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Forty years of war is what Afghanistan has been through, courtesy of American and Soviet imperialism. This was preceded by a century of war thanks to the rivalry between the British and Russian Empires. Even as the Taliban seized city after city, cries resounded in the media of justice endangered, violence against women and human rights. But surely the Taliban is itself a product of the West that rendered Afghanistan a zone in which war and strife became the everyday, rather than the exception?
The Pakistani General Zia-ul-Haq had created a wall of madrasas to keep out the “infection” of the Iranian Revolution after 1979. As is well known, talib means student in Pashto. The religious seminaries gave birth to a dominantly Pashtun movement, largely funded by Saudi Arabia and motivated by a vision of a Sharia-based polity in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban were incubated in these madrasas and socialised into an ultra-reformist, ultra-purist Deobandi ideology. As Barbara Metcalf points out, Deoband means one thing in India but something altogether different in Pakistan and has undergone a further transmutation in Afghanistan.
In India, Deoband stood against the politics of Jinnah’s Muslim League and the Partition with its famous dictum of muttahida qaumiyat or qaum watan se hai – the idea that community derives from the nation. In Pakistan, Deoband was anti-Shi’a and anti-Ahmadiyya and in Afghanistan, Deoband became salafi. The Taliban superimposed itself on the nationalist struggle of the mujahidin against the brutal presence of the Soviet army. It had obtained the massive military support of the US.
Since historical memory has been largely obliterated, a recapitulation of conflict, old and new, is not amiss. What colonial modernity ignored, to begin with, was the pre-modern nature of the Afghan state formation, which had enabled it to accomplish a divided and polycentric sovereignty; the product of a clan-based society. What the UK and later the US attempted was to force a centralised monarchical polity on an ethnicised, tribal society.
Hardship has been a second major feature of this country at the frontier of Central and South Asia. Much of it comprises a cold desert that incorporates the Hindu Kush mountains, with peaks touching the sky at 20,000 feet, but it also includes what is called the ‘desert of death’. Landlocked and without access to the seas, Afghanistan is bounded in the north by the Amu Darya, the famous Oxus river and in the south by the Kabul river, but is open to world conquest and to the religions of the world.
Afghanistan has been a revolving door, as J.P.S. Uberoi famously put it. It brought in Alexander’s Greek army as well as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Johannes Bronkhorst describes the Hindu presence in Afghanistan through Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Gandhari, the queen of King Dhritarashtra and the mother of the Kauravas in the Mahabharata, came from Gandhara in present day northwest Pakistan. Naman Ahuja, the historian and curator of many grand exhibitions, describes Gandhara as a “confluence of cultures”.
Lest we romanticise the confluence of cultures, we might go to a section of Bronkhorst’s book, How the Brahmins Won titled ‘Catastrophe’. This section describes the violence faced by the Brahmins of Greater Gandhara at the hands of the Macedonian empire and, subsequently, by the Mauryan empire. In Gandhara, Brahmins were “slaughtered without mercy” by the Greeks and the Shakas.
Following Brahmin revolts in Takshashila (later called Taxila), as Bronkhorst details, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka intervened and his son, Kunala was deputed, leading to massacres and enslavement to the extent that Brahmins became nearly extinct. Gandhara declined as a centre of Brahmanical culture and became a region that Brahmins avoided. The centre of Brahmanism thereupon moved from the west to the east between Alexander’s invasion and the beginning of the ‘Common Era’, with Brahmins either migrating or fleeing.
Buddhism thrived in the first millennium, both in the northwest and the east of the subcontinent. The Bamiyan, those gigantic Buddhas whose demolition the Taliban became infamous for – after all, even the Ghurids and the Ghaznavids had left them untouched – are testimony to the Buddhist footprint. Indeed, it was monks and pilgrims who travelled through the region, including Faxian and Xuanzang in the fifth and seventh centuries respectively. Knowledge thrived in this cosmopolis, fostered by the Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit linguistic cultures.
Afghan cities were renowned. Balkh, which prospered from being on the Silk Road, was devastated by the Mongols and later rebuilt by Timur. Ghur and Ghazna were the capitals of the Ghurid and the Ghaznavid empires. As Finbarr Barry Flood’s work on the Ghurid sultanate of the 12th century brings out, its focus on idolatry and unbelief in Ghurid epigraphy was part of a contemporary intra-Sunni polemic; the Ghurids were influenced by the Karamiyya, an ambiguous Sunni pietistic sect known for its fervent hostility towards Ismaili Shi’ism. The Ghurid campaigns in the Indian subcontinent were preceded by an attack on the centres of Nizari Ismailism that hosted the da’wa (mission).
Nonetheless, the Sufis were deeply influenced by the Ismailis, including the iconic Pir Shams. Chisht, near Herat, saw the birth of the Chishtiyya Sufi lineage in the tenth century and was home to the greatest Sufi of the subcontinent, Mu’in al-Din, who brought its teachings to India. Sufic ideas of love and living together vied with the violence that was an intrinsic aspect of an Afghan society characterised by the feud between clans.
The political, however, underwent a major transformation with modern empires. It is in Rudyard Kipling’s writing that the ‘great game’ is foregrounded; the rivalry between Russia and Britain in Central Asia that led to the Anglo-Afghan wars: the first from 1839-1842; the second from 1878-80; and the third in 1919. Kipling’s novel Kim takes place against the backdrop of the Second Afghan War as Kim travels with a Buddhist lama on Ashoka’s Grand Trunk Road.
Kipling, who is regarded as the ‘high priest’ of imperialism in postcolonial writing, actually wrote in an inscription to the first chapter of Kim:
Oh ye who tread the Narrow Way
By Tophet-flare to Judgment Day,
Be gentle when the heathen pray
To Buddha at Kamakura!
But the ‘narrow way’, the modern idea of religion, had already begun to prevail in much of the world. Kipling, however, was aware of the many cultures of Greater Gandhara being excavated at Peshawar and the Svat Valley at the time. His father had been curator of the Lahore Museum, with a collection of Greco-Buddhist (and Afghani) sculptures that continue to be the “pride” of the museum.
With the ‘new great game’ of the late 20th century, the US and the USSR made Afghanistan a concentrated zone of the Cold War. The collaboration between politicians and the CIA brought out in the film Charlie Wilson’s War carries a lesson for promoters of realpolitik!
The archives of Osama bin Laden, retrieved by the CIA from Abbottabad after his capture and partly declassified by the CIA in 2017, tell an extraordinary story. Nelly Lahoud’s article in Foreign Affairs details bin Laden’s declaration of jihad in his 1996 statement known as the “Ladenese Epistles”. The statement which first galvanised Muslim youths as he lamented those whose “blood has been spilled” in Chechnya, Iraq, Kashmir and Bosnia and his vision of a new world order, beyond American hegemony and the nation-state system.
The September 11, 2001 attack on the twin towers led to the “war on terror” which became a war against Afghanistan and Iraq, both deeply flawed as the archival correspondence brings out.
The bombing of Afghanistan was against the Taliban, which had harboured Al Qaeda and its chief. But bin Laden had already been sidelined as a new generation of leadership had taken charge within Al Qaeda. The terrorist group was, in any case, crippled and in no position to wage any kind of war against the West. Further, it had been overtaken by far more radical and militarised organisations and their leaders, such as Daesh or ISIS. The war against Iraq had been based on fictional ‘weapons of mass destruction’.
What is the combined toll of the so-called Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana? The partitions of India and Palestine (and Ireland), the denial of Palestinian statehood, the displacement of the Bedouin peoples by progressive sedentarisation, the ruin of entire civilisational regions, the transformation of peoples into perpetual refugees and the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children!
It was once possible for Afghanistan to be the home of the non-violent Pathans, the Khudai Khidmatgars, who fought for freedom against the British empire but felt enormously let down by the Indian partition. The Taliban are at the threshold of a new historical moment and face many challenges. Will governance domesticate the hitherto violent aspects of their rule? Can they transmute to a truly civil society that will respect Afghan minorities, women and even the musicians that Afghan culture is famous for? Further, will the world of modern muscle-flexing states allow the region to find a semblance of peace, finally?
Shail Mayaram is the author of the forthcoming book The Secret Life of Another Indian Nationalism: Transitions from the Pax Britannica to the Pax Americana, published by Cambridge University Press.