A Tale of Two Empires and Afghanistan

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

There’s an old adage in Urdu that when you are going through rough times, your closest friends abandon you and your own shadow deserts you.

You can’t really accuse President Hamid Karzai of being a friend of Pakistan. Even though he enjoyed the Pakistani hospitality for long years as a refugee in Quetta as he ran from the Russians and the Afghan jihad in 1970s and ’80s, he never counted himself among Pakistan’s friends. Actually, the feeling is mutual. There’s no love lost for the Afghan president in Pakistan either.

Yet the idea of Karzai in hot pursuit of Taleban into Pakistan is not easy to stomach — and not just for Pakistan. The land of the pure is surely going through real rough times when people like Karzai begin to threaten it.

The man known in much of Afghanistan as the President of Kabul — even there he needs the constant protection of his American friends to venture out of the presidential palace — is threatening to send in the Afghan and coalition forces into Pakistan to hunt Taleban in their safe havens inside Pakistan.

This has come soon after the US air strike that killed 11 Pakistani soldiers last week on the Pakistani side of the Afghan-Pak border. Little did the Pakistani troops hunting the insurgents along the troubled frontier with Afghanistan realise that they were in turn being hunted by their allies in the US-led coalition.

So this so-called war on terror and the Great Game in Central Asia gets interesting — and deadlier — by the day. It began with the Americans, Nato troops, the Afghan and Pakistani forces fighting the Taleban and remnant elements of Al Qaeda.

Today, everybody seems to be fighting everybody else across this vast battlefield that stretches from the border with Iran to the Afghan border with Tajikistan. No one knows who is on whose side. More to the point, no one seems to have the faintest idea WHAT they are fighting for.

As in Iraq, the goal posts in this US war too keep shifting — from fighting terror to promoting freedom and democracy, as Bush keeps telling us.

Understandably, the people of Afghanistan have been the real victims of this war. But they have long been used to this permanent state of war. Their fate seldom seems to change, even though the pretenders to rule them keep changing faster than you could say the Khyber Pass.

Since long before the coalition of the willing began carpet-bombing Afghanistan in the name of peace, this great land has been witness to an endless pageant of invading armies — from Alexander the Great to the Russian commies.

None of those invaders were able to tame the wild, fiercely free-spirited Afghan though. No one ever has. Even the wily Brits with their tried and tested mantra of ‘divide and rule’ failed to conquer Afghanistan. You can invade and attack Afghanistan but you can’t rule it. The great Soviet Empire with the world’s largest army and nuclear arsenal that kept the US presidents awake at night blew itself up trying to rule it.

And now another superpower is hopelessly stuck in Afghanistan, as it tries to persuade itself and its dispirited coalition partners that they can still win this war.

That this war has entered a critical phase is evident from the reckless talk of Karzai. Either the Afghan leader thinks he can get away with this at a time when Pakistan is preoccupied with its own existential woes. Or he has been given the not-so-subtle signals from Washington to turn up the heat on Islamabad.

Whatever the explanation, it’s a message to Pakistan that its stock in Washington and in the region has dramatically fallen.

For how come someone so critically dependent on his Western friends for his own survival could glower and make faces at the nuclear-armed Pakistan? Especially when Karzai’s reign in Afghanistan hardly extends beyond the presidential palace in Kabul.

And the mighty Afghan army that he is threatening to unleash on Pakistan and that’s supposed to protect him and his people ran helter-skelter with their weapons under their arms when Karzai came under attack in April at a military parade in Kabul.

The Afghan president managed to flee to safety with the help of coalition forces. The British ambassador saved his life by throwing himself into the US ambassador’s car. Is this the army that would fight Taleban inside the lawless territory of Pakistan?

This is an ultimate affront to Pakistan, the country of 170 million people that sees itself as the leader of the Muslim world and in the league of big players like India and China. It boasts one of the most professional armies in the world that fought three big wars with a giant like India.

So what a fall for Pakistan that the worthies like Karzai are threatening to bomb it! But the people of Pakistan have to look no further than Islamabad to know who is to blame for this state of affairs.

The man who once regaled us all with his splendid idea of Enlightened Moderation is also responsible for many of Pakistan’s woes today. Perhaps no other country has suffered as much as Pakistan has by joining the neocon war on the Muslim world.

Okay, it may have brought Pakistan the much-needed financial aid most of which ended up in the pockets of the generals and politicians.

But Jinnah’s Pakistan has paid a far greater price for enthusiastically signing itself in the directionless and disastrous US war.

Thanks to Musharraf, Pakistan has ended up as the main front of the West’s war. Which will continue long before Bush and Mush have hung up their boots and retired.

But if Pakistan, Afghanistan and just about everyone associated with this lost war is feeling the heat, the US itself is not likely to emerge any better when this whole business is over.

In his new book, Patrick Buchanan argues that had it not been for the disastrous mistakes Britain made under Churchill, the world wouldn’t have witnessed WWII.

This is interesting, coming as it does from Buchanan, the man respected as the guru of the US Conservatives. Buchanan often talks sense despite being a conservative.

Singling out Churchill, the acclaimed author and pundit blames the late British PM for the strategic mistakes that not only drove Britain into an unnecessary war with Hitler’s Germany but wrecked the whole of Europe and the world by expanding the conflict.

Writing about his book, Buchanan says: "The colossal blunders by British statesmen reduced Britain from the greatest empire since Rome into an island dependency of the United States in three decades."

Comparing Churchill to Bush may be a grave injustice to the great British statesman — I love his inimitable wit and sense of humour — but I do see some parallels in how the British empire imploded under its own dead weight and the perilous path chosen by Bush’s America.

If the two Great Wars transformed the Empire in which the sun never set into a bankrupt island, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq threaten to do the same to the most powerful country the world has ever seen. For this empire is treading the same path the British empire trod in the early 20th century.

-Aijaz Zaka Syed is a senior editor and columnist of Khaleej Times. The views expressed here are his own. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: aijazsyed@khaleejtimes.com.

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