Originally published by the Nation in 2005. No copyright infringment intended
'A Pathan Odyssey'
The history of Pakistan is a history of missed opportunities. Read Aslam Khattak's autobiography, 'A Pathan Odyssey', and you will find out. It speaks of our many moments that went ungrasped, moments that passed us by, chances to change destinies for the better that went a begging. What makes the book unique is that it is a first hand account by a very long life, nearly a hundred year history written by a man who not only saw it happen but often participated in its making at different levels. Born in 1908, soon after Lord Curzon ceased being Viceroy of India, the grand old man is now 97 years old. Why, when he went up to Oxford in 1928 my father was only five years old!
One of the most famous incidents of the Raj was the kidnapping of the British girl Mollie Ellis in 1923 by Ajab Khan Afridi because he felt that the British had insulted his tribe. Mollie was the daughter of the British Commander of the Kohat cantonment. It was Aslam Khattak's father, Khan Bahadur Kuli Khan, who rescued her. A grateful British gave him the title of Kaiser-i-Hind. The unkind rumour soon started that "Kuli Khan arranged the kidnapping himself so that he could win honour and renown by the rescue." I suppose we were a cynical people even then.
I learned of two missed opportunities from his book. The first was regarding Jammu & Kashmir. It seems that we could have had Kashmir had we had grasped the opportunity. Says Aslam Khattak: "One story had it that Sardar Patel, the Indian Minister of the Interior, sent a message to Quaid-i-Azam through Mian Iftikharuddin that India would be prepared to hand over Kashmir and its majority Muslim population to Pakistan if Pakistan would agree to Hyderabad going to India. The Quaid-i-Azam is alleged to have replied that Kashmir was ours and Hyderabad was a legal case." Now if this account is correct, for Aslam Khattak does not claim to be a participant in it, it is for historians to shed light on it.
The other missed opportunity was Afghanistan. Our relations with this neighbour of ours were strained from the outset. The Afghan authorities had believed that their Pukhtoon brethren in Pakistan would be subjugated and ill-treated by the Punjabis (this bogey seems to have started early but it seems memories of Hari Singh die hard) and that before withdrawing, the British should grant some sort of independence to the tribes. So a month before independence, in July 1947, Afghan Prime Minister Shah Mahmood went to London seeking support for some kind of independence for the tribes. But the British Foreign Secretary told him that the NWFP was an integral part of India, which was recognised by the Afghan Government. Thus, after a referendum, the Frontier went to Pakistan. Says Aslam Khattak: "Unable to achieve realisation of its interest in the Frontier internationally, the Afghans turned to a demand for an independent state of Pushtunistan. They pushed it with diplomats in Kabul and the newly created United Nations Organisation. They provided money and arms to dissident tribesmen and gave them refuge and schooling in Kabul. They voted against Pakistan's admission to the UN." How times were to change. Thirty-two years later, it was Pakistan that was to give refuge and schooling to three million Afghans who fled the Soviet occupation.
The missed opportunity came in 1956-57 when Aslam Khattak was first our First Secretary and then Ambassador in Kabul. By then we had a full-blown 'Afghan Problem'. Prime Minister Suharawardhy called a meeting in which Army Chief General Ayub Khan "dismissed our neighboring country in proper Sandhurst style. 'Afghan problem?' he said gruffly. 'What is the Afghan problem? A little strategic bombing and an armoured thrust would settle it once and for all!.'" It was then that Pakistan, with Aslam Khattak in 'Track Two' mode, so to speak, started the proposal for a Pakistan-Afghan confederation. He wanted to get Prime Minister Sardar Daud on his side because "Daud honestly believed that the Pathans were oppressed in Pakistan. He considered it a duty to help his brethren. He may also have been suspicious about the 'A', for Afghan (Afghanica) province in Pakistan. Did it mean we wanted to take over his country? At the same time, we thought that Daud was in league with India and bent upon dividing our country with Delhi. As was often the case in such circumstance, both sides were wrong." Daud was King Zahir Shah's first cousin and married to the King's sister. It was he who eventually deposed Zahir Shah. Khattak went to see Daud and told him that he wanted "to remove the misunderstanding between our countries..."
Next, Khattak separately met the "royal uncles", Shah Wali and Shah Mahmood, and took them into confidence. "I told him that Pakistan and Afghanistan would have to form a confederation if they were to survive threats from the USSR and India." After considerable humming and hawing both agreed to take the idea further. "Now I was ready to try my hand with Sardar Daud, whom I thought would be my most difficult hurdle." After Daud had made his complaints and Khattak had clarified them, including the letter 'A' in the name 'Pakistan', they decided that there should be an exchange of visits between King Zahir Shah and President Iskander Mirza. Actually both President Mirza and Prime Minister Suhrawardy went to Kabul together, which is highly unusual. While King and President were involved in ceremony, the two Prime Ministers started talking. After they left, Khattak continued the dialogue with Daud, who "suggested that we include some friendly missions in our discussions, such as Turkey and the USA. Sardar Daud said that the Americans should foot the bill of our mutual development projects when we confederated. Both sides would maintain internal autonomy, he proposed, but they would form a Central Government for defence, foreign policy, foreign trade and communications. The Prime Ministers would rotate."
If you are surprised at how far the dialogue went, there was more. Feroz Khan Noon had replaced Suhrawardy as Prime Minister. Khattak raised the question of head of state of the confederation with him. "In his grand way [Noon] said we should have no difficulty accepting King Zahir Shah as the constitutional head of state. 'After all, for some time after independence we had a Christian queen. Now we would have a Muslim man'. President Mirza concurred in this." When Khattak next met Daud, he said that "...a confederation was the correct step to realise our common destiny. I noted that Pakistan was a democratic country and asked what would be the position of the King. He promptly replied, 'We shall be a republic if Pakistan so desires.'" So here was Pakistan ready to accept the constitutional monarchy of Zahir Shah in the new Pak-Afghan confederation and there was Afghanistan prepared to become a republic.
As to the USA, Aslam Khattak says, "The Americans agreed to help in a big way. They were prepared to enlarge Karachi harbour and to develop another port. They agreed to provide fifty locomotives and five hundred wagons and to extend the Chaman railway to Kandahar and the Torkham rail line to Jalalabad. Sardar Daud wanted them to extend the Jalalabad railhead to Kabul and to commit to connect Kandahar and Kabul by rail." They had actually got into post-confederation details.
Then came mistakes. Daud came to Pakistan and while inspecting a shipyard in Karachi a bullet ricocheted off a ship and hit Aslam Khattak instead. Undaunted, they decided to bring Ghaffar Khan into the equation. He was released from prison and sent to Kabul, where he agreed to help in removing Pakistan-Afghan differences provided President Mirza agreed to hold a referendum on the One Unit. Mirza agreed. The American Ambassador in Karachi assured Ghaffar Khan through the American Ambassador in Kabul that the referendum would be held. But it wasn't. "I have never known," says Aslam Khattak, "exactly why he did not go ahead and do the job that he said he would. He may have got word from some important Pathans in Pakistan that, if the Afghans stopped speaking about the Pushtuns, the Punjabis would literally turn them into camp followers and second-class citizens. At any rate a great chance to change the face of history was missed." Indeed. Let's leave it at that. So much water has flown since then. But consider. If the confederation had happened, it would have automatically meant the end of the Parity Principle and One Unit because the anti-democratic 1956 Constitution would have had to be changed. There would have been no Ayub Khan regime and East Pakistan may still have been with us. The Soviets would not have such a large country. No Soviet occupation means no Jihad. No Jihad means no Mujahideen. The Americans could not have created Osama bin Laden. No Osama means no 9/11.