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The Deadly Triangle: India, Pakistan, and the Future of Afghanistan


After Nawaz Sharif secured an unprecedented third term as Prime Minister of Pakistan, it didn’t take long for him to reach out to India, promising to “progressively pursue normalcy.” Late last week the Indian foreign office said Sharif had delivered “good signals” thus far into his term. Yet many Indians and Western analysts question whether Sharif will be able to guide his country down a different path than the Army- and ISI-led policy of arming and supporting militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir and treating India as enemy number one.

Those who question Pakistan’s intentions can find support in a beautifully arranged new essay—the first so-called Brookings Essay—by the historian and writer William Dalrymple, who most recently published Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan. Dalrymple’s essay covers the history of Pakistan and India’s rivalry, with a specific focus on Afghanistan, the battleground where that rivalry has most frequently played out in the past few decades. It raises important questions for Afghanistan’s future as US troops withdraw and suggests that Pakistan’s support for jihadi groups, with the ultimate aim of destabilizing India and protecting the Land of the Pure, shows no sign of ending.

“[O]ur troops,” Dalrymple writes, “are now caught up in a complex war shaped by two pre-existing and overlapping conflicts: one local and internal, the other regional.” In one sense, India’s role in that conflict is small—it has only ten foreign service personnel in Afghanistan, compared to America’s 1,200. In another sense, India is the most important reason that Pakistan is waging this battle at all:

The hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan….

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….

As I was told by a senior British diplomat in Islamabad, “At the moment, Afghanistan is all [General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the commander of Pakistan’s military] 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.”

Dalrymple quotes Afghan President Karzai, whom he interviewed earlier this year:

“I warn them! [the Pakistanis]…. Every day Afghan security forces are getting stronger! No government of Afghanistan can have good relations with [Pakistani President] Zardari, Nawaz Sharif [who has since been elected Prime Minister] or any of the others. Because we all know who is pulling the strings—the mullahs and the ISI…. The Pakistani ulema [scholars] council [has recently] said it is right to advocate suicide bombing in Afghanistan. It is very clear what is going on. Some of our so-called allies—the British in particular—tell me the Pakistanis have changed. Do I believe this?” Karzai laughed a deep, throaty laugh: “Nothing doing!”

None of this bodes well for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India—”a deadly triangle,” Dalrymple calls it. A deadly triangle bristling with nuclear weapons, in fact. Read the whole essay over at Brookings. It’s worth your while.

[Hamid Karzai image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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