News flash: Afghan war about India and Pakistan

The kind of perspective far too rarely heard in the West; William Dalrymple writes in the Guardian with an extract from his recent paper,… A Deadly Triangle: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India:

The hostility between India and Pakistan, ongoing for more than 60 years, lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan. Most observers in the west view the conflict as a battle between Nato on one hand, and al-Qaida and the Taliban on the other. In reality this has long since ceased to be the case – we think this is about us, but it’s not. Instead our troops are now caught up in a complex war shaped by two pre-existing conflicts: one internal, the other regional.

Within Afghanistan the war i s viewed primarily as a Pashtun rebellion against President Hamid Karzai’s regime, which has empowered three other ethnic groups – the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras – to a degree that Pashtuns resent. Although Karzai himself is a Pashtun, many view him as window dressing for a US-devised realignment of long-established power relations, dating back to 2001 when the US toppled the overwhelmingly… Pashtun Taliban. By aligning with the Tajiks of the northern provinces against the Pashtuns of the south, the US was unwittingly taking sides in a civil war that’s been going on since the 1970s.

Today the Tajiks, who constitute 27% of the Afghan population, make up 70% of the officers in the Afghan army. Because of this many Pashtuns – who make up 40% of the population – support or at least feel residual sympathies for the Taliban.

Beyond this indigenous conflict looms the much more dangerous hostility between the two nuclear-armed regional powers, India and Pakistan. In reality the US, the UK and Nato are playing little more than a bit part – and, unlike the Indians and Pakistanis, are heading for the exit. The simple truth is that the Taliban are doing as well as they are in Afghanistan because they are being supported by Pakistan. And they are being supported by Pakistan because the Pakistani generals fear being squeezed in an Indian nutcracker, faced with not only a massive Indian presence to their south but a pro-Indian regime to the north in Afghanistan. Since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars – the most recent in 1971 – and they seemed on the verge of going nuclear against each other during the… Kargil crisis in 1999.

After the Taliban were ousted by the US, a major strategic shift occurred: the government of Afghanistan became an ally of India, thus fulfilling the Pakistanis’ worst fears. Karzai hated Pakistan with a passion, in part because he believed that the ISI – Pakistan’s intelligence service – had helped to have his… father assassinated in 1999. At the same time he felt a strong emotional bond with India, where he had gone to university. When I… interviewed Karzai in early March, he spoke warmly of his days in Simla as some of the happiest of his life. With Karzai in office, India seized the opportunity to increase its political and economic influence in Afghanistan, re–opening its embassy in Kabul, opening four regional consulates, and providing reconstruction assistance totalling $1.5bn.

Pakistani generals have long viewed jihadis as a cost-effective and easily deniable means of controlling events in Afghanistan as well as Kashmir. It is unclear how many still endorse this strategy and how many are having second thoughts. There are clearly those in the army and the ISI who are now alarmed at the amount of sectarian and political violence the jihadis have brought to Pakistan. But that view is contested by others who continue to believe the jihadis are a more practical defence against Indian hegemony than even nuclear weapons. For them, support for carefully chosen jihadis in Afghanistan is a vital survival strategy worth the risk. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the commander-in-chief of the Pakistan army, was once in this camp. How far he has changed his position remains a matter of debate.

Pakistan-watchers are, however, unanimous that while Kayani is mindful of the Taliban threat in his own country, his burning obsession is still India’s presence in Afghanistan. As I was told by a senior British diplomat in Islamabad: “At the moment, Afghanistan is all [Kayani] thinks about and all he wants to talk about. It’s all he gets briefed about and it’s his primary focus of attention. There is an Indo-Pak proxy war, and it’s going on right now.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

Site by Common