Why is fighting against Afghan tribals such a fatal attraction?
Views and opinions on what to do in Afghanistan will invariably be many, and conflicted. It is preferable, therefore, bank on plain, oft-forgotten or ignored facts to visualise the future east of Suez and what magnet landlocked Afghanistan holds for America. And for that matter what that tribal society has meant for a series of empires in the past.
While apparently incomparable, the “two As” (America & Afghanistan) are a study in glaring contrast and visible contradiction. Taken together, they’re poles apart. No common ground on history, geography, culture, economics, religion, philosophy, anthropology, contiguity, tradition… But Afghanistan continues to mesmerise the United States, even after almost 16 years of bloodshed since Sunday, October 7, 2001, when the US launched a war to evict the Taliban from Kabul in the wake of 9/11.
Afghanistan has fatally attracted many others in the past — troops came from the banks of the Thames to the Jhelum; from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya to the Volga! It never stopped. It was invaded by fighters from the Mississipi-Missouri river valley and the Danube, Murray and Darling, and missiles hurled at it from the sea and sky. The Afghan bug-afflicted US President, Donald Trump, now wants to pitch tent in Kabul. He was convinced by the Pentagon, after being shown 1972 pictures of Afghan women wearing miniskirts. Mr Trump was also convinced by his military experts that India’s proximity to Pashtuns makes it a preferred partner to tackle the situation in Pakistan-Afghan border region of Paktika, Helmand, Kandahar, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Khost and Kabul.
But the question remains: why do people from distant lands get hooked to landlocked Afghanistan’s 2.90 crore people — comprising 42 per cent Pashtun, 27 per cent Tajik, nine per cent Hazara, nine per cent Uzbek, four per cent Chahar Aimak, and three per cent Turkmen? With an area of 65,2864 sq km; a population density of 110.8 persons per square mile; 25 per cent urban and 75 per cent rural; sex distribution of 51 per cent male to 49 per cent female; 70 per cent of the population under 29; 99 per cent Muslim; a total fertility rate of almost six children per woman; more than 30 per cent unemployed; 43.1 per cent male and 12.6 per cent female literacy; poor communications; pathetic infrastructure and a terror-breeding terrain of multiple intra- and inter-ethnic conflict, it can easily be called a land of ceaseless violence, endless forced-migration and unending hostility. But it is also inhabited by a warm, hospitable people who welcomes guests, friends and non-interfering outsiders and tourists.
The inner voice of war-ravaged, traditional Afghans is likely to run on these lines: “We are Afghans. We have our own history (turbulent most of the time), culture, tradition… We love to live on our own terms, without external interference, in accordance with our wishes. We are a tribal and traditional, patriarchal, male-dominated society. That is what we are, and that’s the way we have been. Leave us alone. Live and let live. Don’t try fiddle with our system, or try find fault with it. We hate it. Beyond a point, we don’t tolerate it, and don’t hesitate to fight to kill, or get killed, for what we believe. You are welcome to enjoy our hospitality and friendship as a guest. But don’t sermonise, dictate or impose your will on us… We Afghans do know how to respect others. Do reciprocate, and give us respect too, and maintain a healthy distance. We appreciate, and always return, honour and respect. We love our freedom of thought, action, belief.”
Given this, the US President’s decision to deploy more troops and stay on till victory in the “Fifth Afghan War” (First Anglo-Afghan war 1839-1842; Second Anglo-Afghan war 1878-1880; Third Anglo-Afghan war 1919; Fourth Soviet-Afghan war 1979-1989) requires scrutiny.
The United States is indisputably the world’s only superpower today, despite troubling developments at home. With a GDP $16 trillion-plus, over 50 overseas bases, a fleet of 11 aircraft-carriers, a population of 330 million, a mega military-industrial complex and a real-time global intelligence-gathering system from space and sea, the US presence in Afghanistan is like a “Gulliver in the land of little people”. But the question that still needs to be asked, though no answers may be forthcoming, is this: Why is fighting against Afghan tribals such a fatal attraction? Is it owing to location or position? Untapped raw material? To nip terror havens in the bud? To keep track of Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, India and landlocked Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan? Or to experiment new war incendiaries in a remote, barren terrain? To control the drugs of southeast Afghanistan’s Helmand? To teach lessons to the warlords and drug lords of Kabul?
There are no answers from Washington. But the issue has acquired some importance in India as Mr Trump wants New Delhi to play a bigger role in Kabul to help the United States. Does this imply a changed role for India internationally, or is it a restoration of the old hyphenation of Afghanistan-Pakistan-India — as done by previous US Presidents?
The issue may not be as simple as it looks. Landlocked Afghanistan is like a playing field for the Pakistan Army and the ISI – spanning polity to economics, coups to assassinations, drugging foreign soldiers from Moscow and Washington to make profit for its officers. In juxtaposition, it is the bewildering maze of Afghanistan’s eternal “conflict situation”. First, the intra-tribe individual conflict (cousin versus cousin being the most prominent). Second, intra-tribal feud between Durrani Popalzai (to which former President Hamid Karzai belongs) and Durrani Barakzai, which fought for power in the 19th century. Third, the inter-tribal fight between tribes of same ethnic group — Durrani versus Ghilzai. Fourth, inter-tribe fight involving two tribes of different ethnic groups — Hazara versus Pashtun. And fifth, the familiar Afghanistan, as seen even now — the perennial conflict between one or more tribes versus whosoever is in power in Kabul.
How can India really help —beyond the significant role it is already playing in the development of Afghanistan, where its neighbours like Pakistan and increasingly China are operating more stealthily. India can certainly play a bigger part in the Afghan economy, and offer more assistance, but what it must never — ever — do is to send troops to fight on Afghan soil or to militarily support any other power that does so. Every foreigner who fights Afghans on Afghan soil becomes a permanent enemy of the Afghan people, and history has shown how hostile they can be.
In earlier centuries, they have even ruled over India. Sher Shah, the Lodhis, Nadir Shah, Ahmad Shah Abdali — all have ruled over and looted India. Both Soviet and American troops, in different decades, were drugged to decimation by cunning Sino-Pakistani shadow operators. That is why India shouldn’t fall into the same trap of direct intervention. There are already too many “live fronts” on our borders; opening up another one is a prelude to disaster.