NON-FICTION: THE UNENDING AFGHAN SAGA

Published August 30, 2020
Construction of the Rahman Baba High School in Kabul is just one of the many ways Pakistan has funded socio-economic development in Afghanistan | Wikipedia Commons
Construction of the Rahman Baba High School in Kabul is just one of the many ways Pakistan has funded socio-economic development in Afghanistan | Wikipedia Commons

Situated at the crossroads of history, Afghanistan has witnessed, over millennia, a cavalcade of power-besotted hordes of outsiders violating its territorial integrity at will. They were of all stripes and persuasions: adventurers, bounty hunters, conquerors and empire builders. They laid waste to its land, ravaged its resources with impunity and murdered its people to their heart’s content. From Alexander of Macedonia to the 21st century American pharaoh George W. Bush, they regarded it as their God-given right to invade and plunder a rocky, mostly barren land with no access to the sea.

But while the hardy Afghans couldn’t block an invader’s access to their land, they — with their ferocious and indomitable will — wouldn’t allow an honourable exit to any adventurer. This heroic and gritty determination of the valiant Afghans to fight off any and all invaders of their land has prompted historians and chroniclers to often describe Afghanistan, among other things, as ‘the graveyard of empires’.

However, few of those writing about Afghanistan and its people were themselves eyewitnesses to the tribulation and suffering the empire builders inflicted on the land and its people. They mostly relied on second-hand or tertiary narrations and raconteurs to construct their own version of events.

On the other hand, Syed Abrar Hussain, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, was an eyewitness to what he recounts in Afghanistan: Mullah Omar Se Ashraf Ghani Tak [Afghanistan: From Mullah Omar To Ashraf Ghani] about the latest — and still unfinished and ongoing — phase of Afghanistan’s tortuous history. This phase commenced with the country’s invasion by our world’s lone imperialist power, on the heels of the cataclysmic event of 9/11.

Belonging to the elite Pakistan Foreign Service, which he joined in 1983, Hussain served twice in Afghanistan; first as consul general of Pakistan in Kandahar, which was the seat of power of the then reigning Taliban, from 1999 to 2001, and later as ambassador in Kabul, from 2014 to 2017. His fluency in Pashto and Farsi equipped him with impeccable credentials to serve his country at crucial junctures in modern Afghanistan’s history. But his association with Afghanistan predated his diplomatic career: his father, too, had served in Afghanistan as a school teacher in Kabul. This lends Hussain a unique perspective of having witnessed Afghanistan before the rise of the Taliban, during their years of total control over it, and after their temporary eclipse in the wake of George W. Bush’s vengeful invasion to quench his thirst for Afghan blood.

A former Pakistani diplomat presents his ringside view of political developments in Afghanistan over the past two decades

In his first stint in Kandahar, during the Taliban chokehold over the country, Hussain had a ring-side view of their urge to transform Afghanistan’s tribal society into their over-zealous vision of a rigid theocracy, with little or no relevance to pristine Islam. Mullah Omar, their one-eyed leader, had a one-track mindset, too, that brooked no advice or input from anyone. Hussain recalls several important visits of leaders and policy makers from Pakistan to Mullah Omar with an eye to soften him and his brutal regime, but he would relent to no one. In the end, as we all know, his unbending stance invited the imperialistic wrath of the United States, that snuffed out the Taliban rule, though not necessarily their power.

When Hussain returned to Kabul as ambassador in 2014, it was a different Afghanistan. The Americans had, in the alleged words of Colin Powell, “smashed the Taliban pottery barn”, but despite being there for 13 long years — it has by now been 19 years of an American power bogged down in Afghanistan in what is, without a doubt, the longest American war in history — they hadn’t the faintest idea how to fix a badly broken and ravaged country.

Unlike their precipitate and obscene withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988, after the ignominious rout of the Soviet invaders at the hands of Afghan Mujahideen, this time round the American invaders feigned to play a different and — in their blinkered vision — a ‘smart’ role. This involved baptising the rule of their hand-picked puppets, Hamid Karzai initially and, after his two terms, Ashraf Ghani as president. But neither could ever rise above the role of puppets dangling at the end of a string.

The American occupiers and 21st century ‘empire builders’ tried, in fact, to be clever by half. They roped in Pakistan as an ally in their ‘war on terror’, but never for a moment trusted their ally. Instead, they courted Pakistan’s perennial enemy, India, to checkmate their supposed ‘ally’ and keep it under constant pressure on two fronts: Afghan and Indian.

As Hussain witnessed from his perch in Kabul, a revanchist India, swayed by the sage Chanakya’s age-old advice — your neighbour is your enemy but his neighbour is your friend — took full advantage of their imperialist friend’s generosity by opening a number of so-called consulates (in reality, spying dens) in Afghan cities closer to Pakistan’s border. A greater Indian subterfuge is the subverting of Ghani’s capacity to act on his own, vis-à-vis Pakistan’s umpteen initiatives to get him into a normal, if not friendly, working relationship.

Just one incident, narrated by Hussain, would suffice to highlight Ghani’s abject surrender to Indian whims and treachery. It happened at the sixth Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia, held in Amritsar, India, on Dec 4, 2016. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the conference host, and Pakistan was represented by foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz. Ghani and Aziz had known each other since their days at the World Bank in Washington. They had been good friends. The two met for breakfast early in the morning, where Aziz offered to raise Pakistan’s economic assistance package to Afghanistan by $500 million, and the two discussed its modalities.

Thereafter, Ghani went into an hour-long meeting with Modi before the inauguration of the conference and, from that meeting, a different and hostile Ghani emerged. In his address from the podium, he plunged into a diatribe against Pakistan and, pointing his finger — literally — at Aziz, thundered that his country didn’t need that $500 million from Pakistan. He had the cheek to poke fun at Aziz and advised him to use that money to check the menace of terrorism in his own country.

The US is mired in the bog of Afghanistan and marooned there because of its own follies and blunders. After nearly two decades of a costly, trillion-dollar occupation of Afghanistan, the world’s mightiest military power is stuck between a rock and a hard place. It’s there because of its hubris, which failed to snuff out the thorny Taliban. The February 29, 2020 Doha Accord between the US and the Taliban, on the latter’s terms, is a damning footnote to the former’s humiliating debacle. The book under review came out before this agreement.

However, Pakistan is stuck there because it’s the twain with Afghanistan. It’s a victim of the old adage: you may choose your friends, but not your neighbours. Pakistan and Afghanistan are bonded not just because of geography, but because of a shared history that spans millennia. They share everything, from folklore to saints, mystics, musicians and poets. And yet, Afghanistan wouldn’t miss an opportunity to hold Pakistan responsible for its misfortunes and acts of omissions, as does its mentor, the US, blaming Pakistan for sleeping with their enemy.

This is despite the fact that Pakistan hosted more than four million Afghan refugees on its soil for a quarter century and even now has more than 1.5 million of them still sharing its limited resources; hundreds of thousands of Afghans have made Pakistan their permanent home.

Hussain mentions all the commendable work Pakistan has done to uplift Afghan society, which may be news to most Pakistanis as well. To date, more than a billion dollars have been poured into myriad socio-economic development projects inside Afghanistan. The long list of works includes the building of the 75 kilometre long Torkham-Jalalabad highway and three modern hospitals, in Kabul, Jalalabad and Logar. This is extraordinary largesse from a country whose own healthcare system is in tatters. In addition, Islamabad donated 100 buses, 200 trucks and dozens of pick-ups to Kabul to ease its transportation problems.

What irony this munificence presents, considering that Pakistan’s own biggest city, Karachi, has no public transport to date.

Pakistan has built arts, science and engineering faculties in the universities of Kabul, Jalalabad and Balkh, respectively. It has built a brand-new Rahman Baba High School, with a hostel for 2,000 students, in Kabul. Pakistan grants 3,000 scholarships every year to Afghan students for higher studies in Pakistan. Hussain estimates that, by now, at least 40,000 Afghan students have graduated from Pakistani colleges and universities. Pakistan has printed five million school textbooks — free of charge — and distributed 300,000 school kits and 500 computers to Afghan schools and donated 10 buses to the universities of Kabul and Nangarhar.

American political engineering — to make up for their debacles on the battlefield — has spawned a Frankenstein of misgovernance in Afghanistan and weaved Pakistan’s eternal rival, India, into the equation to turn the screws on Pakistan. That’s a test for Pakistan’s foreign policy gurus and defence planners.

Husain has written his Afghan saga in Urdu, which has never been a favourite tongue of Pakistani diplomats. But this is a commendable initiative to educate the common man with limited comprehension of English, about the challenge that Pakistan’s pesky twain confronts us with. The author’s everyday prose makes the reading a pleasant exercise, and there is valuable reference material in the form of appendices to the book.

The reviewer is a retired ambassador with 10 published works of prose and poetry

Afghanistan: Mullah Omar Se Ashraf
Ghani Tak
By Syed Abrar Hussain
IPS, Islamabad
ISBN: 978-9694487854
250pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 30th, 2020

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