The Asian Vortex

Can the Age of Empire meet its end in Afghanistan?

One of the articles in Being Global Neighbors (IC#17)
Originally published in Summer 1987 on page 5
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Robert Cabot is a former U.S. diplomat and a novelist, active in citizen diplomacy. Robert Fuller is former president of Oberlin College, founder of the Mo Tzu project in citizen diplomacy, and a frequent contributor to IN CONTEXT. They traveled to South Asia and the Himalayas in late 1986.

– Robert Gilman

A BOWL OF WARM YAK’S MILK, dried apricots and bananas from Pakistan, a torn-off bit of unleavened bread offered by a traveller from China, sheltered from the cutting wind in a refugee Afghan’s yurt – this is our traveller’s stop at the 16,000 foot Khunjerab Pass. Glaciers edge down from hostile mountains, home of the snow leopard, the Marco Polo mountain sheep, the ibex, the yak. In a patch of dried grass and wintergreen, a vulture, the lammergeier, claws at a bit of carrion. Rise with him, wings ten feet tip to tip, soar in the violent updrafts of bitter air, be carried high. Look out with his defiant red eye, out over crumbling rock cliffs, treeless slopes of sliding scree, immense hanging glaciers, out over the top of the world. To the east is the gleaming pyramid tip of K2 against the ghosts of the Himalayas far beyond. To the west are the great black peaks of the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs. Endless mountains, stark, inhospitable – it is a remote and empty end of the world.

And yet, looking down through a flurry of snow, a road can be seen, a bulldozer there struggling with a boulder. There’s a plaque by the roadside further down honoring the more than four hundred Chinese and Pakistani road-workers killed here during construction. And look out further, reach with the mind’s eye. To the south is the crowded fertile subcontinent; southwest, the warm allure of the Arabian Sea. To the west over Afghanistan are the riches of Persia and Arabia. To the northwest and north, over the Pamirs, are the Central Asian Republics of the Soviet empire. And in the entire eastern arc stretch the enormity, the wealth, of the Orient.

There are certain places on our planet of special intensity, places of extreme contrasts, drawing in diverse natural and human forces, inviting conflict and opportunity. The Khunjerab Pass over the Karakoram range lies at the heart of one such place, perhaps the most extreme of all, though one with which few will ever concern themselves and which fewer still will visit.

The natural history of this area is dramatic. Once it lay under a deep sea: the fossilized remains of a whale have been found in the Hindu Kush. Tectonic collision heaved up this greatest of all mountain ranges; it is still rising. Now climates converge here about an almost permanent storm center; seasonal equatorial monsoons whirl up into these mountains to be met by the bitter dry winds off the deserts and steppes. Rich tropical valleys of the subcontinent reach up into the crumbling black rock and glaciers and die in the tundra. Earthquakes have shattered the mountains, hot springs boil up at the edge of snow fields. Great rivers rise and divide here, flowing out to the Arabian Sea, to the Plateau of Iran, to the Aral Sea, the Desert of Sinkiang, the Bay of Bengal.

Through the millennia of human history this area has known an intensity, a turmoil of convergence and divergence, comparable to its natural history. Not far from here, in the rich valley of the Indus, lay one of the cradles of civilization. The natural features of this region make formidable barriers, yet the promise of reward for overcoming them has been irresistible to the drifting populations, the traders, the bandits, and the conquerors throughout time. The great empires of world history have been here, confronting each other, conquering and in turn being conquered, assimilated or rejected, yet always leaving something of themselves behind. Aryans, Persians, Greeks, Scythians, Parthians, Afghans, White Huns, Chinese, Tibetans, Tartars and Mongols, Arabs, Sikhs, Mughals of India, Persians, British, Russians and Soviets, and one might add Americans too – from prehistory to today, all have been here. Present day human populations within only a few hundred miles of here are among the densest and sparsest in the world. This is the precise meeting point of three major language groups: Indo-European, Ural-Altaic, and Sino-Tibetan; and of three great religions: Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim. The Taoist-Confucian and Christian were later and more scattered imports.

In modern times this is the area where, by no coincidence, five nations meet: China, the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India; Iran, Nepal, and the former state of Tibet are not far away. These countries represent two fifths of the world’s population. Four of them have nuclear weapons capability. And only a few miles west of the Khunjerab a fierce war goes on, the outcome of which may well determine the future course of history.

As a whirlpool or a hurricane has a calm eye, a vortex, at its heart, which can draw in or throw out whatever comes near, so also this wilderness of mountains can be thought of as the empty center of a vast Asian Vortex where natural and human events have been in turmoil since the beginning of time. And there is no better candidate for that single place on the planet where North meets South and East meets West.

As the Himalyas and the Karakorams form a barrier between North and South, between China and the Indian subcontinent, so also the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush, forming a rough "T" at the westward end of the Karakorams, form a great barrier between East and West. Fifty miles to the west of the Khunjerab, in this "T", is the long thin tip of today’s Afganistan in the heart of the Hindu Kush, a political buffer separating the Soviet Union from Pakistan by only 15 miles.

In the nineteenth century the Russian and the British empires met here in confrontation, playing out their so-called "Great Game." Caught in the middle, the people of Afghanistan tenaciously and successfully resisted incursion. As the British empire retreated, American influence replaced it in many areas, and today the Soviet and American sphere of interests meet here.

In the Christmas season of 1979 Soviet military forces invaded Afghanistan, using the Salang Tunnel under the Hindu Kush which they had built for the Afghans. They are now in the heart of the Asian Vortex. The Americans have been a principal instrument in creating a powerful military and economic countervailing force in Pakistan, inadvertently providing some of the means to give Pakistan nuclear weapons capability. But once again it is the Afghan people, their Mujahideen, a guerilla force drawn from a small country bled white by military conflict, who have frustrated the will of a foreign power and of the Afghan communists.

Soar high again with the vulture, high over the Khunjerab on the turbulence of Arctic winds meeting warm Southern winds, of Western storms drawn in and dissipated by the heavy insistent air of the East. For a hundred miles both north and south the way stretches down through some of the harshest country in the world before reaching the first towns: Hunza in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, last outpost of lush southern valleys, and Tashkurghan in China’s Sinkiang Province, high-desert mud-walled settlement of semi-nomadic northern people. Here in the Khunjerab a solitary felt tent sheltered by a moraine has its origins with Genghis Khan. He brought the yurt with him from the Gobi Desert. Scratched in ever-sliding talus are the remains of the Silk Route. Here for millennia passed the great camel caravans, trading between East and West and North and South, preyed on by hordes of murderous brigands. Indeed, in the Kirghiz language Khunjerab means Valley of Blood.

Below, now, on the approaches to the Khunjerab, crawling up the northern flanks of the Karakoram ("Black Rock Mountains" in Turkish), is a convoy of drab Chinese Army trucks. Winding down the other side, having exchanged cargoes near the border, is a crowd of Pakistani trucks, each entirely covered with brilliantly painted scenes – Sicilian donkey carts of the subcontinent. Their cargoes, bought with American and Arab money, are Chinese copies of modern Russian infantry weapons destined, reportedly after sizeable diversions by Pakistani middlemen, for the Mujahideen.

To the west, coming down from the mountains into Pakistan, are long lines of Afghan refugees with their sheep and goats and camels. They join the five million, a third of the population of Afghanistan, that have already fled to the increasingly reluctant Islamic welcome of Iran and Pakistan. Perhaps two million more within Afghanistan have fled their homes. The education of an entire generation of Afghans has been aborted. And there are over a million dead in this eighth year of a war which only now does the world begin to see as having escalated to genocide: the destruction of a people and a culture. Once again a great power is sucked into the Asian Vortex. As for America in Vietnam, so also for the Soviet Union here: hundreds of thousands of her youth have fought in this fierce war. In rendering "fraternal assistance" at terrible cost to a puppet clique without effective popular support, they have left tens of thousands behind forever.

Can the military rivalry of great powers for territory or allegiance end here? Can the rivers of the Valley of Blood ever run clean? Can there be peace, even friendship, across this intricate snarl of national, ethnic, religious, linguistic, and geographic barriers? Can such peace reach out over those great nations and peoples who meet so improbably here at this empty Asian Vortex? Do we have a rare chance now, under the extreme pressures we have put on our planet – population, pollution, the nuclear threat, and continued ideologic intolerance and greed – to turn world affairs onto a different course?

Soar down now, circle over the few scattered houses of Sust, the last checkpoint in Pakistan before the Chinese border at the top of the Khunjerab. A snow leopard’s hide is stretched out to cure on the boulders of the riverbank strewn with plastic debris; the great curling horns of a Marco Polo mountain sheep are discarded on a rubbish heap. A withered old man of thirty, born a hundred miles or so down the valley, horribly maimed and paralyzed, not by war but by racist violence in London, has been tossed up here. Scraping together a living by running a miserable inn and a few tents to rent to travellers, his sanity often endangered, he is a pariah to his fellow villagers.

A Dutch couple with a little boy climb out of a Toyota four-wheel-drive van that has arrived from China; the red and white pole is lifted to let them through. They seem half crazed as they wildly curse the Chinese for the hardship suffered "at Chinese hands" during their stay of three days over the Khunjerab in Tashkurghan: the cold, the extreme altitude, irregular and unfamiliar food, hard beds, no electricity or plumbing, and the anxiety of hundreds of miles of four-wheel-drive-only roads, rock slides, and blizzards. Their retreat back into Pakistan is the end of their dream of a tour around the world.

But other travellers find welcome and warmth. There are exchanges of new friendship, embraces, across this border. The hardships are shared. There are white canvas tents set up for the Afghan refugees, tents stamped with the emblems of the donors: Kuwait, Italy, the United Nations, the Red Crescent, the Red Cross, Saudi Arabia, France, the United States.

A group of young people also arrived in the Toyota. They are at ease, laughing, sharing their bag of dried fruit, a few cans of Chinese beer before passing into Islamic temperance. One is a Laotian, living now in Paris after two years of business school in Taiwan. At ease in the five languages that are directed at him here at this frontier, he talks of geopolitics and of his travels in search of understanding and an appropriate role.

A gentle, dignified man, a cloth merchant from Gilgit down the road to the south, is travelling into China with perhaps the last convoy before the winter blizzards close the pass. He goes to Kashgar, the first major town in this remote Moslem corner of China, a town in a giant oasis in the high desert under the shadow of the Soviet Pamirs. He was born there, an Uigur, a Turkic people who had formed a kingdom in Inner Asia a thousand years ago. As a twelve year old boy, he had escaped from the Chinese communists in 1949 with his father, a Kuomintang supporter. They travelled for forty days by donkey over the Karakorams into Pakistan. Now permitted back by the Chinese, he returns to reclaim his father’s properties.

Can there be such scenes across the nearby borders of the Soviet Union, across the cease-fire lines between Pakistan and India? Can Afghans ever welcome Soviets in friendship? Can there be peace in the hearts of the Vietnamese toward Americans? Must "Yankee Go Home," or "Russky Go Home," or so many others down through history, be always with us?

Does empire end? Imperialists throughout history have learned the answer. In this century most of the colonial empires have been largely dismantled: British, French, Italian, Portugese, Spanish, German, Belgian, Dutch, American. German expansion into Lebensraum and the far-flung Japanese "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" failed. Can we hope now that Americans and Soviets will come to see their military rivalries in their historical contexts, accepting military parity and bringing to an end military intervention in other lands?

The American empire, though perhaps not as extensive as some of its rival empires, expanded rapidly in the nineteenth century, reaching across the Pacific and from the Caribbean to within sight of Siberia across the Bering Strait. Conquest, colonialism, "manifest destiny", the "big stick", were important themes in American history. American military intervention, often seeming to threaten but stopping short of territorial acquisition, became a common means of furthering American interests. Frequently this use of force has been in Asia and has been perceived by Russia as a territorial threat. The United States joined the Allied interventions in Russia in 1918-1920, American forces landing in northern Russia and eastern Siberia. America has fought three major wars on the Asian continent in the last half century. In recent years there has been some territorial contraction with the release of the Philippines, the Panama Canal Zone, and some Pacific islands, and consolidation when Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands opted for statehood. Since World War II, America has brought overwhelming economic pressures to bear through governmental or private means in every part of the globe. Military aid has become an important tool of American influence.

Yet the unimaginable defeat that America suffered in Vietnam may be a turning-point toward ending military interventionism. Afghanistan may be the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. There have almost always been convenient self-righteous justifications for military interventions. The United States entered into Vietnam to help preserve democracy, to keep South Vietnam out of the Communist orbit and safely in an American orbit, subscribing to the "domino theory". America sought to persuade South Vietnam that their interests were the same. Fourteen million tons of bombs and high explosive shells, six million refugees, two million dead, a devastation of the countryside: it all failed.

The Soviets justify their entry into Afghanistan as "fraternal assistance" to a socialist sister state struggling against capitalist infiltration. And the body counts are converging. They did not want to allow the failure of a faltering internal communist revolution which they had backed. And it would be difficult for the Kremlin to preside over its collapse. Despite current Soviet airing of the possibility of disengagement, the price the Soviets are ultimately willing to pay for Afghanistan, however, may be much higher. That guerillas can win only if they "swim in the sea of the people" is one of the lessons learned only too well from Mao. The Soviets seem to be committed still to a draining of the Afghan "sea". Military intervention can still succeed, as it has before in empires drawn into this Asian Vortex. If it does succeed here again, it may continue to be fatally attractive to rival superpowers as a means of furthering regional interests, and face to face confrontation between them becomes ever more probable.

What can be done – by the people of the world, their national governments, and their United Nations – to end this genocidal war in Afghanistan and perhaps to put an end to the compulsions of superpower rivalry for territory or allegiance? The price of American success in Vietnam was made unacceptably high. A similar price exacted on the Soviet Union through world public opinion and outrage is an important step in again preventing an errant superpower from crushing a small country in pursuit of dangerous geopolitical goals.

The United States and much of the non-communist and non-aligned world had until recently been largely blind to what was assuming the dimensions of a holocaust in Afghanistan. The failure to arouse world opinion revealed yet again the existence of prevalent assumptions and beliefs that cloud vision until they are identified and dealt with.

The Jewish Holocaust remained virtually invisible because it took place in a world that was blinded by its own anti-Semitism, not of the sort that would conceive of and carry out a "final solution", but rather of the sort that would stand by and allow it to unfold. There was a willingness to let others do the dirty work, and a denial of one’s own secret prejudices as they were writ large in the form of gruesome reality. In addition, there were widespread pacifism and isolationism – a reaction to the horror of World War I – which militated against involvement in anyone else’s business, regardless of how great the crimes, and which elevated appeasement into national policy. The Holocaust was acquiesced in by enough of the world to permit it to take root and develop. The protests were insufficient to have much effect. No one now disputes the view that this is a shameful part of the moral record of the generation, both German and non-German, that reached maturity during the Nazi years.

What might be the reasons that our generation largely ignored what is now at last widely perceived and spoken of as a genocide of the Afghan people? On the one hand, there were those who were not displeased that the Soviets were doing something which incontrovertibly demonstrated their "badness". This proved that they had been right about them all along. Their satisfaction was bolstered by an assumption that the continuing war was a "bleeding wound" that weakened the Soviet Union.

On the other hand there were those who had been saying that it was not fair or accurate to characterize the Soviet Union as an "evil empire". Believing that this was the truth that most urgently required recognition, they were reluctant to criticize Soviet actions. On all sides there was impotence.

Yet at a deeper level and across the full spectrum of political thought there is a growing sense in the world that the entire "good guy-bad guy" framework has lost its utility, and that the habitual use of it is itself part of the problem. When people tolerate ongoing crime, there are always compelling, though often unconscious, reasons. Once these are exposed, people stop deflecting the facts, however painful. Denunciation of the growing genocide in Afghanistan had been left to those who predictably denounce the Soviets. Accordingly, the message was discounted by others. To do otherwise seemed to jeopardize establishing dialogue with the Soviets at a time when the world was threatened with an even greater holocaust: nuclear destruction.

Now, however, there is a widening perception that both superpowers want to step back from that precipice. An abatement of the fear of nuclear war that has blinded much of the world to the Afghan catastrophe now makes it possible to see it for what it has become. A new openness in Soviet policy, of which there is widespread evidence, includes examination of what is coming to be thought of by the Soviets themselves as an extremely uncomfortable predicament. Whatever understanding that, in the meantime, has been laboriously built between the United States and the Soviet Union, adds to the basis from which the superpowers, with the support of world opinion, can address together the situation in Afghanistan.

The leverage inherent in the Afghan situation could be used to design and win acceptance for a treaty barring superpower military involvement, either directly or through military assistance to surrogates, in all regional conflicts, a treaty that would protect the United States, the Soviet Union, and their potential victims from future "Vietnams" and "Afghanistans". There could be no greater contribution to world peace than superpower agreement to curtail military competition for the allegiance of nations, particularly in such areas as Southeast and Southwest Asia, southern Africa, Central America, Central Europe, and the Middle East. Such an agreement would in turn set the stage for real progress on arms control, conventional and nuclear. If, from the Vietnamese war of two decades ago and the Afghan war of today, there emerged verifiable agreement on the part of the superpowers that they would in the future respect the rights of nations to choose for themselves an independent and non-aligned status, the struggle of those peoples for self-determination could mark a turning point in history.

The Soviets cannot get out of Afghanistan without help, particularly from America. They need clear, powerful communication from the world, and firm assurances about America’s intentions in the aftermath of a Soviet withdrawal. The often heard concern that the factionalism within the Afghan resistance and within the Afghan communists would result in chaos or the dominance of extremist leadership if there were superpower withdrawal, is not a concern that the Afghans themselves seem to share. They have a long tradition of pluralistic self-governance. In any case, the concern that must take priority is that there be no further outside interference in Afghanistan.

We still have a chance to break our silence and, with all the good will we can muster, speak up for the Afghans, speak out to the Soviets, and be willing to review in this context our own policies in other parts of the world. Although Soviet society has shown encouraging signs of openness recently, it has not as yet permitted the kind of open opposition to government policy that, in the United States, did so much to bring about American withdrawal from the Vietnamese civil war. Yet the need for opposing a continuation of the Soviet Union’s policy in Afghanistan and designing an acceptable alternative is equally urgent. Thus, it falls to others, who can speak freely, to present the facts and make the case for Soviet withdrawal and Afghan self-determination. Among these other societies, the United States holds a special place: first, because it has already suffered the parallel humiliation of Vietnam; second, because the Soviets fear that America would take advantage of Soviet withdrawal; third, because there could be a linkage between Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and superpower arms control agreements; and fourth, because the United States could couple Soviet withdrawal, and its commitments not to introduce troops and arms elsewhere, with its own commitment to do likewise.

The end of superpower involvement in Afghanistan could be seminal to the adoption of a treaty on regional conflict, a world-wide Contadora-type treaty. This, more than anything else, could provide the Soviets with something positive, the victory they have failed to win in Afghanistan, but may need in order to extract themselves. It would also mean the end of United States military involvement in Central America. The lessons of Vietnam and Afghanistan, learned with the immense suffering of entire peoples, can lead to such a treaty. The Asian Vortex, which was a birthplace of empire, could mark its end.

Can the eye of a vulture, poised over the remote and unlikely Khunjerab Pass, particularize the turmoil of history, see metaphor and meaning? It can surely see a meal that has been tossed its way. Drop down now through the gusts of snow, settle in the scree to tear at the carcass of a rat thrown out the opening of a yurt. The voices inside, all remote from the local Turkic tongues, mix Chinese, English, and Russian. A restless Han Chinese rock musician from Canton; a Vietnam veteran who grubstakes his, and often his friends’, travels by salmon fishing in Alaska; and a Russian from across the Pamirs who runs a pizza parlor in the Sinkiang oasis town of Kashgar. The American proudly passes around a bit of dirty paper, a twenty-five ruble note, 1909, Alexander III’s resplendent immortality, bought in the Kashgar bazaar.

Their mission, the objective of their wanderings, thought up on the spur of the moment, is to create a chain of "sister" elementary schools, linking them together, exchanging among them addresses, photos, drawings, stories, taped songs, and "kid’s junk." They have hitchhiked from a school for Tibetan refugees in Patan, Nepal, north to Lhasa in Tibet, then by bus and truck for one week to Kashgar. There they found a Muslim Uigur school, taught in this Turkic tongue, run by the Han Chinese regime. They have come southwest now in a Chinese truck carrying cabbages to the thousands working to modernize the road. With delays for road blasting by the Chinese Army engineers, creeping through the boulders behind camel caravans, it has taken them three days to get here from Kashgar. Their plan: to travel south to Peshawar in Pakistan and find a school for the refugee children of the Mujahideen; to hitch to Delhi across the cease-fire line and find a Muslim minority school there; juggle passports and visas, fly into Kabul, and find a Sovietized Afghan school; and then to fly with Aeroflot, via Moscow if necessary, to Samarkand, finding another Uigur-speaking Muslim school in the U.S.S.R.

Their linked chain, if they make it, will have circled the Asian Vortex.

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