The United States has finally decided to pull back the last contingent of troops stationed in Afghanistan. The longest war in their history, Operation Enduring Freedom, began in October 2001 in response to the September 11 terrorist attack on US soil. Though officially ending in December 2014, many troops were still stationed in Afghanistan to train the Afghan National Army (ANA).
This story is not about the Americans or the regimes before who fancied grand entry through Afghanistan’s rugged and majestic ravines. The story is neither about the justifications offered by the motley group of stakeholders (sans Afghans) on their presence in an alien land while searching for doors to slip away quietly. This narrative accounts for a small passage in history. Unbeknownst to most, it has valor and tragedy, a first-of-its-kind mission undertaken in history.
A few centuries later, others tried to follow in their footsteps but failed miserably.
Afghanistan is a landlocked country. Vast, never-ending steppes of central Asia spread beyond its northern borders, Iran flanking its west and the legendary Durand Line, which starts from the high mountain ranges of the Wakhan corridor and peters out at the dry Baluch desert, in a northeast-southwest arc, separates it from Pakistan. It is a country with natural borders to protect its people – but key passes such as the celebrated Khyber in between not only permitted commerce but also acted as corridors for marauding armies to invade and plunder the Indus Valley Plain in the vicinity and at opportune times extend their influence right up to the great Gangetic Plains of India and beyond as we know.
Afghanistan has a heterogeneous society. While Pashtun dominate the central and southern regions, sharing small pockets of land with the Hazaras and Baloch, Tajik and Uzbek dominate the northern territories.
There is a prelude to our story. It began somewhere in AD 1580.
Mughal India – after initial setbacks, Emperor Akbar had resumed a series of campaigns in AD 1560 to conquer big and small kingdoms. Even though we all have read about his landmark administrative reforms and astute diplomacy by establishing matrimonial relations and extending hands of friendship with the Hindu rulers, Akbar, like all his predecessors, was an avowed imperialist, a fact often overlooked. After settling the palace disputes, he took over the reins of administration and adopted an aggressive expansionist policy.
It began southwards. An outstanding campaign saw Akbar overtake Malwa, an Afghan territory, by AD 1562 and Garha, the home of the Gond tribe by AD 1564. The next three years saw him facing another round of rebellions – from within the family as well without – they were eventually crushed, leaving him free to invest the Empire’s resources in neighboring Rajputana. It was a move on expected lines. The presence of a powerful Rajput confederacy in its vicinity posed an inherent threat to the Mughals. Plans of expansion and spreading influence were fruitless till an answer was found to the Rajput question. The Mughal influence was established over northern Rajputana and adjacent regions through matrimonial relations with the House of Amber. In AD 1567, he directed his forces to seize Chittor Fort, which fell after four month’s siege. By AD 1568, Akbar had conquered roughly all of Rajputana.
The following territories to fall in between the crosshairs were Gujarat and Bengal. A decisive victory in AD 1573 and few additional expeditions guaranteed Mughal suzerainty over Gujarat by AD 1584. Conquest of Bengal was delegated to one of his ablest ministers, Raja Todar Mal, who ensured that the region was added to the Empire between AD 1576 and AD 1580.
Sometime in AD 1580, as he approached the twenty-fifth year of his reign, Akbar faced the most severe threat to his throne. A section of nobles in Bihar and Bengal, dissatisfied with his liberal policies, especially the religious ones, rose en masse. The chief protagonist of this episode was Akbar’s half-brother Muhammad Hakim, who used to rule Kabul. The rebels, much to the Emperor’s consternation, started reading the Khutba in Hakim’s name. After dispatching a force towards the east, Akbar started towards Kabul along with Man Singh.
Enter Raja Man Singh 1st:
Raja Man Singh 1st was the son of Raja Bhagwant Das, the Kachwaha ruler of Amber. After entering the Mughal service, he received the title of Mirza. He fought many campaigns for Akbar, most notable among which was the Battle of Haldighati, against Maharana Pratap Singh of Mewar.
Meanwhile, encouraged by the rebellion, Hakim decided to seize the opportunity and marched with his army and crossed Indus. Next target was Lahore. However, before he could reach the place, Raj Man Singh arrived and offered a stout resistance; Hakim’s progress was brought to a standstill. At the head of a mighty expeditionary force, Akbar had, in the meantime, reached Sirhind, where he learned of Hakim’s flight back home. Never a man to keep the ends loose, he decided to end the story by chasing him right up to Kabul.
However, he faced an immediate problem. Per Hindu scriptures, it was considered blasphemous to cross the river Indus. Landing on an unclean, unknown place was considered Adharma, one might even lose the caste and social hierarchy as a result. Once again, his man Friday, Raja Man Singh, came to his assistance. He not only managed to tidy up the growing disgruntlement but also made sure the discipline among the rank and file of Rajputs remained intact. He volunteered to lead a contingent of advance force with the primary objective of intercepting Hakim before he could reach the safety of his capital.
As chance would have it, Hakim’s forces were caught and routed mercilessly. Once again, he fled to save his skin and died a few years later. In August AD 1581, Akbar finally entered Kabul, the city of his grandfather, triumphantly. After handing over the Governorship of Kabul to Raja Man Singh, he left for Fatehpur Sikri.
Man Singh stayed in Kabul for a few years and built a fortress to ramp up the city’s defenses. Under his rule, talented artisans from Afghanistan were brought over to the mainland and flourished. However, the northwest remained a menacing problem to the Mughals. By AD 1585, few Afghan tribes, mainly Yusufzais and Raushanais, raised the banner of revolt against the imperial hegemony. Raja Todar Mal, who was tasked to quell the rebellion, achieved limited success. Once again, Agra had to call upon the services of Raja Man Singh to help Todar Mal. Accompanied by Rao Gopaldas, Man Singh’s forces defeated the tribesmen decisively near the Khyber Pass.
It is said that the flag of Amber was changed from “Katchanar” (green climber in white base) to “Panchranga” (five-colored) to commemorate this victory. This flag continued in use until the accession of Jaipur state in India. Man Singh’s timely intervention permanently crushed the revolt and the area remained peaceful for some time. In AD 1587, Man Singh was called back to assist the Emperor in bringing some order to the province of Bihar, where local kings sheltered the former Afghans rebels.
There is an Afghan saying that, “It is easy to enter Afghanistan, but it is the getting-out part which becomes the problem.” Despite having technological advantages, most of the times generations ahead, the last three entrants in the Great Game – first the British in the 19th century, followed by the Soviets in the 20th century and finally the Americans in the 21st – never understood and thought an easy march would be the end-all solution.
It goes without saying that it was in an era without smart bombs and laser-guided missiles, a man from the Indian mainland – The First in The Great Game – ventured into an area hitherto unknown to his clansmen and brought a semblance of stability, even if brief, to people whose distaste for outsiders is now well understood by the modern-day superpowers albeit at a severe price.