Nawaz Sharif in the footsteps of Alexander Burnes — III
Revisiting the 1830s we found in the previous parts that owing to the wide gap of expectations between Dost Muhammad and the Indian government, the Burnes mission failed. The mission that started off as a commercial expedition ended up as a military misadventure, often referred to as ‘Auckland’s folly’. The Governor General Lord Auckland began his new office as a man of peace but gradually transformed into a warmonger. His ‘Simla Manifesto’, a precursor of the ‘strategic depth doctrine’, stated that in order to ensure the welfare of India, the British must have a trustworthy ally on India’s western frontier. To achieve the stated objective, Shah Shuja, the fugitive former king of Afghanistan, was installed as the new ruler in Kabul by despatching ‘the Army of the Indus’ to Afghanistan. What followed after two years in 1842 had been predicted by Mountstuart Elphinstone, a respected administrator and historian of India who had headed a mission to Afghanistan thirty years ago: “If an army was sent up the passes, and if we could feed it, no doubt we might take Cabul and set up Shah Soojah; but it was hopeless to maintain him in a poor, cold, strong and remote country, among so turbulent a people.” Similarly the Duke of Wellington had also warned: “The consequence of once crossing the Indus to settle a government in Afghanistan would be a perennial march into that country.” The ill prepared Indian troops were caught unawares by a sudden tribal insurrection raising slogans of jihad against infidels. Burnes became one of the first victims of ghazi (warrior) insurgents. The Kabul garrison was decimated as the waiting tribesmen in the mountains did not honour the safe passage treaty.
The purpose of this retelling of history is not to fix the responsibility for events that happened almost two centuries ago. However, we can draw some lessons from past events to make us wiser in our conduct today. We need to appreciate that Afghanistan is a difficult stretch of land that has remained suspended in the past for too long. In terms of human evolution, how a society is organised gives one community a competitive advantage over others. In ancient times, when warfare was based on the skills of horsemanship and sword fighting, the barbarian tribal groups in Eurasia proved unstoppable. The Germanic tribal invaders routed the Roman Empire, Taimur the Lame and Mahmood Ghaznavi ravaged Indian urban communities and the Mongols destroyed the Abbasid empire. The invention of gunpowder and the advent of the industrial age changed the scenario altogether as settled urban communities were better suited to reap the benefit. Urban societies, thanks to their settled way of life, also were quick to develop new financial institutions to cater to the needs of mass scale industrial production. If the British were successful in colonising other nations, it was because of the industrial and financial institutions that supported their war effort. With regards to the Afghan problem, Steven Pressfield, the author of The Afghan Campaign, to some extent is right in stating: “The real force in Afghanistan isn’t Islamism or jihadism. It’s tribalism.”
Change in any organisation comes in two ways. Either the organisation gradually evolves and allows itself to change or some external organisation brings the change after subjugating it. The problem of Afghanistan, despite complex upheavals, can be reduced to one simple observation. Afghan society has neither allowed itself to change naturally nor has it let foreign agents change it for the better. Its tragedy is summarised by Ghani Khan’s quote that I have used earlier: “He loves fighting but hates to be a soldier.” The tribal identity-driven set up is very efficient for insurgencies and warlordism. However, it is least helpful for a modern state defended by a disciplined national army. The myth is that the Afghans were never defeated. The reality is that from ancient times to the present day the country was occupied by armies of various invaders: Alexander, Changez Khan, the British, Soviet Union and NATO. What we learn though is that imposing a ruler does not change the weak social infrastructure that has impeded the evolution of a modern state. What Afghanistan needs is long term assistance from external agents in helping Afghan society make a break from its troubled past.
If Nawaz Sharif followed in the footsteps of Alexander Burnes, he needs to remain steadfast in focusing upon commercial relations with Afghanistan at the regional level. He should not let Auckland’s folly repeat itself by losing a firm grip on his new initiative and letting the strategic depth strategists play imperial games in the region. A stable, modern and democratic Afghanistan is a guarantor of peace and progress for all countries in the region. We will be helping our own cause if we help Afghanistan in her institutions building programme. What Afghanistan needs is help in establishing physical infrastructure, universities, revenue collecting organisations, law enforcement authorities, media and the like. Afghanistan is a troubled country and to a great extent we have aggravated her problems in the past. If other entities, from NATO to India, are helping Afghanistan in institution building, instead of frowning, we should welcome it and also lend a supporting hand. While Burnes failed, Nawaz Sharif can win himself a Nobel Peace Prize if he succeeds by remaining sincere to his new initiatives of promoting regional peace.