Foreign Policy Journal (November 21, 2010)
Never underestimate the cost of humiliation. For in war victory is never clean, because it empowers the vanquished, or their successors, to struggle in the future. Recent wars in Iraq, on the Afghanistan-Pakistan front and elsewhere confirm this enduring, though often unheeded, lesson of history. From Alexander the Great, the king of the Macedonian Empire, nearly two-and-a-half millennia ago to date, imperial powers far afield have sent their rampaging armies to conquer and to humiliate the populations of vast fertile lands, cradles of civilization, close to the four great rivers, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Indus and the Hwang He. What transpired forms a pattern.
They include modern Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the South Asian subcontinent, Pakistan and India in particular. Amid the extreme volatility in this region there has existed something consistent throughout the last two-and-a-half thousand years and before. Alexander’s campaign of conquest finally ran out of steam on the banks of the Hydaspes, modern-day Jhelum river. His rampaging troops became exhausted. They mutinied, refusing to march any further.
Elsewhere, clans in the Kunar and Swat valleys had put up extraordinary resistance, forewarning one of history’s greatest military geniuses. However, the message from those uprisings was not enough for Alexander to overcome his own hubris. After the Battle of Hydaspes, he retreated to Persia, leaving governors he appointed in charge. But they misbehaved. Alexander was exhausted, injured, his aura not the same. He became even more brutal. He retreated to Persia and died three years after. A remark attributed to Alexander: “I am dying from the treatment of too many physicians.”
The hills and valleys of Swat and Kunar, together with vast surrounding landscapes, have been subjected to repeated invasions through centuries. Today the soil is soaked in blood spilled in violence between invaders and defenders, communities and tribes, whose fortunes and failings have attracted eagle-eyed predators far and near. And the ground is fertile for agriculture as it is for resistance. Foreign armies have found this to their detriment time after time.
Imperial Britain learned this in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–1842) at the onset of the Great Game with Russia for influence in Central Asia, and in two subsequent wars (1878–1880 and 1919) in which the imperial armies suffered heavy losses. In the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919, the Afghans wrested control of foreign affairs from the British, and their country became truly independent.
Each episode of history has unintended consequences. The legacy of humiliation after losing parts of the Pashtun homeland and seeing them annexed to British India lives on as Pakistan’s northwestern region today, more than sixty years after the British left and the subcontinent was partitioned amid bloodshed. The Durand Line cuts through the Pashtun tribal land under a single-page agreement signed in 1893, when the colonial British government forced the Afghan king Abdur Rahman Khan to capitulate. The line separates Afghanistan and Pakistan today.
Afghanistan still does not recognize the border and few Pashtuns on either side care about it. Movement of people and goods, including drugs and weapons, continues unabated. The outside world describes much of it as smuggling, but for the region’s tribes it is business as usual. For centuries this is what they have done to survive in the vast and wild terrain. The decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and America’s occupation since 2001, have further reinforced the age-old sense of humiliation.
Subjugation by an external force renders victims helpless on one hand and consolidates their long-term resolve on the other. It breeds local resistance to the occupier and its culture. It results in the colonization of lands occupied by foreign troops, mercenaries, and those wearing civilian hats as administrators and advisers. They engage in activities to extract and sell local assets, manufactured and agricultural goods through market mechanisms created and managed by themselves, not by those who owned them in the first place. Or they use the location of occupied lands to extend their control further.
In Chapter V of The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli discussed three ways to hold newly-acquired states that once had their own sovereign laws. His methods were: by devastating them; going and living there in person; by letting them keep their own laws, extracting tribute and setting up an oligarchy which will keep the state friendly. Machiavelli’s The Prince is associated with corrupt, manipulative and totalitarian government.
Five centuries on, Machiavellianism, a mishmash of cunning and duplicity, lives on – despised if words of condemnation were to be believed, but witnessed in practice extensively. Since the end of the Cold War and Soviet communism, the terms of the United States-led military campaign for unrestrained access to petroleum and other strategic resources have altered dramatically. War today is fought for “freedom” against “terrorism” when both these central terms remain undefined. Definitions attempted are arbitrary, incoherent, irrational. The right to use unreserved force under the pretext of “self-defense” for the powerful has superseded the right to self-defense and resist for the underdog.
Thus we see the grotesque logic of brute military power and legal jargon; the rights of the Israeli state prevail over the basic rights of the Palestinians; Israel is allowed to have its clandestine nuclear weapons program, but no other country in the region; elections in Iran are “fraudulent” and the opposition there “suppressed” in the absence of evidence, but polls are “acceptable” in Afghanistan with plenty of evidence of fraud; high-altitude bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq, and cowardly drone attacks killing countless civilians posthumously described as “militants” or “terrorists” are justified in the “war on terror.” Rarely is there a mention of “night raids” – a euphemism for breaking into Afghans’ homes in the middle of the night that many people regard as a humiliating symbol of foreign occupation.
The Czech-born French writer Milan Kundera, twice expelled from the Communist Party before he was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship, articulated the feeling of humiliation when he said, “The basis of shame is not some personal mistake of ours but the ignominy, the humiliation we feel that we must be what we are without any choice in the matter, and that this humiliation is seen by everyone.”
Loss of possessions is one thing, loss of dignity is quite another. And there exists an inverse relationship between humiliation and pride. Take away a people’s dignity and they will be ever more determined to take revenge in the form that their culture and values dictate when the opportunity comes.