A Deadly Triangle: Afghanistan, Pakistan and India

The hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan. Most observers in the West view the Afghanistan conflict as a battle between the U.S. and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on one hand, and al-Qaida and the Taliban on the other. In reality this has long since ceased to be the case. Instead our troops are now caught up in a complex war shaped by two pre-existing and overlapping conflicts: one local and internal, the other regional.

Within Afghanistan, the war is viewed primarily as a Pashtun rebellion against President Hamid Karzai’s regime, which has empowered three other ethnic groups—the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the north—to a degree that the Pashtuns resent. For example, the Tajiks, who constitute only 27% of the Afghan population, still make up 70% of the officers in the Afghan army.

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The Pashtuns had held sway in Afghan politics ever since the state assumed its current boundaries in the 1860s. By aligning with the Tajiks of the northern provinces against the Pashtuns of the south, the U.S. saw itself making common cause with the forces of secularism against militant Islam; but it was unwittingly taking sides in a complex civil war that has been going on since the 1970s—and that had roots going back much further than that. To this day, because the Pashtuns feel dominated by their ancestral enemies, many support or at least feel some residual sympathies for the Taliban.

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.

Beyond this indigenous conflict looms the much more dangerous hostility between the two regional powers—both armed with nuclear weapons: India and Pakistan. Their rivalry is particularly flammable as they vie for influence over Afghanistan. Compared to that prolonged and deadly contest, the U.S. and ISAF are playing little more than a bit part—and they, unlike the Indians and Pakistanis, are heading for the exit.

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In the eyes of the world, never has the contrast between the two countries appeared so stark as it is now: one is widely perceived as the next great superpower, famous for its software geniuses, its Bollywood babes, its fast-growing economy and super-rich magnates; the other written off as a failed state, a world center of Islamic radicalism, the hiding place of Osama bin Laden, and the only ally of the U.S. whose airspace Washington has been ready to violate and whose villages it regularly bombs. However unfair this stereotyping may be, it’s not surprising that many Pakistanis see their massive neighbor as threatening the very existence of their state.

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For the Pakistani military, the existential threat posed by India has taken precedence over all other geopolitical and economic goals. The fear of being squeezed in an Indian nutcracker is so great that it has led the ISI to take steps that put Pakistan’s own internal security at risk, as well as Pakistan’s relationship with its main strategic ally, the U.S. For much of the last decade the ISI has sought to restore the Taliban to power so that it can oust Karzai and his Indian friends.

To achieve this goal, the Pakistani military has relied on “asymmetric warfare”— using jihadi fighters for its own ends. This strategy goes back over 30 years. Since the early 1980s, the ISI has consciously and consistently funded and incubated a variety of Islamic extremist groups. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid calculates that there are currently more than 40 such extremist groups operating in Pakistan, most of whom have strong links with the ISI as well as the local Islamic political parties.

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Pakistan-watchers are 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.” 

Excerpts from the The Brookings Essay by historian William Dalrymple – highly recommended, but definitely not for bedtime reading.