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William Dalrymple’s Brookings essay, A Deadly Triangle – Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, has stirred up a hornet’s nest among observers of Indian foreign policy. Best known for prize-winning works such as The Age of Kali, White Mughals, and The Last Mughal, Dalrymple, in this essay, looks at the decades-old conflict in Afghanistan and its foreign participants to come to the conclusion that the central Asian country is a battleground for a proxy India-Pakistan war.

This, we are told, is buncombe; Indians are furious at being considered part of the Afghan equation. Unfortunately, their reasoning seems more emotive than logical. Writes one journalist (who won much plaudits on twitter),

“Dalrymple’s “proxy war” reasoning implies – even though he may not have intended it — that Pakistan’s use of jihadi militants is somehow justified to counter Indian influence. And whatever emanates from the bunch of jihadis is indirectly India’s fault. It creates a troubling moral equivalence between India and Pakistan, between building roads and hospitals and bombing embassies.” (emphasis added)

That is a tough claim to defend. Dalrymple repeatedly states throughout his essay that “the ISI has consciously and consistently funded and incubated a variety of Islamic extremist groups” to bog down India’s conventional military superiority. As Dalrymple explains, the generals liked this strategy as it had an added bonus of fostering nationalism based on the “twin prongs of hatred for India and the bonding power of Islamic identity.” This, he explains, is because for the Pakistani military, “the existential threat posed by India has taken precedence over all other geopolitical and economic goals.”

These sentiments are not far from Indian opinion when Dalrymple’s essay is not in sight. Indian academics and strategists have always argued that Pakistan is unhealthily obsessed with India because it was created, in essence, as an anti-India; that Pakistan is ruled by the military needs hardly any argument, and the Islamic Republic’s ties to terrorism are also beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Dalrymple further accepts that Pakistan was the first to use irregulars when it encouraged Pashtun tribesmen into Kashmir in 1947. The Soviet invasion changed everything for the country; with Pakistan providing aid in terms of weapons, medical supplies, training, communications and intelligence bought by US and Saudi money, India’s disfigured twin gained the upper hand in Afghanistan.

Dalrymple also shows how Pakistan provided refuge to the Taliban soon after the September 11 attacks on the United States. The US War on Terror has forced Islamabad to restrain its hand in the internal matters of its northern neighbour while provided a boost for India’s agenda. India is the fifth-largest investor in Afghanistan, providing food, schools, hospitals, roads, and other infrastructure, and enjoys overwhelming approval (74%) of the Afghans.

Nowhere in the essay does Dalrymple make a case for the moral equivalence between India and Pakistan. In fact, if anything, the reader might be persuaded that Dalrymple is subtly hinting for a more active Indian role in Afghanistan. He writes,

“It is hardly surprising that India keeps intelligence personnel in these sensitive postings, but there is no hard evidence that RAW or any other Indian agency is taking reciprocal action against the Pakistanis in response to their covert war against Indian interests in Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence agencies have followed up all the leads provided by the Pakistanis on this matter and have not found any evidence that India is actively aiding Baluchi separatists in the way Pakistan alleges.”

The Indian commentariat has also accused Dalrymple of forgetting that Pakistan’s troubles with Afghanistan stretch to far before the US War on Terror or even the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the two countries’ dispute over the Durand Line. This is, again, patently false. Any careful reading would reveal Dalrymple’s explanation of the older conflict that has been overlaid by superpower conflict, Islamism, and the India-Pakistan conflict in the 20th century: “Afghan leaders had never accepted the Durand line that the British drew in 1893 and, after Partition, Afghanistan was not about to recognize that line as its border with Pakistan.”

In fact, the Brookings essay goes further back to say, “There is also an age-old Pashtun-on-Pashtun element to the conflict. It pits Taliban from the Ishaqzai tribe, parts of the Nurzais, Achakzais, and most of the Ghilzais, especially the Hotak and Tokhi Ghilzais, against the more “establishment” Durrani Pashtun tribes: the Barakzais, Popalzais and Alikozais.”

Perhaps what has so incensed Indian observers of the Af-Pak issue is that India’s own halo has been shredded. A Deadly Triangle also reminds readers that Afghanistan was the only country that opposed Pakistan’s membership into the United Nations in 1947, and the mutual antipathy to Pakistan that Afghanistan and India shared pulled them together into a friendship treaty as natural allies by 1950. Furthermore, India did not enter Afghanistan for the first time after the NATO invasion in 2001; India was there even earlier to mitigate the effects of the mess caused by the US involvement during the Soviet invasion and its abrupt abandonment of Kabul soon after. Until 2001, it was Iran and India that sent supplies to the Northern Alliance under Ahmad Shah Massoud in their fight against the Pakistani-supported Taliban.

If the assertion that the violence in Afghanistan is not about Pakistan’s irrational hatred of India but has to do with the United States, then all problems ought to be solved as they leave next year. Only the naive would believe this. It is true that Dalrymple has underplayed the devastating effect of US and Saudi money on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. However, that money went to fuel an anti-Soviet campaign with the side effect of exacerbating Islamabad’s troubled relations with Delhi. US aid, as it has in so many other theatres, acted as a catalyst upon already existing animosities and left the place worse than before the aid was given. In this narrow sense, the US is responsible for the Af-Pak quagmire but not the underlying raison d’être.

It is also possible that what motivates such a wild reaction from India to Dalrymple’s essay is Delhi’s fear that they will yet again be left alone to pick up the pieces as the United States and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. With Iran occupied in its own imbroglio over nuclear weapons, this time around, India will have little help from elsewhere. Russia may be of passing assistance – after all, Kabul is in its backyard too – but the geopolitical price India will have to pay might be too high.

Unfortunately for South Block and its many media and blogosphere supporters, there is little India can do to prevent or delay a Western retreat. Only a massive Taliban surge might achieve that if only because of the US desire for yet another “decent interval,” but it is unlikely that the Taliban high command is that stupid – it would be much easier to fight a lonelier Karzai next year.

Would Afghanistan have looked different without US and Saudi beneficence? Probably, but that is one too many what-ifs to tackle – it was the Cold War, the Soviet Union had not yet gone the way of the dodo, and China had yet to rise. Pakistan has steadily attacked India’s small assets in Afghanistan. This has less to do with the Afghans than with India. A simple test would be to compare Pakistan’s obsession with Afghanistan and the Durand Line to its visceral hatred of its larger eastern neighbour. It would also be fruitful to compare the dollars spent and the blood spilled by Pakistan against purely Afghan interests to the same against India or Indian interests in Afghanistan.

It is difficult to understand the explosive reaction to Dalrymple’s essay. Contrary to the assertions critics have made, scholars like Dalrymple and Bruce Riedel have argued strenuously that it is Islamabad and its support of terrorism that is the root of all the problems in the region, including India, Afghanistan, nuclear, and Islamism. India’s role, unfortunately, is acting as the object of ditransitive Pakistani terrorism. In fact, I, for one, applaud what little mettle India has shown for strategic thinking in Afghanistan and would like to see more of it. Or as journalist Pierre Fitter tweeted, “All said and done, I’m hoping the Pashto and Dari classes in Delhi are seeing maximum attendance.”

A version of this post appeared on FirstPost on June 29, 2013.