Extracts from Kallol Bhattacherjee’s The Great Game in Afghanistan: Rajiv Gandhi, General Zia and the Unending War, documenting the untold tale of US-India relations under Rajiv Gandhi.
Kallol Bhattacherjee’s upcoming new book, The Great Game in Afghanistan: Rajiv Gandhi, General Zia and the Unending War, makes for compelling reading 30 years after the events that it documents. Drawing on the papers and cables collected by John Gunther Dean, who was the US ambassador in New Delhi from 1985 to 1988, the book documents the untold tale of US-India relations under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi. A powerful actor in and of himself, Dean was famous as the US ambassador who was the last member of the US embassy to be evacuated from Phnom Penh, folding the flag as he left.
Dean’s career ended inauspiciously, when he blamed the Israelis for the assassination of General Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan, in 1988. Given that Dean’s parents, as German Jews, fled Nazi Germany, this was a rather powerful accusation. Soon after, Dean was forced to take leave in Switzerland, declared mentally unfit and his career ended. The declaration of his mental instability was later retracted without an explanation and his security clearance reinstated.
Beyond Dean’s documents, those that have been unclassified over time, Bhattacherjee’s book draws on the recollections of Ronen Sen, the former Indian ambassador to the US and the former joint secretary in charge of intelligence and nuclear issues under Gandhi, as well as a host of other sources. Today, as Afghanistan remains caught in a complex matrix of violence, Bhattacherjee’s book shows what might have been possible – and why it failed. Maybe, even more importantly, this book provides one of the first behind-the-scenes account of the India-US engagement in the 1980s, and how US decisions in their national interest were a “stab in the back”, that destroyed the process.
We reproduce extracts below.
By 1980, the Lebanese civil war had become a major regional problem with all parties fuelling violence. On 27 August 1980, fighters armed with AK-47s and anti-tank rounds attacked the official vehicle carrying the Deans. Within a few minutes, the vehicles were showered with rounds of high-velocity bullets and Light Anti-Tank Weapons (LAWs). Luckily, there was no physical harm but the experience left Dean seething. What added to the official anxiety was that it was the second time in less than five years that the American ambassador in Lebanon was targeted. In
1976 Ambassador Francis E. Meloy, Economic Counsellor Robert O. Waring and a chauffeur were kidnapped and killed. No one quite knew who killed the American ambassador in 1976. And in 1980, the American ambassador was targeted again.
Dean launched his own investigation into the attack and based on support from the Lebanese authorities, Palestinian sources and his own friends in the US government, came to the conclusion that the attack was somehow linked to Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, who were involved in the attempt to assassinate him. The episode triggered off a negative relationship between Dean and the Jewish state. Ironical as it seems, Dean and Israel remained at loggerheads, unlike other Jewish diplomats and policymakers in the US who often displayed affinity for the Jewish state.
This discord would frequently surface as Dean would travel from Lebanon to Thailand and then India. He also raised the inconvenient question over how far should American diplomats and lawmakers go in support of Israel without undermining the agenda of the United States. This antipathy between Dean and Israel continued till the end of his career when Dean accused the
Mossad of being responsible for the crash of Pak One carrying President Zia-ul-Haq.
Rajiv Gandhi’s hour of reckoning regarding the United States came with the leak of killer gas from the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal. The timing of the Bhopal tragedy could not have been worse. The United States had just witnessed a presidential election and the Reagan–Bush administration was going to be sworn in soon. India was going through the election campaign. All political calculations could go wrong because of the disaster. The accident was monstrous and could have neutralized the sympathy wave in favour of Rajiv Gandhi. But the fallout of the gas disaster was soon controlled.
A day after Rajiv Gandhi campaigned in Bhopal, Union Carbide chief, Warren Anderson, was allowed to go home on 7 December 1984. No one took responsibility for facilitating the great escape of Anderson, yet everyone understood that Anderson could not have left without support from the ‘highest level’.
The idea of a non-aligned government of national unity had travelled a great distance from the June 1985 Washington DC visit of Rajiv Gandhi when the option was first discussed by the Indian team and their American hosts. Now all sides to the Afghan crisis were talking on similar lines about the option to avoid a bloodbath and anarchy following Soviet withdrawal. On 7 January 1987, Rajiv wrote to Reagan highlighting that his position on Afghanistan remained unchanged since it was last conveyed to Reagan in Washington DC. Afghanistan, Rajiv wrote, should be allowed to ‘chart an independent non-aligned course. Free from intervention and interference.’ Perhaps this was the only occasion in the history of South Asian conflicts when the Pakistanis and the Soviets were talking of creating a government of national unity in Afghanistan while India and the US played cheerleaders. In response, Reagan wrote: ‘An acceptable political settlement in Afghanistan would contribute immensely to international peace and stability and to the broader US–Soviet dialogue.’
Rajiv Gandhi was on a high in January 1987. His pan-Asian role and his anti-apartheid stance in Africa were turning out to be successful. His officials too felt excited about the success of convincing the Americans, Soviets and most importantly arch-rival Pakistan, to work together on Afghanistan.