NEARLY three decades ago, when General Zia-ul-Haq sought to dramatize the situation on the border with Afghanistan, he dragged Zbigniew Brzezinski to the vicinity of the Khyber Pass and made quite a song and dance, using as his theme that favourite Cold War catchcry, “the Russians are coming”. A few months earlier, the Soviet Union had made its last big mistake in the international arena by sending military contingents into Afghanistan in order to prop up an untenable pro-Moscow regime in Kabul.
Another hoary chestnut was dug up to support the thesis that an invasion of Pakistan was imminent: the dubious theory that Soviet geostrategy was based on the ultimate aim of acquiring a warm-water port. As Afghanistan is landlocked, by this logic it stood to reason that the Soviets were eyeing the facilities at Karachi. The allegation didn’t exactly die with the Zia era: it resurfaced a couple of years ago, for instance, in Pervez Musharraf’s apologia, In the Line of Fire.
Whether or not Zia believed that nonsense, his aim was clear. The Soviet invasion offered him an opportunity to acquire the international legitimacy he craved, which was proving elusive not so much on account of his khaki attire or the inane expression on his face, but because he had sanctioned the execution of Pakistan’s first elected prime minister. As a consequence, even governments that shed no tears over Zulfikar Ali Bhutto deemed it prudent to distance themselves from Islamabad.
When Zia offered to put his government and his country at the service of the United States, Brzezinski - Jimmy Carter’s hawkish national security adviser - played it cool. As he eventually confessed a couple of decades later, the Soviet military action was actually a strategic success for the US: in other words, the Brezhnev regime was dumb enough to fall into a trap laid by American strategists. (Interestingly, despite the intrinsically undemocratic nature of Communist Party rule, the decision to invade was apparently preceded by a great deal more debate in the top echelons of government than the US aggression against Iraq.) In putting the squeeze on Soviet forces in Afghanistan, there cannot be much doubt that the US had Pakistan in mind as a conduit: it had little choice. And chances are that Zia’s eagerness to be complaisant was anticipated.
Once the Reagan administration assumed charge in January 1981, it didn’t take too long for Zia to acquire the coveted status of most favoured dictator. And Pakistan by then was well on its way towards a predicament that continues, in one way or another, to cast a grim shadow.
It is unlikely the Russians ever had any intention of rolling across the Durand Line. However, more than a quarter century hence, the Americans have indicated that it is they who may well be coming. The New York Times reported last week - on September 11, as it happens - that President George W. Bush signed a classified executive order in July that allows “American Special Operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani government”. Islamabad will be informed, but its permission will not be obtained in advance.
Such violations of a close ally’s sovereignty are more or less unprecedented. The CIA has for many years now been using unmanned Predator drones to attack presumed targets inside Pakistan. This practice occasionally provoked protests from the Musharraf regime, particularly when the loss of innocent lives proved hard to disguise, but more often than not Islamabad proved to be an unquestioning collaborator, on occasion even accepting responsibility for operations it had little to do with. At the same time, Musharraf had few qualms about using tactics evidently borrowed from an Israeli counterinsurgency manual, such as house demolitions. He casually dismissed complaints about “collateral damage” by suggesting that any non-combatants - including children - who perished in attacks were guilty by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Inevitably, tactics of this nature served to consolidate rather than diminish the appeal of the jihadists in generally neglected tribal regions. Musharraf’s American allies combined praise for his steadfastness with innuendo about how Pakistan wasn’t being sufficiently helpful in the “war on terror”. They were particularly keen to undermine local peace deals. This attitude was in part based on the suspicion that the local Taliban were being let off the hook as long as they restricted their operations to Afghanistan. It has also long been suspected that the ISI never quite relinquished all of its jihadist links, which date back, of course, to the days when the military intelligence agency served as a proxy for the CIA.
It is likely that Bush was persuaded to sign the executive order following the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, which apparently had the ISI’s fingerprints all over it. What’s more, reports in the American media suggest that little effort was made to disguise these fingerprints. If that is indeed the case, it points towards a planned provocation - and the possible motivation raises uncomfortable questions. Given that American ground operations and increased air attacks can almost be guaranteed to exacerbate the trend towards Talibanization, one can only wonder whether that was part of anyone’s plan.
It is also being said that the US is keen to nail Osama bin Laden and/or Ayman al-Zawahiri before Bush’s term expires. Success on that score probably won’t do any harm, but it’s unlikely to do much good either as far as the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan is concerned. What’s disconcerting, meanwhile, is the level of disarray in Islamabad, with the army chief, the prime minister and any number of ministers decrying the American incursions and vowing to defend Pakistan’s sovereignty. On the face of it, this comes across as implausible deniability: with American officials, civilian and military, popping up in Islamabad without so much as a decent interval, it’s hard to believe that Pakistani authorities have been kept out of the loop.
But then, you never know. The NYT report quoted a senior American official as saying “the Pakistani government had privately assented to the general concept of limited ground assaults”. Pakistan’s newly inaugurated president, whose physical resemblance to Zia-ul-Haq at times seems uncanny, reiterated his resolve to combat terrorism in a joint news conference with Hamid Karzai, and then pushed off to his favourite destinations without offering a comment on the latest diminution in the nation’s sovereignty. It suddenly seems even more crucial than before to find out exactly what he and Zalmay Khalilzad have been discussing in recent months.