Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Afghanistan in Context

Fifty years ago, as a young man in the U.S. Army in Europe, I first learned about Kashmir. My education has always taken novel forms. It proceeded by bumps, exposures, and absorptions. Ten years before that time, for instance, I’d learned about Korea when listening to some inspirational readings—about the labors of brave missionaries—at Konvikt Sankt Bernhard, a Catholic boarding school in Germany. Every day, at the noon meal, someone read out loud for about fifteen minutes until our principal said “Satis”; thus I also learned what Romans said when they meant to say “Enough.” Five years before that time, I learned about the Sufis when my mother threw up her hands and cried: “Stop it! Stop dancing like a wild Dervish.” Anyway, I learned about Kashmir because the deputy commander of our unit, a lieutenant colonel, was taking classes offered by the University of Maryland; so was I. He had to write a paper and asked me to help him shape its English; he provided the content. Editing the stiff text, I learned about Kashmir. Fifty years ago.

The memory surfaced today as I noted in the New York Times that Pakistan objects to U.S. actions in Afghanistan, against the Taliban, which causes Pakistan problems of insurgency inside the country, forcing it to pull back troops from its borders with India, not least borders with parts of Kashmir. The Pakistanis, evidently, are much more concerned about India than worried about terrorism by virtual cousins, you might say, which the Taliban certainly are.


Pakistan itself is just 62 years old, dating from the partition of India into two Muslim enclaves (Pakistan and East Bengal) and India proper. That took place in 1947, followed by chaotic upheavals and the kinds of half-forced and half-voluntary migrations we’ve come to call ethnic cleansing—as Hindus moved south and east and Muslims went north and west. No sooner separated, Pakistan and India fell out over Kashmir, a mostly Muslim princedom that Pakistan began to infiltrate when its ruler did not opt to join the Dominion of Pakistan. Kashmir’s northern areas are ruled by Pakistan, its southern reaches by India, and high tension has stiffened the air above this region ever since 1947, wars between Pakistan and India erupting in 1965 and again in 1999. As for East Bengal, a part of Pakistan after the partition and renamed East Pakistan, it eventually broke away and became Bangladesh. In that conflict, as well as in all of the others that surrounded the partition, many thousands of people perished.

This entire region, including large areas of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan, have an honorably violent history in which two cultures (Muslim and Hindu) have been clashing ever since Muslim invasions from the North began in 1206. Islamic sultanates eventually conquered all of the Indian subcontinent in the Mughal period (early sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century).

We are now bogged down on the northern fringes of this region under the strange illusion that controlling Afghanistan—a mostly stony, rocky, mountainous, dirt-poor, and barbaric region of the world, that no empire has ever effectively managed to control—will secure us from terrorism. In this process we’re ignoring the vast sweep of history. We’re projecting our own values and assumptions on this region and naively believe that democratic forms will not only take root there but magically transform a region in habits and history altogether alien to ours.

And fifty years from now? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some earnest colonel in 2059 will still be using his spare time to improve himself by learning something about Kashmir. Or Bangladesh. Or the geography of the Khyber Pass.
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Maps are from the CIA World Factbook, an old friend, you might say.

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