Playground of empires — Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar

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Sikhs were the last to lay arms. After Ranjit Singh’s death, palace intrigues and contest for power had weakened the formidable Sikh kingdom and after two bloody wars – one fought at Ferozepur (1846) and the other at Gujrat (1849) – the British annexed Punjab.

With Punjab under their firm control and having packed off Dilip Singh (heir to the throne) to England, there wasn’t much left to worry about other than the management of the colony and transfer of immense loot back home. India’s wealth for centuries had attracted looters and plunderers of all kinds, some descending upon it every other year and some choosing to stay back and establish their own dynasties – till the next one came along and dispossessed them.

The British were no different and followed the same pattern. The enterprise of milking the Subcontinent had to carry on till it possibly could and for that the wealthiest of the colonies, the biggest of the crown jewels had to be protected at all costs from any possible future invasions or threats of it. With the annexation of Punjab, the territories of the East India Company now shared borders with Afghanistan. Historically, that is where the hordes came from or used it as a passage, in case of those invading from Central Asia or Persia.

But Afghans in the eighteenth century hardly posed a threat to the superior military prowess of the British. It was another power lurking in the background whose slightest of manoeuvres were interpreted with suspicion and sent alarm bells ringing in London. Czarist Russia was expanding in Central Asia at a phenomenal speed, gobbling up the Khanates of Khiva, Samarkand, Bukhara amongst others, adding thousands of square miles of land to its territory. With this as background, thus began what came to be known as and deified in a phrase by Rudyard Kipling in KIM as ‘the great game’ – “Now I shall go far and far into the North, playing the Great Game …”

One finds it amusing how in its unfolding the present merely rhymes with the past; plots remain the same, only the characters change! Think for a moment of the web of narratives that is spun around you, the historical burdens that one is born with and has to carry for the rest of their lives. The rivalries of religion, schisms within religions, affirming to this school of thought or that, between nations, races and tribes. How we continue to flare up and are ready to spill blood on meanings and interpretations of scripture or events that took place thousands, centuries or even decades ago. The present it seems is perpetually hostage to the past.

The year before his death in 1838, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Lord Auckland of the East India Company had formed an alliance to invade Afghanistan and install Shuja Shah (then living in exile at Amritsar) as king. This campaign was the first Anglo-Afghan war and thus laid the seeds to events that would change the course of history leading up to the present day. Each side then had a score to settle. The British wanted to punish Dost Muhammad for warming up to the Russians, Shuja Shah wanted to reclaim his lost throne and Ranjit Singh saw it in his favour to remove a threat of a hostile neighbour from whom he had annexed Peshawar some time ago.

Now fast forward to recent times. Do you see any rhyming patterns? America and the West teaming up with Pakistan in 1979 to bleed and stall the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s strategic obsession of having a friendly government in its backyard and ever-willing factions within Afghanistan seeking foreign help to oust their adversaries. What has changed? Sadly, only the characters. It’s only a matter of time when another power in the region or from the outside sees it to its benefit to intervene, only to be beaten black and blue by the other.

It is in this historical context that one finds the term ‘graveyard of empires’, used by some as a handy one-liner to describe Afghanistan, outright misleading. Afghanistan is and has been for the last couple of centuries rather a ‘playground of empires’, with the consequence that every now and then ordinary Afghans have to pack their bags and leave their homes to be forced to live as refugees in foreign lands. From their point of view, must Sisyphus always wake up to find himself right where he started from?

As a Pakistani, I have found the glee expressed by many of my country-folk on the recent events in Afghanistan naive and distasteful. What is it exactly that we are celebrating? The replacement of a not-so-friendly government with that of the Taliban or the humiliation of the Americans? Pick your choices – but do so wisely for each has its own set of consequences. And while you ponder upon them, a few words of caution: a wounded superpower is a dangerous superpower, and ideologies can’t be stopped by putting up fences.

The writer is a lawyer with a keen interest in history and politics.