Conquering Afghanistan: What the West can learn from India
If there’s one thing that really gets me worked up, it is this: the western media keeps peddling the fairy tale that no power – from Alexander 2300 years ago to Britain in the 19th century and Russia 30 years ago – was able to conquer Afghanistan. To me it reeks of ignorance, and reporters in western countries have exhibited a lot of that. Remember, this is the same bunch that devoted reams of newsprint to the lie that al-Qaeda was getting help from Iraq, when in reality Iraq under Saddam Hussein was the most secular 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? Also, newspapers like the NYT and The Guardian have excellent research departments that can dig out the region’s history!
The truth is that just 180 years ago Maharajah Ranjit Singh (1799-1839) and his brilliant commander Hari Singh Nalwa defeated the Afghans and the tribes of the Khyber Pass area, in the process securing India’s north west border. Had it not been for Ranjit Singh, Peshawar and the north-west frontier provinces of India (now in Pakistan) would have been part of Afghanistan today.
But first a flashback: Afghanistan had always been a part of India; it was called Gandhar, from which the modern Kandahar originates. It was a vibrant province that gave us excellent art, architecture, literature and scientific knowledge – 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 the later Mughals ransacked Delhi and everything on the way. 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 hanged 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. 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 modernisation 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 Afghans and Pathans had always considered themselves superior to the people on the Indian side. 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 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 smoothened by Indian magnanimity. Of course, his biggest weapon was the scourge of the Afghans –Hari Singh Nalwa, who in one battle defeated 20,000 Hazaras. 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 ikhs had to give them the same treatment the Afghans had given the Indians in the past. According to 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
realisation, personal household property could be appropriated. There was scarcely a village that was not burnt. In such awe were his visitations held that Hari Singh 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 realise 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 at Bala Hissar was razed to the ground.”
Ranjit Singh ensured that the Afghans never again became a threat to India. The wild tribes of Swat and Khyber were also tamed. These are the same people who massacred British armies, and against whom the Americans and Pakistanis are now struggling.
There are three reasons why Ranjit Singh won a decisive victory and in Afghanistan and the northwest while the West is floundering.
First, terror tactics were followed by a period of liberal and secular Sikh 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 callous strafing of wedding parties by US and European troops or the Nazi
uniforms being worn by Czech troops.
When his victorious army passed through the streets of Peshawar, the maharajah issued strict instructions to his sardars 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 wing of the military). Over half a dozen European nations are assisting US troops just as European specialists worked for Ranjit Singh. Also, for the first time in Indian history, Mazhabis, for centuries considered untouchables, become a regular component of the army.
However, there is a key difference – Ranjit’s Singh’s forces worked like clockwork with one aim in mind and that was to secure the empire. Today, the US is reluctant to do all the fighting, the British forces are simply not up to the task of taking on the fierce Afghans and relies on bribes to keep away the Taliban fighters. Which Afghan will show his opponent respect if they bribe them
not to shoot? The Ukrainians, Poles, Australians, New Zealanders, Czechs, and who knows how many more nationalities, are present in Afghanistan clearly to curry favour with America and wrap up their respective free trade agreements. Nobody, it seems, has the balls 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 Hari Singh and Ranjit Singh showed how a
mixture of ferocity, valour and compassion 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.
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.