At the high noon of the jihad in Afghanistan, as the Soviet Union prepared to pull its battered armies back home, the author of that long war sat down to script its coda. “The Soviets were unable to resist pressure to quit Afghanistan, but they will now seek other means to control some or all of that country,” said Pakistan’s military chief, General Akhtar Abdul Rehman Khan, his thinking recorded in a secret diplomatic cable from 1988.
The Soviets would now, he went on, try to divide the Afghan jihad, thus allowing President Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai to hang on. Failing that, the Soviets would partition the country on ethnic lines.
The General had an alternative script ready: An Islamic republic, embedded in an Islamic league. “An Islamic republic in Kabul”, Khan argued, “would join with Pakistan, Turkey and Iran, once the latter comes to its senses, in an Islamic economic and political bloc which could serve as a barrier to regional Soviet ambitions. It could also act as a rival to Indian plans for regional supremacy”.
In the margin, the United States ambassador to Islamabad, Arnold Raphel, scrawled a one-word analysis of the General’s argument: “Nonsense”.
Looking out at a nation more divided, arguably, than at any time since its Civil War of 1861-1865, President Joseph Biden likely has little inclination to turn his gaze east. Inside weeks, though, he will have to determine whether the United States should remain committed to military withdrawal from Afghanistan, scheduled to be completed by May. As second-in-command to President Barack Obama, Biden had called for an end to United States military involvement in the war in Afghanistan, pushing back against commanders who believed, wrongly, that enhanced force levels would defeat the Taliban.
The Taliban, though, has used peace negotiations with President Donald Trump to unleash unprecedented violence against the Afghan state, without delivering on promises to evict global jihadist groups like al-Qaeda.