Graveyard of Great Armies

At the height of tensions after 9/11 attacks when Bush was breathing down Taleban’s neck ordering them to surrender Osama bin Laden, we South Asian journalists would endlessly debate the fate of Afghanistan.

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At the height of tensions after 9/11 attacks when Bush was breathing down Taleban’s neck ordering them to surrender Osama bin Laden, we South Asian journalists would endlessly debate the fate of Afghanistan.

The big question that exercised us all of course was if Taleban would give up their Arab guest to save their own skin.

While some of us were optimistic about a peaceful resolution of the issue, I remember a friend shaking his head dismissing such misplaced optimism: “That’s not gonna happen. The Afghans will never compromise their guests and friends. Pathan aur uss par fundamentalist! (We are talking about the Pathan and fundamentalist!) That’s a lethal combination, my friends! Mark my words. Another war is coming Afghanistan’s way.”

Subsequent events proved my friend right.  Despite desperate efforts by some Muslim countries and diplomatic initiatives by Pakistan, Taleban’s resolve to protect the ‘Shaikh’ was only matched by the determination of the Bush administration to teach ‘em infidels a lesson or two.

“There’s an old poster out West… I recall, that said, ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive,’” thundered Bush in his best Texas Ranger fashion with reference to Osama.

In the end, the Taleban with their rickety Soviet era guns would rather give up power and suffer the total destruction of their country than give away someone who had sought refuge with them.

This is what they call Pakhtu in Afghanistan.  Always keep your word and protect your honour and that of your guests, whatever the price. That has been the proud tradition of the Pathans, the majority community of the country, and other Afghans.

Watching the Taleban set one deadline after another in the South Korean hostage crisis, I can’t help recall my friend’s politically incorrect comment.

The abduction of 23 South Koreans is most unfortunate.  All of us in the Middle East and rest of the Muslim world know only too well the pain and suffering of the hostages and their families back home.

The killing of the two hostages, one after another within a week, came as a rude shock to us all – just as it did to the people of South Korea and people around the world. In fact, this is all the more distressing to the Muslims everywhere.  Because such an outrage has been carried out in the name of their faith. This is not the Islam they know, with no apologies to President Bush.

How can a faith that repeatedly warns its followers against targeting of innocents and women and children even during a just war would sanction this mindless bloodletting of innocent civilians?   The early believers would get upset even if a bird nest was disturbed during a military campaign. But then Taleban are not exactly the most ideal examples of Islam’s humane and universal teachings.  They never have been.

Theirs is a world of black and white and ancient tribal laws. Their collective ignorance, rigid customs and prejudices have nothing to do with religion. These have been nurtured over the past two millennia and go way back in time, long before Islam.

But if your land lies in the path of successive generations of invaders, you develop a hardness of soul.  Afghanistan is not a country for chicken heartened.  It’s never been one. Which may be why from Alexander the Great down to the wily British to the ruthless Russians, no power ever succeeded in reining in the Afghan.

Afghanistan has been the graveyard of great armies. You can win the Afghan only when he submits himself to authority, of his own accord and on his own terms. You win him, if only you win his heart and mind.  So give Islam its due that it managed to soften such hardened and free-spirited folks. But again what Taleban are doing or not doing has little to do with their faith.  Blaming Islam for the excesses of an unruly horde of ignorant tribesmen is like holding Christianity responsible for the acts of IRA terrorists or Hitler’s atrocities against Jews.

Taleban’s actions of targeting civilians are totally reprehensible. The execution of the South Korean hostages was nothing but murder, pure and simple. This is total madness.

But you can’t ignore the method in this madness.  Look at it from their perspective. They are fighting to free their country of foreign occupation. Their demand – the withdrawal of South Korean and all foreign forces and the release of innocent people held in detention for months and years – is not as absurd as it’s made out to be.

As far as Taleban are concerned, all South Koreans are ‘enemy combatants,’ as Bush would put it.  The South Korean troops are part of the Coalition of the Willing.

And Taleban are not the only villains in this continuing tragedy. While the world attention remains focused on Iraq, Afghanistan is losing more and more of its sons to death, caught as they are between the devil and the deep sea.   As in Iraq, there’s no body count either. Tens of thousands of civilians have died since the US invasion six years ago.  This year alone, Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission says, at least 600 of the 1,100 deaths in southern Afghanistan were innocent civilians. And the day Taleban killed the first Korean hostage, the coalition forces killed more than 70 people in their indiscriminate bombing of a ‘Taleban hideout’. The village elders next day found scores of innocent women and children among those killed.  But that’s collateral damage, is it not?

No wonder this killing of 70 people was little more than a footnote in the global media coverage even as we went to town with the killing of South Korean hostage.  If this is not a case of double standards, what is?

By the way, what are South Korean troops, or for that matter other foreign forces, doing in Afghanistan?

It’s not South Korea’s war. Or for that matter, of other nations that form the US-led coalition.  I bet most Koreans might not even have heard of Taleban or Afghanistan before this unfortunate episode.  The Koreans have been pushed into this war by the US.

While the US troops are themselves thinly spread out in Iraq, Afghanistan and God knows where else, Washington is pushing its allies to share the mess it has created around the world.

Interestingly, South Korea itself depends critically on the US forces stationed on its soil for half a century for protection from troublesome neighbours.

And what were the South Korean hostages doing in Afghanistan? They were part of a missionary group. There are hundreds of such groups working across Afghanistan to proselytise a people who are as fiercely proud of their religious beliefs as they are of their traditions.

While Bush never tires of telling us how Afghan people are enjoying their new-found freedom and dignity, his neocon friends have let loose the religious Right groups with deep pockets on an unsuspecting people. It’s easy to win the hearts and minds battle against an impoverished and totally broken people, you know.

There are some genuine aid agencies and non-government organisations engaged in a truly noble and humanitarian mission to help the war-ravaged Afghanistan.

But there are many others whose agenda is not exactly inspired by altruistic motives.  So can you blame the Afghans if they view all foreigners with suspicion? After all, seldom has their distrust of foreigners been proved misplaced. I have no issues with propagation of one’s faith. After all, if Muslims enjoy the freedom to practise and propagate their religion in the West and elsewhere, people of other faiths too should have similar freedom. And if Islam is the fastest growing religion in the West, some credit should go to host societies. However, what’s going on in Afghanistan is different. Here the occupation forces are strutting their full military might to bully a vanquished people into accepting the way of life of their victors.

This is a psychological war and far more dangerous than the military assault. Which is what makes it so unethical. This is what the British did in India. This is what other European powers did in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World. But if the neocons and other zealots think they can persuade the Afghans to part with their faith or give up resistance, they’d better think again.  Like my friend warned, if the Afghan is convinced he is right, you cannot budge him an inch from his conviction.

Many a mighty invader overlooked this home truth to their cost.  In fact, not long ago a superpower destroyed itself in trying to rule Afghanistan. And now you have another superpower seeking to rein in the Afghan. But if I were part of the coalition of the willing, I would listen to what Rudyard Kipling, the bard of British empire, had to say about Afghanistan:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, / And the women come out to cut up what remains, / Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains / And go to your Gawd like a soldier.


[Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Dubai-based journalist. He can be reached at]