SPECIAL REPORT: The Afghan Peace Process
I joined the U.S. diplomatic service in June 1985. Only a few weeks into the initial training program, the Personnel Director of the U.S. Information Agency, where I started my diplomatic career and that was eventually folded into the State Department in 1998, pulled me aside and said,
“We’d like you to stop training and go to work right away on a special project.”
How this happened is still one of the great mysteries of my life, but it set the direction of my career for the next 30 years. The “special project” was to help set up the Afghan Media Resource Center (AMRC). Why an AMRC, which most Americans would have found pretty esoteric at that time?
The AMRC was one of the overt elements of the much broader Reagan Doctrine that had just been implemented the year before in a conscious U.S. effort to push back against the Soviet Union in specific regional conflicts, including in Central America, Angola – and in Afghanistan. In the previous decade, Afghanistan had experienced historic upheaval. In 1973, the traditional royal family was overthrown in a coup by the Afghan Communist Party. At the end of December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up its proxy government, leading to significant resistance and, quite quickly, the Soviet-Afghan War.
When I was pulled out of my initial diplomatic training class to help to set up the AMRC for the Afghan resistance to learn the basics of media reporting so that they themselves could cover the war at that time, the personnel director told me it would be only for a few weeks. But, in fact, it lasted for a full year. And now, decades later, the sum total of the AMRC’s video, photo, and print work is archived at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
Toward the end of my first diplomatic year, I was told that I was being sent to U.S. Consulate Peshawar in Pakistan for my first foreign diplomatic assignment.
Why Peshawar? It was a U.S. Consulate that was fast becoming ground-zero for U.S. efforts to push back against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. However, until the Reagan Doctrine kicked in, U.S. Consulate Peshawar had been considered such a sleepy post that it was in the process of being dismantled and closed down. The mover’s boxes were already stacked in the hallways. But the Soviet-Afghan War historically reversed that bureaucratic decision, and U.S. Consulate Peshawar soon became one of the premier front-line diplomatic assignments of the second half of the 1980s.
The American Club in Peshawar, sponsored by the U.S. Consulate, became a sort of Star Wars Bar, heavily patronized every night by a colorful mix of international diplomats and intelligence officers, humanitarian assistance workers (some of whom, at least from Europe, also did double duty on the dark side), foreign journalists, and international mercenaries and other assorted “freedom fighters,” some free-lancing and some on the hard-core dark side. I’ll never forget one young Brit who strode into the bar one evening with a bloodied bandage around his head and who loudly proclaimed, “Free drinks for all! I just delivered a million dollars cash to Ahmad Shah Masood in the Panjshir Valley!”
On the record, my specific assignment at Consulate Peshawar was as the Public Affairs Officer that traditionally focused on U.S.-Pakistan relations. In reality, my job was to build relations with the seven official Afghan Resistance Parties. My office, located in the upscale Peshawar suburb, University Town, tended to attract “interesting drop-ins.”
One day, a young Afghan man, already balding and dressed in a well-pressed white shalwar-kamize, speaking impeccable British-accented English, visited into my office and said, “Mr. Hoagland, you know nothing about Afghanistan, and I’m going to teach you!” He was the foreign affairs adviser for the moderate resistance party headed by Sibghatullah Mojaddedi. I wasn’t the least bit offended by what he’d said; I was intrigued, and we became friends. His name was Hamid Karzai. We stayed friends for decades, through thick and thin. I eventually had the honor to visit him in the Presidential Palace in Kabul in 2012.
Let’s back up a bit. At the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, hundreds of resistance cells led by hyper-local warlords proliferated throughout the country. But once the United States made Afghanistan a key element of the Reagan Doctrine, we, working with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, winnowed them down and merged many of them. The final, more manageable official resistance parties became known as the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujahideen, and ranged from internationally sophisticated “Gucci Guerilla” types to hard-core “kill ‘em all and let God sort it out” types, the latter dominated by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdur-rab Rasool Saayaf. These were the parties that became known as The Peshawar Seven:
The first group, generally more moderate, were Afghan traditionalists:
• National Islamic Front for the Liberation of Afghanistan led by Pir Sayyid Ahmed Gilani
• Afghan National Liberation Front led by Sibghatullah Mojaddedi
• Islamic Revolution Movement led by Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi
The second group, generally more radical, tended to be political Islamists:
• Jamiat-i Islami led by Burhanuddin Rabbani
• Hezb-i Islami Khalis led by Mulavi Younas Khalis
• Hezb-i Islamic Gulbuddin led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
• Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan led by Abdur-rab Rasul Sayyaf
Ethnic Pashtuns dominated all seven parties, except Rabbani’s Jamiat-i Islami that was predominantly, but not exclusively, Tajik. And, in fact, Rabbani’s broad-based party included both moderate traditionalists and more radical Sunni political Islamists. None of the seven parties specifically represented the Shia minority of Afghanistan.
The CIA, working with and generally deferring to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) service, with significant support from Saudi Arabia, tended to favor delivery of lethal assistance — including Stinger missiles starting in 1986 – to the more radical and violent Islamist elements of the Peshawar Seven, although official U.S. policy was that we favored none and gave equal assistance to all. In fact, that was not true: Pakistan funneled the bulk of our assistance to the Islamists. Saudi Arabia had no such pretense. From the beginning, its money and weapons went to the Islamists – and, significantly, it encouraged the most radical Islamists in Saudi Arabia to leave the Kingdom and go to fight in Afghanistan, in part to get them out of the royal family’s hair. Even in the late 1980s when I was in Peshawar, the name of a young and especially violent Saudi mercenary came to our attention — Osama bin Laden.
After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, civil war dominated the next decade as the Islamists fought for control of Kabul, with the radical Pashtun Gulbuddin Hekmatyar leading the initial attacks that devastated Kabul to prevent Burhanuddin Rabbani and his Tajiks from gaining power. All the while, Pakistan continued to support the Pashtun Islamists that eventually became known as the Taliban. Why? Because Pakistan – or at least the military and intelligence service that to this day dominate foreign and security policy in Pakistan – adamantly believes it needs Afghanistan for “strategic depth,” as a fallback territory against India, and that the Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the border, will guarantee that goal.
By the late 1990s, al-Qa’eda had emerged from the remnants of the Islamist elements of the Afghan Resistance of the Soviet-Afghan War. The infamous 9/11 attacks on the United States were a wake-up call that required international engagement. The International Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001, chose Hamid Karzai as President of Afghanistan. He was a logical choice because he was a Pashtun descendent of the former royal family of Afghanistan; and although he was from the nationalist wing of the Afghan Resistance (Mojaddedi’s Afghan National Liberation Front), he had always maintained warm relations with Rabbani’s Tajiks and so was seen as a “unifier.” But because Karzai was a nationalist, not an Islamist, Pakistan redoubled its efforts to support the Taliban, and gave special support to the Haqqani Network, an especially violent group allied to the Taliban that had evolved from Hezb-i Islami Khalis. Plus ca change!
Jump forward another decade, and today U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, himself of Afghan origin and a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, is – finally – negotiating with the Taliban to try to find a way for them to become, eventually, part of the Afghan government.