An Open Letter to the President of the United States

Dr. Shamsher Singh
ex- Policy Advisor, The World Bank

October 29, 2010

Dear Mr. President,

There is multitude of proposals concerning the Afghan war. Permit me to humbly add one more to the on going public debate. American society is blessed with such openness.

Shamsher Singh

The President of the United States of America
(Shamsher Singh Ph.D., ex-Policy Advisor, The World Bank)


SoldiersThe United States of America is faced with unraveling the intricate and tightly knotted dilemma of Afghanistan. Volumes of advice and analysis have been put forward and debated; a broadly acceptable and workable solution remains hazy and illusive. While searching through the maze of options, geo-politics of Afghanistan should also be viewed in the context of centuries of Indo-Afghan history. There is many a lesson.

Following their victory in World War II, the British lost the will and the power to govern their vast Empire. Even during the War, they had been seriously negotiating the terms of transfer of power to India. However, they were genuinely worried that chaos (Hindu-Muslim war of supremacy) may follow their departure. Mahatma Gandhi urged the British to: “leave us to our own chaos”.

British did leave, a bit hurriedly, in August 1947 after partitioning the subcontinent into Pakistan and India. Chaos did follow. In Punjab alone, a million were killed and ten million forced to flee across the new border in a matter of weeks; about five million Muslims to Pakistan and about equal number of Hindus and Sikhs to India. Immense devastation left deep scars. But the two countries resurrected themselves with amazing speed.

The Americans need to do the same with unashamed courage. Leave Afghanistan to its own “chaos”.

Afghanistan is a federation of distinct sub-nationalities (as once was, for example, Yugoslavia) composed mainly of Balochs, Hazara, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Turks and Uzbeks. Pashtuns (Pathans), the largest among them, straddle both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan divide. They constitute the core of the Taliban movement. Contrary to popular perception, Pashtuns are neither a bunch of unruly tribes nor lack the ability to rule. They have a long history of governance.

Jamraud FortAfghan regions were for centuries a part of the empire of the Kings of India, including the Moguls. Most governors of North-Western provinces under the Moguls were Afghans. Conversely, the Kings of Afghanistan, who were invariably Pashtuns, held sway over much of North-Western India. As the Mogul Empire started splintering around 1700, for fifty to a hundred years the provinces of Sirhind in present day India, and Lahore, Multan and Peshawar in present day Pakistan, constituted a part of the Durrani (Afghan) empire. Peshawar was the summer capital of Aghanistan.

The Sikhs of Punjab, oppressed and persecuted, had foresworn to put an end to the continuous plundering invasions into India through the Hindu Kush passes. After a protracted and costly struggle during the eighteenth century, the Sikhs not only threw the Afghans out of Punjab but extended their hold up to Khyber and other mountain passes. The boundary between the Sikh kingdom and Afghanistan was then marked by forts at the mouth of these passes. The Sikhs lost their empire to the British following the two Anglo-Sikh wars of 1845-46 and 1848-49. The Sikh Kingdom, larger in size than Great Britain, was amalgamated with British India.

The British were superb surveyors and map-makers. They demarcated the border between Afghanistan and British India as the Durand Line. This political Line divided the Pathans into two halves. However, the British continued to honor the established rule of not interfering in the internal affairs of the Pathan tribes and not hindering the trans-border flow of goods and civilians.

Pashtun areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan Afghania boundBritish policies in India had a strong Muslim edge to them. Most British politicians, including Winston Churchill, backed the creation of Pakistan. The demand for Pakistan was based on the “Two Nation” theory, that Muslims are a separate Nation. In the negotiations leading to the Transfer of Power in August 1947, the British faced knotty issues. One was the militaristic Sikhs who lacked a majority in any contiguous area but demanded a secular buffer state between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Another was the Pathans of the Frontier Province who wanted an independent Pashtun State. Equally difficult was the status of Princely States. The British astutely glossed over these issues, letting them remain unresolved. Interests of Buddhists of Arakan and Christians of Eastern Hill States were ignored; Sikhs were left to fend for themselves; Pushtun region was delivered to Pakistan perpetuating the ethnic divide around the Durand line; and with the laps of British Paramountcy, Princes were left to decide their own future. History took care of other issues but Kashmir remains India’s Achilles Heel, just as Pashtunistan remains that of Pakistan.

The hurried and harried British left the sub-continent with their chin up. A lesson of this experience is that when time is short and task is long, not all troublesome issues can be resolved. By departing, the Americans would neither be betraying themselves nor the Afghans. It is the best for both. Wars of vengeance and supremacy may follow, realignments may take place, but heavens won’t fall. People will in time resurrect themselves.

Development needs will force even the hot heads among the belligerent Taliban to willy-nilly seek help. Madrassas or no madrassas, who can they turn to for higher education? Fountains lie well beyond their borders; English is the international medium. To those requesting bilateral or multilateral assistance, a helping hand should be extended without strings attached. Education is the most durable and powerful vehicle for change.

A somewhat corresponding episode comes to my mind. The ‘price shock’ of 1973 when OPEC tripled the price of crude oil and soon raised it again, disarrayed the world markets. Prices of other primary commodities then imported largely by the Developed Countries (coffee, cocoa, copper, tin, et al) shot up as well. There were loud proclamations by powerful individuals (Prebbish of UNCTAD, for one) that a permanent shift in world economic power had occurred. At that time I happened to be Chief of the Commodities and Export Projections Division of the World Bank. Forecasts based on supply-demand analysis for each of the major primary commodities (including oil) by the Commodity economists showed that all commodity prices will fall in real terms. But they were a small fry in the debate; their voices were lone and low, though firm. The implicit conclusion of the forecasts was that there would be no fundamental change in the World Economic Order. World Bank management decided to cautiously accept the forecasts.

America was unsure of how to respond to the ‘oil shock’ involving billions of dollars of sudden and end less drain. A high level Policy Group met at Brookings to privately debate the possible response. Robert McNamara asked Hollis Chenery to represent the World Bank. Chenery took me along as an aide, in case there were analytical questions about the price forecasts that he had tabled.

The discussion at Brookings was frank and forbidding. My recollections are that several options were debated. These included a swift military action to safeguard international oil supplies. It was rejected as it won’t work. The discussion shifted to: where will the wind fall gain be parked; how to get a handle on the money. It was concluded that since Western Banks were the only safe place to keep the money, there should be little cause for concern. The value of the petrodollars can be eroded through inflation while searching for alternate ways to cope with the money drain. This is exactly what was done. Inflation during the next few years ran high while a wide range of control mechanisms were securely put in place.

The cost was high but a non-military solution worked, and worked well. Whatever the short run cost of withdrawal from Afghanistan, workable solutions will emerge. “Keep the Faith, Baby!” as Adam Clayton Powell used to say.

The writer is an economist and a former Policy Advisor of the World Bank. He was a Visiting Fellow at Oxford, lectured at several Universities around the globe, and testified before the Select Committees of the British House of Lords and the German Bundestag.

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