Afghan History Lesson

In the few weeks that the world has focused on Afghanistan, almost everyone has heard about the long history of failed attempts at conquest, from the Mongols to the British to the Russians. Ethnic, tribal and religious divisions have also prevented the Afghans themselves from uniting their country.

Now as the Northern Alliance rebels focus on reaching Kabul while American air and ground forces hit Taliban bases in Afghanistan, there is once again talk of stitching together an Afghan coalition to keep the country together.

As it happens, a storehouse of experience with Afghanistan's splintered nature is recounted in a remarkable memoir written by one of the country's historic conquerors.

Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty that ruled South Asia until the arrival of the British, secured Afghanistan in a campaign of violence, intimidation and plunder and then wrote his observations in a diary known as the Baburnama. With its brilliant observations of the land, nature and human conduct, the Baburnama reflects how much, and how little, has changed since then.

Descended from both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, Babur yearned for greatness as a youth. At the age of 23 (the year "I first put a razor to my face") he set off for what is today Afghanistan, taking Kabul in 1504. He did it by sowing strife and forming alliances with local chieftains. He also had a way of leaving piles of skulls of enemies who stood in his way.

Babur noted the importance of rewarding loyalty. "Indeed, every time God granted a boon, I did so," he wrote. To be sure, he said, his enemies gossiped that he still favored his "old retainers." But the young would-be emperor was philosophical. "There is a proverb that says, 'What will your enemy not say?'" he wrote. "'What will not enter his dream? City gates can be closed but never the mouths of opponents.'"

The American military is not attempting to conquer Afghanistan as Babur and past invaders did. Instead, American policy makers are trying something new in Afghan history: the stitching together of a plausible confederation of existing fiefs with reduced power in Kabul. "Afghanistan has had state-builders and empire-builders," said Barnett Rubin, an Afghan scholar who is director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. "That's not going to happen. There will have to be a decentralized administration, clear legal rules and an authority that can establish security in the capital."

Establishing such a government requires its own mixture of incentives and intimidation. The Northern Alliance is a mixture of Tajiks, former Communists, Shiites and failed warlords, resented by the ethnic Pashtuns who dominate most of the southern part of Afghanistan. The drive to secure the loyalty of these Pashtuns seems to have stalled, however.

Babur, who came from Central Asia, referred to the Pashtuns simply as Afghans. He marveled at their business success, especially at how they made money from the caravans that came through Kabul and Kandahar bearing goods from China to Turkey. "Every year seven, eight or ten thousand horses come to Kabul," he wrote. The trade in slaves, textiles, sugar and spices earned fortunes for Kabul's merchants and generated income all along the trade routes.

In modern times the trade has been dominated by guns, opium and contraband from Iran and Dubai smuggled over the same routes into Pakistan, according to Rubin.

The Taliban, which took over Afghanistan in the 1990s, succeeded on more than Islamic zeal, he noted. Their leaders shrewdly got local Pashtun warlord support by letting them cash in on this trade, just as the Pashtuns did in the old days. The United States must now figure out how to restore Afghanistan's earlier trade and use it to draw in and strengthen the old power structure, including current Taliban allies.

Babur went on to conquer India, but his memoirs are famous for the disdain he felt for the land and its peoples. His heart remained in Kabul, a place he evoked in sensuous prose. His accounts of fishing, hunting and feasting, and of the abundance of everything -- from pomegranates to apricots, quinces, almonds, honey and wine -- evoke a place of beauty and repose even while torn by war. Near a canal that watered some orchards, Babur wrote, was "a secluded, cozy spot where much debauchery is indulged in." For Babur, Afghanistan was a place of betrayal, intrigue and violence -- but also a place of generosity, humanity and beauty.

My own limited experience in Afghanistan suggests that the Taliban's harsh, puritanical approach to life is as alien to most Afghans today as it would have been back then.

In 1987, when I was in Kabul during the Russian occupation, I searched out Babur's crumbling tomb there on a moist and windy spring afternoon. It lies at the crest of a terraced garden designed by Babur himself, surrounded by deep and dark chinar trees. Not a soul was there, except for a man in the distance who may have been spying on me for the government. You cannot gaze on Babur's crumbling tombstone without pondering how history buries the conquerors and conquered alike in a mist of ambiguous lessons for today.

Steve R. Weisman is on the editorial staff of The New York Times, to which he contributed this comment.