Conquering Afghanistan- What the West can learn from India

  • The western media says  no country has ever conquered Afghanistan, but the fact they conveniently  forget is that not too long ago the Indians conquered and ruled Afghanistan, an  episode of history that is carved into the recesses of the Afghan mind.

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If there’s one thing that the western media  keeps parroting, it is the fairy tale that no power – from Alexander 2300 years  ago to Britain in the 19th century or Russia 30 years ago – was able to conquer  Afghanistan. 

It reeks of ignorance, and reporters in western  countries have exhibited a lot of that. Remember, this is the same bunch that  swallowed the lie that al-Qaeda was getting help from Iraq, when in reality  Iraq under Saddam Hussein was the most secular country in West Asia.

But how could experienced and Pulitzer Prize  winning writers ignore facts? Don’t they have armies of researchers at their  beck and call? Newspapers like the New York Times and The Guardian have  excellent research departments that can dig out the region’s history. But they  haven’t, which makes you wonder if they are whitewashing the facts – excuse the  pun!

The fact is that just 180 years ago Maharajah  Ranjit Singh (1799-1839), the Sikh ruler of Punjab, and his brilliant commander  Hari Singh Nalwa, defeated the Afghans and the tribes of the Khyber Pass area.  Had it not been for Ranjit Singh, Peshawar and the north-west frontier province  of India (handed over to Pakistan in 1947 when India was divided) would have  been part of Afghanistan today. Imagine an even bigger operating field for the  Taliban and al-Qaeda.

But first a flashback to the past. Afghanistan  had always been a part of India; it was called Gandhar, from which the modern  Kandahar originates. It was a vibrant ancient Indian province that gave the  world excellent art, architecture, literature and scientific knowledge. After  Alexander’s ill-fated invasion in the 4th century BC, it became even  more eclectic – a melting pot of Indian and Greek cultures, a world far removed  from today’s Taliban infested badlands.

It was an Indian province until 1735 when Nadir  Shah of Iran emboldened by the weakness of India's latter Mughals ransacked  Delhi. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims were slaughtered in cold  blood by the Persians. This was a highly opportunistic and reckless act because  for the past 25 centuries India and Iran had respected each other’s borders,  and though always a bit nervous of each other, the two empires never tried to  subvert each other. But because of his greed Nadir Shah changed the equation.  He annexed Afghanistan and asked the Indians to forget about ever getting it  back.

However, Ranjit Singh was not prepared to play  according to the Persian script. Nadir Shah’s successor Ahmad Shah Abdali had  been launching repeated raids into Punjab and Delhi. To check this Ranjit Singh  decided to build a modern and powerful army with the employment of Frenchmen,  Italians, Greeks, Russians, Germans and Austrians. In fact, two of the foreign  officers who entered the maharaja’s service, Ventura and Allard, had served  under Napoleon. Says historian Shiv Kumar Gupta: “All these officers were  basically engaged by Ranjit Singh for modernization of his troops. He never put  them in supreme command.”

After conquering Multan in 1818 and Kashmir in  1819, Ranjit Singh led his legions across the Indus and took Dera Ghazi Khan in  1820 and Dera Ismail Khan in 1821. Alarmed, the Afghans called for a jehad  under the leadership of Azim Khan Burkazi, the ruler of Kabul. A big Afghan  army collected on the bank of the Kabul river at Naushehra, but Ranjit Singh  won a decisive victory and the Afghans were dispersed in 1823. Peshawar was  subdued in 1834.

The Afghan and Pathans had always considered  themselves superior to the Indians. They especially looked down upon Indian  Muslims and contemptuously referred to them as Hindko. The fact that the  Indians were superior in all respects – wealth, culture, literature, art –  mattered little to them, as physical stature and lightness of skin was the only  basis for this peacock-like strutting. Says historian Kirpal Singh, “The pride  of the Afghans and Pathans was pricked for the first time as they had been  defeated by the Sikhs whom they considered infidels. Undoubtedly, they were  agitated and used to say Khalsa Hum Khuda Shuda (Khalsa too has become believer  of God).”

So how did Ranjit Singh manage to conquer such  fierce mountain people? Mainly by using a blend of sustained aggression latter  soothed by Indian magnanimity. Of course, his biggest weapon was the scourge of  the Afghans – Hari Singh, who in one battle defeated 20,000 Hazaras, the same  people who are today tormenting American and European forces. To defeat the  cunning and fierce Hazaras on their treacherous home turf was no mean feat but  to do that with only 7000 men was the stuff of legend.

Indeed, Hari Singh had become a legend. He  realised that to dominate the warlike tribes, the Sikhs had to give them the  same treatment the Afghans had given the Indians in the past. Says Kirpal  Singh, “Hari Singh set up a very strong administration in the Peshawar valley.  He levied a cess of Rs 4 per house on the Yusafzais. This cess was to be  collected in cash or in kind. For its realization, personal household property  could be appropriated. There was scarcely a village which was not burnt. In  such awe were his visitations held that Nalwa’s name was used by Afghan mothers  as a term of fright to hush their unruly children.”

Though the spell of Afghan supremacy was broken,  the region predominantly populated by turbulent and warlike Muslim tribes could  not be securely held unless a large army was permanently stationed there. A  force of 12,000 men was posted with Hari Singh to quell any sign of turbulence  and to realize the revenue. “The terror of the name of the Khalsa resounded in  the valley,” says Kirpal Singh. “Part of the city of Peshawar was burnt and the  residence of the governor was razed to the ground.”

Ranjit Singh ensured that the Afghans never  again became a threat to India. These are the same people who massacred three  British armies, and against whom the Americans and Pakistanis are now totally  struggling. The wild tribes of Swat and Khyber were also tamed.

There are three reasons why Ranjit Singh won a  decisive victory in Afghanistan and the northwest whereas the Western invasion  is foundering.

Firstly, fierce tactics were followed by a  period of liberal and secular rule. In fact, secularism was the defining  character of Ranjit Singh’s rule. There was no state religion, and religious  tolerance was an article of his faith. He refused to treat Muslims like second  class citizens. Compare this with the strafing of wedding parties by US and  European troops or the instance of Czech troops wearing Nazi uniforms.

When his victorious army passed through the  streets of Peshawar, the maharajah issued strict instructions to his commanders  to observe restraint in keeping with the Sikh tradition, not to damage any  mosque, not to insult any woman and not to destroy any crops.

Two, like the NATO forces in Afghanistan today,  Ranjit Singh’s army was a coalition too. The Indian king’s forces were made up  of Sikhs and Hindus, while the artillery almost fully comprised Muslims (as the  Sikhs and Hindus thought it below their dignity to serve in this new – and to  them, non-dashing – wing of the military). Over half a dozen European nations  are assisting US troops just as European specialists worked for Ranjit Singh.  Also, perhaps for the first time in Indian history the Mazhabis, or  'untouchables', become a regular component of the army. (While betrayals,  disunity and overconfidence had been the bane of Indian kingdoms throughout  history, another key weakness was that only the warrior castes would do the  fighting, which ruled out 80 per cent of others from fighting for their king.  Even when in dire situations where tribes such as the Bhils were engaged to  fight invaders, they were mostly given side roles.)

However, Ranjit’s Singh’s forces worked with one  united purpose and that was to secure the empire. Today, the US is reluctant to  do all the fighting, while the British forces are simply not up to the task of  taking on the fierce Afghans, rely instead on bribes to keep away the Taliban  fighters. Which Afghan will show respect such an opponent? The British,  Ukrainians, Poles, Australians, Czechs, and a gaggle of over 40 nationalities  are in Afghanistan only to curry favor with America and wrap up their  respective free trade agreements. Nobody, it seems, has the nerve to take on the  Afghans, except from 30,000 ft in the air.

Around 30 years ago, the Russian general Nikolai  Ogarkov advised Leonid Brezhnev’s cabinet not to invade Afghanistan, saying  that the country was unconquerable; today NATO generals are asking Barack Obama  to get out of the place or else the Americans will have to leave in the same  state as they left Vietnam – in their underpants. But 180 years ago the Indians  showed how a mixture of ferocity, valour and empathy could tame Afghanistan.  And that’s the third reason: at the end of the day, the Indians just did a much  better job of fighting.

(About the author: Rakesh Krishnan is a features  writer at Fairfax New Zealand. He has previously worked with Business world,  India Today and Hindustan Times, and was news editor with the Financial  Express, Delhi.)

Also read

1. About Maharaja Ranjit Singh

2. Ranjit Singh Panorama in Amritsar 

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