Category Archives: South Asia

Flying from New York to Calcutta, 1942

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 104-105:

The United States retained high hopes for China’s potential, and for the overall importance of what was known as the China-Burma-India Theater. From early 1942, large numbers of American personnel were sent to the region, primarily India. Given the conditions, a world at war, moving from one theater to another was a drawn-out affair. The China specialist John Paton Davies Jr, who was assigned as political attaché to Joseph Stilwell, described the 13-day trip from New York to Calcutta: “We flew by one of Pan American’s original clippers, a flying boat, to Belém at the mouth of the Amazon—moist, mossed, suffocating, hyper-tropical—then Natal, and across the Atlantic to somnolent Fisherman’s Lake in Liberia. The remainder of the trip was by two-engine C-47 transport planes to Kano and then Maidugiri, both in Nigeria, across the scrubby wilderness of Chad to Khartoum dominated by the Nile, up to Cairo, swarming with handsome British staff officers whom the troops called the gabardine swine, over to Tel Aviv, down to Shatt-al-Arab, carrying the mingled waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, out above the azure-emerald Persian Gulf to Sharjah’s desert airstrip manned by an RAF ground crew of a forlorn half dozen and a gazelle, along the desolate, jagged coast of Iran and Baluchistan to Karachi, and finally trans-subcontinentally to teeming, beholy-cowed Calcutta.”

The main priority for the United States was to keep China and its vast manpower resources in the war. Since the late 1930s, one of the main routes for keeping China supplied from the outside world had been the Burma Road, linking Burma to Chiang Kai-shek’s landlocked government in southwest China. “Though maladministration and corruption had reduced its inherently low capacity,” according to the official US history of the China-Burma-India theater, the road had for years “had great symbolic value as China’s last tie with freedom.” It had been built by hand for more than 700 miles through inhospitable terrain by tens of thousands of workers and had proved an invaluable asset, even though it had been closed briefly in 1940 by the British government, bowing to Japanese pressure.

By the time of the US entry into the war, the Burma Road was again in operation, and it had to be constantly maintained, again with the help of China’s most abundant economic resource: manual labor.

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Retreat from Burma, 1942

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 69-70:

The retreat out of Burma into India was a race against time, as it had to be completed before the onset of the monsoon. The troops made it, just. The last stage of the British withdrawal was bogged down by torrential rains, which began in May. Pearl “Prue” Brewis, a British nurse, was on a train that managed to travel 65 miles in six days, since movement could only take place at night. On the sixth day, while the carriage was sitting idly on the tracks, a senior railway official entered and offered a ride up north on his train. It was crowded, but fast. “Standing room only, you know,” Brewis said about the 100-mile ride north. “Actually, we got the last plane to leave Burma because the next day the aerodrome was bombed.”

More than a million Indians lived in Burma prior to the war, but most still considered India their home. When the Japanese launched their invasion, there was a mass exodus of Indians, and soon most major Burmese cities were virtually emptied of them. The senior medical officer, Brigadier Short, described the Indians who arrived at the town of Ledo in easternmost India in the summer of 1942: “Complete exhaustion, physical and mental, with a disease superimposed, is the usual picture… all social sense is lost… they suffer from bad nightmares and their delirium is a babble of rivers and crossings, of mud and corpses… Emaciation and loss of weight are universal.” Slim watched how an Indian woman died from smallpox, leaving behind her small son. He and his staff bribed an Indian family to take the boy with them. “I hope he got through all right and did not give smallpox to his new family,” Slim wrote in his memoirs.

In the manner of Dunkirk, the defeat in Burma was in a way turned into a victory by the British. “The Army in Burma,” the official British history says, “without once losing its cohesion had retreated nearly one thousand miles in some three and a half months—the longest retreat ever carried out by a British Army.” The American assessment of the British record was less kind: “Though there were cases of individual heroism and desperate fights by small isolated forces, the main body of the British made little or no efforts to stand and give battle,” an official US military report on the Burma campaign said. “The piecemeal defense was a piece of stupidity which resulted in tens of thousands of casualties to the troops, the complete destruction of every town and city in Burma, and the loss to both the Chinese and the British of a vast amount of irreplaceable installations and equipment.”

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British vs. Japanese Tactics in Malaya, 1941

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 22-24, 40:

The first troops which the Japanese encountered when disembarking on the Malay coastline were Indians, and Indian units remained their main opponent throughout the campaign. Britain used one part of its empire to defend another. Out of 31 Commonwealth battalions deployed on the Malay Peninsula, 18 were Indian, six were British, six were Australian, and one was Malay. A large number of Indian troops had originally been earmarked for the Middle East and had undergone training in Australia, specializing in tactics suitable for desert warfare. Now they were in the jungle. “One could argue that the Commonwealth troops in Malaya failed to unlearn the lessons of desert warfare in tropical conditions,” Indian military historian Kaushik Roy writes, “and failed to adopt the required tactical techniques for fighting effectively in the different ecological landscape.”

The poor preparation of the Commonwealth troops made the preparations carried out by the Japanese seem all the more impressive. As a matter of fact, the Japanese campaign in Malaya was a rush job, planned in less than a year by a small group of dedicated officers operating on a minimal budget, seeking information from whoever in the Japanese Empire might be a good source. An old sea captain who had spent many years plying routes in the areas Japan planned to invade provided details about weather patterns and coastal conditions. The Ishihara Mining Company had useful information about the geography of the Malay Peninsula. Professors at Taiwan University filled the group in on hygiene in the tropics and measures against malaria.

The Japanese, whose main experience with war had been on the Mongolian steppe and the rice fields of China, were no more used to jungle warfare than their Western counterparts, but they went into battle better prepared because of the questions that the planners asked, and found answers to. “What alterations had to be made in the organization of troops and the type of weapons and equipment used on the Siberian and Manchurian battlefields at twenty degrees below zero to meet requirements for fighting in the dense jungles of the tropics?” asked the planners, led by the capable but brutal officer Tsuji Masanobu. “How should tactics and strategy used against the Soviet Union be revised for action against British and American armies, and what comparisons could be made between the tactics, equipment and organization of Soviet, British, and American troops?”

The preparations paid off. The Japanese soldiers landing in Malaya were equipped for quick, decisive movements through terrain where modern roads were only sparse. They had light tanks, light trucks, and first and foremost bicycles. An Australian staff officer, C. B. Dawkins, concluded that the Japanese had, in fact, understood what the Westerners had not: “Jungle, forest and rubber areas are par excellence infantry country—every move is screened from air and ground observations, the value of fire of weapons of all natures is very limited, and troops on the offensive can close to within assaulting distance unmolested.”

By Christmas, Lieutenant General Arthur Ernest Percival, the overall commander of Commonwealth forces in Malaya, had to revise many previously held views of the Japanese foes, as he explained later: “It was now clear that we were faced by an enemy who had made a special study of bush warfare on a grand scale and whose troops had been specially trained in those tactics. He relied in the main on outflanking movements and infiltration by small parties into and behind our lines… his infantry had displayed an ability to cross obstacles—rivers, swamps, jungles, etc.—more rapidly than had previously been thought possible.”

Faced with a terrifying foe, the Commonwealth defenders went from underestimating the Japanese foes’ quality to overestimating their quantity. “A British soldier is equal to ten Japanese, but unfortunately there are eleven Japanese,” an injured Tommy told American correspondent Cecil Brown. The British Army in Malaya could not believe it was being beaten by the Japanese, and its members had to conjure up superior numbers to explain what happened to them. In fact, there were about twice as many British-led soldiers as there were Japanese. In Malaya as in all other major land campaigns that the Japanese waged early in the war, they invariably fielded numerically inferior troops, which nevertheless excelled in all other parameters.

National differences came out more clearly in the harsh jungle. The stiff pecking orders of the British military were maintained even in the primitive conditions, whereas the flat hierarchies of the Australians appeared to some observers more suited for the new strange environment. “The Australian Army is undoubtedly the world’s most democratic, and the troops in Malaya prove it,” wrote American correspondent F. Tillman Durdin, reporting how the salute resembled a “Hi, there” gesture. “An Australian officer can command his men only if he proves himself as good a man as any of his unit.”

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Nationalizing the Opium Trade

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 446-447:

With the advent of a free, legal, and open Asian commerce in opium, the native merchants of India and China moved to dominate the trade, squeezing out the Europeans who had acted as go-betweens in the past. By the 1870s, the India-China opium trade was so firmly locked up in the hands of native traders on both sides that there was no longer much money to be made by the Western firms that had pioneered the “country” trade in the early part of the century. In the face of declining profits, Jardine, Matheson & Co. (now run by a slew of nephews and other descendants of the founders and their partners) pulled almost entirely out of the opium trade in 1873, joined by other large Western firms. Domestic production in China, meanwhile, kept rising—ultimately to such stupendous heights that it would dwarf the continued imports of the drug from India. The dawn of the twentieth century would find China producing ten times as much opium internally as it imported from abroad, an explosive abundance of cheap domestic narcotics that would create a public health emergency worlds beyond even the most exaggerated estimates of what had existed in the 1830s prior to the Opium War. So much for the virtues of legalization.

In spite of the best efforts of moral activists at home, the British government would ultimately do nothing to scale back the dependence of British India on opium revenues or otherwise try to help prevent the growth of the drug’s use in China. Meanwhile, the Qing dynasty would continue in its failure to suppress or even regulate the use of opium by the general public in China, wallowing in a quagmire of official corruption it could not escape. Up to the twentieth century, though, Britain’s role in that process would be dwelled upon more by westerners than by the Chinese. It was the English-speaking world that condemned it as “the Opium War” from the beginning, while Chinese writers through the nineteenth century, including Wei Yuan, simply referred to it as a border dispute or foreign incident. To them, opium was a domestic problem and the war was a minor affair in the grand scheme of China’s military history. Only after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 did historians in China begin to call this war “the Opium War” in Chinese, and only in the 1920s would republican propagandists finally transform it into its current incarnation as the bedrock of Chinese nationalism—the war in which the British forced opium down China’s throat, the shattering start to China’s century of victimhood, the fuel of vengeance for building a new Chinese future in the face of Western imperialism, Year Zero of the modern age.

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Opium-funded Philanthropy in India

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 432-433:

Funneling the vast fortune from his China trade back into real estate in Scotland, Matheson would die the second-largest landowner in the entire United Kingdom.

Neither James Matheson nor William Jardine went in for significant philanthropy as John Murray Forbes’s uncle Thomas Handasyd Perkins had done in Boston, but a loftier place in public memory was reserved for Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, Jardine’s longtime associate in Bombay. With a fortune made by dominating the opium and cotton export trade of western India, Jeejeebhoy poured his own money locally into Parsi charities, famine relief, schools, hospitals, and public works, establishing himself as one of the leading figures (the leading figure, by some fawning accounts) who turned Bombay from a colonial backwater into a modern global metropolis. A director of banks and newspapers along with managing his business empire and funding many charitable works, Jeejeebhoy was a steadfast supporter of British rule, and on February 14, 1842, just as the war in China was nearing its end, Queen Victoria knighted him. “I feel a high, I hope a justifiable pride,” he said at the time, “in the distinction of being enrolled in the knighthood of England, marked as that order has ever been by the brightest traits of loyalty and honor.”

Jeejeebhoy was the first Indian to become a British knight, and in 1857, Victoria would make him a baronet as well. The name of “Sir J. J.,” as he is known colloquially, adorns schools and hospitals in Bombay to this day, the great philanthropist of the city’s Victorian past. As one Gujarati newspaper rhapsodized at the time of his death in 1859, “His hospitals, rest houses, water works, causeways, bridges, the numerous religious and educational institutions and endowments will point to posterity the man whom Providence selected for the dispensation of substantial good to a large portion of the human race.” Of the fact that so much of that “substantial good,” dispensed to such a “large portion of the human race,” was made possible by Jeejeebhoy’s sale, through Jardine and Matheson, of Indian opium to Chinese smugglers, little is said.

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Opium Culture in Qing China

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 225-229:

It is unclear how many Chinese smokers of opium in the early nineteenth century were what we might call addicts. Some certainly were, but given how much was being imported they could not have been many relative to the size of the empire. By the start of Daoguang’s reign in 1820, the nearly five thousand chests being imported from India each year were enough to support about forty thousand average habitual users empire-wide, or as many as one hundred thousand of the lightest daily smokers, so at most a few hundredths of a percent of the population. Furthermore, most users at this time seem not to have been terribly debilitated by opium—they led productive lives and were not outcasts from their families or professions. Indeed, opium smoking was a generally open, public act and there were many socially encouraged reasons to take part in it. Medicinal reasons aside—and there were dozens of those—businessmen smoked opium to focus their minds and help them make smarter deals (at least they imagined that was the effect). Students smoked it for the clarity it brought, thinking it would help them succeed on the civil service examinations. For the stylish it was a relaxant to be offered to guests after dinner. For the privileged with little to do, like the eunuchs of the Forbidden City or Manchu courtiers with few responsibilities, it was an escape from boredom.

Opium was, in other words, perfectly acceptable in respected circles. An aesthetic culture of gorgeously wrought pipes and other accessories grew up around its use by the wealthy, the very expense and extravagance of those tools elevating the act of smoking itself. The Chinese fashion for smoking, moreover, was quite profligate in comparison to the eating of the drug that went on in Britain; much was wasted in the process, and a smoker could easily go through an amount of opium in one day that would kill someone who ingested it directly. For those in more humble situations who couldn’t afford to smoke it themselves, employment in the opium trade still provided a chance for income as couriers and petty dealers.

From a purely economic standpoint opium had its advantages. Valuable and easy to carry (it was worth more than three hundred times its weight in rice), foreign opium was a very good business proposition for Chinese merchants in Canton. Being illegal, it could be turned around quickly for a profit in silver—within a few days in most cases, as compared to tea, which involved large cultivation and transportation networks, and generally took half a year or more to produce a return on each year’s investment. Since the Canton traders made more back from their customers inside China than they paid to the foreign suppliers, trading in opium also served as a convenient way for them to increase their own silver stocks, which they could then use to procure tea for sale to the foreigners. And though they had to pay bribes to officials, the illegal trade was otherwise, de facto, free from taxes.

There is no evidence that the moral exhortations of the Daoguang emperor caught on with the general public in any meaningful way. The widespread public opposition to opium on moral and public health grounds for which China would be known in the twentieth century was at this time entirely absent. Though perhaps the public’s resistance to imperial moralizing was only to be expected; in the early seventeenth century, the Ming dynasty had tried to suppress tobacco for reasons very similar to the Qing dynasty’s ban on opium—even to the point of ordering execution for anyone who cultivated or sold it—but they did not succeed. By the time of the Qing dynasty, those prohibitions were long forgotten and tobacco was an accepted staple of daily life in China. There was no reason the Jiaqing or Daoguang emperors’ edicts against opium should have been more likely to find success.

The Chinese of the early nineteenth century are often described as being uniformly insular and scornful of anything foreign, thanks mainly to an overly literal reading of the boilerplate language in Qianlong’s edict to George III where he claimed that he did not value foreign things. But this was not really the case. For wealthy urbanites in China, Western goods were all the rage by the 1820s—furs, glass, intricate clocks, cotton textiles, and other products of the Canton import trade, which were highly sought after by those with sufficient money to buy them. Far from encountering any kind of disdain for foreign objects, Chinese retailers in the early nineteenth century found that attaching the adjective “Western” to their merchandise was in fact the key to a higher selling price.

This consumer fashion for foreign products helps explain why the opium from British India became so popular in China. Against latter-day nationalist claims that the British came and forced opium down the throats of helpless Chinese consumers, there was in fact an existing system of domestic opium production in China already in place to compete with the import market at Canton (especially in the empire’s western and southwestern provinces). There were also separate avenues for importing the drug overland from Central Asia—and opium from all of those sources was much cheaper than the Indian opium the British brought to Canton. But opium was a luxury good, and its wealthy consumers weren’t looking for a bargain; they were looking for status. Fashionable users of the drug in urban China preferred the opium from British India (the Patna, with its East India Company seal of quality) largely because it was “Western” and therefore seen as far more sophisticated to buy and smoke.

By the late eighteenth century, when British traders began carrying Indian opium in meaningful quantities to Canton, they did so because they knew a market was already waiting for them there. They could not force the drug down anyone’s throat—indeed, they couldn’t even get themselves into the country; all they could do was to carry their opium to China’s southern coast and sell it to Chinese agents. Everything from there on into the Qing Empire was entirely in Chinese hands. Moving forward into the nineteenth century, the extensive smoking of opium emerged as an almost uniquely Chinese social custom, the Canton market for the drug growing to become, primarily for domestic reasons, the most demanding in the world. If opium was illegal in name, it was almost never so in practice, a fact as apparent to outsiders calling at Canton as to insiders within the Qing Empire. As one British dealer testified to a government committee in 1830, “Every now and then there is a very strong edict issued against the trade; but, like other Chinese edicts, it is nearly powerless. It imposes a little difficulty perhaps for the moment, and enables the Mandarins to extort from the dealers.”

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Charms of Exile in Dharamsala

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle p. 242:

The exile community was headquartered three hundred miles north of New Delhi in the former British resort town of McLeod Ganj, a village in upper Dharamsala developed by the British military in the mid-nineteenth century as a cantonment for troops administering the region. The British had been drawing up plans to turn it into a summer capital, when, in 1905, an earthquake devastated the town and forced their retreat to lower, firmer ground. After India’s independence, the town was left with an inventory of empty real estate—quaint colonial buildings crumbling into the hillsides. When the Dalai Lama fled to India, a shrewd merchant who ran McLeod’s general store prodded the Indian government to offer him the village as his base. It suited the needs of the Indian government to accommodate the Dalai Lama in a place that befitted his status but was comfortably out of the way so as not to irritate the Chinese government too much.

Dharamsala appealed as well to the Tibetans, who appreciated its relatively cool temperatures, mountain air, and auspicious name—“dwelling place of the dharma” in Hindi. All slopes and switchbacks with barely a horizontal surface in sight, Dharamsala didn’t much resemble Tibet, but a snow-capped spur of the Himalayas was visible in the distance. Around the Dalai Lama sprung up an entire parallel universe of Tibet, hinting of home. The Central Tibetan Administration had its own ministers and parliament, schools, museum, library, and civil service employees—even a civil service exam. (“We don’t have a country but we have bureaucracy,” a spokesman told me, apologizing for the requirement that a press pass was needed to visit a school.) Empty storefronts filled up with hotels, cafés with multilingual menus and cuisine, English-language bookstores, yoga studios, and boutiques selling copper singing bowls and prayer beads.

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Origin of North Korea’s Nuclear Program

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 232-234:

In 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a thirteen-day standoff over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, less than one hundred miles from the US coastline. For those two weeks, the world teetered on the edge of nuclear war. But the conflict was resolved diplomatically when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles as long as President John Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba. A deal was done.

Kim Il Sung viewed this deal as a capitulation by the Soviet Union to the United States, a sign that Moscow was willing to sell out an ally for the sake of its own security. The Great Leader apparently learned from this that North Korea should never entrust its national security to any other government. This injected new momentum into his drive for nuclear independence. Within a few months, Kim Il Sung’s regime had started to explore the possibility of developing a nuclear deterrent of its own. The leader who had espoused a need for a stronger agricultural policy was soon standing before the cadres in Pyongyang to hammer home the importance of putting equal emphasis on economic growth and national defense. This was the first “simultaneous push” policy. The proportion of the national budget devoted to defense rose from only 4.3 percent in 1956 to almost 30 percent within a decade.

The nuclear scientists who returned home from the Soviet Union set about building, about sixty miles northeast of Pyongyang, a similar complex to the one they’d worked at in Dubna. This would eventually become the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Complex.

More impetus came in the early 1970s, when it emerged that North Korea’s other main ally, China, had secretly started to forge relations with the United States, an effort that led to President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, the strongman Park Chung-hee, a general who’d seized the presidency through a military coup, was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons of his own. When this news emerged, it was an unbearable blow to Kim Il Sung’s personal vanity and sense of national pride.

Another key factor that must have been weighing on Kim Il Sung’s mind was his own mortality. He was in his sixties by this time and was starting to prepare his son to take over. He thought that having nuclear weapons would make it easier for his son to keep a grip on the state. In lieu of charisma, Kim Jong Il should at least have nukes.

In the late 1970s onward, the North Koreans had built more than one hundred nuclear facilities at Yongbyon alone. American intelligence agencies were alarmed. In the space of about six years, a country with no previous experience had built a functioning nuclear reactor. Three years later came unambiguous proof that the reactor’s purpose was military, not civilian; the country had built a major reprocessing facility that would enable it to turn the fuel from the reactor into fissile material.

But its efforts were not going unnoticed among allies either. The Soviet Union pressured Kim Il Sung into signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty at the end of 1985. It took seven years for North Korea to allow in the inspectors required under that treaty, and when they got in, they found numerous signs that the regime was secretly working on the very kind of nuclear program it had pledged against. In 1993, Kim Il Sung threatened to withdraw from the treaty, triggering an alarming standoff. North Korea and the United States came the closest to war in forty years.

Talks to resolve the impasse were ongoing when Kim Il Sung suddenly died in the summer of 1994, propelling both sides into unknown territory. They did, however, manage to sign a landmark nuclear disarmament deal called the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program and a US-led coalition agreed to build two civilian nuclear reactors that could be used to generate electricity for the energy-starved country.

Pyongyang had no intention of abiding by this agreement either. Signing the deal was all about buying the Kim regime time to work on its program while maintaining the appearance of cooperating.

North Korea had developed a close relationship with Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. In the 1990s, while North Koreans were dying of starvation and while Kim Jong Un was watching Jackie Chan movies in Switzerland, the regime was building a uranium-enrichment program. Uranium enrichment wasn’t technically covered under the Agreed Framework. And North Korea loves technicalities.

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Wardak No-Man’s-Land, 2009

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 235-236:

The summer of 2009 saw an increase in infighting among Wardak’s Taliban, and growing tensions with their co-insurgent allies in Hekmatyar’s faction. At the same time, because the Taliban leadership paid units a “bonus” for outstanding attacks, the number of fake assaults, staged for video, surged. Akbar Gul played the game as well as anyone, but as the days went on he slid into despair. He hated those men in Quetta, he hated the ISI, and, most of all, he hated Ghulam Ali and his success. But he kept it all to himself. It was a dangerous new world, and you couldn’t trust anyone, even your own allies.

Countrywide, his movement was losing steam. The Taliban were now responsible for more civilian deaths than were the Americans. In some communities, roadside bombs, assassinations, and summary executions had come to take their place alongside Guantanamo and the door-kicking night raids of US troops in the pantheon of fears that kept villagers awake at night. Meanwhile, the insurgency was spreading from marginalized, cut-off communities into those that had fared better in the post-2001 years, whether it was welcome there or not.

In Chak, many of the commanders Akbar Gul knew had been killed in night raids, leaving Ghulam Ali’s crew and a smattering of independents, most younger than he, with no memories of the old Taliban days. It became increasingly difficult to defend their actions—which included, in one case, beheading a schoolteacher—to the village elders. He turned inward, planning operations on his own, without other commanders, and keeping away from Pakistan. Then, one day, he received a surprising phone call. It was the government’s new chief of police for Chak, an old war buddy from his Hizb-i-Islami days. They had ended up on opposite sides through chance more than anything else. The man spoke of a government program that invited fighters to switch sides in return for money and a guaranteed job. Akbar Gul listened and wondered where such a program had been years earlier, when he would have given anything for a normal life. But things were different now, more complicated. He realized that it had been a long while since the Taliban meant anything to him. But he couldn’t imagine himself openly joining forces with the government either. In fact, he knew that friends who’d gone down that route were languishing in a dangerous political no-man’s-land: Karzai’s government had not fulfilled its promises, and for the Taliban they were now marked men.

“What are you fighting for? The Americans are going to leave anyway,” the police chief said. “We are building Afghanistan.” The Taliban, he added, were terrorists, enemies of the country, stooges of Pakistan.

Akbar Gul was unmoved. “There are no good men among the living, and no bad ones among the dead,” he replied, reiterating one of his favorite Pashtun proverbs. This war had left no group, Afghan or foreign, with clean hands. You had to be careful to survive. Today, the government said the Taliban were terrorists—but what about tomorrow? Would the Taliban be venerated, as the mujahedeen were now venerated? Would the Americans change their allegiances, as it seemed they had done after the 1980s, and brand the Karzai government as their enemy? It was too much for Akbar Gul to grapple with just then. He knew only that to trust the categories put forth by the Americans or the government was to go down the road to ruin.

He told the police chief that he wasn’t interested. He said he was satisfied with his life as it was, thanked him for his call, and hung up.

The next morning, with new presidential elections looming, with American patrols crawling here and there, with Taliban groups erecting their usual checkpoints to hunt for spies and possible kidnap targets, he hopped on his motorcycle, headed for the low hills behind the village, and began another day of [resistance] work.

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Early Origins of the Taliban in Kandahar

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 79-80:

Most writing on the Taliban assumes that they originated in extremist Pakistani madrassas in the 1980s. In fact, the group’s origins lie much deeper in the Afghan past. Visiting Paktika in 2010, I came upon a small hilltop village where locals had gathered around a silent, downcast man. Nearby, a young herder paced back and forth, watching him intently, and, off to a side, tribal graybeards stood conferring. One of them approached, pushing his way through the scrum, and announced a verdict: for killing Rahim Gul’s cow, Moheb Jan was to pay him two sheep and twenty days’ worth of labor. Afterward, I sat down with the elder, who explained that each transgression in his community carried a fixed fine. Break someone’s nose in a fight, and you gave him a chicken. Break a bone, and you surrendered a sheep or goat. Murder, depending on the circumstances, could cost you a piece of land, your house, or even one of your women, who would go to the victim’s family in marriage.

This was how the hillspeople had learned to live with each other in a world without a state or police or judicial system. Each tribe had its own set of intricate rules, decided by elders elected by the clan’s entire male population. The elders derived their status from experience and the respect traditionally accorded to the aged. No man, however, outranked another in rights, and it was rare for one family to possess significantly more than any other. For men, at least, a deep egalitarian ethos ran through the tribal system.

For a long time, most of the Pashtun belt had functioned this way. Eventually, however, when some tribes moved down from the mountains into agricultural settlements, certain enterprising individuals developed ties with distant state authorities, and soon hierarchies sprang up. In eighteenth-century Kandahar, for example, the Safavid Empire of Persia had established suzerainty, incorporating tribal figures of their liking into their military or using them as intermediaries in dealing with the native population. The egalitarian system of the mountains slowly gave way to one dominated by tribal strongmen, and decisions were increasingly made not through traditional tribal law but on the whims and biases of a small clique of notables. It was not long before Kandahari tribes were the most thoroughly hierarchical in the country.

As a consequence, a different form of justice grew in popularity as an alternative to the tribal system: religious law, or sharia. Like tribal law, religious law expressed itself in a detailed set of punishments and restitutions for particular crimes. Its main practitioners were mullahs, who led Friday sermons and could adjudicate disputes. To become a mullah, you studied for up to twelve years in a madrassa, where you learned the intricacies of Islamic law, along with history, philosophy, and logic. In Pashto, such students were called taliban. Because a mullah was guaranteed employment for life, this was a course of study particularly well suited to those from the humblest backgrounds. It was in greater Kandahar, where tribal structures were the weakest, that the taliban were most fully integrated into social life.

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