Lull before the storm?
Whether peace and prosperity in the historic Balkh Province will sustain under the Taliban after the withdrawal of US-led troops remains doubtful
While arriving at Mazar-i-Sharif, the headquarters of Balkh province, from the heavily fortified city of Kabul, what struck my eyes first was the relatively relaxed security arrangements right from the airport to the city. However, appearances were deceptive. The city has seen terrible attacks by the Taliban, killing both Afghan nationals and foreigners.
Although the city was spared the devastation that Kabul saw during the fight between various Mujahedeen factions after the fall of the Najibullah government in 1992, there was the fierce battle in August 1998 between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance forces in which nearly 8,000 non-combatants were killed, leading to the capture of the city by the Taliban. However, the Taliban lost the city in November 2001 to the Northern Alliance that was aided by the US forces. Since then, it has become an important base of the ISAF and the Afghan National Army.
Mazar-i-Sharif is steeped in history. The region around it was historically part of Greater Khorasan and was controlled by many kingdoms at different points in time. In modern times, it was part of the Khanate of Bukhara until it became a part of the Durrani Empire in the 18th century.
The Blue Mosque stands out in the heart of the town. This blue-tiled mosque which is the shrine of Hazrat Ali is striking in its appearance.
I visited Hairatan which is a border town opposite Termez in Uzbekistan. It is on the banks of the river Amu Darya (better known in history as the River Oxus). There is a bridge on the river that was built by the Russians. A railway line from across Uzbekistan to a station just north of Mazar-i-Sharif has now been built with the assistance of ADB, and freight trains ply on this route.
Despite the biting cold, I thoroughly enjoyed the visit and felt transported back in time by being in such a historic place which has been a mute witness to the victorious rampages of many invaders.
So many invaders, starting from the Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Timurids, Mongols etc. to the recent ones including Russians and Americans, have traversed this route.
Incidentally, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose took this route when he fled from British India to Germany in 1941. Helped by the Italians, and travelling on an Italian passport with the name Orlando Mazzota, he undertook the difficult road journey from Kabul and crossed over to Termez from where he took the train to Tashkent and then travelled to Berlin via Moscow.
The present-day city of Balkh is considered to be one of the oldest cities in the world and was part of the Achaemenid Empire before going in the hands of the Greeks. The Greeks named it Bactria and it was the headquarters of the Bactrian Empire. Alexander not only founded a Greek colony but also married the Persian princess Roxana here.
Balkh was known to be a centre of Zoroastrianism the founder of which lived and died in the city. It was also a prominent centre for Buddhism. The Arabs brought Islam to Balkh in the eighth century. Ghengis Khan and Timur took their turns in destroying this city in the 13th and 14th century respectively. However, the latter is believed to have subsequently built a magnificent city on its ruins.
The city is believed to have once been a centre of culture and learning. Famous Persian poets like Jalaluddin Rumi and Dehlavi lived here. The famous philosopher Avicenna (or Ibn Sina as he is better known in the Islamic world) was born here.
Years of war and neglect have left Balkh in ruins and not much evidence of its glorious past is left. We know about its past from recent archaeological excavations, accounts of travellers like Marco Polo and other sources. The nine-domed mosque (Masjid-e-Noh Gumbad) and the tomb of Rubiya Balkhi (the first Persian woman poet) are the main monuments in the city.
Northern Afghanistan, in recent years, has been comparatively peaceful than the southern part of the country.
The region has also seen development. Roads have been built, schools constructed, school enrollment has increased and healthcare facilities
have expanded. Also, apparently, governance has become better, state-run institutions have become functional and trade and commerce is growing.
Is development the cause or effect of peace? Perhaps both. Has peace helped reduce poverty in the country? One can't say for sure. Is peace durable? What will happen when the US-led international forces leave? Is it a lull before the storm? Will the country again plunge into civil war, strife and turmoil? In the streets, the common man continues to be cynical.
"Wars begin in the minds of people and it is in the minds of people that the defences of peace are built", states the UNESCO charter. Education, inclusiveness, tolerance and economic well-being are the pillars on which the defences of peace can be established.
Can peace be achieved in this land by talking to the Taliban? It is difficult to say what people really think about a negotiated solution for bringing peace to this troubled land. The older generation has seen it all – the Saur Revolution, Tarrakki, Amin, the Soviet Invasion, Najibullah, the warring Mujahedeen factions under Dostum, Massod, Hekmatyar and others, Taliban, the American-led ISAF etc. over the past four decades and appears to be cynical.
I find that, while many amongst the educated youth are hopeful about a negotiated solution and are even prepared to trade off some of their newly found liberties for a sense of durable peace, there are yet others who are not so sure about it. Women, in particular, are apprehensive of life under the Taliban.
It is time for peace to reign. We must give peace a chance. Otherwise, it will be the past happening over and over again.
The writer is the former-Chief Secretary, Andaman & Nicobar Administration. Views expressed are personal