The date was April 26, 1978. As a young and rather amateurish journalist I had requested and been granted an interview with General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military ruler. He had grabbed power in a bloodless coup on July 5, 1977, overthrowing the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Months of agitation had ensued against Bhutto following rigged elections. This was the pretext for the army’s coup.
As I arrived at Army House in Rawalpindi where Chief of Army Staff and now Chief Martial Law Administrator, General Zia had his office and home, I was surprised at the near total absence of security. Two questions were uppermost in my mind for that afternoon interview: what would be Bhutto’s fate who only a few weeks earlier had been sentenced to death on a murder charge by the Lahore High Court, and when would elections be held in Pakistan. During the interview, what really surprised me was information General Zia volunteered without my asking: he said he had had very good discussions with President Sardar Daoud of Afghanistan and that they would be meeting soon.
The following day while driving back from Islamabad to Peshawar, the news on the car radio startled me: in a communist-led military coup, Sardar Daoud and his entire family had been murdered in Afghanistan. My mind raced back to what General Zia had told me barely 24 hours earlier. I still did not realize the true import of what had happened in Afghanistan although I got an inkling of something really remiss when driving from Peshawar to Hangu (family hometown), I noticed military deployments at strategic points. The April 27, 1978 coup triggered a series of events whose disastrous consequences the Afghans continue to suffer to this day. Two communist coups later, the invasion and 10-year occupation by the Red Army and despite the slaughter of an estimated one million Afghans, the Soviets realized they could not subdue the intrepid Afghans; the Red Army retreated in ignominy in February 1989.
Unfortunately for the Afghans, defeat of the Red Army did not end their agony. The various Afghan factions started to fight among themselves for power. Tens of thousands of people were killed before the Talibanemerged on the scene. It is not widely known but it was the British High Commissioner to Pakistan, Nicholas Barrington, who had suggested to Pakistan to use the Taliban (from singular Talib, meaning madrassa student that ignorant Western journalists continue to misstate as if the word Taliban is singular) to take control in Kabul. US-British officials were not moved by the plight of the Afghans; their interest was inCentral Asia’s hydrocarbons that could not be transported if Afghanistan remained in turmoil. Pakistan’s then Interior Minister, retired general Naseerullah Babur did the rest.
While in power the Taliban imposed a narrow interpretation of Islam but they managed to restore law and order. Warlords were disarmed and people went about their business unmolested. During Taliban rule (August 1996 – October 2001), US officials made several trips to Afghanistan to secure the oil and gas pipeline deal. When the Taliban granted the contract to Bridas of Argentina, the Americans went ballistic. The Taliban had to go; they were attacked in October 2001. The Americans got puffed up when the Taliban abandoned Kabul rather suddenly. That was a trap. There was no point for the Taliban to be blown to pieces in Kabul. They fled to the mountains from where they launched a guerrilla war — delivering death by a thousand cuts, precisely what they had done to the Soviets. After nine years, the Americans too have learned that it is impossible to defeat the Afghans. Now there is talk of negotiations and reconciliation.
How long this process will take is hard to predict. What is not in doubt is that countless more poor Afghan civilians will be killed in aerial and ground attacks before foreign occupation forces leave. For 32 years, the Afghans have witnessed nothing but suffering at the hands of foreign occupiers as well as their own warlords. What they need most is to be left alone to sort out their lives. The greatest favor the foreign do-gooders can do for the Afghans is to leave them alone. Surely, this is not too much to ask?