Wednesday, July 3, 2013


Dalrymple’s flight of fantasy

Tuesday, 02 July 2013 | Abhijit Iyer-Mitra
Courtesy: Daily Pioneer

The premise that the war in Afghanistan is actually a battle between India and Pakistan for supremacy in the region, is laughable. There is no evidence, nor does sensible opinion accept, that New Delhi is responsible for the unrest and violence in that country.

This fortnight saw an outpouring of righteous indignation against the UK. The cause was the 3,000 pounds that people from dodgy countries would have to pay for UK visas. India evidently comes in that list of dodgies. While we were crying ourselves hoarse about the horrid British, their nasty weather, their insipid steak and kidney pies, far more important geopolitical indicators were seemingly lining up against India. The focus of these alignments was Afghanistan, where a set of Northern European countries have decided the India-Pakistan link is to be the scapegoat for their ignominious retreat.

The visa issue is a sideshow at best; a misinterpretation at worst. Right here in New Delhi one finds supposedly ‘exclusive’ hangouts that run ‘expat nights’. ‘Expat’ here refers to white people exclusively — dark-skinned folk with foreign passports and Africans living in India apparently don’t qualify. But then look at the facts. This was a pilot scheme aimed at a very specific set of people, who in the normal course of things would be denied a visa. Not all Indians were to pay up the hefty bond — rather a very specific subset — but people who had relatives that had absconded, hadn’t booked accommodation, couldn’t show six months worth of a reasonably healthy bank balance, didn’t have return tickets etc. This scheme was an enabler, not a disabler. The public relations surrounding it, though, has been a disaster, and for that the Brits have no one to blame but themselves.

Getting to serious business, author William Dalrymple came up with a report for the Brookings Institute, laying the blame for Afghanistan at India’s doorstep. After cataloguing Pakistan’s psychotic behaviour in that country, his essay A Deadly Triangle —Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, lays half the blame on India. To draw a domestic analogy, it would be like trying to defend a wife-basher claiming that the battered wife bore half the responsibility for her bashing.
In this report, the Americans quoted — Christine Fair and Bruce Riedel — do not drag India into the mess. But the British all drag India into it one way or another. Take this for example: “As I was told by a senior British diplomat in Islamabad, ‘At the moment, Afghanistan is all [General Ashfaq Parvez 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’.” Not one shred of evidence is offered as to how India is supposedly engaging in this ‘proxy war’ — either by the diplomat or by Dalrymple.

But this perspective isn’t unique to the UK. Noticeably in interactions with medium-level Brits, Dutch and Germans, this theme that “India needs to play win-win politics” or “India needs to accommodate Pakistan” keeps playing out. Exactly how India is to ‘accommodate’ or ‘play win-win’ sounds more like the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that sowed the seeds of the Second World War than the Treaty of Paris in 1951 which sowed the seeds for the European Union.

The fundamental to the success of ‘win-win’ politics is that it satisfies critical geopolitical needs of both parties. After the Second World War, for example, Europe’s overriding need was to contain Germany and Germany’s overriding need was to be rehabilitated. Through the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community that slowly became the EU, both were achieved. This, however, is not what the Northern EU states seem to recommend for India though. Effectively Indian infrastructural, educational and agricultural aid to Afghanistan are seen as proof of India’s nefarious designs, and tools in a proxy war against Pakistan. Apparently, India should be content with Afghans watching Indian movies, and that’s it. Anything else, and we’re no better than the Taliban’s ISI-handlers.

There are dynamics unique to the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship that have nothing to do with India. So even if India decides to follow these brain-dead prescriptions, Pakistan will continue to do what it does in Afghanistan.

On the one hand, Pakistan questions the Instrument of Accession of Kashmir to India claiming it was signed under coercion. Yet, much of the Durand Line was also acquired under exactly the same kind of coercion that Maharaja Hari Singh had allegedly been subjected to. So, if it is to maintain claim over Kashmir, by legal default, Pakistan has to accept the same criterion applied to its western border.

Pakistan also insists that the Northern Areas (Gilgit-Baltistan) are separate from ‘Kashmir’. The basis of this claim is that the agreement between the British and Gulab Singh is now void as the Government of the Princely State of Kashmir is now no longer party to the dispute. The real reason, of course, has more to do with a convoluted web of internal politics and the need to check Kashmiri separatism from spreading to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. This is the exact reasoning Afghanistan uses in its claims against the Durand Line. It claims that the area ceded was to the British Government and not the Pakistan Government, and so it should revert to Afghanistan.

Then there is the issue of ethnicity. If 1971 demolished the two nation theory on a linguistic basis, then ethnicity can crop up as an equally potent challenge to this theory in 2014.

Any stable Afghan Government will obviously want to claim back its territory and its people. Any stable Afghan Government will also fundamentally use identity politics and pose ethnicity as an alternative to Pakistani Pashtuns fed up with bad governance.

Forget strategic depth that is part of Pakistani expansionism. Afghanistan poses the most significant legal, ideological and existential threat to Pakistan, and India has nothing to do with any of this. If certain EU countries want to believe otherwise, they are living in a delusion.

India, however, should not let arguments like Dalrymple’s go unchallenged, and there is a need for counter-scholarship that shows the bilateral fault lines between Afghanistan and Pakistan that have nothing to do with anyone else, let alone India.

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