Sunday, February 3, 2013
Historian William Dalrymple's new bookBritain had conquered most of India by 1939, but its empire was stalled at Punjab by the powerful Sikh king Ranjeet Singh. Russia, the other big empire of the time, was moving south through Central Asia. What stood between these two empires was the fractious, mountainous region of Afghanistan, for centuries the gateway to Hindustan for invaders. But what if Russia decided to follow in the hooves of those conquerors? Eager to secure its prized treasure of India, Britain decided to pre-empt the Russians by invading Afghanistan. Thus began the Great Game, a term coined by Sir Henry Creswick Rawlinson, an Englishman who first sighted Cossacks in the disputed borderlands between Persia (today's Iran) and Afghanistan in 1837 and alerted his superiors. "As so often in international affairs, hawkish paranoia about distant threats can create the very monster that is most feared," writes William Dalrymple in Return of a King, a chronicle of the first Anglo-Afghan war from the spring of 1839 when the invasion began to the autumn of 1842 when the Union flag was lowered. The deposed Afghan king, Shah Shuja, had earlier sought British protection and had been living in Ludhiana, Punjab. The British decided to reinstate him on the throne and manage the country through this puppet. There was a second opinion to back the incumbent ruler and gain Afghanistan without bloodshed. However, the administration was rife with internal politics and nepotism, which resulted in twin policy tracks that were hostile to one another. The shah's backers won eventually and amassed an "army of the Indus" to defeat the incumbent ruler, Dost Mohammed Khan. It was made up of 58,000 men and 30,000 camels, and with Ranjeet Singh's assistance, was able to take Kabul and install the shah. Still, the British were loath to let Shah Shuja make decisions and this led to him being viewed by his people as a puppet. They worsened matters by having increasingly public liaisons with Afghan women, some of whom were married. The British were strangely sanguine: to fight the Opium war in China, they recalled a large contingent from Kabul, and reduced handouts to rebel groups who guarded their supply routes. The volatile situation was further compounded when they interfered in the mullahs' administration of justice. "All this came to a head in July 1840 when, at the instigation of Mir Haji, the ulema [Muslim scholars] began to omit proclaiming the name of Shah Shuja at Friday prayers, on the grounds that the real rulers were the kafirs," Dalrymple writes. Afghanistan was ripe for jihad and the Afghans rose in revolution. One of the original motives for the first Anglo-Afghan war was promoting commerce between India and Afghanistan. That initiative and the war ended with the British burning down the great Char Chatta covered bazaar, that visible symbol of bustling trade in Kabul. Originally built during the reign of Shah Jahan and renowned as a superb example of Mughal architecture, it was one of the greatest buildings in Central Asia. Carried out to avenge the killing of English official Sir William Hay MacNaghten, whose body was displayed on a butcher's hook at the bazaar, the savage destruction was chronicled by Mirza Ata, a historian, as another sign of British duplicity. Dalrymple quotes an Afghan proverb that sums up the popular Afghan sentiment towards the manner in which the English conducted themselves: "When you're not strong enough to punish the camel, then go and beat the basket carried by the donkey." In Return of a King, the eighth book from the best-selling and award-winning writer, Dalrymple asks why the English strayed so far from their original intent. In India, where Dalrymple has been based since the mid-1990s, the author is immensely popular but also draws his share of criticism. Sunil Khilnani, author of The Idea of India, has mockingly credited him with creating the genre of "Bollywood history". Historian Ramachandra Guha has said his "knowledge of this country is so superficial". However, Return of a King is based on rigorous scholarship. Dalrymple accessed a wide range of newly discovered material in Russian, Urdu and Persian from archives in South Asia, and delved into nine previously untranslated contemporary Afghan accounts, including the autobiography of Shah Shuja. Packed with colourful characters, his book is an engaging narrative about political ambition, cultural collisions and imperial hubris. Mark Twain said history doesn't repeat itself, it rhymes. In the case of Afghanistan, it clangs. Dalrymple picks startling similarities between the situation in Afghanistan in 1840 and the present. First, the political geography of Afghanistan continues to impact the way invasions evolve within the country. "The significance of Kabul's location is one issue - adjacent to both the Tajik population of Kohistan, on one side, and the eastern Ghilzais on the other." Another striking parallel is the continuing impact of internecine tribal warfare. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is from the Popalzai tribe and lacks a real power base; Shah Shuja was from the same sub-caste as Karzai and viewed as a British puppet. At the end of Kim, Rudyard Kipling's novel about the Great Game, his eponymous hero says: "When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before." When the British withdrew from Kabul after two years of occupation, it was in the middle of a frozen winter. Of the 700 British soldiers and 3,800 Indian sepoys, only one survivor made it to the British garrison town of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. This half-dead man, Dr William Brydon, was immortalised in a painting titled The Remnants of War. So the first Anglo-Afghan war ended with Britain's greatest military humiliation: an imperial army routed by ill-equipped tribesmen. "The only man who gained from the war was the very man whom the war was designed to depose. In 1843, after staying as the guest of the Sikh Khalsa in Lahore, Dost Mohammed rode to Peshawar," Dalrymple writes. It was no accident that the first war for Indian independence, commonly referred to as the Revolt of 1857, came after the fiasco that was the first Afghan war. The sepoys who marched into the frozen Khyber hills, whose bodies were strewn in the Bolan and Khyber passes, fuelled the legends the Persian presses printed in Uttar Pradesh, home state of the sepoys and the catalyst of the mutiny. When the British first marched into Afghanistan, a tribal chieftain rode up to them. "You have brought an army into the country. But how do you propose to take it out again?" It is a question every invading army - the British, the Russians and now Nato - has been at a loss to answer.
The Express TribuneThe Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) seems to be losing its grip and popular support in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) due to lack of leadership and unity. Though the PTI is relatively popular in K-P, no provincial or district leadership exists since PTI Chief Imran Khan dissolved party cabinets to hold intra-party elections. The strategy of internalising democracy in the party may be failing because the PTI has been unable to hold elections for the past 18 months. Sources familiar with the matter say this is the result of lack of coordination between the central and provincial leadership, constant interference of the Central Executive Committee (CEC) in provincial affairs and the differences over the assignment of important portfolios. Party leaders contesting for different portfolios remain optimistic about PTI’s popularity despite internal rifts and challenges. The scuffles have resulted in the postponement of elections in three districts. PTI’s provincial convener Dr Meher Taj Roghani expressed concern over prolonged delay in holding party elections. “The election commission needs to hurry up,” he said, so that a better election strategy could be prepared. The uncertainty over rewarding party tickets to candidates hoping to contest the general elections is also not helping. In the past six months, local heavyweights, including Iftikhar Jhagra and Khwaja Muhammad Khan Hoti have left the party due to this. Both candidates have previously served as provincial ministers in the past. While PTI has partially held provincial intra-party elections, the provincial cabinet is yet to be announced. The chairman of the political science department at the University of Peshawar, A Z Hilali thinks that it is still too soon to predict the decline in PTI’s popularity. “We have an immature political culture in Pakistan. Things change very rapidly here when it comes to the popularity of political parties,” he said, labelling PTI as an “Imran-centric party”.
EDITORIAL: DAILY TIMESIn the kind of tragedy the country seems all too familiar with by now, a suicide bomber has attacked a Shia mosque in Hangu, an area close to the tribal belt next to the Afghan border in northwest Pakistan, on Friday. The fatalities and casualties are devastating, with 24 dead and some 50 wounded. The bomber chose a location where Sunnis and Shias live in close proximity. The Shia mosque was close to a Sunni mosque and both sets of worshippers were at their respective places of worship. In what was no doubt a sectarian strike, the attack claimed the lives of many Sunnis as well, further proving that terror is indiscriminate. By attacking an area where both Shias and Sunnis so closely reside, the militants may be trying to scare Sunnis away from associating and living with or near their Shia brothers. After such an attack, one would not be surprised if there were an exodus of entire Sunni communities from Shia populated areas. This attack was bloody and it did not discriminate probably in the hope that in the aftermath, Sunnis would be alienated from the Shias. We are hardly a month into 2013 and already Pakistan has seen the worst kind of bloodshed of its Shia population. This is particularly worrisome because, when targeting a whopping 20 percent of the country’s population, the crime moves on from being murder to being all out genocide. On January 10 of this year, twin suicide blasts claimed the lives of 92 Shia Hazaras in Quetta in an attack that has been the worst human rights crime against the Shias in Pakistan’s history. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) (a supposedly ‘banned’ Sunni terror group) claimed responsibility for the attack on the Hazaras, claiming that they were infidels deserving of death. While no one has yet claimed responsibility for the Hangu attack, one would not put it past the LeJ to have orchestrated another gruesome strike. If this is the trend that keeps continuing, 2013 could well become the bloodiest year for Shias in Pakistan. This blatant criminality and murderous rampage is worsening because of one simple fact: terrorists have been emboldened by the sheer incompetence of those responsible for preventing such attacks. No one has ever been caught or punished for the murderous campaign against Ahmedis and other minorities in this country and no one has been detained and brought to book for the killings of so many Shias. The government and our security agencies have failed to come up with efficient strategies to pre-empt terror threats. It is common knowledge that blunt weapons and brute military might cannot be used to counter terrorism in cities and urban areas. While military operations may work to some extent in the tribal areas against militant insurgents, one cannot expect the army to go in and bomb entire cities. What is needed most urgently is precise and coordinated intelligence and police work. It is essential that our intelligence agencies predict and pre-empt any such deadly terror attack and work in tandem with the police to prevent suicide missions. Once a human ‘bomb’ is armed and off and running on his mission, nothing can stop him from carrying out his evil task, not even death. It is essential that the Centre work with the provinces to beat back the militants from urban centres as there has been a rise in Shia killings in Karachi and Quetta, as well as the northern areas. Intelligence must be improved and the police must be better equipped to deal with the menace that has begun to seep its way into our heavily populated areas. We are witnessing a genocide and if we do not halt it, it will not be long before it proves the curtain raiser for further destabilisation of the state and society.