There is potent irony in the fact that 68,000 American troops, with 30,000 more to come, are fighting and dying in Afghanistan, a landlocked country at the crossroads of South and Central Asia from which the United States worked so vigorously to oust the Soviets during the Cold War, and in which a predominant majority of those the United States now confronts have views and values akin to those it supported during that prior conflict. But then history in Afghanistan is ironic at its core and has a way of mocking the best laid of plans.
Enduring centuries of prolonged periods of conquest, turmoil, internal strife, and great power rivalries (it was overrun and ruled at different times by Greeks, Persians, Arabs and Mongols, and Mughal emperors in Delhi), present-day Afghanistan was formed in 1747 by Ahmed Shah Abdali, a Pashtun bodyguard of the Persian emperor, Nadir Shah. A century after this founding, the country had become the focus of the Great Game, played out between the imperial British government of India and a czarist Russia expanding its territorial boundaries across neighboring Central Asia. Continuing British pressures forced the Afghan rulers, in 1893, to concede that the formal boundary between British India and Afghanistan, subsequently called the Durand Line, would be drawn in a manner that guaranteed the security of British imperial interests, disregarding the fact that the Pashtun majority population of Afghanistan lived on both sides of this border. The origins of today’s turmoil can be traced back, in important measure, to the creation of this artificial frontier.
It was only in 1919 that the Afghans attained full independence, including in the conduct of their foreign policy, from imperial Britain. Because their country had been drained by great-power rivalries, successive Afghan rulers adopted a policy of neutrality, reinforcing it with membership in the nonaligned movement during the Cold War. But when King Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan in 1973, Afghanistan was drawn into the vortex of a long postwar struggle. Complicating the situation was the fact that successive Afghan governments, and even influential sections of the Pashtun population in Pakistan, refused to acknowledge the Durand Line as an international frontier.
Pashtuns remember the words of their legendary seventeenth-century poet Khushal Khan Khattak, who proclaimed: “Pull out your swords and slay anyone that says Pashtun and Afghan are not one. Arabs know this and so do Romans: Afghans are Pashtuns and Pashtuns are Afghans!” Even today this problem bedevils relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
G. Parthasarathy, an author and columnist in Delhi, is a former Indian ambassador to Pakistan.
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