IF there is any country in the world that is entitled to adopt the phoenix as its national symbol, it is Afghanistan.
Consider. It has suffered a history of gratuitous devastation, ever since the ill-fated foray by the British Army of the Indus in 1839. Despite the ravages caused by the British during the 19th century, by 1900 its amir retained enough authority to treat the British Agent at Kabul with humiliating condescension. My ancestor Fakir Iftikharuddin served as British Agent at Kabul from 1907-1910. He complained to his government that his life was “very unpleasant and uncomfortable ... no one is allowed to meet him or to talk to him”. “In fact,” he concluded, “the life of a British Agent is no better than a political prisoner.”
By the late 20th century, the tables had turned. Afghanistan became a war zone for powers like Russia and later the United States and its coalition of compliant states. They needed a proving ground for their over-equipped, underemployed armed forces.
The Russians spent over nine years in Afghanistan, and quit after learning the costly lesson that Muscovite might is not always right. In the vacuum left by Russia’s departure in 1989, the United States decided that it should rush in where the Russians had bled to death. Under the banner of Operation Enduring Freedom, it commandeered contingents from over 20 coerced accomplices — Nato, EU countries, New Zealand, even Montenegro and Lithuania. After 13 years of inconclusive fighting, in 2014, the US decided to change its banner to read Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. To the Afghans, this renaming did not render US weaponry less lethal.
How did the Afghans achieve such competence?
Over almost 18 years, the US-led forces (2001-19) have remained mired in Afghanistan; the casualties of the US-led coalition forces are about 3,500. In contrast, more than 1,405,000 Afghans (some estimates say 2,084,500) have died, though no one is sure exactly of the tally. It is ironical that three stabbings in London streets can release a violent remonstrance from President Donald Trump against the mayor of London, but the death of one million Afghans either way does not ruffle his blond quiff.
And yet, it is from the ashes of this apocalyptic devastation that an unlikely phoenix has emerged — a team of Afghan cricketers. In the World Cup 2019, this 11 made a mockery of the very countries whose soldiers were slaughtering their kinsmen in Afghanistan. It is to the credit of the Afghan team that they did not allow politics to blemish their sportsmanship. They could with justification have worn black armbands when playing teams from countries which had or still have troops in Afghanistan. They chose not to. They challenged England anditsformer colonies at their own game — cricket.
Afghanistan joined the International Cricket Council two years ago. In that brief period of time, it has developed such expertise, self-confidence, and competitive bravado that out of the nine matches it played against seasoned world class teams, it never scored less than three digits. Against England, 247 runs; against India 213 runs; against New Zealand, 172 runs; against West Indies a creditable 288 runs, and against Pakistan, 227 runs, losing by only three wickets.
Its new-found excellence blossomed in a young 18-year-old Ikram Ali Khalil. He had played one Test match before, during which he managed only seven runs. At Headingley, playing against the West Indies, he scored the fastest 80-plus runs, superseding Sachin Tendulkar’s record that had held since 1992.
How does a team of Afghan winnows achieve such fierce competence within such a short space of time? Where in Afghanistan are the camouflaged cricket facilities, the hidden stadiums, pitches un-pitted by US missiles where these Afghan players practised? It is said that Pakistan’s hero Inzamam-ul-Haq had once coached the Afghans. He must rue the day he taught them tricks they have learned all too well.
Both the Afghan and the Pakistan cricket teams shall be returning home — each though to a different sort of welcome. The Afghan team should be lauded as the heroes they are. No laurels are green enough for them. The Pakistan team may need a police escort to protect it from its former admirers. Inzamam-ul-Haq might consider rerouting his ticket to join his former pupils in Kabul.
If we as a nation had maturity, courage and decency, we would express regret together to the Afghan people for the years of interference in their affairs. We should mourn jointly with them for the countless Pakistani and Afghan innocents who have been killed without reason, without proper graves, and without the dignity of remembrance.
It is said that the US and its coalition forces will soon withdraw from Kabul. And after years of carnage, what will they leave behind? A ravaged fifth-world country — and a world-class cricket team.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2019