'General Zia Avenged the 1971 Defeat Through His Moves on Afghanistan and Nuclear Weapons'

In conversation with Kallol Bhattacherjee on what distinguishes present-day Afghanistan from the 1980s, how India compares to China on engagement with the US on Afghanistan-Pakistan and more.

Rajiv Gandhi with General Zia-Ul-Haq prior to Indo-Pak official talks in New Delhi on December 17, 1985. Credit: photodivision.gov.in

Kallol Bhattacherjee’s new book, The Great Game in Afghanistan: Rajiv Gandhi, General Zia and the Unending War, draws on papers and cables collected by John Gunther Dean – former US ambassador in New Delhi from 1985 to 1988 – to document the untold tale of US-India relations under Rajiv Gandhi.

Dean is famous as the US ambassador who was the last member of the US embassy to be evacuated from Phnom Penh. Dean’s career ended inauspiciously, when he blamed the Israelis for the assassination of General Zia-ul-Haq in 1988. 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.

Today, as Afghanistan remains caught in a complex matrix of violence, Bhattacherjee’s book shows what might have been possible – and why it failed.

In an interview with The Wire, Bhattacherjee discusses what distinguishes present day Afghanistan from the 1980s, what the back channel talks between Gandhi and Ronald Reagan indicated about achieving peace in Afghanistan, the similarities and differences between India’s engagement with the US on Afghanistan-Pakistan versus with China, and more.


Obvious first question, how much do we trust Ambassador Dean?

We trust Ambassador Dean as he has been consistently sympathetic to India. At a time (early 1980s) when it was highly unfashionable to argue in favour of exporting technology to India, he argued passionately in favour of lifting technological barriers against India and told the US administration that India would be lost to the US if the technology flow was not restored. Beginning in that direction was made by Indira Gandhi’s visit to the US in 1982, but it took powerful advocacy by influential figures like Ambassador Dean to make technology-exchange intensify between the two countries.

By the end of 1985, the big chill of the 1970s was forgotten and dozens of new technology licenses were being liberalised for India. Dean passionately argued in favour of more technology transfer to India and wrote in a 1985 booklet titled ‘Indo-US Cooperation in Science and Technology’, that the US was likely to place an Indian astronaut aboard a space shuttle – a giant leap in bilateral ties, considering that just a few years earlier, Indira Gandhi had coined the term “foreign hand” to brand the US as a disruptor in South Asia.

Kallol Bhattacherjee The Great Game in Afghanistan: Rajiv Gandhi, General Zia and the Unending War Harpar Collins, 2017

Kallol Bhattacherjee
The Great Game in Afghanistan: Rajiv Gandhi, General Zia and the Unending War
Harpar Collins, 2017

As the ambassador of the United States to India, he was given exclusive access to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Such privileged access is not given without trust. Result of that access led to the India-specific papers of the John Gunther Dean collection at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library that I used for Great Game in Afghanistan: Rajiv Gandhi, General Zia and the Unending War.

Rajiv Gandhi trusted Dean even with his children’s education. He sought the ambassador’s suggestions regarding son Rahul’s higher studies in the US, especially in the University of Harvard. During Rahul’s stint at Harvard, Ambassador Dean discreetly maintained a watch on his education as a gesture of friendship to Rajiv Gandhi. Thanks to his high level contacts in India, Dean served for several years as a consultant for Indian corporates, including a prominent hotel chain that opened a branch in Cambodia with his support. He was also one of the first to support the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation in the early years of its existence.

More importantly, how do we trust the US? You cite multiple instances of spying and other uncomfortable behaviour, although Rajiv Gandhi identified that Dean himself did not authorise them.

States pursue self-interest in the anarchical global set up and trust comes down below in the list of priorities. So at the theoretical level we, that is as part of the state of India, have no reason to trust any other state, including the US. However, we may have to trust the US out of our pragmatic compulsion to serve our strategic needs in acquiring high technology and for ensuring security. India has traditionally been good in mastering technology – that is acquiring technology to master it. As India moved to have a more technological edge in the early 1980s to serve its people, the market opened up and espionage was the way the technology and defence majors responded.

International espionage in India, one of the largest tech/high-tech bazaars of the world, is deeply connected to India’s endless need for technology – be it in the strategic sectors or in daily life of its citizens. In the 1980s, India was slowly emerging out of the shadows of the USSR’s defence monopoly. Other countries wanted a share of India’s defence requirement, as India began looking beyond the Soviet supply network for US, France, UK (later on Israel). Espionage in Delhi’s corridors of power was the way to break Moscow’s monopoly and the global spy agencies used the same tools to break into the Indian system that corporate houses used to maintain hegemony in the license permit system. In fact, the people who feature in Delhi’s spy dramas were well known in the corporate network.

Ambassadors themselves often do not control everything in the diplomatic missions. In the 1980s, information about the nuclear programmes of India and Pakistan was highly valued due to reports of nuclear weaponisation in South Asia. This specialist wing of intelligence used to be handled by those with expertise in those areas. Therefore, spying for nuclear-related information and policies became a legitimate diplomatic concern for the US and other western countries. In certain cases, Dean was aware of the plans, though he would not often direct the moves themselves. The incidents like the Rama Swaroop case or that of Subbarao threatened the exclusive access that Rajiv Gandhi granted to the US ambassador. However, Rajiv and Dean remained friends till Rajiv’s assassination on May 21, 1991.

Ambassador Ronen Sen played an incredibly important role, how difficult was it to convince him to come on record?

The most difficult part of the research was to convince Ronen Sen to speak on the story. He had taken a vow of silence as he worked on strategic issues like nuclear affairs, Afghanistan-Pakistan and diplomacy with the superpowers. After initial talks and meetings, he met me at home for an almost-interview. I guess he wanted to reassure himself about how genuine was my intention. He avoided speaking to me initially for several months. But then opened up when I started to read out portions from the papers where he is quoted. Once he began speaking, things became easier as he corroborated the Rajiv-Reagan back channel talks on Afghanistan. Ronen Sen is the only Indian official of Rajiv Gandhi who has the full idea of the Rajiv-Reagan diplomacy on Afghanistan.

To what degree do you see the similarities and differences between our engagement with the US on Afghanistan-Pakistan versus with China? Do you see this as a replay of what happened earlier?

Along with the violence which has raged for more than three decades, Afghanistan remains similar in the sense that the groups or communities of the Pashtuns, the Tajiks and the Hazaras and broad political groups like the Islamists and moderates remain in place. The cast of characters are also the same. For example, a large number of political leaders who survived repression under the Najibullah government and the civil war of the 1990s are now in politics providing a sense of continuity. At the end of the Soviet occupation, Rajiv Gandhi, Ronald Reagan, General Zia and Mikhail Gorbachev planned for a national unity government which could not be built. However, the current coalition government also claims to be a “national unity” government.

However, a big difference is the absence of the cold war which was the reason for the destabilisation of the country. That apart, the cast of external characters in Afghanistan has increased. In the 1980s, the Soviets, the Americans, the Chinese, the Pakistanis and the Indians were the primary players. Today, smaller European countries and Australia are active in Afghanistan, plus a large number of NGOs and other organisations are active there. There is also a difference in Afghanistan-Pakistan bilateral ties because of the nuclear status of Pakistan. Till the mid-1980s, Afghan airforce used to attack Pakistani positions and major military skirmishes on the western border of Pakistan were common. All that changed with Pakistan acquiring nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s nuclear power status acts as a deterrence for any adventurism by any other governments, including the one in Kabul which has not done anything substantial beyond accusing Pakistan of terrorism. Bilateral tension often creates skirmishes in Afghanistan-Pakistan affairs, but Kabul does not push the envelope hard anymore.

That apart, the biggest difference, however, is Pakistan’s creation of the Taliban from the rag tag army of Islamists in the 1980s which preceded the arrival of other Islamist fighting groups like the ISIS. Presence of a vibrant Afghan media scene is another factor that distinguishes present day Afghanistan from the 1980s.

The very small number of people making foreign policy – in this case largely Rajiv Gandhi – means that the general public have little idea of the shifts of policy. Is this a good or bad thing?

Foreign policy of India has been an exclusive domain from the beginning. That remains the trend till now. Rajiv Gandhi followed the same policy. As an observer, I personally feel it is appalling that foreign affairs remain under the influence of only a select few as that gives us no idea of the compromises that we are pushed into without our knowledge. Such exclusivity also increases insecurity and uncertainty.

In your book Zia comes across as somebody wanting to draw things down, this goes against the received wisdom of him using the Afghan sphere to support militancy in Punjab and then Kashmir.

There will not be another Zia in South Asia. He was unique and multidimensional like all complex characters of South Asian history. I admire Zia’s guts, though not his methods, especially in regards to Islam. He successfully took on nuclear India and changed the balance of power that Indira Gandhi created in the 1971 war and broke all rules to acquire nuclear weapons for Pakistan. If the US created the hyphenated South Asia through the Inouye-Kasten resolution of December 1987, it was Zia who created the physical condition for that post-cold war hyphenation. We continue to exist in that hyphenated state with Pakistan, even though from time to time we may try to wish it away.

I would go even to the extent to suggest that he avenged the defeat of 1971 by turning Pakistan nuclear and by winning in Afghanistan against the Soviets. But his biggest miscalculation was that having won in Afghanistan he did not know where to stop. His last interview a few days before his apparent assassination hinted that his antipathy toward India continued to grow despite the huge achievement of forcing the Soviets out of Afghanistan through a mix of diplomacy and guerrilla warfare. As an austere military genius, he did not have a celebratory side. Any one else in his place would have celebrated the Soviet withdrawal from across the Khyber Pass with some fanfare.

He was also a typical seeker of power and tried to build a coalition government for post-Soviet Kabul along with the US and the Soviets when it suited him and gave up the project when India (which supported the project discreetly through Rajiv-Reagan back channel talks) showed overt interest in the project in 1988. But apart from the multilateral drama involving the US and the Soviets, the usual India-Pakistan hostilities continued and therefore the received wisdom is also true that Rajiv’s government often asked Zia not to cross the line in Punjab and Kashmir. However, he has to get the credit for pitting Pakistan against the Soviet Union. He alone could deal with both the Soviets and the Americans with a mix of threats and duplicity. His problematic legacies are Pakistan’s undeniable influence on Afghanistan – that we may criticise but have to acknowledge – and the nuclear weapons of Pakistan.

Have you spoken to Afghans about your discoveries? What was their reaction to the potential “settlement”?

The biggest party to the “settlement” was King Zahir Shah who passed away in 2007. Another person who spoke of it was the UN-appointed negotiator Diego Cordovez, who in fact wrote a paper for the political coalition including all political sections of Afghanistan to be presided over by Zahir Shah. Cordovez passed away in 2014 though he left details of it in his book on Afghanistan which however did not include details of Rajiv Gandhi’s role in it. I hope the royal family of Afghanistan and Cordovez’s family members would speak of the peace process more often.

The so called settlement or the “scenario paper” (Cordovez’s phrase) proposed a coalition government should take charge of Kabul immediately after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan to avoid any political vacuum that could have destabilised the region. The coalition plans failed after Rajiv Gandhi tried to take charge of the process. Three decades later, it is clear that the divides have not healed over time mainly because of the bitterness that existed between the exiled leaders among the Mujahedins. But interestingly, some bold (some would say risky) moves are underway as the recent return of  Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to Kabul showed.

Today, what we can we learn from the earlier episode, what pointers does it give to us in achieving peace in Afghanistan or cooperation with the US and management of India-Pakistan?

The “scenario paper” of Cordovez and the Zahir Shah formula of Rajiv Gandhi were the same process and despite its failure, it leaves a rich legacy regarding how high level diplomacy can be conducted in an atmosphere where mutual trust among the primary parties is missing. In the case of the Americans, the secret role was played by several people including the oil czar Armand Hammer who negotiated with the Afghans and the Pakistanis about the “scenario paper” formula. India also extended help to the US through its embassy in Kabul during the Soviet era. Back channel talks of Rajiv Gandhi-Ronald Reagan, the Zahir Shah negotiations and the negotiations by Diego Cordovez indicate that Afghanistan can be solved by the Afghans themselves and not by outsiders, but the entire exercise has to be conducted discreetly without creating a PR spectacle.