Papers revealed by Tim Judah, a freelance journalist of repute based in London, and published in Survival journal of the highly respected IISS.

To begin with, the title is misleading. What Judah reveals are "a set of Pakistani Foreign Ministry documents... which were obtained in Kabul following the collapse of the Taliban", an editorial summary records. Covering much of the year 2000 up to June 2001, they provide a picture of Pakistan-Taliban relations as well as the internal debate in Pakistan's Foreign Ministry.

Tim Judah reported extensively on the Yugoslav crisis and wrote a book on the Serbs. He visited Afghanistan and reported for The New York Review ("With the Northern Alliance", (November 15, 2001); "In conquered Kabul" (December 20, 2001) and "The Centre of the World" (January 2002).

Pakistan abandoned its embassy in Kabul around September 23-24, 2001 (soon after the attacks in New York and Washington). The papers were seized after the fall of Kabul either by men of the Northern Alliance or the Coalition forces. Judah himself describes them as "the Kabul Pakistani papers trove". He cites some 13 documents - talking points for a meeting in Islamabad with Thomas Pickering, U.S. Under-Secretary of State, on May 26, 2000; documents listing gifts to Taliban leaders; a letter of December 13, 2000 from Foreign Minister Maulvi Mutawakil to his Pakistani counterpart Abdul Sattar; the latter's reply of January 5, 2001; draft minutes of a Sattar-Mutawakil meeting in Islamabad on January 13; a letter from the Taliban Chief Mullah Omar to Gen. Pervez Musharraf of January 16; a cable of November 27 to Pakistan's missions abroad advising them how to respond to queries on the Taliban; minutes of an "Envoys' Conference" in Islamabad on January 18-19 with related papers including a paper by the Ambassador to Kabul Arif Ayub on January 6; a briefing paper prepared by the Embassy on April 23 on Osama bin Laden; an unsigned, undated paper on discussions within the Taliban; a paper on visas issued by the Taliban's Peshawar Consulate to foreigners reflecting the Interior Ministry's concerns; briefs on Pakistan-Afghan relations for a Joint Committee meeting on June 12; a non-paper by an American official during 2000 citing the Taliban's "worthless" assurances and warning that "we have made it clear to the Taliban, and to Pakistan as the Taliban's principal supporter, that we - and the next part has been highlighted with a fluorescent pen - 'will hold the Taliban responsible for actions undertaken by OBL (Osama bin Laden) and his network'." This was a clear warning of what might happen if the U.S. or its interests were attacked again.

The documents, however, are not reproduced in full. Very brief extracts are given in most cases. Ambassador Arif Ayub advised the government to "recognise the adverse consequences of our policy of supporting the Taliban. Foremost of these is the fact that the Taliban are perceived to be supporting terrorists and their training camps in Afghanistan, thus posing a threat to the international community particularly the regional countries including our close friends Saudi Arabia and China."

Neither the U.S.' punitive policy nor Pakistan's "constructive engagement" with the Taliban had helped. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief's visit to Mullah Omar could secure the closure of only two camps, temporarily. He urged a mix of both tactics with denial of safe haven and access to funds.

The assessment by the Director-General of the Border Security Force (BSF), E.N. Rammohan, on August 9, 2000 was sound - Pakistan did not have "much control" over the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Jaish. Their goal was not only Srinagar but Islamabad (vide the writer's "Contours of militancy" Frontline, October 13, 2000).

Pakistan had used the jehadis in Kashmir. Arif Ayub warned: "Encouraged by the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan their Pakistani compatriots are now envisioning the political control of Pakistan."

In his paper for the conference, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Pakistan's former High Commissioner to India, criticised the policy on Afghanistan since the ISI began supporting Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. "We practically helped this gentleman to physically destroy Kabul. We allowed him to openly sabotage a golden opportunity of developing a defence relationship with Yeltsin's Russia. Imagine the potentially strategic gains from such a development which were casually frittered away because of our indulgence towards this so-called friend of Pakistan... We seem merely to have substituted the Taliban, at first reluctantly and now enthusiastically, for Hekmatyar". In his view, the Osama bin Laden problem had to be resolved ''before addressing any other issue". He advocated a firm line towards the Taliban ("a squeeze on supplies"); failing it, encouraging "a more moderate faction". But, did one exist? How far could Pakistan have gone?

The excerpts show that the Taliban were deaf to reason. Mullah Omar was told mainly that unless he complied with the U.S. demands "Russia and its allies could be given the go ahead to embark on hot pursuit against terrorists". The proposal for Osama bin Laden's surrender and trial by an Islamic court was not accepted. Tim Judah writes: "Pakistan found itself in an invidious position, purveying what amounted to death threats to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, from the U.S. administration, unless he handed over Osama bin Laden. Far from being intimidated, Mullah Omar brushed these aside; indeed, he responded in kind, personally threatening Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani leader, with dire consequences unless he introduced a Taliban-style regime in Pakistan." The text is not reproduced. We are told next (page 75) that on January 16, 2001 the Mullah sent a "threatening letter to Musharraf. He told the Pakistani leader that he found himself in a unique position to 'enforce Islamic law... step by step', and that if he did so, Pakistan's religious parties would 'be contented and avoid raising a hue and cry' that would give rise to 'instability'. Mullah Omar rounded off this thinly veiled threat with the words: 'This is our advice and message based on Islamic ideology. Otherwise you had better know how to deal with it'.'' The extracts do not bear out "the threat".

Pakistan's Afghan policy earned it the ire of Iran, the hostility of Russia, and the distrust of Central Asia, and led to the exacerbation of relations with India and terrorism at home. It acquired no leverage over Taliban. A firm policy in 2000 would have spared it the consequences that greeted it a year later. A week before the coup on October 12, 1999, both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, Chief Minister of Punjab, were demanding closure of camps in Afghanistan. A military regime could have been firmer still.

MICHAEL GRIFFIN'S book is an excellent survey of events since the Taliban took control of Kabul on September 27, 1996 until January 2001 with profiles of the principal players. William Maley's collection of essays has three particularly important contributions - Richard Mackenzie on the U.S. and the Taliban and Anthony Hyman on Russia, Central Asia and the Taliban. Both the U.S. and Russia held extensive but unsuccessful talks with the Taliban. Olivier Roy aptly calls them "the expression of a maverick fundamentalism strangely unfitted for the contemporary world ummah they think they embody." They were doomed to self-destruction.

It is no disrespect to Tim Judah to say that the papers deserved scholarly appraisal by an Afghan expert - which he is not - and fairness demanded their publication in full. The paper on the KGB in Afghanistan covers an earlier period and reflects not only scholarship of a high order in the Introduction and editing but represents an altogether new approach to publication of secret documents.

The Soviet Archives were opened in the wake of the aborted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, and this was done in order to collect evidence against the putschists. The party had controlled all spheres of policy. Soon access was granted to researchers by agreement. One such agreement was signed by the Storage Centre for Contemporary Documentation (the post-coup name for the Communist Party of Soviet Union's Central Committee Executive archive located in the party headquarters in Moscow's Staraya Square), the Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Science, and the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington.

The Project has since published a most impressive range of studies in cooperation with Russian and Chinese scholars. The National Security Archive in Washington, a non-governmental centre and library of documents on U.S. security policies, has collaborated in the effort. Its forte is skilful, determined use of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. The CWIHP publishes bulletins and working papers which are a delight to read. Its Director, Dr. Christian F. Ostermann, co-editor of the paper under review, is a scholar of achievement. His co-editor Odd Anne Westad is lecturer at the London School of Economics and author of Brothers in Arms (vide the writer's review "Sino-Soviet alliance and India," Frontline, November 10, 2000).

The paper provides a fine case study of the problems a government creates for itself when it makes an intelligence gathering agency a major adviser on policy, an actor in the play and a second channel in diplomacy. It debases the diplomatic process and undermines the integrity of the intelligence. The agency slants its reports and then uses them to support the policy it advocates. This is what Rajiv Gandhi did to the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in Sri Lanka. The CIA and the ISI have played similar roles. That the KGB played a major role in shaping Soviet policy on Afghanistan is well known. What emerges from this paper is that it was a decisive one. It gave misleading reports. Its head Yuri Andropov was a major initiator in the disastrous decision to intervene militarily. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Defence Minister Dmitri Ustinov agreed. In 1989, the Supreme Soviet's Enquiry Committee Report found that the Polituro "did not even assemble in its full complement to discuss this." The cabal met with Brezhnev in secret and later presented the rest of the Politburo, the Central Committee and the Supreme Soviet, "with a fait accompli".

Officials working in the archives for the trial found a document of December 12, 1979 "On the Situation in 'A"' handwritten by Brezhnev's trusted aide Konstantin Chernenko. Nine signatures were written diagonally across the face of the text. It recorded the decision to intervene. Kosygin, who was in hospital, was opposed to it. So was the General Staff of the Army, Lt. Col. A. Oliynik (Kransnaya Zvezda; November 18, 1989). According to one account, Gromyko was browbeaten by Andropov. In December 1989, the Congress of Peoples' Deputies accepted the Inquiry Report, held the decision to be unconstitutional and declared that it "should be condemned morally and politically" (News and Views from the Soviet Union, New Delhi; December 25, 1989). The Indian government persists in concealing the Henderson-Brookes Report from the nation.

THE saying that Afghanistan was the Soviet Union's Vietnam proved true in another respect. It fuelled dissent within the country and even in the KGB. Vasiliy Mitrokhin, a KGB archivist, began compiling his own account and took it along when he defected to Britain in 1992. The paper comprises his manuscript on Afghanistan. The editors are scholars and caution the reader against his bias. "That the leading Afghan Communists worked with the KGB prior to taking power comes as no surprise. While we think Mitrokhin is wrong in seeing them as Soviet agents first and Afghan Communists second, the degree to which they were involved with Soviet intelligence is important to establish". It is proved that the Soviet Union had no hand in the April 1978 coup which ousted Mohammed Daud Khan and brought the Communists to power.

The editors write: "What is most striking (and most useful) about Mitrokhin's text is the pervasive sense it gives of the distrust that the KGB fomented and spread among Afghan and Soviets alike", undermining Moscow's policy of securing unity in the PDPA or the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, and the stability of its regime.

"The rivalry among the main Soviet agencies operating in Afghanistan - the embassy, the military, the KGB and the party advisers - has been known for some time, but Mitrokhin's material provides us with some wonderful examples of how Soviet agencies often came to work at cross purposes. The best examples are the KGB surveillance of the messenger whom General Zaplatin, the chief political adviser to the Afghan army, sent to Moscow in December 1979 in a desperate attempt at preventing a Soviet invasion."

Mitrokhin created his own archive "based exclusively on information from the Soviet KGB" to which he had access. These comprised reports to the Politburo and the Foreign Ministry. It is not a complete record but an indispensably informative one, covering the period from the founding of the PDPA until the early 1980s. The editors warn that "while striving to stick to the facts Mitrokhin has stated that 'I wrote it in a hurry, and as a result certain notes which I wrote to accompany my account took on an emotional tone, creating a rather unbalanced narrative.' This, the author explains, was 'a way of expressing my personal perception of events and my rejection of the criminal intentions, calumnies and deeds of the Soviet nomenklatura'. "

His word should be treated with caution, for, an important account is belied by the record. Mitrokhin writes: "On 28 December (1979) Ambassador Vinogradov met Khomeini in the city of Qum and tried to explain the reasons for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He informed him in confidence that the Americans and President Carter personally had asked the Soviet government a number of times to show understanding of the American position in the Iranian-American conflict. But the Soviet leaders had rejected the groundless arguments of the Americans who were concealing their hand in Iran. The Soviet leadership considered that the Iranian leadership and Ayatollah Khomeini in person must be informed of this. It counted on understanding of the action it had been forced to take in Afghanistan. Khomeini said in reply that 'there could be no mutual understanding between a Muslim nation and non-Muslim government'."

This is palpably false. We have, fortunately, a detailed account of the meeting by the accomplished Ambassador Vladimir Vinogradov himself, published in the Moscow Monthly International Affairs (April 1991). Entitled "Audience At Dawn", it provides a brilliant insight into Soviet and Iranian diplomacy. Vinogradov was accompanied by Minister-Counsellor Yevgeny Ostrovenko and another aide, Alexander Maryasov. Both spoke Farsi, "The Imam asked me to thank the Soviet leadership on his behalf for finding it necessary to inform him in advance. He said he saw it as a sign of friendship and confidence and appreciated it...

"He remarked that every people had the right to decide its affairs without interference from outside. He understood that the Afghan authorities persecuted clergymen and closed mosques. That was an anti-popular practice, it was inadmissible, Islam was invisible, nor could anybody ban it. If what he had heard was true, Soviet people ought to bring their influence to bear on the Afghan leadership. Afghanistan was a Muslim country, part of the Muslim world, and so Iran could not be indifferent to what went on there. If the leadership there was in the hands of clever men they would not persecute Islam. The dispatch of Soviet troops to a Muslim country was certainly a disagreeable matter unusual for the Soviet Union, a country which the Iranians respected, and naturally, Iran could not approve of the action. But since the troops were being moved in, he would like me to convey to Moscow his advice that the troops would fulfil their task as speedily as possible and pull out. Generally speaking, he continued after a brief pause, he would like the Soviet leadership to treat Muslim countries with consideration, otherwise Soviet policy toward them would fail."

Vinogradov pleaded for restraint by the Iranian media. "Khomeini's eyes flashed. 'May I ask you for two things?' he asked instead of responding to my suggestion. 'One of these days, the U.N. Security Council is going to discuss sanctions against Iran over the U.S. Embassy staff taken hostage. I cannot understand why the Americans refuse to come to terms with us on releasing our assets in the United States. Will the Soviet Union support the demand for sanctions against Iran? We know that even if no sanctions are voted, the Americans are going to blockade all of Iran's Gulf ports. If that were done, could Iran use the Soviet Union for transit to Europe?' I had no specific instructions on that score but I could not really confine myself to telling Khomeini that I would convey his request to Moscow." The assurances were given instantly and carried out.

Iranian radio soon broadcast news of the meeting, sharpened Khomeini's response but omitted his requests. He began criticising Moscow three months later as Soviet troops dug in.

Survival: The IISS Quarterly; Volume 44, No. 1, Spring 2002; The International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, distributed by Oxford University Press; pages 187, &pound12. Article: "The Taliban Papers" by Tim Judah; pages 69-79.

The KGB in Afghanistan by Vasiliy Mitrokhin; Working Paper No. 40, introduced and edited by Christian F. Ostermann and Odd Arne Westad; Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Washington D.C.; February 2002, pages 174.

Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan by Michael Griffin; Pluto Press, London; Vanguard, Lahore; pages 283, Rs.895.

Afghanistan and the Taliban: The rebirth of fundamentalism? edited by William Maley; Penguin; pages 253, Rs.295.