Afghan Mujahideen in Baricot after Soviet bombing, 1988,
Ben Barber photo
Old Afghan Wine in New Bottles
By Ben Barber
The Trump administration plan for ending the war in Afghanistan is old wine poured in new bottles.
History has shown over 2500 years that Afghans can be tolerant and creative and peaceful if foreigners come with humility and respect for the Afghan culture.
History has equally shown that Afghans have turned their sharp swords and courageous fighters against foreigners from Alexander the Great to Trump the hapless when outsiders try to tell them what to do inside their own tough, desert land.
Over 50 years I’ve visited many corners of Afghanistan in several different roles: as a wandering post-grad poet and researcher in 1967; as a reporter for the London Observer in the Soviet- Afghan War; as a public affairs writer for the US Agency for International Development after the US invasion in 2003; and as a foreign aid contractor in 2010.
Ironically, as the US engagement in that Central Asian nation increased militarily after the 911 attacks were planned and launched from Afghanistan, being an American visitor has become increasingly dangerous and we are feeling more and more unwelcome.
Don’t think that this means Afghans want to return to the theocracy of Taliban rule in the late 1990s. Perhaps many Afghans think they might expel the Americans and still fend off the Taliban. Trump had one thing right in his speech to the nation Monday night: Pakistan’s support for terrorists and Taliban is the weak link in the chain of violence smothering Afghanistan since 1979 when communists seized power and invited the Soviets in to maintain order.
But this is the old wine I mentioned above. American and NATO diplomats and troops have tried for 16 years to pry the Pakistani-fingered death grip from the throat of their essentially defenseless Afghan neighbor. But over and over the Pakistan military and intelligence service kept their fingers on the triggers of Taliban, Hizb-i-Islami, Haqqani and other anti-Western killers.
By pledging to invite Pakistan’s great rival and nemesis, India, into the Afghan quagmire, Trump has given heartburn, insomnia and anger to exactly the people prolonging the war – the Pakistanis.
Shall we dip our toes into a bit of the history that has come back to bite us?
1- Alexander the Great conquered nearly all of the Persian Empire in the third century bc. But when he heard that Bactrians of northern Afghanistan resisted his rule, he led his army into a nightmarish series of battles, surrenders, withdrawals and new resistance. He never fully conquered the Bactrians, the pre-Islamic folk we now call Afghans.
2- British troops in the 1800s were twice driven from Afghanistan by rugged mountain folks hostile to foreign rule.
3- In 1979, Soviet troops invaded Kabul to enforce the Brezhnev doctrine – no communist block country will be allowed to slip away to capitalism. The Troops sent to quell the Afghans lost 15,000 dead. Even though they killed a million Afghans and had air superiority, they could not quell the Afghans who enjoyed US, Pakistani and Saudi backing.
4- US spies and special forces responded to the 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon by helping Tajik and Uzbek fighters from Northern Afghanistan push the Taliban from power.
So why do our old friends in Islamabad now refuse to play ball with the Yankees? We used to be on the same team in the Cold War. We flew U-2 spy planes over Russia from Pakistan. A billion dollars a year in US and Saudi guns and money flowed to rebel Afghan mujahideen who pinned down the Russians and paid them back in blood for assisting North Vietnam to kill Americans.
But South Asia harbors deeper, personal agendas. Pakistan hates and fears its giant neighbor to the east, India. They also seethe at the loss of East Pakistan which became Bangladesh in 1971 after a bloody civil war that ended with Indian intervention.
Pakistan harbors hatred of the majority Hindu nation of 1.4 billion for grabbing half of the disputed mainly Muslim Kashmir region. When the Soviets went home from Kabul in 1990, Pakistan allowed the victorious Afghan fighters to move their weapons, training and battle-hardened fighters to attack Indian troops in Kashmir.
Pakistan refused to prosecute or disband the especially vicious group Lashkar i Taiba, even after it attacked India’s parliament and Bombay. US governments on both sides of the aisle backed down on cutting off weapons and aid to punish their warfare by surrogates.
Pakistani forces also fear that in the next war, Indian armor would slice Pakistan in half. So Afghanistan is seen as a fallback territory and it demands that any government in Kabul be subservient to Pakistan’s interests.
History lesson is almost over. Both India and Pakistan now have atom bombs and missiles. This should make it possible to avoid large-scale wars as any winner would likely face nuclear attack.
So America has the tiger by the tail in Pakistan and this is the powerful neighboring ally we are counting on to renounce its terrorist allies and rein in the Taliban and other fighters.
Not just old wine. This is soured wine.
Pakistan is no longer the friendly ally Americans knew n the 1960s.
If Trump can make the accusation against Pakistan stick, and then force it down the throats of the Pakistan military, he’ll have done some good. But the canny Pakistanis seem certain to rip the scabs off any hints of progress that might leave India in a strong position in Afghanistan.
If only we could turn time back to the 1970s when we hiked peacefully in Swat and Chitral and the alleys of ancient Lahore. It was a time before passions and teeming hopeless youths turned the world upside down, and hatred replaced hospitality as the calling card of nations.
Ben Barber covered South Asia for the London Observer, the Washington Times, Newsday, and other publications. His photojournalism book GROUNDTRUTH: Work, Play and Conflict in the Third World is available on Amazon.