The endless war on terror in South Asia – with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, the United States, Great Britain, Russia, India, France, Germany, Spain, all players – must seem like a senseless maze to the people forced to live with daily random violence in this region. In the United States, too many Americans have emotional yet uninformed responses: either “Kill our enemies before they kill us,” or “Get out of Afghanistan now.” The history of this region is more important than ever to study, as daily headlines inflame both sides without leading to solutions.
It’s been said that England’s Queen Victoria gave Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya to her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, as a birthday present. Whatever actually happened, this story makes clear how casually European empire-builders assumed they could divvy up regions of the world under their control according to their whim. During her reign in the 1890s, the British made a colossal mistake, which remains a root cause of the instability in South Asia to this day.
After losing two wars against the Afghans, and knowing they would never actually conquer Afghanistan as a colony, the British carved a deep scar across Asia that has never healed when the Durand Line agreement was drawn up in 1893 by Henry Mortimer Durand, foreign secretary of British India, and signed by Durand and Afghanistan’s Amir Abdur Rahman Khan – supposedly to limit British, Afghan and (by proxy) Russian spheres of influence. The line – over 1,600 miles long – was drawn through the entire Hindu Kush mountain range in Afghanistan and the sovereign nation of Balochistan, which later became part of Pakistan. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus noted that most of this region was controlled by the Pashtuns, fierce tribal people with a moral code no less harsh than fundamentalist Islam’s Shariah law.
When British Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, orchestrated the 1947 partition of India into the free nations of Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India, he unleashed a demon that could not be put back into any sized bottle. How could a man of his intelligence support a plan that would find a Hindu nation in the center of the Asian subcontinent and a Muslim nation split into two parts east and west of India – West Pakistan, and East Pakistan (today Bangladesh), over 1,000 miles apart? This could arguably be one of the dumbest ideas in recorded history. But Lord Mountbatten was not dumb. He was a bright man who played an active role in the Allies’ victory in World War II. More likely, the concept of “divide and conquer” was so ingrained in British strategy that perhaps even he failed to anticipate the tortured labyrinth that was being created.
The bells of freedom chimed across India on August 15, 1947, and they unleashed the largest migration of peoples in recorded history: Hindus to the new, free nation of India, and Muslims to the new, split nation of East and West Pakistan, which would endure less than 25 years before a genocidal civil war divided the nation into Pakistan and Bangladesh. Similar unrest continues to this day in Kashmir, and along the Durand line, the Pashtun peoples of the region (which had been considered part of Afghanistan for 200 years) were given only two choices – become part of the new India, or join the new Pakistan. The Red Shirt rebellion of 1947-1948, led by Abdul Ghaffar Khan, made it clear that most Pashtuns wanted no part of either nation. If they could not be a part of Afghanistan, they wanted their own nation of Pashtunistan.
Violence continued for years, until the Pashtuns finally agreed to accept Muslim Pakistan over Hindu India – but only after making it perfectly clear to Islamabad that their territory, the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), would be managed completely by the Pashtun people themselves. No Pakistani Punjabi police or military in the NWFP! Pakistan agreed, and since that time has never attempted to control the region – no matter what President Musharraf claimed to be doing in his supposed quest to eliminate al-Qaeda after the attack on America on September 11, 2001. Leaders in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia knew the reality, while the American CIA worked with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the American people remained clueless.
Since the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the Soviet war in Afghanistan in 1979-1989, the Afghan Civil War of 1992-1994, the Taliban takeover in 1996 of all but Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Massoud’s and then-president Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Pansjir Valley, to the US/NATO bombing of the Taliban in 2001 (more accurate and with far less collateral damage than more recent attacks), and now, the resurgent Taliban attacks against an occupying force of US and NATO troops – the government of Pakistan (influenced by the ISI and the military elite based in the Punjab) has stood by the Durand Line Agreement while Afghanistan has rejected it as invalid.
To say that the resurgent Pashtun Taliban (still covertly trained and supported by Pakistan’s ISI) has taken refuge from the US/NATO and Afghan forces across the Durand Line is to put it mildly. To say that US/NATO and Afghan soldiers have been thwarted by an enemy that crosses the line each night to be fed by the ISI and sleep with their families is an understatement. To say that Afghanistan would like to see its own flag raised over the Pashtun cities of Quetta, Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan, as it had before the Durand Line Agreement in 1893, is to elicit raised fists and voices by Afghans determined to reclaim their homeland from the “Punjabis.” To declare that the Durand Line has no real validity today raises questions that should be addressed by the World Court.
The issues are hugely complex if one takes the time to engage in battle with all the beasts in the labyrinth. First, Durand never gave Amir Abdur Rahman Khan a translation of the Durand Line agreement. The one he signed was in English, and the Amir knew no English. The second issue is grounded in the agreement itself, which states that any changes in the terms must be signed off on by the sovereign nations involved. But the British never disclosed that the agreement was also signed by the sovereign nation of Balochistan. When Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, sought the agreement of the Amir of Kelat in Balochistan to become part of Pakistan in 1947, the Amir refused. The Pakistani army then invaded Balochistan and coerced the government to cede its authority to Pakistan. But according to the Durand Line agreement, Balochistan was a sovereign nation.
To avoid sinking further into the morass of repercussions, we recall the statement of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who referred to the Durand Line border as, “A line of hatred that raised a wall between the two brothers.”
If there is a crucial fact to glean from the subterfuge and confusion, it’s that Pakistan does not want this border issue scrutinized by the world. The ongoing attempts by Pakistan since the early 1970s to control Afghanistan can be better understood in this light, as can its current support of the Taliban movement. If the United States and NATO grow even more tired of this war and pack up and go home, then what has been a violent quarrel between two points of view on a British fabrication over a century old could expand into a war between Pakistan (with its nuclear arsenal and friendly China) and Afghanistan (with its nuclear colleague India). In a war for South Asia, Iran would certainly play a pivotal role as well, as it borders both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Contrary to what the news media coverage implies, there are not just three entities (the Karzai government, the Afghan Taliban/al-Qaeda and the US/NATO forces) involved in the struggle for Afghanistan. There are many other players. First, there are the Afghan people themselves, who are not happy with how their government has been run, nor with the US military presence that has become an occupation. There is the distinct Pakistani Taliban, Tareq-i-Islami, comprising ethnic groups and agendas of their own. There is the Pakistani Army, comprising mostly soldiers from the Punjab region. There is the Pakistani ISI, also Punjab-based, which retains final control of the military. There is the Pakistani government in Islamabad, which must always walk a fine line with the ISI and the insurgents in the NWFP provinces. There are transnational corporate interests that owe allegiance to no nation or creed and always seek ways to profit from the confusion. Finally, there are the impoverished people of Pakistan itself, who really want no part of war, and only seek to live peacefully in the democratic nation promised them in 1947, a promise which has been continually thwarted by military coups – and the country could be on the edge of another.
There is one big difference between a labyrinth and a maze. A labyrinth is an ancient spiral path with the purpose of focusing thought, with a destination at the center where one can stop and perhaps find peace. With a maze, there are many blind paths leading to dead ends. A maze has one way out, perhaps, but always remaining is the sense of being tricked, of having no exit. Let us hope that with some thoughtful, deliberate review of all that has gone before in the Af-Pak region, all the players in this new “Great Game,” as Kipling called it, will successfully navigate the labyrinth in this volatile time.
Watch part one in this series: “The United States Bombs Afghanistan”
Watch part two in this series: A Search for Bin Laden in the Tora Bora Mountains
Watch part three in this series: Children of Terror
Watch part four in this series: Children of Terror (2)
Watch part five in this series: Kill the Journalist, Kill the Story, Kill the Truth