Since Alexander the Great - Afghanistan's Central Role in World History
Franz Schurmann,
Pacific News Service, Sep 27, 2001

Since the time of Alexander the Great, Afghanistan has been the incubator of global visions. Throughout history, swarms of armed nomads have migrated south and west, mostly to move their herds, but sometimes for conquest as well.

SAN FRANCISCO--Suddenly, America is facing a war with Afghanistan -- a country we associate with amputated hands and terrified women. In fact, ever since Alexander the Great staged his conquest of fabled India from the Kabul Valley, Afghanistan has been the incubator of visions that swept the world. The ancient city of Balkh, in northern Afghanistan, is still called Um al-Bilaad -- the Mother of (all) Cities.

In the mid-1950s, I spent a year-and-a-half roaming around Afghanistan with Japanese anthropologist Iwamura Shinobu in search of Afghanistan's "lost" Mongol tribe, descendants of Genghis Khan's armies. We not only found the tribe; we discovered that the force defining and energizing this remote and impoverished region was the long-distance migrating nomads.

All the experts had told us to look in northern or central Afghanistan; instead, we found the Mongols in the southwest. The first Mongol we saw had blond hair and blue eyes. Others bore African features. While they spoke a Mongolian dialect laced with Arabic and Persian words, they also opted to speak Pashtun, the dominant language for a thousand years of the Pashtun people living in southern Afghanistan. And now Pashtun is the preferred language of the Taliban.

Like the Mongol minority, many, if not most, rural Pashtuns are long distance migrants. They are called Koochis -- a Turkish word meaning people who migrate long distances back and forth.

For over 5,000 years, long distance migrants from Central Asia moved westward and southward, giving most Europeans, Iranians and Indians their contemporary languages. Then came the Ural-Altaic long-distance migrants from the northwestern borderlands of China, who gave rise to Hungary and its non-Indo-European language. A thousand years ago, the Turks, who went south intermarried with the local population to form the Pashtun people there.

The Pashtuns account for over half of Afghanistan's population -- some 16 million people when I was there and probably not much more today, given the enormous human casualties inflicted by two decades of war. And Pashtuns also make up the great majority of Afghan refugees in Pakistan -- at least three million in Karachi, the former capital, and a million more elsewhere. When Russians started dropping anti-personnel bombs all over rural Afghanistan and then civil war raged, many Pashtuns took their herds and moved hundreds of miles into Pakistan, as far as Karachi on the Arabian Sea.

More than 10 percent of Pakistan's 146 million people are Pathan, a people whose language and culture are virtually identical to that of the Afghan Pashtuns. Clustered along the Afghan border, the Pathans are considered Pakistan's warrior people and play a major role in its armed forces. The Pashtun refugees have increased the Pathan share of the total Pakistan population to possibly 20 percent.

The Pashtuns trace the rise of their culture to a Muslim Turkic ruler named Mahmood, who founded a brilliant dynasty in the Pashtun city of Ghazni, half way between Kabul and Qandahar. The Turks also brought a vision that transformed the Pashtun mountain people from short distance sheep herders into Koochi migrants.

The vision took the name Beni Isra'il, "Children of Israel." The Beni Isra'il figure prominently in the Muslim Qur'an, which describes the Children of Israel as being preferred by God to all others because they received his message. Many Pashtuns believe they are one of the lost ten tribes of Israel. Even the Afghan Mongols, once they embraced Islam, came to see themselves also as a part of the Children of Israel.

In the mid-1700s, a Pashtun clan, the Durrani's, became the rulers of Afghanistan. They held power until 1974. In the early 1980s, the Communist Pashtuns ruled. Later the largely Pashtun Taliban overthrew them in 1996. This time the Taliban ruled from the Pashtun stronghold of Qandahar, rather than the more Westernized and Persianized Kabul. Ever since the Taliban took power, they have refrained from engaging in the anti-Israeli denunciations that resonate throughout the Muslim world -- a testament to the strength of their identification with their Beni Isra'il origins.

Unlike Osama bin Laden, who envisions a seamless Muslim world, Mullah Omar, the reclusive spiritual leader of the Taliban, wants to build his realm only in Afghanistan. Yet he is called Ameer ul-Muslimeen, Commander of the Faithful, a title assumed by the early Caliphs, who a millenium and a half ago, launched their holy wars. Within a few decades, Muslim power ranged from the China borderlands to the Atlantic.

If America starts a massive attack on Afghanistan to punish and overthrow the Taliban, chances are that armed Koochis will start a massive, long-distance migration south into Pakistan. This alone could easily destabilize the entire subcontinent much as what the great conqueror Babur and his armies did when they moved south from Afghanistan to found the great Mogul Dynasty in India in the 1500s.

Babur is buried in Kabul, and I went several times to his grave. He could have been buried elsewhere in his vast domains, but he chose Afghanistan. Maybe that is because so many Afghans still talk about "Iskender," an Arabic variant of Alexander. It was Alexander the Great who first made Afghanistan into a launching pad for global visions.

PNS Associate Editor Franz Schurmann is emeritus professor at U.C. Berkeley and author of "The Mongols of Afghanistan" (Mouton, 1962). Schurmann can be reached at


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