The Afghanization of Pakistan is a relentless historical phenomenon that started several centuries ago and shaped the regional dynamics. This article focuses on the Gandhara region that cuts across Afghanistan and Pakistan and cements them together. The ancient Silk Route passed through Gandhara, as does the modern Karakoram Highway. The study demonstrates that the Gandhara history nurtures the enduring religious and military traditions critical to the persistence of militancy in the region.
The Afghan warriors, some of the Turkic ancestry, transformed the Gandhara region and the contiguous areas through invasions, Islamization, and de-Hinduization — a set of forces that created modern Afghanistan, separated Pakistan from India, and may influence the future of Kashmir. The Taliban of Afghanistan and the Taliban of Pakistan are the current versions of the old warriors. The ancient warriors, Afghan Turks, and the Mughals ventured into and beyond Gandhara to reach Delhi and further East into India. The modern warriors, carrying the Gandhara sensibilities, refuse to accept invasions and occupations. They also resent the Indian sovereignty over Muslim Kashmir since it runs antithetical to the historical narrative of de-Hinduization of Muslim territories.
Below, a brief historical overview will explain how the Afghan weltanschauung (spirit of fighting and piety) shaped the six historical cities of Kabul, Kandahar, Quetta, Multan, Lahore, and Peshawar, framing the Gandhara Hexagon. Even though its borders have contracted and expanded under various rulers, the Gandhara Hexagon contains Pashtuns, Balochis, Punjabis, and numerous other ethnic groups. Afghanistan and Pakistan, as presently constituted, are modern nation-states built around the Gandhara region.
Note that Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, the sacred Hindu city Varanasi, and the holy rivers of Ganga and Jumna, regardless of Muslim rule for centuries, seem light years away from the Gandhara region. Even Muslim Bangladesh that eventually broke away from India and Pakistan shared inconsequential Gandhara awareness. However, Srinagar of Kashmir is ethnically and geopolitically much closer to the Hexagon. Prime Minister Imran Khan and the military establishment call Kashmir Pakistan’s “jugular vein.”
Historically, even before the arrival of Islam, what unites Afghanistan and Pakistan geography is the Gandhara region, farmed with deep memories of thousands of years. What presently divides the Gandhara region is the 1893 Durand Line that the British drew in the sand after the second Anglo-Afghan war to separate Afghanistan from what the imperialists called British India.
For centuries, the Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Hindus, and the Chinese all assembled in Gandhara to exchange goods, ideas, and cultural artifacts. Various invaders, ancient and contemporary, such as Alexander the Great, the British, the Soviets, and the Americans, dreamed of bringing the Gandhara region under their control. The Arabs brought Islam to western Afghanistan, but the Afghan warriors carried Islam forward to transform Gandhara into an Islamic territory, imbuing its inhabitants with the pietistic urge to expand Islam into the South and East lands.
A young Winston Churchill (1874-1965) spent some time as a military officer and war correspondent in Nowshera, a Pakistani town in the Gandhara region. He came face to face with the Pashtun warriors. In his letters turned into a book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, Churchill describes the Pashtun warriors through a pre-rehearsed savaging stereotype: “Tribe wars with tribe. The people of one valley fight with those of the next . . . Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers . . . Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.” Yet he captures bits of truth. “All (hands) against the stranger” is an accurate attribute of the Afghan weltanschauung.
Islamization of Gandhara
Although the exact dates are debatable, the Kingdom of Gandhara lasted at least sixteen centuries (600 BCE-1001 CE) until Mahmud Ghaznavi (871-1030), a Turkic Afghan, dismembered it for good in the first year of the 11th century C.E. Before Ghaznavi, the Persians, Greeks, Mauryan, Scythians, Kushans, White Huns ruled Gandhara for various periods, leaving behind a fusion of races and progenies.
Before Islam’s arrival, Gandhara was predominantly Buddhist, a way of life established in the third century BCE, with Taxila (25 km northwest of Islamabad) as its spiritual capital. For many centuries, Taxila was known for its monks, teachers, and intellectuals. Some historians argue that Taxila was the first university in the world. In 1980, UNESCO designated Taxila as a World Heritage Site.
As noted above, despite ethnic and linguistic variations, present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan are the Gandhara regions writ large.
In population, Pakistan (238 mils) is nearly seven times bigger than Afghanistan (38 mils). Geographically, Pakistan (796 sq km) is slightly larger than Afghanistan (652 sq km). The two countries share the 800 km-long mountain range, called Hindu Kush (a Persian word that means Hindu-killer), a subrange of the Himalayas. They also share a large ethnic population called the Pashtuns (58 mils), also known as Pathans. The Taliban, Malala Yousafzai, Prime Minister Imran Khan, and Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, are Pashtuns. The author’s own tribe, Kakazai, accompanied Mahmud Ghaznavi (970-1030 CE), who fought the army of Jayapala, the Hindu ruler, near Peshawar in 1001 CE.
The Gandhara region did not embrace Islam overnight, not even in a century, as it was a slow, grinding process. However, the 1001 CE battle of Peshawar is a watershed moment in the subsequent expansion of Islam in the region. The Hindu royal families that ruled the various cities in the Gandhara region, including Kabul, Peshawar, Lahore, and Multan, fought hard but began to lose sovereignty. Mahmud Ghaznavi emerges as a giant historical warrior who finally conquered the Gandhara region away from non-Muslim rulers. The Hindu historians do not see him kindly and paint him as a destroyer of temples and the looter of wealth.
The most intriguing part of Ghaznavi’s life story is his intense love for his Turkish slave, Ayaz, a form of spiritual love, passionate friendship, which has inspired Persian and Urdu poets Rumi, and Iqbal and regional Sufis. In 1021, Ghaznavi appointed Ayaz the first Muslim governor of Lahore, thus founding a new Islamic pivot of the Gandhara Hexagon.
It has been a distinguishing feature of Islam that the converts disown their pre-Islamic ancestral traditions. The Arabs embraced Islam, condemning their prior way of life as “the age of ignorance.” The Iranians left Zoroastrianism. The Egyptians, Syrians, Mesopotamians, Afghans, and Pakistanis begin to count their history with Islam, rejecting the past. Each region views its pre-Islamic history as an anomaly rather than a critical phase of sociocultural development.
Still, history does not wash away but permeates the deep recesses of shared consciousness as a silent determinant.
After Ghaznavi, various Afghan warriors pounded the Gandhara region and beyond, defeating the Hindu rulers and expanding the areas under Muslim control. Muhammad Ghori (1149-1206) defeated the Hindu ruler, Prithviraj Chauhan (1149-1192), a legendary fighter, and captured Lahore and Multan. In the next four centuries, present-day Pakistan would broadly turn Islamic even though some Buddhist and Hindu practices lingered in the culture. In the 16th century, the Mughals, the descendants of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, marched far beyond the Gandhara region to establish their empire in Delhi.
Note a critical distinction between the Afghans and the Mughals. The Afghan warriors were much more committed to the expansion of Islam than the Mughals, except for Emperor Aurangzeb, whom the Hindus detest for his extremism. Many Mughal kings and princes engaged in behaviors that Islam prohibits, and Emperor Akbar (1642-1605) started a new religion to synthesize Islam and Hinduism. In sum, the Mughals broke away from the Afghan weltanschauung.
It should come as no surprise that Afghanistan and Pakistan are much more conservative in matters of Islam. Despite their art, poetry, and architectural achievements, the Mughals abandoned the Islamic fervor Mahmud Ghaznavi, and Muhammad Ghori brought to the Gandhara region and its people. Furthermore, the Mughals, obsessed with the exotica and opulence, treated the Gandhara region as a pedestrian passageway to Delhi and beyond.
The Mughals have little tracking in Pakistan except for the ruling elites who fancy luxury and opulence. However, there are pieces of evidence to show how Pakistan implements the Afghan weltanschauung. President Ayub Khan (1907-1974), a Pashtun, decided to move the capital of Pakistan from Karachi to Islamabad. Karachi, the commercial hub and the largest city, is nowhere near Gandhara; Islamabad shares the Gandhara soil. In 1953, General Motors established a car plant named National Motors Limited in Karachi. However, after acquiring the company, General Habibullah Khan Khattak, a Pashtun, renamed it Gandhara Industries Limited.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, a Pashtun, has strongly supported the Taliban, ignoring their questionable views on women, music, and religious tolerance. In 2001, the Taliban militants bombed the older-than-Islam Buddha statues in Bamiyan, erected in the 6th century. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, had observed, “These idols have been gods of the infidels.” Except for a bland diplomatic protest, Pakistanis shed no tears over the loss of statues.
De-Hinduization of Gandhara
For decades before the fall of Peshawar in 1001 CE, the Gandhara region was under the control of Hindu rulers. Jayapala (d. 1001 CE), a ruler of the Hindu Shahi, captured the Gandhara region after defeating the Turkish Shah. At one point, Jayapala controlled Kabul, Lahore, Multan, Srinagar, and Peshawar. However, Jayapala –as Churchill would later observe — invited the nonstop wrath of “all hands” of Afghans. Jayapala and his progeny were first ousted from Kabul, later from Peshawar, Multan, and Lahore. Al-Biruni (973-1048), a Muslim scholar of Indology, writes,” The Hindu Shahi dynasty is now extinct, and of the whole house there is no longer the slightest remnant in existence.”
The Afghan weltanschauung nurtures the view that the Hindus offend the fundamental teachings of Islam with their idol worshipping and caste system. Even though Hinduism is a sophisticated monotheistic religion, most Muslims living in the Gandhara region do not recognize Hindu monotheism. Once populated with Hindus and governed by Hindu kings, the Gandhara Hexagon, including Kabul, Peshawar, Lahore, Multan, and Quetta, is now 99% Muslim. Over time, some Hindus in the area converted to Islam, some lost life in frequent battles, some moved to other places.
Since Jayapala’s defeat in Afghanistan, the Hindus have been gradually leaving the country, and there are no more than a dozen Hindu families that might still live there. The Sikhs, practicing monotheism and rejecting the caste system, remained in Afghanistan until the 1979 Soviet invasion. However, Afghans had not forgotten Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), a Sikh ruler who captured many parts of the Gandhara Hexagon. In 1979, the Soviet invasion sparked the Afghan weltanschauung to oust the non-Muslim occupiers, the Soviets, and the Sikhs.
The 1947 partition of India and Pakistan was the final episode of the de-Hinduization of the Gandhara region writ large. According to the 1951 census, Pakistan (excluding Bangladesh) had a population of nearly 34 million. Estimates show that almost 5 million Hindus left Pakistan, close to 15 % of the people in 1947. The 4.5 million Hindus still residing in Pakistan, a small minority among 238 million, live mainly in Sindh, a province far away from Gandhara.
Many Hindu families in Sindh complain that their daughters are forcibly converting to Islam. A recent legislative attempt to pass a law against forced conversions failed, and the religious parties denied that forced conversions exist in Pakistan. Imran Khan’s government argued against the proposed law, fearing a backlash. A Hindu member of the National Assembly warned that rejecting the bill “will make life a living hell for minorities in this country.”
De-Hinduization is a sentiment that not all Pakistanis share. Some sections of Pakistan, particularly in Punjab and Sindh, contest the Afghan weltanschauung. Some ethnic groups, such as Jat Gotras, which converted to Islam recently, can still trace connections to their Hindu ancestors. These Muslims disagree with the notion of de-Hinduization. Likewise, the people who migrated to Pakistan from India (Urdu-speaking Muhajirs) have a conflicted view of India, some regretting the partition. The ethnic tensions between the Pashtuns and Muhajirs in Karachi reveal that the Gandhara sensibilities are far from ubiquitous among the people of Pakistan.
President Pervez Musharraf, whose Urdu-speaking family migrated from India, could not stand the Afghan Taliban. After 9/11, he joined the Bush administration in overthrowing the Taliban government, for which the Pashtuns did not forgive him. Serious attempts were made to assassinate him. In 2019, a special court headed by Peshawar high court Chief Justice Waqar Seth sentenced Musharraf to death for imposing an unconstitutional emergency. “We direct the law enforcement agencies to strive their level best to apprehend the fugitive/convict and to ensure that the punishment is inflicted as per law and if found dead, his corpse be dragged to the D-Chowk, Islamabad, Pakistan and be hanged for 03 days,” wrote the Chief Justice. This punishment is unusual. However, it is noteworthy that Chief Justice Seth was born in Dera Ismail Khan, a town located in the heart of the Gandhara region.
Likewise, Nawaz Sharif could not complete a single five-year government term despite winning a sizeable electoral vote in three different elections. Among many reasons for his downfall, Nawaz Sharif advocates and practices close ties with India. He even befriended Prime Minister Modi, who made a special visit to Lahore in 2015 to attend Sharif’s granddaughter’s wedding. Some groups consider Sharif to be a simpleton, for, in their view, he seems to misjudge the regional undercurrents.
By contrast, President Ayub Khan, who ruled Pakistan for ten years (1958-1969) after staging a military coup, and Prime Minister Imran Khan, who currently heads the government come across as heroes. In his U.N. speeches, forcefully endorsing the Afghan weltanschauung, Imran Khan highlights Islamophobia and paints Prime Minister Modi as a patron of Hindutva, which Khan discredits as a version of Nazism.
Hegel’s dialectical method makes the most sense in studying the conflict between Hindutva and Afghan weltanschauung, except that any synthesis seems out of reach.
From the times of Jayapala onwards, the Hindutva (Hindu pride and way of life) has opposed the Afghan weltanschauung (militancy and Islamic way of life). In 1008 CE, “the Hindu women sold their jewels, melted down their gold ornaments” to finance the Hindu “holy war” against the Afghans fighting the Hindu Shahi in Gandhara. In 1948, a Hindu votary assassinated Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), who supported the partition for a Muslim homeland.
In 1979, when the Soviets invaded and occupied Afghanistan, India supported the Soviet occupation. In the U.N. debates over the Soviet invasion, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sided with the Soviet Union, disappointing the non-alignment movement that customarily opposed any superpower interference in the affairs of small countries.
After the Soviets left Afghanistan, the Afghan Mujahidin, who had not forgotten the Indian validation of the invasion, sent infiltrators into Kashmir to unshackle its people from the Indian occupation. The Indian security forces suppressed the insurrection, but an Afghan pathway took root to liberate Kashmir. Likewise, during the first Taliban government (1996-2001), the Afghan and Pakistani militants jointly supported the Kashmiri resistance movement.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has warned the world that the 2021 Taliban victory over the United States would unleash new waves of terrorism in Kashmir. Shashi Tharoor, a former U.N. under-secretary-general and a member of the Indian National Congress, writes, “India has invested $3 billion in Afghanistan – in dams, highways, electricity grids, hospitals, schools, and even the parliament building. With all this now in Taliban hands, Indian policymakers (are) despondent.”
India’s efforts to woo any Afghan government against Pakistan may work temporarily, but such a government, like President Ashraf Ghani’s, will have no roots in the Afghan weltanschauung. Pakistan seeks strategic depth in Afghanistan because the Gandhara Hexagon makes sense only if Kabul, Kandahar, Quetta, Multan, Lahore, and Peshawar maintain synaptic connections. Any policy that cleaves the Hexagon into two mutually exclusive pieces defies the historical diagram.
Frustration with Afghanistan and Pakistan leavens an exponential rise of Hindutva consciousness. The Hindutva intellectuals are reassessing India’s history as a story of perpetual Muslim occupation for a thousand years, asserting that the Turks, the Afghans, and the Mughals were occupiers. The recent laws against “love jihad” demonstrate that even Indian Muslims living there for centuries are no longer welcome as natives. Since the cow is sacred in Hinduism, many states have banned the slaughter of cows, and the wrath falls on Muslim families as Hindu vigilantes enforce the slaughter ban. Despite domestic opposition to Hindu extremism, Hindutva sullies India’s romanticized view as a secular, tolerant, diverse nation.
The Kashmiris are celebrating the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and hoping that “Some way, in the near future, India too will be defeated by Kashmir’s holy warriors.” Since the 1947 partition, India and Pakistan have fought several wars, big and small, to complicate the Kashmir dispute. In August 2019, Prime Minister Modi and the Indian Parliament revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s 72-years old constitutional autonomy. They opened the way for changing the demographics by allowing Hindus and others to move and settle in Kashmir freely, thus diluting the Muslim majority in the area.
Geographically, Kashmir is contiguous to the Gandhara region. Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, is 102 miles from Islamabad but 519 miles away from New Delhi, constituting a ratio of 1:5. Historically, several princes who ruled the Gandhara region also ruled Kashmir. For example, Jayapala controlled Kabul, Peshawar, and Srinagar. In the 19th century, Ranjit Singh ruled Lahore, Peshawar, and Srinagar, even though the cities had become predominantly Muslim.
In 1752, as the Mughals were faltering in Delhi, Ahmad Shah Durrani (1722-1773), the founder of the modern state of Afghanistan, captured Kashmir. After the partition, when the Hindu Raja of Kashmir decided to join India, the Pashtun tribes invaded Kashmir to liberate it from the Hindus. Seeing the uncertainty, India went to the U.N. security council to demand a more peaceful solution through a plebiscite to determine the will of the Kashmiri people. Later, however, India refused to hold a referendum, and the Kashmir dispute turned into a tinderbox, periodically exploding into wars.
The Afghans and Pakistanis see Kashmir as a natural extension of the Gandhara region. If the Taliban can hold on to Afghanistan, they may eventually join Pakistan in destabilizing Kashmir under Indian rule. The Kashmiris themselves have changed since the revocation of their autonomy and now see only a dismal future under the Indian sovereignty. The Kashmir dispute will not go away if history is any guide until Kashmir joins the Gandhara region.
However, current affairs are much more complicated than what history might dictate. India is a formidable economic and military power, disproportionately superior to Pakistan. India’s alliance with the U.S. and its general goodwill among the Western nations and Japan put tremendous pressure on Afghanistan and Pakistan to refrain from any blatant adventurism in Kashmir. India is building ties with the U.S. and Japan and may reap significant economic benefits. The rhetoric of terrorism has subsumed the movements for independence, whether Palestine or Kashmir, which also benefits India in the short run.
In the long run, the future is muddier. The Hindutva is highly unpopular in the global press and will find few sympathizers outside India. The human rights movement will continue to expose the military crimes in Kashmir. The Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan-China alliance is likely to strengthen for the foreseeable future, and Russia is also joining China. The U.S. policy to groom India as a rival to China is a high-stake game. It is hard to predict whether India would prevail in the region against its neighbors or even hold on to Kashmir.
The arc of history lays bare how the Gandhara region has been an influential entity while transforming from a Buddhist stronghold to an Islamic bastion. The Hindu princes, who once ruled Kabul, Peshawar, Lahore, and Multan, the key cities of the Gandhara Hexagon, lost power after decisive battles. The Afghan warriors, particularly Mahmud Ghaznavi and Muhammad Ghori, laid the roots of Pakistan, a country that has been in the formation for several centuries. The Mughals pursuing luxury and architecture intrigue Pakistan’s ruling elites but do not capture the imagination of the masses.
However, the Afghanization of Pakistan continues to renew strict Islam and militancy, as the return of the Taliban reinforces the significance of the Gandhara region. Rediscovering its historical roots in Iran, Turkey, and Central Asia, Pakistan will further draw away from India. On the other side, the growing Hindutva consciousness challenges Indian secularism, mars domestic peace with the Muslim population, and complicates India’s regional relations. By revoking the Kashmir autonomy in 2019, India may have set alight a new belligerency likely to gain momentum as Pakistan and Afghanistan join hands. Unfortunately, the Kashmir dispute remains an ignition key for future wars.