To compare the recent reopening of the Afghanistan route to the US/NATO traffic with an event preceding the First Anglo-Afghan war sounds so hackneyed. In its simplest sense it may be a repetition of history, a déjà vu; in a serious sense it may offer a lesson from history. It is difficult to trace any particular similarities between the two episodes but surely the first time opening of the Indus route to the West was akin to letting in the ‘Trojan Horse’ and now Pakistan’s reluctant consent to re-open reminds me of Virgil’s quote “I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.”
This time it was the magic word ‘sorry’ from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that finally convinced Pakistan to agree on opening the road. In the past it took the scheming of a grand but ‘highly objectionable’ strategy, as termed by Charles Metcalfe, who later explored Baluchistan. However, it turned out to be one of the most fascinating spy dramas, rarely had I read the details of a story with such fascination. It began in the year 1830 when a ship arrived at Bombay, with a gift of five dray horses from the King of Great Britain to Maharaja Runjeet Singh, the Sikh ruler of Punjab. The gift needed to be transported by River Indus by Alexander Burnes, who at that time held a political position in Kutch, the only territory of the British dominions in India that touched the Indus region.
Burnes’ mission was actually part of a larger plan that was prepared in response to the growing Russian influence in Central Asia since the beginning of nineteenth century. In 1801 Russian hegemony began with the taking over of Georgia from Persia (Iran); by 1825 it succeeded in converting Ottoman Turkey into a submissive ally. Britain’s ancient phobia that it might cross Hindukush-the dividing line between Central and West Asia-and occupy Afghanistan was revived. There was yet another fear, expressed best in the words of Lord Ellenborough, that Russia might “secure Persia as a road to Indus.”
Lord Edward Law Ellenborough, the President of the Board of Control of the East India Company, shared his fears with Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington and Prime Minister of Britain. The Wellington government was already drifting towards unpopularity, due to its failure to defend the Greek cause against the Turks and making matters favorable for the Russians. Ellenborough thus found no difficulty in convincing the Prime Minister and later the Court of Directors of the East India Company that Russian influence should be countered by marketing British merchandize in Central Asian markets. The shortest and the easiest route to those markets was through the Indus as it is now for the US and NATO supplies commuting from Karachi to Kabul and Kandahar.
Indus traverses through Sindh, Bahawalpur and Punjab, of these three kingdoms Punjab was already on friendly terms with Britain, Bahawalpur was not considered a problem, but Sindh seemed almost impenetrable. Its rulers had been following an isolationist policy, and fearing an outright denial to the British proposal, authorities in London decided to go disguised to prepare the initial report on the navigability of the Indus. Information on the Indus region was essential to launch trade in Central Asia and much of the success of the plan depended on the skills of the escort of the horses hence the flamboyant Alexander Burnes was just the right choice. He was already familiar with the terrain of lower Sindh adjoining Kutch. He had served as an interpreter of the British officers in their dealings with the robbers of Tharparkar and had drafted a map of the Thar Desert. With much difficulty and delay, Burnes was finally allowed a meeting with Mir Murad Ali Talpur, the ruler of Sindh. To his surprise he was received warmly and permission to sail through Indus was granted “His Highness addressed me by name; said I was his friend… as my brother had cured him of a dangerous disease.” Burnes wrote in his travelogue “A Voyage on the The Indus.”
Burnes’ mission was accomplished; he delivered the horses to the Maharaja and proceeded to Kashmir. His report on the Indus region was tempting enough, amongst the many resources of the land he had also described the display of Koh-i-Noor at the court of Lahore. In 1832, Britain succeeded to get treaties to navigate River Indus and the road to Afghanistan was eventually used for transporting goods, ammunition, an ill-fated ‘Army of Indus,’ an exiled Afghan King, and an ambitious Alexander Burnes riding by the side of the King. Britain succeeded in restoring Shah Shuja ul Daula on the throne of Kabul. But the victory was short lived, the haughty Afghan tribes’ disapproval of a puppet king led to his murder; Alexander Burnes too was butchered in the bazaar of Kabul and The Army of Indus was annihilated on its retreat through Afghan passes, it is now remembered as the ‘Army of Retribution.’
Today, on the same crossroads of history, when East and West are engaged in a renewed Great Game lets not overlook the little nuances that play a big role in larger human dramas. Dr. James Burnes may have found his patient an ‘Asiatic Tiberius’ but the Sindhi King had not forgotten his doctor and returned the favor. Apology by Hillary Clinton may have been a lip service but even in the toughest code of Eastern ethics, where revenge and chivalry are regarded the highest virtues, forgiveness has a place too. The Game is not yet over but it is certain that US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan will not be as brutal. It is also hoped that its aftermath will not be as combative (Britain conquered Sindh and Punjab soon after its failure in Afghanistan) though, according to Shuja Nawaz’s article in the AfPak Channel, United States “longer term presence in Afghanistan is suspect, since those troops are believed by some to have been designated to take out Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.”
The road is still blocked with crowds of protesters and the 9000 containers stuck there since its closure. The formal US Pakistan Agreement, about to be signed, applies only to supplies that have not yet reached Pakistan. But the clutter needs to be cleared, perhaps this time through negotiations.
One of the lessons learned from recent history is to have a long term policy for the AfPak region. The decade of 1980s had kept America fully involved in the region to resist against Soviet. However, it abandoned the region as soon as the Soviet threat receded. One of the outcomes of this abrupt departure was the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan. This time it may be worse, Taliban may not be able to make a comeback but the country can plunge in a never ending civil war and chaos. The repercussions of such a scenario will further enhance the political instability in Pakistan. Hence a serious dialogue with the Taliban before the withdrawal of the US/NATO forces is extremely important for a long-term engagement between US, Afghanistan and Pakistan. India too could be invited at the negotiating table, as it is fully involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, but that may be expecting too much. All the partners in the Game need to define their roles in the post 2014 period.There will be mutual mistrust in the negotiating room but a degree of respect for each other is required to clear the road further. Hillary Clinton’s gesture is symbolic, she has walked an extra mile, in all the cultures of that region, Muslim, Hindu, tribal and feudal if a woman approaches with a request it is not denied to her. Such are the subtle conventions of eastern tribal codes that we need to understand.