A Model For Today’s Afghan Conflict – The 1689 – 1707 War?

Editor’s NoteIn our early articles about Afghanistan, we complained about the lack of knowledge about Afghanistan and today’s Pakistan in the American Media. Then we realized it is not enough to complain. The Pushtun history is deeply intertwined with Indian history. So in November 2010 we began to write about the Indo-Afghan Continuum. After all, how can you understand the Taleban without learning about Aurangzeb, the spiritual ancestor of the Taleban. Our research led us to the biography of Kanhoji Angre by Mr. Mulgaonkar. In that book, we saw a model for today’s Pushtun conflict. We also took the effort to visit the British Library in London, the greatest repository about the post 1650 history of India. Unfortunately, much of the analysis is perverted to suit British mindset. But the data is there for analysis. Any one who wishes to understand the model we describe below should read Chapters 11, 14, 16, 20 of Mulgaonkar’s book about Admiral Kanhoji Angre.

It should be clear to any sensible, dispassionate observer that America’s war in Afghanistan is headed for failure. Stratfor wrote this week “..What all this means is that after nearly a decade of occupying Afghanistan, the American-led coalition is already in a very precarious position, particularly as it tries to win over hearts and minds using a counterinsurgency strategy..”.

By “all this” Stratfor meant the unrest in Afghanistan in response to the burning of the Koran in Florida. Stratfor explained, “In Afghanistan, the Florida incident galvanized a wide swath of a largely rural, conservative and decidedly non-secular society…”

We concur. But Stratfor did not discuss the transformation of Hamid Karzai from an American installed President and America’s ally to a leader who established his own credentials last month as a defender of his religion and country against America. Yes, he will talk the talk when he speaks with President Obama but, by tacitly encouraging riots, Karzai has essentially declared himself against America’s involvement in Afghanistan. And this is the greatest beneficiary of America’s war in Afghanistan, a nobody who became rich beyond his wildest imagination thanks to the money America poured into his country. If he does not want America in his country, who does?

The answer is Afghanistan’s smaller races, the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Hajara. The problem in Afghanistan is essentially a war of the Pushtun, by the Pushtun and for the Pushtun. This basic and fundamental reality has been deliberately obscured by the American establishment to portray this conflict as a war against Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaida and Islamic terrorism. This is why we have argued for some time that America is on the wrong side of history in Afghanistan as it was in Vietnam.

Almost everyone in America has struggled to find a model to fit today’s Pushtun conflict. American analysts and reporters have invoked Alexander’s campaign, the British foray and the Soviet occupation in this quest. These are useless and dangerous models because they simply nourish the stereotype.

We present below a historical model that we find to be a very good fit to today’s Pushtun conflict in the Af-Pak geographical region.

A War using Guerilla Tactics and Son-of-the-Soil Insurgency against an occupying Superpower of a different religion

  • The dominant Superpower of its time invaded and occupied a state with a martial population of another religion. Its military presence was massive and its financial resources were virtually limitless. Money was spent lavishly to bribe warlords to join with the Superpower and to deliver intelligence about the native insurgents. When carrots didn’t work, lethal force was applied. Military resistance against this Superpower’s overwhelming force proved futile and native fighters faded into the population to fight another day. Their chiefs and local commanders got caught or killed. Their central leadership fled to a neighboring state. 
  • Yet, when the resistance was deemed over and the battle was considered as won, the insurgency took root among the population. The insurgency was transformed from allegiance to a particular leader to a battle for independence and a battle for preservation of religion.
  • New young leaders sprang up to take the place of those killed and captured. The insurgency transformed itself from a centrally organized resistance to a series of decentralized, local battles against the occupying military. The tactic was guerilla warfare and stealth attacks by fast, mobile armed units. The occupying military got more hostile and its punitive actions rose creating more recruits for the insurgency. The local population got more determined to resist.
  • As years went by, a new generation came of age, a generation that had seen nothing but warfare in its state, a generation that had no other means of making money or a career except being fighters. To them war was the only reality. They became very good at it and the balance of power slowly swung towards the insurgency. Their attacks on the occupying army became more lethal and the will of the occupying military grew weaker. .
  • Eventually, the Superpower realized that it had no chance whatsoever of victory or of achieving its goals. So the Superpower tried to open negotiations with the insurgency to discuss an end to the conflict. The insurgent commanders talked individually with the Superpower but kept their war going. They were winning and saw no reason to settle for anything except complete unconditional withdrawal of the superpower.
Is this today’s Pushtun conflict in Afghanistan or another period in history?

The Superpower? The Region? The Insurgents? The End Result?

The Superpower of the preceding paragraph is not America, it was not the Soviet Union and it was not Britain. It was the Mughal regime of Delhi led by the diabolically shrewd Aurangzeb, the most powerful of all Mughal Emperors. He was an extremist Muslim and his views are being practiced and implemented by today’s Taleban. It was Aurangzeb who conquered and destroyed the Shia Muslim kingdoms of south-central India. His campaigns spread Mughal rule to virtually all corners of India.

Except the state of Maharashtra in south-central India. It was here in 1646 that a young 16-year old boy called Shivaji took an oath to build a a Swaraj, an independent kingdom of native Indians. The southern Muslim regimes as well as Aurangzeb sent their generals to defeat Shivaji and his growing army. They failed. Shivaji was crowned Emperor in 1674 by the most respected Scholar from Varanasi, the holiest city in India. The Marathi Empire was thus born.

Aurangzeb understood the far reaching threat of this event. So after the death of Emperor Shivaji in 1680, Aurangzeb himself marched into Maharashtra with a huge army of over 500,000 soldiers. The backbone of the Mughal Army were the Pushtun, proven warriors. He occupied a city near the center of the state and called it Aurang-a-Bad.

From this city, Aurangzeb sent armies to all corners of the state. Emperor Shivaji’s son Sambhaji was a brave warrior, a smart general but headstrong. He fought Aurangzeb’s enormous army using hit and run tactics for 8 years. In 1680, Sambhaji was captured by the Mughal army. Aurangzeb publicly tortured Sambhaji and after his death cut up his body and fed it to dogs. It was intended as a lesson to any one who opposed the Mughal Empire.

It backfired very badly. The entire Marathi population went ablaze with anger. But the conditions were appalling. With Sambhaji’s death, formal structure of the government and the army disintegrated. Sambhaji’s brother had to flee to South India and the Marathi warriors were left without a cohesive military structure. This is as close a parallel as we can find to the state of the Taleban in late 2001.

But surrender was out of the question. Aurangzeb was not just a Muslim of foreign origin. He was an extremist Muslim and surrender to him meant the end of Indian religion. The Marathi people were martial in nature and proven warriors. They had experienced independence under Emperor Shivaji. It was no longer a war for Sambhaji’s brother Rajaram. It was now a battle for preservation of religion and independence. As the poets described it, “every blade of grass in Maharashtra became a spear”

When it looked as though Aurangzeb had won, the Marathi warriors organized themselves into small groups and launched guerilla attacks on the huge Mughal army. Despite the might of the Mughal Army, the huge treasury war chest of the Mughal Empire, the insurgency could not be defeated. This became an 18 year war, the longest in Indo-Afghan history.

In this war, a new generation of Marathi warriors came of age. This generation of young men had but one career choice – to become warriors and make money by attacking & looting the Mughal Army. Small commanders rose up in various parts of the state and built their own regiments. These groups worked together when they could to share intelligence and to provide support when needed. But for the most part, each local commander was independent.

In 1699, Rajaram, the brother of Sambhaji and the titular King, died. Aurangzeb and the Mughal Army celebrated. But it had no effect on the Marathi Armies. The war continued in its ferocity until 1707 when Aurangzeb died in Maharashtra, far away from his capital Delhi.

In this 18-year war, Aurangzeb and his huge occupying army of 500,000 destroyed hundreds of villages, killed countless Marathi soldiers and civilians. But they lost. Both Aurangzeb and the Mughal Empire were buried in Maharashtra in this war.

After the death of Aurangzeb, the remaining Mughal Army withdrew and went back to Delhi. The Marathi forces came together under the banner of Shahu, Sambhaji’s young son, and the Marathi Empire was reestablished. Shahu installed a young 20 year Baji Rao as his Peshwa or Prime Minister in 1719.

It was Baji Rao who took the battle hardened Marathi Army into North India and established Marathi hegemony all over North India. Baji Rao conquered Delhi in 1737. He ended the war that Aurangzeb had begun.

Lessons of the 1689-1707 War for today’s Pushtun War in Af-Pak

We find the 1689-1707 war to be an appropriate model for today’s Pushtun conflict. The Marathi and Pushtun people share many characteristics. Both are martial people, both cherish their religion and their lands, both can fight for ever and both prefer winning wealth by force rather than with commerce. These two represent the ends of the Indo-Afghan Continuum.

Unlike this 18-year war, America’s war in Afghanistan is only 10 years old. Like this 18-year old war, America seems to win individual conflicts when the Taleban run away and fade into the population. Like this 18-year war, the trend in Afghanistan is inexorably downward. President Obama took his last shot at winning with the 2009 surge in Afghanistan. We think this surge has failed to achieve its overly ambitious objectives. The Afghan war is getting more and more unpopular in America. If destroying the enemy’s will to fight is a victory, then the Pushtun are close to a victory. 

But President Obama and America cannot be seen to have failed in Afghanistan. So America’s mission in Afghanistan will continue for a few more years but at a lower level. This will be combined with an initiative to deal with the Taleban. So far, the Taleban have proved willing to talk but not to yield.  

A new generation is coming of age in Pushtun lands. This generation has known nothing but war. There is no occupation available for this generation of young men except fighting. That is the only way to make money and gain a reputation. What happens to this generation when America leaves Afghanistan?

A Pushtun leader might well emerge in post-America Afghanistan, a leader who could unite the various tribes, the various militia, the various warlords into a battle hardened, committed force. This is not idle speculation. It is Pushtun history. Recall the great Pushtun conquerors like Muhammad of Ghazni, Muhammad of Ghori and Ahmad Shah Abdali. Each of these Pushtun conquerors united the Pushtun tribes. Then they swept down from Pushtunistan into the fertile plains of Pakistani Panjab.

A new Pushtun leader would have a much more juicy target before him – the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan.

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