While the audience perched on gilt chairs in one of the embassy’s gracious reception rooms, three tough young men who looked like clip-joint bouncers rather than members of Iran’s delegation to the non-aligned nations’ foreign ministers’ conference made it clear that brotherhood and peace were not why they were in Delhi. They wanted the expulsion of Afghanistan, Iraq and Egypt from the nonaligned movement, not to mention the overthrow of all three administrations. What then of the possibility of peace talks on Afghanistan? Said the
delegate with the broken nose: “We will talk to representatives of the people, not representatives of the puppet regime.”
That effectively was the end of a diplomatic coup that Indira Gandhi’s government had been hoping would celebrate last week’s conference and the movement’s 20th anniversary. Even the consolation prize—bilateral talks between Pakistan, the other nation directly affected by the Afghan crisis, and the Babrak Karmal regime—went begging. Pakistan’s suave foreign minister, Agha Shahi, insisted (while his aides complained about the quality of his hotel suite) that if Iran wasn’t prepared to join the negotiations, there would be no talks at all. United Nations SecretaryGeneral Kurt Waldheim, who flew in for the birthday celebrations, had separate meetings with Shahi and the Afghan representative, Shah Mohammed Dost, but failed to bridge the gap. Instead, he nominated a senior UN man for the thankless task of trying to get something going.
And so the Afghans were left playing the unaccustomed role of injured party. “No one should doubt our sincerity to hold talks,” Dost told the conference later. “It is not our fault that some of our neighbors under different pretexts try their best to hinder a constructive solution of the existing problems.” However, most Western diplomats, and many in the nonaligned movement itself, privately doubted whether the Afghan-Soviet penchant for peace talks was motivated by anything more substantial than conference politics: an attempt to avert a declaration in Delhi that condemned the Soviet Union by name for its presence in Afghanistan. Moves to this end began several weeks ago when the Soviets appeared to drop their demand for recognition of the Karmal regime as a precondition for negotiations. Moscow’s ambassador to Pakistan, Vitaly Smirnov, conveyed this
message to the foreign ministry in Islamabad, where it was immediately regarded as an important concession. Karmal then expressed his willingness to meet under UN auspices.
Indian diplomats were quickly en route to capitals of major nonaligned countries to argue that a condemnation of Moscow in Delhi would not help the embryonic settlement. Signs that Moscow was again muddying the waters went almost unnoticed as a result of these peregrinations. But soon after the original moves, the Soviet embassy in London was quietly casting doubts on whether the Kremlin had in fact made any concession. East European sources added that dropping the demand for recognition of the Karmal regime would be tantamount to an admission that Moscow had committed aggression in Afghanistan.
Against this background it was inevitable that last week’s conference should end in stalemate, and it duly did. After days of semantic wrangling, the final declaration called for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, without saying whose. But this did not signal the end of talks. The Pakistanis have to deal with realities: the Soviet army across the border and large numbers of Afghan refugees in their territory. The refugees are having a destabilizing effect on the shaky Pakistani federation. They are militant and armed. They compete for grazing land, water, jobs and scarce resources. In addition, last year saw incursions into Pakistani territory by Soviet helicopter gunships. Pakistan is the headquarters for most of the rival Islamic guerrilla groups and a conduit for an unknown quantity of arms supplied to the rebels from countries like Egypt. There have been warnings from Moscow and Kabul that Pakistan will suffer if this state of affairs is allowed to continue. As such implications sink home, the Pakistanis will increasingly be obliged to reassess their position —with or without Iran.
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