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Smile of the alien within

August 01, 2013

‘Wo ghareeb dil ko sabaq miley ki khushi ke naam se dar gaya; Kabhi tum ne hans ke jo baat ki to hamara chehra utar gaya.’ (The trauma of your betrayals, inflicted year upon year; Turned your promise of togetherness into a lurking fear.)

The Urdu couplet rather nicely applies to the essential Afghan conundrum though it may have been written in an entirely different context.

I was looking for some background material on Afghanistan given Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s possible visit to Pakistan and perhaps even to Kabul some time soon. As often happens in the labyrinth of the internet I found myself scouring the absorbing US military website CALL — Centre for Army Lessons Learnt.

Many of the lessons learnt or not learnt involved Afghanistan. There were analytical features, experiences and expert opinions assembled on the pages by military and civilian professionals.

One such article began with a thesis on the predominantly Shia concept of taqqiyah or dissimulation, which the author described as “plain, right-out lying”. The author tried to apply it to other, non-Shia, sects of Afghans.

The thesis began with a quotation from Abu al Darda, who was among the first converts to Islam. “We smile for some people, while our hearts curse,” Darda is quoted as having said. The ancient words set the backdrop to palpable contemporary mistrust that foreign forces apparently harbour towards the Afghans and vice versa.

What the author didn’t observe though was that Darda’s own preachings focused on the insignificance of worldly wealth and the minor details of life.

According to him, this life was comparable to a loan. How were military forces representing a compulsive consumerist ideology going to marshal the destiny of a people who may own and embrace Darda’s mystical worldview bereft of market-sponsored greed?

An article by a US air force colonel exuded frustration at not being able to win over the Pakhtun populations against the Taliban. The people’s reluctance to join the battle was given the label of the ‘battered spouse syndrome’. A conversation between an American army captain and a village elder was used to stress the point.

“We cannot come closer to you. We have no security. The Afghan forces and International Security Assistance Force come occasionally and only stay for a little time. When they leave, the Taliban come in and hurt us because they think we are cooperating with you,” the village elder explained.

“What if we arm your men and pay you to protect yourselves?” the young American captain asked.

“Ridiculous. They would kill us.”

“How many Taliban come in at a time?”

“10 to 20.”

“How many men could we arm, who could fight and protect you?” “250.”

“So, why do you say we can’t arm you to protect yourselves? 250 is a lot more than 10 or 20.”

“Because the Taliban will kill us.”

Regardless of whether the dialogue depicts a battered spouse syndrome or not, there is a marked cluelessness it betrays on how some foreign forces intend to tame or subdue an alien culture militarily.

Village elders in Zabul had convinced themselves, according to the author, that despite facts to the contrary, the insurgents possessed almost superhuman capabilities.

The American officer’s response was one of frustration laced with rage. “While the elders’ words and actions signified broad, passive support for the insurgents, the shame and humiliation they felt at the hands of insurgent treatment was also evident. We were not seeing the fiercely independent and aggressive Afghan. Could this really be the ‘Graveyard of Empires’?

“We were not seeing great men of honour. Could this really be the land of Pashtunwali — the unwritten code of conduct that places such an emphasis on honour? Clearly, significant gaps existed between Afghan behaviours described in books and in our training and how Afghans actually behaved.”

As they prepare to wind down their controversial combat operations in Afghanistan, American troops, it becomes evident from a cursory reading of CALL strategies, have been leaning on desperate survival kits, including failed colonial prescriptions from British adventures in Kandahar.

A 1933 British view of the Afghan character was quoted in a CALL article thus: “The Afghan character is a strange blend of virtue and vice. Hardy, brave, proud, simple in their mode of living, frank, prepared to die in accordance with their code of honour yet faithless and treacherous; generous to a degree yet devoured by greed for money; capable of great endurance and of feats of great energy but constitutionally lazy; merry, cheerful, humorous and fond of music yet inclined to be austere.

“Cupidity, instability, a suspicious nature, intense jealousy, bitter vindictiveness, excitability, impatience, want of self-control and a complete disregard for truth form the chief characteristics of the Afghan nature. They are capable of strong personal attachments but never forget a wrong.”

I am not sure if Machiavelli, Sun Tzu or Chanakya would have prescribed a different military strategy to the one practised by Afghan fighters, first against the Soviet Union and later on the US. Deception seems to be a key factor in war, whether it’s a guerrilla campaign or a conventional military assault.

Historical lenses focus on the British, Soviet, and other military failures inside Afghanistan, and would spawn a view of Afghans rebelling against centralised government or foreign influence, unwilling to be marshalled or tamed.

One lesson that the America’s military and the civilian establishments may have failed to learn is that they need not travel to a remote Golgotha to probe the mystery of a deceptive smile. Just look at Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to rediscover the anger and turmoil within.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi