Crossroads of Trauma

Excerpt from "Scenesetter for Your Visit to Islamabad: Afghan Angle"

U.S. Embassy (Islamabad) Cable to Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel, "Scenesetter for Your Visit to Islamabad: Afghan Angle" (January 16, 1997), 7, available online at National Security Archive.

While Afghanistan suffered tremendously during the 1980s and early 1990s, the ramifications of the PDPA regime and the Soviet invasion for the broader region have proven bitter, too. The Afghan War played a minimal role in the collapse of the USSR itself - a discrediting of Soviet ideology and separatist movements, in Russian in particular, were what proved fatal - but the collapse of the Soviet Union created an archipelago of unstable, economically anaemic, landlocked states to Afghanistan's north, complicating efforts to anchor the country in regional trade networks. Iran, which for a brief period in the mid-1970s had seemed poised to become a major aid donor to Afghanistan, became engulfed in a massive war of attrition against Saddam Hussein, while the tortured relationship between Washington and Tehran - in spite of surprisingly similar strategic goals in Afghanistan - has made it difficult for the West to find a working relationship with Iran.

Pakistan was, Afghanistan itself excepted, the country most touched by the war; like Iran, it had millions of refugees on its hands and the country was awash in weapons. But these costs were the flip side of a massive, if largely unintentional, strategic achievement won by Zia ul-Haq and the Pakistani military-intelligence apparatus during the 1970s and 1980s. The vision of Pashtunistan - once fearsome advocated for by Zahir Shah and Daoud, and seemingly a real threat as internal Pashtun and Baluch separatism threatened Islamabad - had been largely defanged. The former putative core territories of "Pashtunistan" - Helmand, Paktia, Jalalabad - lay in ruins, objects of a civil war between several Afghan factions. Making things sweeter for Pakistan was the fact that, by the mid-1990s, so-called Taliban from southern Afghanistan had taken control of most of the country, massacring Shi'a in particular but also subjecting Afghans to a bizarre neo-medievalist form of government as they conquered more territory. 

Traumatic Layers in South & Central Asia

Layers of trauma in South and Central Asia: this map, generated in ARCMap, constitutes of an overlay of a "heat map" of the Death Lists on top of maps showing the population displacements throughout the region from Afghanistan in the 1980s.

While the Taliban continued to ransack the country - perhaps most famously so in a 1998 massacre of Shi'a Hazaras and members of the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i Sharif - a US diplomat concisely summed up the payoff for Islamabad in a memo a year prior: "For Pakistan, a Taliban-based government in Kabul would be as good as it can get in Afghanistan. Even though the Taliban is a Pashtoon movement, they do not seem to covet that part of a 'Pakhtunistan' that would lie on Pakistan’s side of the Durand Line. Thus the ethnic factor under a Taliban-based government would be a positive, rather than a negative as in the past."

Indeed, with no end in sight to the war in Afghanistan, evidence that Pakistani intelligence agencies and even the Pakistani military continues to support anti-government forces in Afghanistan, and Iran's continued pariah status in the world writ large, one could argue that the region was irrevocably changed by the events of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Shattering Afghanistan has sought to examine the clouded and traumatic history of that period, but it remains to be seen whether the region's future will be any less troubled. One can only hope that future generations of historians of the region - ideally in conversation with their Iranian, Afghan, and Pakistani counterparts - have happier subjects about which to write.

Crossroads of Trauma