Concluding my humanitarian missions in Kabul and Laghman, the next part of my journey would lead me through Jalalabad to the legendary Khyber Pass via Torkham, the border post with Pakistan. Just the thought of travelling through unchartered territory was overwhelming. Not only would I be revisiting history and witnessing one of the ancient gateways between east and west tracing the footsteps of the legendary Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great; moreover, I would be travelling through an area historically known for its turbulence.
My fixer had arranged for his trusted driver to transport me to the border. From then on, I would be picked up by another “host” to transport me on the journey ahead. For a moment, I felt like I was some sort of parcel being “couriered”. The package was sensitive and had to be delivered without any hindrance. In this part of the world, everything was done through reference – word of mouth. Your word was your honour, an unwritten rule upheld by many.
Travelling through the cragged mountains of the Kabul gorge we meandered through the route of the river, passing by cliffs with protruding boulders.
I could sense drivers test their driving skills as they navigated past by our vehicle at dangerous speeds, eager to get to their destination in a prescribed time. Indeed, driving on the Kabul Gorge seemed a “uniquely Afghan experience, a complicated dance of beauty and death” as Dexter Filkins, columnist for the New York Times would describe.(1) The road from Kabul through Jalalabad was probably one of the most dangerous roads in the world akin to a serpentine like labyrinth that extended yonder to the horizon and beyond.
However, my fears subsided as the distractions of the landscape appeared in front of me like a slide show of photos. The diversity in the rich picturesque landscape was breathtakingly beautiful.
Lush pastures combed the valleys with palm trees dotted only to find arid desert like features as far as the naked eye could see over the mountain peaks. What a marvel encounter this was.
Amidst the spectacular views that intoxicated my mind, I drifted into a trance of reflection. My thoughts conjured in my head of past research I had done over the years warping me into a new dimension. I was piecing together events that had transpired throughout history and placing them on my navigational footing. I wondered how a country like Afghanistan, renowned for her beautiful, exotic and hospitable people, a reflection of the scenery, be marred by such a travesty of events. A country that could offer so much and yet succumb to her wounds being inflicted upon her. A country locked in the middle of competing foreign powers over conquest and glory, misery and triumph, failure and death. A country due to her geographic importance be dragged into “cold wars” and “hot wars” for generations only for the conflicts to ruin her very social fabric.
Time and time again, Afghanistan would witness conflicts that would erupt either from within between the rival clans or from an occupying force. Marauding armies had straddled through this very land seeking fortune intent on subjugating the inhabitants. Yet they failed to do so. The results were always the same. The invaders would finally be repelled. And yet history would repeat itself. I imagined the elders sat round the campfire, their eyes shining bright with fervour, reliving the tales of valour of their forefathers to their grandchildren.
Whether it was during the reign of the Mughals or the encroachment of Alexander’s army paving his way towards the Indus, the result was the same: resistance. I pictured the elders in their authoritative commanding tone.. “My sons, know that your honor is at stake should you be subjugated by the plague that cometh towards you, stand firm in your resolve and let no one dare to impose their will upon you. Strike at those that strike at you. The menace will continue and you must be vigilant…Always”…..It reminded me of the last stand…..the last of a dying race that had so much to share and yet had so little time.
The angel of death would soon be upon them and they had foreseen this. How many of them would survive to tell the tale. How unforgivable time would be. A people scattered from the embers of the ashes.
Afghanistan has a diverse mix of ethnic groups. The Tajiks and Uzbeks from the north as well as the Hazara population make up around 40% of the population. The majority 60% of the population make up the Pashtun centered around the south and east of country. The Pashtun, a warlike people have lived for centuries by a code of conduct known as “Pashtunwali” – The way of the Pashtun. The code has many elements of which three are strictly adhered to. Badal – revenge, Melmestia – hospitality, Nanawati – asylum to anyone who seeks it. It is the “badal – vengeance” part that has led to so many conflicts. Many a traveller/ trader uttered these words before stepping into Afghanistan:
May God deliver us from the venom of the cobra,
The teeth of the tiger
And the vengeance of the Afghan.
A Pashtun would go to any lengths to avenge his honor if he felt it had been stained. There is a famous saying of a Pashtun committing revenge after a 100 years and cursing himself for his impatience.
Fiercely independent, the Afghan be it Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek or Hazara conjured in my mind the image of the Samurai Warrior or the American Indian Apache. Defying foreign intervention at the cost of their life. Death before dishonor was their ultimate sacrifice.
“I am involved in the land of a ‘Leonine’ (lion-like) and brave people, where every foot of the ground is like a wall of steel, confronting my soldier. You have brought only one son into the world, but everyone in this land can be called an Alexander.” (4) Alexander the Great
And yet in those thoughts, there was another ingredient that gave the added advantage to the Afghan warrior: The landscape. Soaring jagged peaks fashioned in the likes of a dragon’s snout breathing fire that would vaporize those with malicious intent to conquer. A maze that would leave you stranded sheepishly searching for a route out. A land that “brought hell” to foreign invaders from a hospitable people in an inhospitable environment. A warriors respect for honour and a landscape that would bring any army to its knees. This was Afghanistan.
CALAMATY OF THE BRITISH
In 1842, the British had embarked on a campaign to wrestle control of the plains of Afghanistan on suspicion that the “Russian Yolk” had intentions of reaching the warm waters of India. This was to be known as the “Great Game”. In what would be termed the worst defeat in military history, the British forces sustained heavy losses as swarms of Afghan tribesman unleashed a deathly toll on them. To the Afghan, the “Sur Kapir / Ferengi” a term used to describe the red faced infidel/foreigner were a threat to their way of life.
The ensuing battle at the stand at Gandamak resulted in the tragic annihilation of a force of over 13,000 troops. I could picture the sounds of the battle cries, the officer giving last minute orders, the sound of the bugle and the bag piper waning as the mounted horses neighed, the clash of swords, the smell of gunpowder from the jezails, the stench of blood soaking the ground as both sides vied for their last fight. Indeed, if one was truly attuned to their “sixth sense”, they would lament on the echoes transmitted from within the ground of a bygone era.
The below poem I stumbled upon sheds light on the events of that day.
Snow like powder from the sky softly falls,
When before jelalabad a rider halts.
“Who’s there” – “A caval’rist from Britains army
A message from Afghanistan I carry.”
Afghanistan. So weakly he’d said.
Half the town around him had met;
The British commander, Sir Robert Sale,
Helped to dismount the man who’s face was so pale.
Into a guard-house they guided him
And made him sit at the fire’s brim;
How warm was the fire, how bright was its shine,
He takes a deep breath, and begins to explain.
“Thirteen thousand men we had been,
When our outset from Kabul was seen –
Now soldiers, leaders, women and bairn
They are betrayed, and frozen and slain.
“Dispersed is the entire host,
Who is alive, in the darkness is lost.
A God to me salvation has sent –
To save the rest you may make an attempt.”
Sir Robert ascends the castle wall,
And soldiers and officers follow him all,
Sir Robert speaks “How dense the snow falls,
How hard they may seek, they’ll never see the walls.
“Like blindfold they’ll err and yet are so near,
The way to their safety, now let it them hear,
Play songs of old, of the homeland so bright;
Bugler, let thy tune carry far in the night.”
And they played and sang, and time passed by,
Song over song through the night they let fly,
The songs of their home so far and so dear,
And old Highland laments so mournful to hear.
They played all night and the following day,
They played like only love made them play;
The songs were still heard, but darkness did fall.
In vain is your watch, in vain is your call.
Those who should hear, they’ll hear nevermore,
Destroyed, dispersed is the proud host of yore;
With thirteen thousand their trail they began.
Only one man returned from Afghanistan. (6)
The Lost Fort – The tragedy of Afghanistan: Theodor Fontane
One of the sole survivors of the expedition straddling famously on a mule was assistant Surgeon Dr. Brydon. When asked what had happened to the army, his answer was… “I am the army”. (7)
Malalai of Maiwand
The British would have another “few rounds” with the Afghans until they would “call it a day”. Many battles would be fought as part of the Second Anglo – Afghan War; the most famous would be at Maiwand. The Afghans facing a loss of morale in the heat of the battle were rejuvenated by the most unlikeliest of characters of that days events; that of the fate of a daughter of a shepherd. Malalai who had been occupied with her chores of tending to the sick and wounded would startle her countrymen with a rallying cry of defiance:
Young love if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand;
By God someone is saving you as a token of shame;
Following that, Malalai would go on to rally her comrades singing a landai; a short form of expression in the form of Afghan poetry:
“With a drop of my sweetheart’s blood,
Shed in defense of the Motherland,
Will I put a beauty spot on my forehead,
Such as would put to shame the rose in the garden,” (8)
In the annals of Afghan history, Malalai’s outcry would be recognized as one of the main factors that would change the tide for them. Spurred by their new found conviction, the Afghans would rise to the call and challenge the British to a disastrous retreat.
Although her fate would be short lived as many like her would sacrifice their lives, nevertheless Malalai’s actions would not be in vain and have far reaching consequences. Indeed, Malalai would be remembered and lionized forevermore for her actions on that day. General Ayub Khan, commander of the Afghan forces would pay a special tribute at her grave.
I wondered how Malalai felt as she uttered those words in the midst of the chaos that was erupting around her. Was it a feeling of being helpless and a knee jerk reaction to the situation that resulted in her outburst; a last ditch attempt at rallying her comrades. Or was it more her view of “ghairaat” – honor that would unleash the pride of the Pashtun to stare in the face of death.
Reflecting on Malalai’s story reminded me of a cross between Florence Nightingale and the valiant Joan of Arc. Although not recognized in the west as such, many aspects of Afghan life would pay a tribute to her in the years to come. Etched in memory of many an Afghan, her name would adorn the imagination of the many spectrums of society from medals of honor to schools and hospitals in honor of her valiant struggle.
I look back at the way Malalai was and think of the many Malalai’s that existed in Afghanistan at the time. There are many untold stories of the sacrifices Afghan women made and continue to do so. The hardships that they endured and the sacrifices they made. I recall watching “The Beast of War”, a film set in Afghanistan about the Soviet invasion. I have always been fascinated with Afghanistan but what struck me was to read the following at the start of the film.
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
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Rudyard Kipling (11)
It did not take much imagination to understand that the womenfolk were a lethal force to be reckoned with in comparison to the male counterpart.
The Soviet Debacle
The peak of the Cold war witnessed rivals the Soviet Union and the United States take center stage in a game of chess on matters of ideology and resources. The Communist government in Kabul had gained a foothold and yet were on shaky ground following a number of internal “purges”. The Soviets fearing a loss of influence in her “satellite state” embarked on a premature maneuver of sending in troops. This was a deadly mistake that would lead to the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. The U.S having suffered immeasurable casualties not to mention a dent on her prestige in the war in Vietnam, allied with the Afghans to exact her revenge.
The Soviets would receive the blow of “a thousand cuts” by the Afghans resurrecting the term “Graveyard of Empires”. History had indeed repeated itself once again. The Soviets would send battalions including their prized special forces “Spetznaz” squads to “take out” the mujahedeen resistance. Many areas in Afghanistan would be affected but in particular, the Panjsher valley would be a cause for concern for the Soviets. This key junction was the lifeline for the Soviet supplies and a number of operations over the course of their occupation would be carried out to vanquish the rebels. The valley adorned with lush pastures and knotted with caves coupled with a battle-hardened adversary would frustrate the Soviets intoPanjsheri’s, skilled warriors for millennia were able to use guerrilla tactics to pin down the Russian bear grinding them to a ceasefire.
What was the result? Defeat for the occupiers and instability and misery for the inhabitants. Yes the Afghans would feel victorious and boast at defeating yet another adversary, in this case, a superpower but at what cost. Millions of lives lost, still many more displaced and a huge diaspora living outside the country that would never return. Worst still, all the gains that the Mujahedeen had made would turn to dust as rival factions lay claim to the capital. Pride indeed would come before a fall. What would happen now that the Soviets had left?
Kabul had been spared till now from major conflict but now things would unfortunately spiral out of control. Afghanistan would once again be drawn into a quagmire. Competing regional powers would directly or indirectly support rival factions who served their interests. So much wanton destruction would be unleashed, I wondered how the Kabuli’s living previously under Soviet occupation could breath let alone live in that hellish environment. The plight of the citizens would not be spared. Those who could afford to who had not so far, would leave. In the chaos that ensued, rival groups fought each other carving out areas of Kabul as their fiefdoms.
Kabul city sustained more destruction in the period than had been prior to the Communist era with hundreds of rockets raining over Kabul. Amidst the sectarian violence, the state of shock followed by denial became the norm. Kabuli’s leaving home not knowing if they would come back alive. So much had been sacrificed for Kabul that the destruction was irreversible personally, culturally and ecologically. Looking back in hindsight, I wondered how remarkable it was for humans to be able to live and adapt in every kind of environment. I wondered how these “factions” were able to operate checkpoints throughout the country and impose taxes on the people often subjecting them to disturbing merciless acts.
The inhabitants exhausted from fear and war set their sights on another savior; The Taliban. The Taliban comprising at first, a motley group of religious students swept over large swathes of the country capturing key strategic areas inflicting heavy losses upon the Northern Alliance. Some estimates suggest up to 90 percent of the country; no small feat by any measure. Up until that point, the country had been in protracted conflict and for them then to be overrun by this mysterious army was unheard of in recent times. The Taliban’s brief stint in power would be welcomed at first in “open arms”. However, once the honeymoon period was over, their strict austere methods that they had imposed would be too much for people to stomach. It was “peace at a price” that they no longer could adhere to.
9/11 and beyond
The events of 9/11 would catapult Afghanistan on the International stage unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. The majority of the Taliban originating from the south and east of the country were Pashtun. Their notion of hospitality meant that they could not give up their “guests” who had been accused of carrying out the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Again Afghanistan was drawn into another conflict on the world stage. This time it was the US who wanted to exact revenge on the perpetrators and their hosts. The bombardment of Afghanistan soon started thereafter followed by a host of troops on the ground. The retreating Taliban forces made their exit over the Tora Bora mountains.
“Daisy cutters” a 15,000 bomb the size and weight of a vehicle as well as other ordinance were used to flush out what remnants of the Taliban existed pounding them into submission. (13) I cannot begin to imagine the human loss these munitions were capable of doing but the ecological effects would be far reaching too. Trees and foliage that had outlived many a men lay in ruin due to the extent of the damage inflicted. I wonder what those trees had witnessed.
I had heard stories of villagers shocked at the news of the 911 attacks. They were oblivious to it all. To hear of planes being hijacked and rammed into the twin towers was something they imagined in a movie. The unimaginable horrors that would unravel as a result would equally be haunting. To see warplanes flying by once again conjured an image of the “red menace” back to haunt them into the caves once more. It was more of a shock then to find that the Americans were bombarding them back to the stone age. Soon after came the news of “boots on the ground”. Thousands of troops would be deployed under the command of NATO to search and neutralise the remnants of the Taliban. The Northern Alliance would come back to reclaim Kabul. History had again repeated itself. The Russians had forewarned the Americans not to make haste, that it took them “one week to occupy Kabul and 10 years to leave it with 15,000 dead”.
The next 12 years, Afghanistan would witness some gains in the welfare of the people but at what cost? The retreat of the Taliban into the mountains in the early years like a phantom only to reappear with deadly force was something that would haunt the allied forces later. Indeed, the Taliban had suffered huge losses, recovered, regrouped and were out to seek vengeance. They were “like a spec in the eye”, that would gradually become an irritant that would cause a severe migraine. The tactics of war had changed significantly. Suicide bombings were previously unheard of and were now increasingly being used to attack western forces. Makeshift IED (Improvised explosive devices) were being used which would keep many a driver on the roads of Afghanistan at their wits end.
So once again, Afghanistan would be in dire straits. Was it their misfortune that they were simply in the wrong area of the world? If it wasn’t them, it would surely be someone else. It was their fate. The Afghans who had suffered so much survived on their basic instincts. Islam was a prevailing factor that soaked up the undeniable wounds that had hurt them so much. It gave them respite to carry on another day.
The more I thought about the turbulence the country had faced, the more nauseating feeling I had of the repercussions. For the Russians to have left Afghanistan with help of the Americans and for them to be abandoned only to be reclaimed made the whole situation more of a suspense. In the end, it was always the vulnerable who would pay the price. The young, the innocent, the old and frail, the women folk…in fact everyone..Over and over again, I wondered how these families would leave in some cases barefoot to cross the mountains into Pakistan. How a rich, diverse and proud nation be torn apart and left for ruin.
I imagined families having to cross the border turning their necks one last time knowing they may never see their loved ones again. I felt a shudder of remorse, tears welling up with a force of emotion like a volcano beginning to erupt from laying in a dormant state for so long. I could not imagine the amount of anguish and pain these people would experience. A mighty and honorable nation brought to her knees. To walk with their heads low from fatigue, draped in the cold, the howling wind stripping them bare, betraying the long journey ahead was an ordeal in itself. The frail child whimpering, the mother consoling with a lullaby..“lalo lalo lale lalo, rocking her child and biting back the tears almost choking at times.. a defiant fist exclaiming “We are a nation of beauty and great grief! Our smile is much stronger than your gun….Oh beloved son.. if you are but fortunate that the bullet nor the elements take you, may you have the strength to be one of those that set the soul of Afghanistan free”.. Arise…arise from the ashes akin to the phoenix and glide in the midst. The leader of the pack in despair joining in the chorus..searching for hope uttering “I wish you better days to come.”
Yes those days would come but with a price. The years would pass by and nothing would change on the war front. Always war. We are tired they would say. Leave us be to tend to our flocks and our fields. The strategic location of the silk route was a blessing and a curse for many eons past. Now the pursuit of hydro carbons just north towards the Caspian sea would be a greater burden. Afghanistan and her people would have to be prepared for the long haul.
Streaming through the flashbacks of my thought process, my concern became two fold. Even if there were check posts of the Afghan Army, driving through an area that had witnessed much turbulence was of concern. I was getting closer to the border and it felt tense. Driving through on top of a mine or IED –was another matter that exacerbated the first.. Littered across the road at times you could see bits and pieces of plastic. On one of my previous visits, I had encountered the remnants of an oil tanker that had been attacked by the insurgents.
The remnants of past misadventures? Faith in my travel prayer pacified my heart like a spell or incantation would.
Seeing the glimmer of a smile like the radiance of the sun shine through the cracks of sadness and decay was all that mattered in the end..
Amidst all the tragedy Afghanistan had endured in her tumultuous history, there was still hope. Afghanistan may well be regarded as the “graveyard of empires” but it needn’t be a graveyard for the children. Indeed all was not lost. Her forefathers may have shown the mightiest of empires that they would not back down without a fight. However, her offspring needed to channel the energies to meet the challenges of the 21st century given the chance. Not through war but through education and peace. These were the lion cubs that would rise to that challenge. Time would tell.
As for me, I had thankfully reached this far on my journeys to experience so much. Crossing the border to Pakistan to meet the children would be a spectacle in itself.
Please leave any comments you may have for YOU, my audience, are my fuel that will awaken the slumbering giant of my mind within and unlock the experiences that I have witnessed…
Writer: Kabul Wazir Mir
The writer is born and raised in Bolton, Greater Manchester. Originally from the hinterlands of Khyber Pakhtun Khwa – Formerly the North West Frontier Province, Pakistan.
1, Filkins, Dexter, Afghan Road, Scenes of Beauty and Death:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/08/world/asia/08road.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
2, Ambassador Mellbin, Road from Kabul to Jalalabad near the Sarobi Dam. https://twitter.com/AmbMellbin/media
3, Afghan Pashtun Warriors, 2011, digital photograph,http://www.flickr.com/photos/50945065@N08/5561207554/
4, MDP Afghanistan Project: https://sites.google.com/site/mdpafganistan/
5,The Battle of Kabul and the retreat to Gandamak: http://www.britishbattles.com/first-afghan-war/kabul-gandamak.htm
6, Fontane, Theodor: The Tragedy of Afghanistan: Translation by Gabriele Campbell, 2010http://berlinbooks.org/brb/2010/01/the-tragedy-of-afghanistan/
7, Butler, Elizabeth: Remnants of an army:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Remnants_of_an_army2.jpg
8, The Second Anglo Afghan War: Malalaihttp://www.garenewing.co.uk/angloafghanwar/biography/malalai.php
9, Malalai and the battle of Maiwand: 30/12/2012/
10, Woodville, Richard: (1856-1927). “Maiwand: Saving the Guns”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Royal_Horse_Artillery_fleeing_from_Afghan_attack_at_the_Battle_of_Maiwand.jpg
11, Kipling, Rudyard, The young British Soldier:http://www.kipling.org.uk/poems_youngbrit.htm
12, Weaver, Mary: Lost at Tora Bora, 2005.http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/11/magazine/11TORABORA.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
13, Buckley, Andy, The US Military Starts Using “Daisy Cutters” Against Afghanistan,http://globalresearch.ca/articles/BUC111A.html
THE PASHTUN TIMES