Burma Star Association
Burma Star Association

Recollections of Afghanistan's geography, religions and it's people

By Ted Gibbins

 

I had no idea that the talk I gave would have generated so much interest. It just happened that my war service for the first couple of years (19401941) took me into an area that is much in the news now. Also my subedar, Mohammed Ayub Khan, was a Kohati tribesman and devout Sunni Muslim. My batman, Mir Badshah, was an Aurekzai tribesman from just across the border from Afghanistan. Mir Badshah had been a confessed bandit on the border before joining the Frontier Force Rifles and made no secret of the fact that when his service was finished he intended to go back to being a better bandit because of his military training and taking his rifle with him, which the army had generously given him on recruitment. I had many a conversation with both of them on the situation on the border, and they taught me a great deal. Also I had been "apprenticed" for a while to Intelligence Department (Political) of H.Q. Northwestern Army which furthered my education in that respect.

 

Ted Gibbins

 

Recollections of Afghanistan's geography, religions and it's people, during my war service there from 1940-41.  But still largely unchanged.

  

The action, or lack of it, in Afghanistan is taking over practically all the news nowadays. In addition, because it is closely related to what is going on in Afghanistan, news from Pakistan in the areas of Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta is also widely covered. The geography and demographics of this area must be confusing to many. Some of you might have had a minor acquaintance with it, or flown over it during training from Chaklala near Rawalpindi.

 

Rawalpindi and Islamabad are in the Punjab, but if you catch the romantically called “Frontier Mail Train” northwards you cross the Indus River over a bridge protected by the massive fort at Attock. You then find yourself in a very different area and a very different populace the Northwest Frontier Province centered in Peshawar. This area was garrisoned for nearly a hundred years by the British and Indian armies, and now the Pakistan army, to protect the Punjab against the incursions of a people between the Northwest Frontier Province and the Afghan border the Tribal Zone.

 

Ethnically the people of this zone are of the same stock, but are divided into numerous clans, or tribes, many of which have been for generations at daggers drawn over feuds, the original causes of which are lost in history.

 

Despite their bloody differences these tribes have two very important things in common their religion as fervent Sunni Muslims and their language which is either Pushtu in the eastern part, or as you move westwards towards Quetta Farsi which is Iranian. The British grouped all these tribes together under the general genetic name of Pathan. But to almost everybody else they are known by a different name which must be familiar to most of you, as Pushtuns, because of their common language. Although in the past the tribes were nominally under the rule of New Delhi, or now Islamabad, in actual fact they recognized no other sovereignty but their local clan heads and their religious leaders. They were fiercely independent and well able to enforce it. Even the British, although they took measures to limit the activities of the tribes against the N.W.F.P. and the Punjab, made no serious attempt to govern them, and as far as possible left them mainly to themselves. Since the Mogul invasion of the 14 hundreds, Afghanistan and the tribal areas have never been successfully invaded. Even the Moguls used it only as a stepping stone to India. The Russians made the last attempt and we all know what happened to that.

 

I have emphasized this for one reason. The Pushtuns are in a war like our own aboriginals, in that they do not recognize international borders. The Pushtun dominance extended not only to the tribal areas of British India, now Pakistan, but far into Afghanistan where they constituted 40% of the entire population. The Taliban is largely Pushtun based and is supported by all the Pushtun tribes. It will now be clear why the T.V. constantly shows views of riots in Peshawar, Islamabad and Quetta in support of the Taliban. Essentially they are the same people and religion. In the West we have long accepted that a mixture of politics and religion is a sure recipe for bloodshed, and we strongly separate the two. What most people in the West do not appreciate is that in most Islamic countries, their religion and their politics are the same thing. Consequently anything that affects the Taliban Pushtuns will equally affect the Pakistan tribal Pushtuns.

 

This fact is not widely understood, especially in the U.S., and it places the Pakistani Prime Minister, Musharaf, in an impossible and most unenviable position. He is, himself, a fairly moderate man, but he is balanced on a knife edge, pressured by the U.S. for 100% support for its policies in Afghanistan and at the same time being told, by the Pakistani Pushtuns that they are likely to rebel if he does so. Even now they are volunteering to cross the border and fight for the Taliban if they are asked to do so. And it must be understood that what Pakistan does is going to have a great affect on what other Islamic countries do.

 

In Northern Pakistan, around Peshawar and Quetta, there are hundreds of thousands of refugees from Afghanistan. But you should understand that one of the main reasons they are there is not political but economic. Bluntly, only about 4% of Afghanistan is arable land. The rest is all high Pamirs or Hindu Kush. The majority of the land is over 5000 feet, barren and rocky and almost devoid of vegetation. Years of warfare with the Russians and internecine strife have left the country, which was always only just marginally able to support itself, on the edge of disaster. There is no food or employment for them in Afghanistan so they have to move into Pakistan. It is easy to criticize the Pakistani government, which is itself poverty stricken, for trying to close its borders. Nobody is asking US to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees. But despite this, their religious beliefs are still firmly rooted in the Sunni faith of Islam, and if conditions in Afghanistan became livable they would return there with their beliefs unchanged. The Sunnis of Islam might be likened to the Catholics of the Christian faith, conservative and reluctant to change, with a firm literal belief in the Quaran and its legal book, the Sharia.

 

After the death of Mohammed a terrible rift appeared among the faithful over who was to replace him. Out of this was born the two major divisions of Islam, the Sunnis and Shies. They might be compared to what happened to Christianity in the Middle Ages when the church split into Catholic and Protestant faiths with its burning at the stake and bloodshed. Fortunately with the separation of church and state we outgrew this. To a large extent the Muslims have not. Although the bloodshed has been limited for many years, the antipathy remains.

 

So how does this affect the present situation? The Taliban is largely Sunni based, while the highly publicized Northern Alliance depends largely on Shia strength. There is a largely held opinion in the U.S., and also in Britain, which should know better, that if they support the Northern Alliance and they win, that they will combine with what is left of the Taliban and form a democratic government in Afghanistan. This is fanciful, wishfully thinking. It might happen in the short term, but there is nothing to suggest that the Sunnis and Shias will ever combine in the long run to form a stable government. Furthermore the Northern Alliance is made up of religious fanatics as is the Taliban, and just as ruthless and oppressive. It is six of one and half a dozen of the other

 

Industrially Afghanistan is still in the dark ages. It has no industry nor any prospects of any. There is a poor world market for rocks and mountains. It has few resources and nobody is willing to invest in what resources there are. Its arable portion is miniscule. Even at the best of times it can support an agriculture that barely sustains life in its small population. Constant warfare and strife has reduced this even further, so that large numbers of them now face starvation. Hence there is nothing in the country that the present bombing policy of the U.S. is likely to hamper the fighting capacity of the Afghanis. In Western countries, if you are able to cripple their industries, the enemy finds it difficult to continue fighting. Afghanistan has no industries to cripple. It can easily smuggle, what it needs to continue fighting, from sympathetic countries, or those willing to gamble on them. As the Americans should have learned in Viet Nam, bombing and ground strafing do little to stop or even hamper guerillas. And no country is better suited for guerilla warfare than Afghanistan.

The Afghani and Pakistani tribesmen are possibly the most savage and cruelest fighters on the planet. They are the perfect guerilla, in a terrain ideally adapted to that type of warfare. It has few communications that can be called roads, and most of these are dominated by the hills through which they must pass. Every rock can conceal an almost invisible tribesman. Merely a handful, armed only with rifles and an occasional rocket projector against armored vehicles, can, and has many times held up a modern and fully equipped infantry brigade, as the Russians found out to their cost. Heavy bombing can be most destructive if there is anything or anyone to hit. The Afghanis long ago learned, against the Russians, that wide dispersion of troops, maintaining mobility and refusal to be tied down to fixed defenses, can nullify the heaviest bombing. We read in the papers from correspondents who have never experienced war, talk of "Front Lines". But nobody who knows anything about the tribes and Afghanis supposes that they are stupid enough to allow themselves to be pinned down to any such linear defense. We see on TV,  bombs raining down on Taliban areas, but there is nothing to show that there is actually anyone there to hit. The Americans are imbued with the idea that technology can overcome anything. But the poor infantryman knows that you can only win when you meet the enemy man for man on the ground. And the Afghanis have always known this.

 

The Afghani fighter on the ground is the worst nightmare any enemy infantryman dreams of meeting. They have never heard of any Geneva Conventions and dislike taking prisoners except to provide, for a while, some tortured entertainment before they die. Regrettably their women are the most proficient in this. They have little or no compassion for those who fall into their hands. It is to be hoped that anyone who contemplates fighting a ground battle with them realizes that it will be a prolonged, profitless and bloody business.                                                                                                    

 

There is little prospect that they will ever give up Bin Laden, and even if they do, there are thousands more like him to take his place. He is the Taliban guest, and it is part of their faith that the host is totally responsible for the welfare and safety of a guest. It is against their religion to give him up. Of course should it come about that he leaves their territory, there is nothing to prevent them from sending somebody to put a knife in his ribs. But this is not likely to happen.

When you go home

tell them of us and say,

For your tomorrow,

we gave our today

Lt Gen Slim at Fort Dufferin, Mandalay, in March 1945 Lt Gen Slim at Fort Dufferin, Mandalay, in March 1945
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