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Obama's AfPak Dilemma: The Man Who Would Be King Or A Noble Peacemaker?

By       Message Dinesh Sharma       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   2 comments

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The history of Afghanistan is littered with wounded warriors stretching back to Alexander the Great. Attempts by Western imperial powers to tame the tribal land between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the cradle of the Indus valley civilization, now referred to as the "AfPak channel,"[1] have repeatedly failed. In 324 B.C., Alexander the Great was seriously wounded while making his way to the Indian subcontinent in the Multan City of Pakistan and died shortly thereafter.[2]

A force of almost sixteen thousand retreating British soldiers were killed in the first Anglo-Afghan war (1842); a similar fate met the British forty years later in the second Anglo-Afghan war (1880). Yet, as Arthur Herman has recently described in Gandhi and Churchill[3], the allure of the Great Game, immortalized in Kipling's writings became not just a British colonial strategy but a quasi-religious calling for many generations of British soldiers and civil service officers, including most notably Winston Churchill. The aim of this strategy was to fight off the Russians from taking control of Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass[4].

As Herman describes, this goal "justified keeping a large native Indian army, 153,000 men in 1887 and all at the expense of Indian taxpayers, ostensibly to protect them from the Russian menace but also to help secure the Raj's authority as well as garrison tropical outposts of the empire from Egypt and Somalia to Hong Kong and Singapore."[5]

Winston Churchill of course had inherited his love for the Great Game from his father Randolph Churchill, who came to prominence as a parliamentarian for successfully annexing Burma as an outpost of the Empire. Herman outlines in painstaking detail that both the father and the son totally believed in the civilizing mission of the Empire to salvage far-flung populations around the world, which would eventually run counter to Gandhi's mission.

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From an expedition in 1897, Winston Churchill wrote a telling description of the Pathan-speaking Afghan population as perpetually warring clans:

"Except at harvest time, when self-preservation enjoins a temporary truce, the Pathan tribes are always engaged in private or public war. Every man is a warrior, a politician, and a theologian. Every large house is a real feudal fortress made, it is true, only of sunbaked clay, but with battlements, turrets, loopholes, flanking towers, drawbridges, etc., complete. Every village has its defense. Every family cultivates its vendetta; every clan, its feud. The numerous tribes and combination of tribes all have their accounts to settle with one another. Nothing is ever forgotten and very few debts are left unpaid" The life of the Pathan is thus full of interest"Into this happy world the nineteenth century brought two new facts; the breech-loading rifle and the British Government. The first was an enormous luxury and blessing; the second, an unmitigated nuisance. The convenience of the breech-loading, and still more of the magazine, rifle was nowhere more appreciated than in the Indian highlands."[6]

According to many observers, not much has changed over the centuries.[7] Kipling's story, The Man Who Would be King[8], is as apropos today as it was then (for a cliff notes version see Sam Houston's 1975 film adaptation). The narrator of the story is Kipling himself, who retells the story of an English journalist on a tour of the tribal lands in North India. He meets two adventurers in search of the Great Game; Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachey Carnehan (Michael Cain) have been "soldier, sailor, compositor, photographer... engine-drivers, petty contractors,"[9] but now they want to be kings of Kafiristan, a small hamlet in the hills of Afghanistan. They cross into Kafiristan with twenty Martini-Henry rifles, manage to dupe the king, defeat his enemies in war, and take over the kingdom. A few years later, Carnehan stumbles into Kipling's office as a beggar, crippled, in rags, and recounts the story of their adventure.

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The Kafirs took Dravot to be a god (a descendant of Alexander the Great) because they practiced a form a Masonic religion, something the English had long propagated. The whole scheme fell apart when Dravot married a Kafir girl (Shakira Cain) and tried to kiss her. Scared of being kissed by a god, the girl bit Dravot, who began to bleed. Seeing his red blood, the priest recognized that he was "Not god, not devil, but a human!" Kafirs captured and killed Dravot. As proof of his tale, Carnehan who managed to survive the ordeal leaves Dravot's decapitated head on Kipling's table, still adorned with the golden crown.

The American military may have ventured into an impossible task. Its recent incursion in the world's toughest mountainous terrain may turn out to be more treacherous than the Vietnam War; a task that has now become more difficult given President Obama has been anointed as one of the greatest peacemakers on the planet.[10]

As a global leader, President Obama has been rewarded by the Nobel committee for his vision to help change the international climate. "Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play"Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population."[11]

The noble citation parallels President Obama's U.N. speech, which provided a long list of peaceful initiatives: "On my first day in office, I prohibited -- without exception or equivocation -- the use of torture by the United States of America. I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed, and we are doing the hard work of forging a framework to combat extremism within the rule of law. Every nation must know: America will live its values, and we will lead by example""[12] However, as the Saturday Night Live spoof about the administration's current report-card has suggested, many of President Obama's early initiatives may have been mired by the ongoing and divisive internal politics and the healthcare debate[13].

Obama now faces a challenge that has confronted other transformative leaders in previous generations. To paraphrase Robert Frost, is Obama going to take the path less traveled? Will he succeed in bringing peace to the Afghan valley? Or, will he be mired by the same obstacles that crippled Alexander the Great, Queen Victoria's loyal soldiers, and Leonid Brezhnev's comrades? The AfPak strategy may cast a long shadow on Obama's leadership and presidency.

In an earlier era, as Herman states, Churchill believed with all of the might of the British Empire that it was the duty of the civilizing nations to govern the less fortunate populations around the world, but Gandhi squarely opposed this agenda[14]. After World War-Two, as the Empire began to crumble history would prove Gandhi right in his principles of self-governance and Satyagraha. The epic battle between Gandhi and Churchill not only shaped the previous century, but continues to impact the fledgling democracies in the developing world.

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Now, as a bona-fide man of peace, Obama can not afford to be on the wrong side of history.

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the news daily, Asia Chronicle News:

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Dinesh Sharma is a marketing science consultant with a Doctorate in Psychology from Harvard. He is a senior fellow at Institute for International and Cross-Cultural Research, St Francis College, NYC, and a regular columnist for Asia Times Online. (more...)

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