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OP-ED: When history does not teach

  • Published at 12:57 am September 11th, 2021
Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban
AFP

Calling something ‘national’ does not make it so

There have been several worn-out cliches thrown out by arm-chair analysts regarding the withdrawal of Nato forces at the end of a 20-year intervention that was originally triggered by the fact that Osama bin Laden (OBL) and his thugs were using the country for an all-out war on civilization, a war whose nadir was reached when they struck New York on that fateful September morning 20 years ago.

Let’s just say that it’s makes nobody an intellectual, let alone a historian worth the name, to parrot some version of “nobody has defeated the Afghans.” Even a cursory look at 19th century South Asian history will point to the depth and scope of defeat the “Afghans” faced at the hands of Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s armies. In fact, for a couple of generations, mothers west of the Durand Line would warn their children to sleep lest “Hari Singh Nalwa showed up.” Nalwa was the general of the Sikh Empire who has gone down in history as the “scourge of the Pathans.” 

That is not to say the tribesmen who inhabit the largely unforgiving terrain of that country called Afghanistan are cowards; quite the opposite, as everyone from Alexander the Great through Genghis Khan, several tsars and British prime ministers, and a few Soviet presidents and their American counterparts have found out. 

Their courage and spirit of the Pathans or Pashtuns, when channeled correctly, does wonders for folks on whose behalf they fight. Their longtime nemesis the British Empire learned this nuance very well; the spiritual and historical descendants of the British Empire across the Atlantic Ocean apparently didn’t.

The result was the almost inexplicable collapse of the multi-billion-dollar Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) in a manner that would make a cone of vanilla ice-cream in July heat be proud of its longevity. Except it was very explicable.

While the idea of Afghanistan as a country has had a pedigree and thus legitimacy for a while in that Afghanistan significantly predates India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka as a sovereign polity, the same cannot be said about the “Afghan” nation. Despite progress made during the reign of King Shah in the middle part of the last century, the gelling of an overwhelmingly rural population living in a land crisscrossed by tall mountains, deep valleys, and rapid ravines into a single nation would have been tough anyway. 

Add in deep-seated tribal identities, several well-demarcated ethnic and religious minorities, and challenges of communication across harsh topography, and one realizes something the Oxbridge-educated British civil servants of the Raj did very well: The primary, if not the sole, loyalty of the Pathan -- the largest ethno-linguistic part of the population in Afghanistan -- is to his tribe.

Successive British governors general and viceroys of India used that knowledge to marshal formidable Pathan regiments in the empire’s service from the time of the 1857 mutiny to the end of Second World War. Recruited from the Pathan heartlands on both sides of the Durand Line and from diaspora, Pathan communities in the Punjab and United Provinces, individual battalions were drawn from the same clans of the same tribes with sons following fathers following grandfathers and their performance on the battlefield meticulously led by mostly British officers who assumed the roles tribal chieftains akin to loco parentis. 

Battlefield performance was a matter of honour with neighbours, cousins, and siblings watching, often from the same trenches. What self-respecting Pathan would show cowardice before the enemy knowing his rival tribe’s battalion was fighting like lions, as the British thinking went. 

And that thinking paid off in bushels. The valour of Pathan troops in the service of the British Empire is written in blood (and in dozens of Victoria Crosses, George Crosses, and Military Crosses) across Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. 

In attempting to create a military that was a slightly modified replica of the one that the Pentagon presides over, the well-meaning military planners in Washington and Brussels were overlooked the politically incorrect but hard-learned wisdom of the British Empire vis-à-vis the soldierly mettle of Pathan tribesmen. 

The second letter in the ANDSF was largely aspirational and decidedly grafted by those whose hopes got the better of historical experience. An officer hierarchy based on strict meritocracy cutting across tribal lines and service functions (like the paymaster) modelled after that of Nato but entrusted to the care of the native officer corps left a large group of people in uniform, often underpaid or unpaid, and utterly unsure of the locus of loyalty expected.

Brigadier Sir Harry Lumsden, a pioneer in the art of raising loyal and fierce Pathan battalions and the reputed “inventor” of the khaki battledress would have loved to give some free advice to the self-congratulatory planners who dreamed up the ANDSF on the immaculate mahogany desks in Washington, London, and Kabul.

Appending the adjective “national” to a noun, doesn’t necessarily make it so.        

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and writes from the USA. He can be reached at [email protected]