These Great Games

Published in The Express Tribune

It’s said of Robespierre, the little man that embodied Revolutionary France, that he wasn’t all that prepossessing. With weak eyes, wobbly feet, and words that didn’t quite carry, Robespierre still managed to haul off thousands to the guillotine, leaving a legacy wet with blood. Much later, Hannah Arendt came to the same conclusion watching a Nazi on trial, penning her famous Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

To sum up, evil is often boring, the men behind it desperately dull. But Afghanistan’s Dr. Najibullah, last president of a red republic, was made for the movies. They called him Najib-e-Gaw — the Ox — a weight-lifting, card-carrying commie from his high school days. Graduating Kabul University a doctor, big, brutal Najib preferred murder to medicine. Joining Kh.A.D., the Soviet-sponsored secret police, seemed the logical career choice. Najib pushed the envelope in his new job, picking and dumping dissenters at home and encouraging acts of terror next door in Pakistan.

Blessed with ‘solid managerial skills’ (i.e., the ability to torture thousands), the Russians gifted their favourite Rottweiler the presidency in 1986. But their dream, a worker’s paradise in the heart of Asia, was unravelling. It was a bad time for a People’s Afghanistan, or frankly, a People’s anything: Reagan was in the White House, the generals were in Islamabad, and the Saudis were rich. The theme of the ’80s, it seemed, was God and Country, and petrodollars flowed to weepy, screamy psychos like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, happier flinging acid than fighting Russians.

And so, the Soviets took for the hills, leaving Najibullah behind. Shrugging his shoulders, the doctor put up one big lonely fight against all comers and long odds. With Kabul at last overrun by jihadis, Najib holed himself up in the local U.N. compound; four years of watching Bollywood films followed. Outside, Afghans were once again mauled right and left by bigger boys: the Pakistanis backed Gulbuddin, the Saudis loved Sayyaf, the Iranians backed Massoud and Mazari, and everyone hated Dostum.

But by September ’96, an as yet unheard-of band of gents had knocked out the warlords and surrounded Fort Najib, memories of K.h.A.D.’s cruelty having yet to fade. Playing to both vanity and tribe (‘fellow Ghilzais won’t harm me’), the Ox was coaxed out. His fingers were broken, his mouth stuffed with Russian currency, his body beaten by rifle butts and dragged behind a truck. He was castrated, shot, and trussed up from a traffic lamp in Kabul’s busiest city centre. Thus the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was inaugurated.

Yes, one can feel the narrative start to shift against the land of the pure, and with reason. The ’90s was a particularly bad time to be an Afghan (not counting the ’70s, ’80s, and now), and Pakistan used and abused the leverage it had. Even long before the Emirate, Islamabad staked its hopes — and Reagan his voters’ tax dollars — on Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose black beard (and black heart) was thought the cure to Najib’s pagan Parchamis.

But Hekmatyar was a wolf in snake’s clothing, massacring civilians and rocketing much of Kabul to smithereens. For too many Afghans, this heartless vulture became Pakistan’s most visible export. And this when Pakistan seemed somewhat in control: before the Taliban and Naseerullah Babar, before 9/11 and the war, before Osama and Salala.

Today, popular opinion hardly favours the older Islamic Republic. Pakistan is thought a double-dealer at best and a quasi-coloniser (albeit inept at playing colonies) at worst.

But Pakistanis, too, have suffered for Afghanistan, and painfully. With superpowers bounding in and out, and messianic maniacs leaking over, it’s not the easiest of countries to coexist with. Taking in a mammoth three million refugees did little wonders for its social fabric; the drugs and guns they brought with them tore apart what was left of it. It’s not sophistry to say Pakistan’s suffered more for Afghanistan than anyone else has.

Mostly for nothing. That the only thing the Talibs and Kabul agree on is refusing to recognise the Durand Line — ‘A line of hatred that raised a wall between brothers,’ says the Quetta-married Karzai — is policy in keeping with the only place that booed our entry to the U.N. in 1947.

And while Pakistan is forever accused of pulling strings in Kabul, it was anti-Pakistan mullahs that were caught flirting with Afghan intel not a month ago. When accosted by The New York Times, Afghan spooks fluxed between sounding like bland business owners, ‘I would say we wanted to foster a mutually beneficial relationship’, to a rival football club: ‘(Afghan officials) wanted Pakistan to know Afghanistan could play dirty as well. One said they would try again if given the opportunity.’

But dirty wars aren’t easy to end. The transition from Najib vs. Gulbuddin to Karzai vs. Omar has left thousands dead, and not a thing has changed: a withering occupation feeding a rabid reaction. The Americans may leave, but the blowback won’t get as far as Washington — as indeed it never reached Moscow.

Pakistanis and Afghans will be left to marinate in mutual contempt, by turn shaking each other’s hands and shelling each other’s border guards. They would be better served respecting each other’s dignity instead.

Afghanistan and Pakistan share a massive land border (termed ‘porous’ by the press with head-banging constancy). They share an ethnic group that is Afghanistan’s largest and Pakistan’s second-largest. Via curse of history, they’re stuck with each other for life. So though it remains both spiteful and pitiful, the Afghan state may be better served providing its citizens basic facilities, than entertain the same shadow outfits that one by one blow up in its face as they did Islamabad’s.

And ‘strategic depth’, the gloss we give to using a whole country as a reserve basement if pushed up against India, was coined before most of us were born. It may be best to leave it there, once and for all.