A deadly line

William Dalrymple’s triangulation error.

Earlier this week, Brookings published a slickly produced essay on Afghanistan by British author William Dalrymple on its website. The sophisticated aesthetic of the online publication makes you sit up in your chair. Mr Dalrymple’s arguments do more than that—they make you fall off it.

The gist of Mr Dalrymple’s endeavour in geopolitical literature is that Afghanistan, Pakistan and India form deadly triangle and that “hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan”. Therefore, he concludes, “(the) continuation of clashes between India and Pakistan in—and over—Afghanistan after the US withdrawal is dangerous for all countries in the region and for the world.”

The metaphorical blind men were supposed to be from Hindoostan. In this case, it is Mr Dalrymple who mistakes one part of the elephant for the whole.

Consider the conflict in Afghanistan over the last four decades. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan began supporting Afghan Islamists in the early 1970s—much before the Soviets invaded—out of its concerns over Kabul’s non-recognition of the Durand Line and support for the insurgency in Balochistan. Pakistan did this to assuage its own insecurities vis-a-vis Afghanistan. It had little to do with rivalry with India.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan partly because they feared Islamic extremism would destabilise their Central Asian republics. India was not in the picture. In fact, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi “tightly (rapped) the Soviet leadership on their knuckles” for their action. The United States then entered the fray to fight its Cold War adversary and outsourced the irregular war to the Pakistani military dictatorship next door. The Saudis financed the anti-Soviet jihad for their own geopolitical reasons, not least to go one up over Ayatollah Khomeini’s Shia Islamic republic in Iran.

In the 1990s, the Pakistanis stepped in to satisfy their military establishment’s expansionist dreams. This was neatly packaged for domestic and international consumption as the need for “strategic depth against India”, but was primarily an exercise in opportunistically extending hegemony over a weak neighbour. The Taliban then hosted Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda which had its own agenda against the United States and the West. After 9/11, the United States and its NATO allies attacked Afghanistan to punish the penetrators of that terrorist attack.

Neither India nor India-Pakistan rivalry figure significantly in any of this. The Pakistani military establishment, of course, cites the India bogey as an explanation for all its actions. There is also, no doubt, hostility between Pakistan and India. However, to ascribe the conflict in Afghanistan as part of this rivalry would be to nearly totally ignore historical facts.

The conflict in Afghanistan is due to overlapping involvement of outside powers—Pakistan, the Soviet Union, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran and al-Qaeda—in the pursuit of their own geopolitical interests. For almost three decades, India’s role has largely been to shield itself from the consequences of external meddling into Afghanistan’s affairs. This is an entirely different story from Mr Dalrymple’s contention that India-Pakistan relations are central to the conflict in Afghanistan.

Mr Dalrymple’s profound misreading of the situation could have been ignored as just another piece of writing in the now voluminous literature on Afghanistan and Pakistan, had it not been for the context. Barack Obama’s subjugation of military strategy to the tyranny of a hard date for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan means that Washington will be looking for a narrative to cover its less than dignified exit. Both the political strategists of the Democratic Party and the US foreign policy establishment need a storyline to obfuscate matters so that both President Obama and the United States do not appear to have washed their hands of their responsibility towards the Afghan people. Narratives like Mr Dalrymple’s come in handy for the purpose. The corollary of Mr Dalrymple’s thesis is that all the United States needs to do to stabilise Afghanistan is to engage in the familiar, relatively easy and generally useless task of encouraging India and Pakistan to improve their relations.

That’s exactly what James Dobbins, US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in New Delhi this week. “Any improvement in (India-Pakistan) ties”, he contended, “will almost automatically improve the Afghanistan situation.” Surely Mr Dobbins can’t believe that Mullah Omar will halt attacks on the Kabul government merely because India-Pakistan relations improve? The Pakistani military establishment didn’t surrender its Taliban option in the face intense, decade-long pressure from the United States. Only the credulous will believe that it will do so because India-Pakistan relations improve.

The narrative emerging from Mr Dalrymple and Mr Dobbins misses the fundamental point: the conflict in Afghanistan is caused, fuelled and perpetuated mostly by Pakistan’s insecurities and sometimes by its ambitions. As Pragati has argued, Islamabad and Rawalpindi see a strong, independent Afghanistan as an existential threat to Pakistan. If the United States and the international community wish to stabilise Afghanistan they would do well to acknowledge, understand and address Pakistan’s deep insecurities arising from the Durand Line.

President Obama’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is understandable. So is the United States’ need for a fig leaf to cover its exit. What is unacceptable is that this should come at India’s expense.