October 30, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Mohammad Aslam Khan

Sardar Mohammad Aslam Khan comes from the same family as exiled Afghan king Zahir Shah, and says he was with the monarch when he was deposed in 1973. Originally from Kandahar -- now headquarters of the Taleban -- Khan's ancestors moved to India with Amir Yaqub Muhammad Khan in the nineteenth century, after the amir abdicated the throne of Afghanistan.

Aslam Khan became an Indian citizen in 1984, and served as a minister in the Congress government in Uttar Pradesh. A long-time resident of Dehradun in Uttaranchal, he told Onkar Singh that the Americans should have supported the anti-Taleban forces to dislodge the present government, instead of bombing innocent people. Excerpts:

Are you related to former king Zahir Shah?

We are from Kandahar and come from the same family as that of the former king. I was with him in Kabul till 1973 when he was deposed and forced to live in exile in Rome.

How long have you been in India?

Our forefathers came here. I have been living here for ages. I have contested elections and been a member of the Uttar Pradesh assembly for three terms. I took Indian citizenship in 1984.

We are Muhammadzai Afghans. My father was born in India and so was I. My grandfather came along with Amir Yaqub Muhammad Khan in 1879. The Mohammadzai clan comes from Kandahar. My great grandfather was the chieftain of our clan and these chieftains looked after Kabul.

Why did you chose to live here?

As I said earlier my grandfather came along with the Amir Yaqub Muhammad Khan after he abdicated his throne. He was brought here by the British. He liked the cool climate of Dehradun as it was close to Mussoorie where he and his chieftains would shift during summers. We Afghans cannot bear the summer heat. We are used to long chilling winters for four to five months from November to March. The Britishers looked after us. The amir had his own army, his own horses and elephants. In winters they would come back to Dehradun and go for hunts to test their shooting skills.

What route did the amir take to reach Dehradun?

At that time there was only one route to India and that was through the Khyber Pass. Once he crossed the high Afghan mountain ranges he was in Hindustan. He had camps at various places en route to Dehradun. My mother and father used to tell stories about how the amir and our grandfather came to India.

For years we heard nothing about Kabul House in Dehradun. Suddenly this place is in prominence. Why?

The place is in prominence because of its changed circumstances and the role which the former king Zahir Shah is expected to play in the formation of the new government. Otherwise this place has been there for ages. Kabul House was the place where the amir and his entourage decided to stay once they reached Dehradun.

Is Kabul House the only property the amir had to himself or did he have more properties in his name?

You do not expect the amir to live in just one property. When a king moves with his paraphernalia he is expected to have some large properties to himself even if he is in exile. We had Radha Bhavan in Mussoorie, which has 100 rooms. This property was enough to accommodate everyone. Almost all the houses on the East Canal Road in Dehradun belonged to the amir.

What was his style of living?

We don't know much ourselves, but my mother tells me that he was a simple man who had great faith in Allah. According to historians, Amir Yaqub was a great warrior and won all the battles he fought. He spent six years in jail because his stepmother was jealous and wanted her own son to become the amir. Zahir Shah also comes from the same clan.

You must understand that Afghan kings are elected in a Loya Jirga (assembly of chieftains) and they do not come from any specific royal clan. This grand gathering of chieftains used to elect the king. Since Muhammadzai is a strong and influential tribe, it was in a position to rule for such a long time. Zahir Shah ruled from 1933-73.

What according to you is wrong with Afghanistan today?

During the rule of Zahir Shah, Afghanistan was one of the most peaceful nations on the globe. It was the golden period of Afghanistan. The country had good relations with its neighbours. He was a just king. At that time Kabul was one of the most modern cities. Top French goods could be seen on the streets of Kabul and you could shop comfortably.

When the Russians invaded Afghanistan, young children took refuge in Pakistan along with their families. These children were sent to madarsas [Islamic religious schools] and given a different kind of preaching. They were asked to fight a jihad [holy war]. It is these children who have now grown up and become the Taleban. Because of them, a peace-loving nation has been forced into devastation.

Do you see Afghanistan being divided into two parts, one controlled by the Northern Alliance and the other by the Taleban or any other group?

No. I do not see any division taking place. On the contrary, I see Afghans coming together because of the policies of the Americans.

What is wrong with the American policy? They say they are trying to remove the Taleban, capture Osama bin Laden and destroy the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Nobody has any objection if they can remove the Taleban from power in Afghanistan and capture Osama bin Laden. But when innocent Afghan civilians start getting killed, the theory of Afghanistan as one nation comes into being and all warring factions join hands to fight a common enemy. History tells you that no power in the world, including the former Soviet Union, has been able to subjugate the Afghans. The Americans and the British are living in a fool's paradise if they think they can defeat the Afghans in war.

Why can't the Afghans be defeated?

It is in the mind of the Afghans. An Afghan would willingly work for less money for another Afghan than work for someone else. He would accept less in his own country than go abroad. This is their mindset. To him, his country means more than anything else. He would give his life to protect his country. As more and more civilians get killed in American bombings, more tribes will forget their differences and join hands with the Taleban.

Even if the Americans do manage to capture Kabul for a while, they will not be able to hold on to it for long. 50,000 Pathans, roaming in batches of three or four, would prove more dangerous. They could kill their enemies at any time, at any place. You cannot move freely in a country where even a child or woman has a gun in his or her hand and can shoot you the moment you turn your back.

Americans have announced $25 million for any credible information on the arrest or killing of Osama bin Laden. Do you think the Afghans would take it?

Afghans are not like [Pakistan President Pervez] Musharraf who can be bought over by money.

What do you make of the killing of Commander Abdul Haq by the Taleban?

This is a sort of warning to their enemies to fall in line or face the music.

Do you think the Americans could have achieved their objectives by supporting rival Afghan groups than by bombing the country?

You are right. You cannot hold a nation responsible for the acts of a few individuals. If the Americans want to catch Osama they must come down on the ground. The Americans could have achieved their target of throwing the Taleban out of power had they armed ordinary Afghans who were fed up of this rule. They would have done better if they had supported the Northern Alliance. But by bombing ordinary Afghans they have lost the battle even before it began. They have lost an entire nation.

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