Afghanistan can be ‘second Kashmir’ after US forces pull out: Dalrymple
KARACHI: Afghanistan could be ‘second Kashmir’ once the US forces pull out of the landlocked country, British historian and writer William Dalrymple told the audience at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture after giving a presentation at the launch of his latest book ‘Return of a King — The Battle for Afghanistan’ in the city on Monday evening.
There might be another proxy war between India and Pakistan as India would arm Hamid Karzai and Pakistan would arm the Taliban, said Mr Dalrymple answering the question as to what would happen after the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan.
Earlier while drawing parallels between the British invasion of Afghanistan in the first half of the 19th century and the US occupation of Afghanistan in the beginning of the 21st century, Mr Dalrymple gave a chilling account of British forces’ humiliating defeat in the early 1840s during the presentation.
As soon as he arrived at the podium, Mr Dalrymple made it clear that the British invasion of Afghanistan (1839-1842) was the ‘biggest catastrophe’ that the Raj ever suffered as out of the 18,000 British and East India Company troops only one survived.
To put things into context, he told the gathering that two powers, Britain and Russia, had always looked to get control over Afghanistan’s mountains; the former had gobbled up chunks of South Asia and the latter had gobbled up Armenia and Azerbaijan etc. The story of the 1839 invasion began when a British artillery office, an intelligence man on the quiet, with a single group saw 200 Russians led by Yan Vitkevich marching south. The British sensed that the Russians were trying to get control over the mountain range, a ‘strategic dream’, from where they could control Central Asia.
To prevent Russia the British thought of ‘regime change’ by installing Shah Shuja, a former ruler of Kabul (the grandson of Ahmed Shah Durrani) and remove the not-so-flexible Dost Mohammad Khan who wanted to recapture Peshawar from the Sikhs. By swapping rulers they thought they’d achieve their goal. William Macnaghten advised Governor-General Lord Auckland to invade Afghanistan contrary to the suggestion of Capt Alexander Burnes that Dost Mohammad only fancied a piece of land to become a British ally and that Shah Shuja was a spent-force. The British went into Afghanistan in 1839 and captured Kandahar and Kabul.
Highlighting certain strategic gaffes, Mr Dalrymple commented that it was not that the Afghans could not be defeated (they had been defeated in the past); the fact was that it wasn’t possible to pay for it. “You had to garrison the region,” he argued and quoted Dost Mohammad who had once remarked “it’s only stone and me”. So there was hemorrhaging of money with no returns. “The economics did not add up and impoverished you,” he said. Therefore, he added, the British had to make cuts.
The historian said the final nail in the British coffin came when they slept with Afghan women. Among other things, the Afghans objected to British forces on moral grounds. To boot, Burnes slept with the girlfriend of a local leader, Abdullah Khan Achakzai, which made an Afghan comment, “The English will ride the donkey of their desire into the field of stupidity.” As days passed by life became difficult for the British and the Afghans seized their food supply and killed them brutally.
Mr Dalrymple’s narration of the killing of British soldiers was graphic and chilling.
He said Dost Mohammad returned and formed the modern boundaries of Afghanistan. Shah Shuja was assassinated. Afghan king Zahir Shah, who was in power in the 1970s, was a descendant of Shah Shuja.
The writer then informed the audience that in the 1840s the British controlled 35 per cent of world trade but by the 1860s it had reduced to four per cent — such was the telling effect of their defeat in Afghanistan. He also told them how his visit to Afghanistan to research for the book and his meetings with local Afghans there who, in response to his questions on the US invasion, said that they (invaders) pulled their women by the hair and kicked their children, so they would break Americans’ teeth because only then would they leave their country.
The presentation was followed by a brief chitchat between the author and journalist Irfan Husain. They talked about some of the writer’s previous books and their geneses.
Replying to a question, the writer told Mr Husain that he had bits of Indian blood in him as he had a distant Mughal connection.
Asked about his interest in pahari art, Mr Dalrymple said he had studied art history at Cambridge. He said people harboured the notion that the late Mughal period in art was decadent. It was not. There were two great moments in art history in that period: one related to Mohammad Shah Rangeela and the other to Bahadur Shah Zafar. He termed Ghulam Ali Khan’s works as ‘masterpiece’.