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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 4    Issue 10   01-15 October 2009

Lessons of history: Spirit of defiance lives on in a land no outsider has tamed

By Ben Macintyre

Soviet soldiers begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989

In 1992, in the presidential palace in Kabul, I interviewed Mohammed Najibullah, the brutal former secret police chief who with Soviet backing had been installed as President of Afghanistan six years earlier. A huge man, nicknamed “the Ox of Kabul”, Najibullah was politely menacing and supremely confident. Resistance by the US-backed Mujahidin was petering out, he insisted. Afghanistan would soon be a land at peace.

Two months later he was ousted from power and took sanctuary in the UN compound. He would later be dragged out of hiding by the troops of the Taleban, tortured, castrated and hanged from a lamppost in the Kabul bazaar.

Afghan history has a way of humbling the men who would be king, those who try to rule and subdue it, and Afghanistan has provided a graveyard for successive foreign armies. Cue the Kipling:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains And the women come out, to cut up what remains Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains And go to your Gawd like a soldier.

The country has never been permanently conquered or colonised and no external power has held long-term sway here; then again, no internal power has ever controlled Afghanistan for long, either. Home to 50 ethnic or sub-tribal groups, 34 languages and 27 million people, the country’s internecine feuds and counterfeuds — ethnic, clannish and impenetrable to outsiders — run through Afghan society like veins through marble.

“The Pathan tribes are always engaged in private or public war,” wrote Winston Churchill, who had direct experience of Afghan hospitality and ferocity as part of Sir Bindon Blood’s expedition against the Pathans in 1897. “Every family cultivates its vendetta; every clan, its feud.”

The accident of geography and the scars of history have preserved an almost medieval attitude to honour, violence, tribe and family. For far too many, fighting is a way of life, and one of the only thriving Afghan industries, other than opium. Only when an invader appears do the Afghans combine, briefly, to throw him out. In 330BC Alexander the Great subdued Persia and entered Afghanistan, reaching as far as Samarkand, now in Uzbekistan, fighting the ferocious tribes all the way. Struck by an Afghan arrow, he barely got out alive, leaving behind his name, Kandahar, in Afghanistan’s second city, but little in the way of political control. After Alexander came the White Huns, the Persians, and the Mongols in 1219, under Genghis Khan, who laid waste to once-great cities, slaughtered fantastically and wrecked the country’s irrigation system, leaving permanent deserts.

By 1700, the Mughals had imposed their power on most of what is now Afghanistan, and in the 1740s Ahmad Shah Durrani extended his rule from Kabul to Peshawar and then on to Delhi, Kashmir and Sind. On his death the empire bloodily fragmented.

The first Briton of note to arrive, in 1808, was a Scot named Mountstuart Elphinstone. Clever, courageous and slightly bonkers, he was sent to coax the “King of Caubul” into an alliance against Napoleon. No one really expected him to return. His conclusions have an eerie modern resonance: “The societies into which the nation is divided possess within themselves a principle of repulsion and disunion too strong to be overcome.”

The empire of Queen Victoria, however, was not to be held back. Fearing Russian encroachment on India from the north, in 1839 it was decided to oust the incumbent Emir of Kabul and replace him with a puppet potentate. The Army of the Indus rolled in for what was expected to be a simple exercise in regime change: 9,500 soldiers of the Bengal Army, 9,000 Bombay or native troops under the once and future Afghan king Shah Shujah, and 38,000 followers. One brigadier needed 60 camels just to carry his personal belongings. Another took a pack of foxhounds. It was, said one observer, a “grand military promenade”. It was also a major gambit in what Kipling dubbed the Great Game, and it was an unmitigated disaster.

Installed in Kabul, the British formally declared “an end to the distractions by which, for so many years, the welfare and happiness of the Afghans have been impaired”. The tribes swiftly rebelled, resentment at foreign incursion compounded by the licentious British soldiery. According to the official military historian of the time, “the attractions of the women of Caubul they did not know how to resist”. The truth is, they didn’t try. In January 1842, the British were forced into pell-mell retreat with 16,000 soldiers, camp followers, women and children struggling through the icy passes in an attempt to reach the safety of Jalalabad. Those who survived the Afghan snipers starved or froze to death. Just one man staggered into Jalalabad, Dr William Brydon, with part of his skull removed by an Afghan sword. The Victorian press made Brydon a hero. The Afghans later claimed that he had been allowed to survive as a warning to the foreign invader: leave, and never return.

The warning was not heeded. The First Anglo-Afghan War was followed by a second, in 1878, when the emir refused to receive a British diplomatic mission. About 40,000 troops marched in and eventually installed Abdur Rahman Khan, who delegated conduct of foreign relations to Britain.

After yet another Anglo-Afghan war, in 1917, independence arrived in 1919. A period of relative tranquillity came with the accession of King Zahir Shah in 1933. He was deposed in 1973, leading to another period of political meltdown, culminating in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979: the New Great Game, the violent manipulation of Afghanistan for geopolitical gain, had returned with a vengeance.

The US responded by arming the insurgents. By 1985 a limited Soviet expeditionary force had swelled to an occupation army of 120,000 troops. A year later the CIA began supplying the Mujahidin with Stinger missiles, which they learnt to use with devastating effect. In February 1989 the Soviet forces pulled out; officially they left 15,000 dead, but the real figure was far higher. At least a million Afghans had perished, with about six million driven into exile. The warlords tore one another to pieces and a period of roiling anarchy came to an end only with the arrival of the black-robed Taleban. The world’s most repressive religious regime created peace, of a sort, but also a haven for terrorism. With the September 11 attacks, the wheel turned again: British and American military muscle propelled the Northern Alliance into Kabul and placed Hamid Karzai in the presidency.

In 2002, I interviewed Zahir Shah, the former King, in the same presidential palace where I had met the doomed Najibullah ten years earlier. After four decades of comfortable exile in Italy, the elderly Mr Shah had returned as “Father of the Nation”, a powerless figurehead of unity. It was a year after the invasion. Jumpy American bodyguards armed with machineguns patrolled the palace corridors. Mr Karzai’s power extended barely beyond the outskirts of Kabul.

Sitting in a room warmed by a single-bar electric heater, the former King talked of Afghanistan’s turbulent past and fragile present. At the age of 18 he saw his father assassinated. At 59 he was toppled from his throne by his cousin. At 88 he was back. The Taleban, he insisted, were a spent force; Osama bin Laden would soon be captured.

For alongside the other, grim aspects of Afghanistan’s past — the history of bloodletting, instability and fierce independence — is another national characteristic, imbued by centuries of hardship: a gritty, unshakeable optimism.

“When I came back to this palace, I passed a garden and there was little boy,” said the man who had been King. “He was charming. That gave me much hope.”

(Source: The Times, September 26, 2009)

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