A veteran Pakistani diplomat who remained part of the landmark Geneva Accords that subsequently led to the pullout of now-defunct USSR troops from neighboring Afghanistan in 1989, reminisces about historic events.
On the occasion of the 33rd anniversary of the Soviet pullout on Feb. 15, former Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan, who was part of Pakistan’s negotiating team as a young diplomat, offers a witness account of events that preceded the end of a decade-long foreign invasion of Afghanistan.
Inked April 14, 1988, at the UN’s Geneva headquarters between Pakistan and Afghanistan with the USSR and the US as guarantors, the accords stated provisions for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghan soil.
It, however, triggered a bloody civil war, between a demoralized Afghan army and the Mujahideen, and subsequently between several militias, following the hurried pullout without putting up a future governance structure in Kabul.
Also in Pakistan, the accords created a chain reaction and led to the removal of the Mohammad Khan Junejo government in May 1988 by military ruler Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, who was not happy with the signing of the agreement by his hand-picked prime minister.
In an interview with Anadolu Agency, Khan, who was the only delegate from the Pakistan side who participated in all the rounds of the Geneva negotiations from 1982 to 1988, shed light on similarities and dissimilarities between the USSR and the US pullouts from Afghanistan.
“There are more dissimilarities than similarities,” said Khan, who served as Foreign Secretary from 2005 to 2008.
“Yes, both gave in after lingering wars. On both occasions, if the goal was to defeat the insurgency or resistance then both failed. However, the Najibullah government and the PDPA (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan) army proved to be more stubborn and survivable than the Ashraf Ghani government and the Afghan National Army,“ he said.
Enumerating the dissimilarities, he argued that the Najib government survived three years and fell apart only after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. “It (even) withstood the siege of Jalalabad, “ he said, referring to the famous but failed siege of Jalalabad, the capital of northeastern Nangarhar province, in 1989 by the Mujahideen.
Citing another difference, Khan said after the US withdrawal one party, the Taliban, have emerged victorious and the transition was more or less smooth.
Whereas, he added, after the Soviet withdrawal the conflict continued to simmer in a stalemate and following the exit of Najibullah, the two major Mujahedin factions, Ahmed Shah Masood and Gulbadin, fought for Kabul while associates of Najibullah chose either of the two sides.
- Pullout without a credible power structure
According to records that were later released, Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union, had informed Najibullah about Moscow’s decision to withdraw almost two years ahead of time in mid-1986, he said.
He said Pakistan was interested in a Soviet withdrawal because historically it saw a pattern in Moscow’s interventions that “if it consolidated its position in one country after some time pressure came on the next.”
- ‘Next to Afghanistan was Pakistan’
Khan, the author of two best-sellers on Afghanistan, Untying the Afghan Knot and Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism and Resistance to Modernity, said that Islamabad had insisted on putting up a “stable and reasonably acceptable” government in Kabul before the Soviet pullout, which unfortunately could not happen.
"We did insist in the pre-Geneva exchanges that the agenda should include the formation of a broad-based government of national reconciliation. But the UN Secretary General could not agree to it because the UN could only deal with the government represented at the UN," he said. adding that Islamabad did not have the votes in the UN to dislodge the Kabul government for keeping Afghanistan’s seat vacant.
Ironically, in December 1986, he contended, Moscow “precisely” did that and sought Pakistan’s cooperation for a broad-based government starting with a dialogue between the Kabul government and the Mujahideen leaders.
But at that time Pakistan’s politics got complicated and was unable to focus on the Soviet offer, he said.
- Soviets wanted to leave under UN auspices
In the final phase of negotiations the Soviets called for the signing of the Geneva Accords, which were ready for almost three years but without a timeframe for a withdrawal, said Khan.
“The Soviets wanted to leave under the auspices of a UN negotiated accord. They waited for about one year for Pakistan to respond to their offer made in December 1986 and then announced a one-year timeframe, “ he said.
That woke up Gen. Zia and he started talking about a broad-based government and even announced a formula, which was publicly rejected by the Tanzeemat (conglomerate of different Mujahideen groups) spokesman the next day, he said.
According to Khan, there was a last-minute hiccup when Kabul refused to accept a reference to “international border” in the text as it does not recognize the 2,640-kilometers (1,640-miles) porous border called, the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
That obliged the Foreign Minister of the USSR Eduard Shevardnadze to travel to Kabul in April 1988.
“Failing to persuade Kabul, Shevardnadze requested Pakistan to accept a fuzzier expression which we did,” he said.
- Myths and realities
Khan does not agree with the widely-rumored contention that the Junejo government was dismissed because of the Geneva Accords
"There is a good deal of myth about the removal of Junejo on account of his differences with Zia on Geneva. The fact is that the Afghan policy was always in the hands of President Zia and with the exception of the timeframe the texts of the agreement were completed when Sahibzada Yaqub Khan (then Foreign Minister) led the Pakistan delegation before Junejo entered the scene in 1985," he said.
“At the last round of Geneva, we, from the Pakistan delegation, knew Junejo favored signing but we were all waiting for almost one month to get a signal from Zia to covey our consent for signature,” he said. “That only came towards the end of March 1988 when Zia was satisfied on the question of continued supply of arms to the Mujahideen.”
Khan cited “frictions and differences” between Junejo and Zia, which was a political tussle for power in executive and administrative matters as the key reason behind the former’s ouster.
"(Former) Prime Minister Junejo started asserting himself without consulting Zia and kept the latter out. But Afghanistan was different, it was a mega policy, not a day-to-day issue, in which the army and intelligence were involved," he said.
Nonetheless, he argued, it can be said that the political friction caused distraction and did not allow Zia to focus on the Soviet offer in December 1986 seeking cooperation for a broad-based government.
But that offer, he said, was dismissed by powerful circles within the army and intelligence as tactical to weaken the resistance.
Another key reason behind Junejo’s ouster was the demand for an inquiry into the dreadful Ojeri Camp accident, in which nearly 100 citizens were killed and more than 1,000 injured in Islamabad in April 1988.
The camp near the capital was used as an ammunition depot for the Afghan Mujahideen, who were fighting the Soviet invasion.
In case of an inquiry, regardless of the cause, “some of the top generals could not have escaped responsibility for keeping such a huge depot of ammunition in the midst of the twin cities” of Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
“If it were Geneva, Zia could have dismissed Junejo much before the signing of Geneva, not several weeks after the event,” he said.
About the botched Jalalabad siege, Khan said there was pressure from the intelligence agencies that Pakistan should recognize the Afghan interim government of the Mujahideen, which was still headquartered in Peshawar.
The foreign minister, he said, however, opposed and maintained that even Zia had not recognized the interim government in Pakistan.
The ministry had recommended that Islamabad could recognize the interim government if it was able to base itself somewhere inside Afghanistan, he said.
"Benazir Bhutto (then Prime Minister) had reportedly asked (intelligence authorities) whether the Mujahideen could do so. Given the hype created in favor of the Mujahideen victory, reportedly the then intelligence chief opined that they could. So a go-ahead was given. But it appears that there were no preparations," he said.
Afghan army troops dug in their heels and after two weeks, the Mujahideen, which had no cohesion, dispersed, he added.