Sunday, February 17, 2013

The parable of Afghanistan

Return Of A King By William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury, 538 pages
YOU AND I may never venture into Afghanistan but there are good reasons to pay attention to this nation that occupies, like Singapore, a crossroads on the globe. And like Singapore, it was once a battleground where imperial Britain received one of its worst drubbings.

In his new book, Return Of A King, British historian William Dalrymple expertly weaves history and irony to bring home the contemporariness of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) and its lessons for the future.
Afghanistan is a nation of realities as stark as its rugged terrain. Life expectancy stands at just 44 years. Most Afghans alive today have seen nothing but wars and hardship: Their country was a theatre for the Soviets in the 1980s, the Muslim fundamentalists in the 1990s and for America and its allies since the 9/11 attacks.
This is a nation of minorities: The Pashtuns are the biggest ethnic group but form less than 40 per cent of its 30 million people. Besides news about the Taleban, Afghanistan produces 90 per cent of the world's opium and sizeable numbers of refugees.
A whiff of new wealth, nonetheless, drifts in from the surrounding gas-rich ex-Soviet republics and, more recently, from Afghanistan's own soil, with the discovery of US$1 trillion (S$1.24 trillion) worth of exploitable copper, coal and rare earth deposits.
From here on, the story is only going to get more interesting. There will soon be a gaping hole in its polity, with the United States a year away from withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, ending the longest war it has ever fought.
Most onlookers suppose that it is a matter of time before the Americans are supplanted by the Taleban, who have regrouped after the 9/11 rout and are drawing ever closer to Kabul. A more intriguing possibility is that it is China hour on the Afghan clock. Long a bystander to the goings-on in Afghanistan, Beijing has made a calculated entry into the country.
China is said to be somewhat alarmed by the knock-on effects a Taleban-led regime could have on its own Muslim minorities and clearly more than a little charmed by the country's vast natural resources. Chinese firms are the new pioneers in Afghanistan, snapping up mining rights, including the first oil exploration contracts given to foreigners in decades.
While Afghanistan's future unfolds in due course, Dalrymple's book resurrects the two-century-old war, starting from its mistaken conception in Britain's paranoia that it needed to capture Afghanistan to defend India from the Russians.
The unfortunate outcome is clear in 1842: The war that begins with 20,000 troops marching into Afghanistan ends with one man on a quivering horse surviving to tell the tale of the world's most powerful army of the time humbled at the hands of poorly equipped tribesmen.
Until the fall of Singapore a century later, this was the greatest disaster ever suffered by imperial Britain.
This is an almost epic tale - pulsing with larger-than-life personalities, heroism, intrigue and no shortage of human follies. Worthy of Shakespeare and recreated by Dalrymple with details from colonial archives, letters, diaries and Afghan accounts that had so far remained untapped by historians. For, to the Afghans, this was a war of consequence - their Trafalgar, Waterloo and Battle of Britain all rolled into one.
Such is its hold on Afghanistan that Taleban leader Mullah Omar styled himself after Dost Mohammad, the king who made a comeback after being deposed by the British. To this day, Shah Shuja, the man who was propped on the throne by the British, is regarded as a traitor.
At one level, the book functions as the missing middle of the author's trilogy on the East India Company - White Mughals and The Last Mughal provided other takes on Britain's love-hate relationship with its colonies.
At another level, this book offers more than a few parallels with our world today, as Dalrymple notes in his preface. He quotes an army chaplain: "A war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated."
The chaplain is describing the disaster of the 19th century but his words could hold good for the 21st century one.
There are other similarities - the play of the same tribal rivalries, the same battles in the same places. Notes Dalrymple: "The same cities were garrisoned by foreign troops speaking the same languages, and were being attacked from the same rings of hills and the same high passes."
The same moral issues too. A civil servant mused at the time: Should you try to promote the "interest of humanity" and champion social and gender reform, banning traditions like stoning to death of adulterous women, or should you just concentrate on ruling the country without rocking the boat?
Then as now, the decision to withdraw had less to do with the ground realities of Afghanistan and more with the preoccupations of the invader - the public mood back home and the budget pressures. It seems to be every occupier's fate to eventually discover the cost of holding on to the Afghan territory soon exhausts the occupier's resources.
Where was this book when Uncle Sam needed it?
Could it yet caution the Chinese should they be on the path that every giant of its day has trodden?
The Afghans seem to be ready. As quoted by Dalrymple, a tribal elder he meets in the course of researching the book explains the arc of Afghan thought: "These are the last days of the Americans. Next it will be China."