Reagan’s Blowback in Central Asia

KARACHI – Conservative opinion holds the Great Communicator Ronald Reagan, who died this month at 93, to be a great U.S. president. His greatness largely comprises his ability to convince his country’s people, or a majority of them, that he stood for freedom and democracy and that communism was the worst of evils.

He certainly was a scourge for communism. He is credited with having brought the East-West Cold War to an end by winning the war in Afghanistan that eventually led to the downfall of communism within the Soviets.

But a lot of people in South Asia bitterly criticize the legacies that Reagan’s policies left in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The state of Afghanistan has actually been destroyed, and the blame for it lies, to an indeterminate extent, on Reagan’s thoughtless but enthusiastic support of the Afghan jihad throughout the 1980s. He fomented and abated the rise of religious extremism in Pakistan that is now threatening this country’s stability.

What has happened to Iraq as a result of George W Bush’s war is a replay of what Reagan did in Afghanistan. There is now scarcely any hope of keeping Iraq an integrated entity based on Bush’s schemes and plans.

But the damage that Reagan caused to Pakistan and Afghanistan exceeds this by far in its effects and aftereffects that still linger on. For instance, the difficulties that U.S. air forces had in destroying the Tora Bora tunnels and hideouts in Afghanistan during its attacks in late 2001 are due to Reagan’s decision to repair them to their original state and perhaps to improve these facilities for a guerrilla force to use as safe havens against the Soviets in the 1980s.

Although physical damage in Afghanistan was horrible in those eight years of active warfare, the far more serious damage was political. Reagan’s war destroyed the second Afghan middle class that had grown up under the pro-Soviet regimes in Kabul. In the holy name of anti-communism, Reagan’s war decimated the entire secular side of the polity that used to be led, strangely enough, by Marxist-led parties in that country.

Earlier, the traditional middle class had been more or less evicted by the Marxist regimes. But the job done by Reagan’s supposedly pro-freedom and pro-democracy mujahideen was so thorough that virtually no secular element physically survived.

What the mujahideen could not do between 1992-96 – when they were bickering and ran a regime that was an epitome of a non-government – their successor, the Taliban, completed.

Since the Taliban, Afghanistan does not have any bit of unity or stability, or even a middle class, to speak of. It is an ad hoc collection of tribes and various Islamic sects, with no domestic mediating influence or power among them. The U.S. government had to invent, in an ersatz manner, the state of Afghanistan.

But what was being done in Afghanistan was done through the help and instrumentality of the Pakistan army. The first requirement of the 1979 war in Afghanistan was people imbued with anti-communist zeal. Pakistan helped manufacture as well as mobilize the Islamic extremists and trained and indoctrinated them into first-rate mujahideen.

The war was fought in the bogus name of Islam, funded and led mainly by the U.S. government, though nominally by Afghanistan and Pakistani mujahideen.

The biggest damage was not physical, although it was horrible enough in Afghanistan. It was spiritual and political. Inevitably, a new Islam came into being. What began to emerge in the 1980s was politically different from what the Pakistanis knew as Islam.

The Islam that Pakistanis knew was recognized on all sides, even by dictators, as being able to countenance democracy and all fundamental rights. But in the 1980s, the official propaganda by General Zia ul-Haq, the darling of Reagan and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was that Islam and democracy could not go together.

Islam was now thought to require dictatorship – his own, of course. But other mullahs gained tremendous importance by virtue of their close cooperation with the army and their provision of raw material for Reagan’s war in Afghanistan.

All the manpower, rated excellent by the U.S. government, was provided by Pakistan, while the United States and other pro-West Arab regimes provided the funding – and a lot it was.

This particular legacy to Pakistan includes several things: unheard-of riches by Pakistani generals who stole and embezzled maybe up to 70% of all aid from the West.

During that war, the CIA had hit on the idea of financing it from the sale of heroin from the ample opium crops in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. Hundreds of private-sector factories to manufacture heroin were set up. A whole culture of smuggling and drug trafficking grew up, creating a fanatical, rich group of manufacturers and traders of heroin.

This required a large amount of efficient small arms to protect the precious cargo that was so small in volume. The Kalashnikov was the rifle of choice. An uncountable number of Kalashnikovs float around in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a result – and in Pakistan they are no longer confined to the tribal areas.

The drug mafia sought support from the emerging crime syndicates in Pakistan, especially in the port city of Karachi, and in turn, strengthened them.

Today, the two are virtually married to each other – the heroin and Kalashnikov culture flourish throughout Pakistan. But that is just one side of the picture: the other side comprises non-stop production of Islamic extremists required for what militants call Pakistan’s own jihad in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Today President General Pervez Musharraf, the military strongman of Pakistan, is trying hard to curb extremism by promoting what he calls “enlightened moderation”.

But his regime depends, like other politicians of the shady past, on the mullahs, the mentors of the Taliban. His regime is also promoting pan-Islamism in the name of pleasing the West by preaching enlightened moderation to other members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

This political strategy of the Musharraf regime becomes pernicious when combined with the influences of the progenitors of the Taliban. Musharraf’s political plans are strange: he keeps the pro-West and actually moderate right-of-center parties out in the cold, but relies on the support of the manufacturers of fanatical fundamentalists. The people of Pakistan are between the devil of Islamic extremists and the deep blue sea of assorted anti-democrats.