529. Airgram From the Embassy in Afghanistan to the Department of State1



  • Interview with Dr. Abdul Zaher, Deputy Prime Minister

Dr. Abdul Zaher became Deputy Prime Minister during my absence in the United States. I thought it fitting to call on him as a matter of courtesy in connection with his new responsibilities after my return to Kabul. Dr. Zaher’s long acquaintance with the United States in connection with his medical training there has always inspired him to retain a very lively and sympathetic interest in the United States. He therefore was interested in talking at some length about the recent U.S. domestic political scene, the outcome of the elections, etc.

The conversation then turned to the current scene in Afghanistan. I remarked that, while gratified with many of the signs of progress and current developments in Afghanistan, I could not help but be concerned over the RGA’s greatest problem—the financial crisis. We [Page 1048] talked at some length as to what was causing the current instability, the dangers of inflation and the measures which I had heard were being taken to solve the current problems.

During the period when Dr. Zaher was President of the National Assembly, his very sympathetic ear was one that could be used to express certain opinions that one would hesitate to present to certain others less sympathetically inclined. One of these subjects that I have discussed with Dr. Zaher in the past was Afghanistan’s military posture. In connection with their financial straits, this subject arose again. With some apology in talking about a delicate matter, I pointed out to him that a good bit of their budgetary difficulties now were undoubtedly being caused by the heavy commitments the RGA was making both to current and projected military plans and development. I expressed the view that although one could well understand progressive measures to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of forces whose responsibility it was to maintain good internal security, the outside observer could not help but wonder what justification there could be for vast sums being spent for the latest model of fighters, tanks and missiles which were of dubious use. Afghanistan’s posture was one of maintaining the protective coloring of neutrality. Their policy was one of the reconciliation and amicability with all of their neighbors. While this posture was understandable, it was difficult to reconcile this stance with continuing high expenditure on arms. The exercise became all the more questionable when it was quite obvious that lack of budget and facilities often meant that this sophisticated equipment deteriorated sitting in place. What therefore was the purpose and how could Afghanistan possibly get itself out of its financial difficulties with these obligations staring them in the face?

In response I was treated to a rather unusual performance by Dr. Zaher. His attitude could well be explained that now being Deputy Prime Minister he must hew to the accepted line, but he pointed out with some emotional fervor that Pakistan’s unfriendly attitude unwilling to cease and desist in its program of bringing under complete control the tribal areas Afghanistan simply had to be prepared for any eventuality. He felt that if Pakistan went so far as to take punitive action against any of the tribal people within Afghan territory, they simply could not be left impotent. At this point in the conversation I quickly recalled that Colonel Abdul Wali2 had used the same argument with me some months previously. Dr. Zaher’s argument was largely based upon the political necessity of showing their people so exercised [Page 1049] over the Pushtunistan issue3 that they were physically ready to retaliate should Pakistan take extreme steps. No amount of persuasion or argument could budge him. I pointed out the ultimate folly which would result from preparing for an unfriendly confrontation with Pakistan rather than devoting themselves to the further advancement of the already begun thawing processes and the dialogue which could bring about understanding. While he agreed to this in theory, he felt that gestures from Pakistan plus the step-up in Pakistan’s armed strength left Afghanistan with no alternative but to be in a position to offer at least token resistance. I, of course, discussed with Dr. Zaher at some length where such a program would lead. It would make them more dependent upon the Soviets, who were the suppliers of this hardware. It was hardly a practical view of the future (in view of Afghanistan’s neutrality) to look upon this type of alignment with any equanimity. I made some reference to the fact that some of the recent happenings, such as the Cairo Conference4 and Afghanistan’s activity in the United Nations on the Congo,5 looked dangerously like Afghanistan’s becoming more unneutral. This latter subject he simply refused to discuss.

At the conclusion of the discussion in which I pointed out to him the grave danger of becoming too beholden to the Soviets, I asked him if this were a price that the Afghans would eventually be willing to pay in order to carry on their stiff posture toward the south. He replied rather gravely, “We wouldn’t, but our successors would.” He went on to explain that no government in Kabul could possibly exist without giving real substantive support to the Pushtunistan issue. If they were ever overthrown for slipping in their fidelity to the national purpose, radicals would take over from them and might indeed be just that unwise. In summation, he pointed out to me that as I well knew Afghanistan passionately desired U.S. support, sympathy and understanding. He said they had the same attitude towards Germany and were now hopeful of getting more sympathetic treatment from Great Britain. He alluded to past history in pointing out that the United States [Page 1050] had not been as forthcoming with Afghanistan as we might have been while we were arming Pakistan to the teeth. They really had no alternative but to look after their selfish interests.

While his attitude throughout was extremely cordial and we parted on a very friendly note, I did come away with the impression that I had never had a more serious presentation of this feeling from a person of Dr. Zaher’s nature who before has been much more flexible in his viewpoint. He may have been speaking as the new Deputy Prime Minister, he may have been talking to me in the hopes that word of their determined stand would filter back into Pakistan or he may have been speaking again as the frontiersman, which he is, from a province bordering on Pakistan, but whatever the reason, he revealed a firmness and a dedication to the so-called Pushtunistan issue such as I had never received from him before.

JM Steeves
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, POL 1 AFG. Confidential. Drafted on December 24 by Ambassador Steeves. Repeated to Karachi.
  2. Colonel Abdul Wali, the King’s son-in-law and Chief of Staff of the Afghan Central Forces.
  3. The Pushtunistan issue, which had troubled relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan since the creation of Pakistan, involved a dispute over the future of the Pushtun tribes living along the Pakistan side of the boundary between the two countries. Afghanistan’s continued advocacy of self-determination or statehood for these people had been consistently opposed by Pakistan.
  4. The Second Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Counties, held in Cairo on October 5–10 called for the United States to lift its commercial and economic blockade of Cuba and negotiate the evacuation of Guantanamo Naval Base. The text of the Cairo declaration is printed in American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1964, pp. 691–698.
  5. On December 1 Afghanistan joined 21 other countries in requesting an urgent meeting of the Security Council to discuss the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo caused by the military rescue operation launched in Stanleyville and in other parts of the Congo by Belgium and the United States. (UN doc. S/6076 and Add. 1–5)