“THE reality, secretly guarded until now, is [that] … it was July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion the aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.” This was said by Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinsky in the Paris weekly Le Nouvel Observateur in January 1998.
The over 40 years that have elapsed since have exacted a heavy toll on lives; mostly Afghan. President Joe Biden is welcome to distinguish, however disingenuously, between the US flight from its embassy in Saigon in 1975 and the one from Kabul in 2021. Historians are certain to view the record differently. American business, especially Big Business, did not do too badly when it comes to the Afghan war.
Since World War II, America’s foreign policy has been marked by militarism, unilateralism and a disdain for diplomacy. This was amply reflected in the talks with the Afghan Taliban. Why did the US not involve Nato from the very outset in the talks with the insurgent group?
No responsible leader will frame foreign policy without consulting the leaders of his country’s armed forces. But in militarism it is the armed forces that lead the political leadership by the nose. It is well said: “Militarism is the domination of the military in society, an undue deference to military demands, and an emphasis on military considerations, spirit, ideals, and scales of value, in the lives of states. It has meant also the imposition of heavy burdens on a people for military purposes, to the neglect of welfare and culture, and the waste of a nation’s best manpower in unproductive army service.” In this mad pursuit, presidents have sometimes acted against the professional advice of the leaders of the armed forces, to the harm of the nation.
Drunk with power, the United States developed a taste for unilateralism and a contempt for its allies. They were not treated as allies but as members of the ‘coalition of the willing’, ie subordinates. For this, the allies themselves are to blame. Nato was set up in 1949 to face an impotent and weak Soviet Union. It was in no shape to invade Western Europe. Its pleas for summits had fallen on deaf ears. An upstart like president Harry Truman brazenly rejected the advice of a man of experience like Winston Churchill to hold a summit with Stalin. He died a sad man. Letters exchanged among Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt during World War II show Roosevelt agreeing to a summit with Stalin without the presence of Churchill. In 1945, Roosevelt cheated Britain on the atom bomb and access to Saudi oil.
With all this goes a disdain for diplomacy. Saddam Hussein was very much prepared for a good deal to avert America’s invasion. So were the Taliban. They were furiously knocking at the doors of the US State Department, specifically on the doors of Karl F. Inderfurth. The documents were published by the US National Security Archive at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
The US Institute of Peace was set up by a congressional statute as an independent think tank. It published in 1991 an excellent monograph by Raymond Cohen titled Negotiating Across Cultures. It quotes one authority as saying that culture “consists in patterned ways of thinking, feeling and reaction, acquired and transmitted mainly by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (ie, historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values”.
The history of diplomacy is strewn with instances of misunderstandings because of differences of culture. In 1918, the Germans thought that they had Russia by their throats, driving Trotsky to wire Lenin for permission to attend a meeting in formal attire. Lenin’s response was crisp. “Go in a petticoat if necessary.”
Closer home, a fateful misunderstanding was recorded by the distinguished Pakistani diplomat, the late S. Iftikhar Murshed in his very informative book Afghanistan: Taliban Years. He records a meeting between the Taliban chief Mullah Omar and the visiting Saudi envoy Prince Turki in 1998 at which Murshed was present. After pleasantries, Turki asked that Osama bin Laden be handed over in fulfilment of an earlier promise. Omar’s denial of such a promise drove Turki to be rude. Omar’s response was a wild retort and “he went out into the courtyard in front of us and … poured a bucket of cold water over his head”. Mutual charges of lying led to a collapse of the talks. Turki should have known better.
The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.
Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2021