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Why US shouldn't accept Dalrymple's reading of Afghan 'history'

Washington: Sometimes it is better to write about history that is long gone and archived for easy or privileged access.

But with his latest essay on Afghanistan, William Dalrymple has crossed into the wilds of contemporary geo-politics and proved the axiom that history can also be someone’s pet interpretation. Or more dangerously, a convenient narrative set to convenience some.

Dalrymple’s A Deadly Triangle: Afghanistan, Pakistan, & India is being promoted among the powerful in Washington almost as THE version of what happened over the past three decades in Afghanistan. He wrote the essay for The Brookings Institute, a major DC think tank, and with it his entry into the American wonk club is assured.

The story is told in Dalrymple’s typically engaging style with enough “live feeds” to keep up reader interest. But his thesis is deeply problematic and ultimately wrong. To sum it up in his words: “The hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan.”

Is the crisis in Afghanistan a result of tensions between India-Pakistan? AP

Is the crisis in Afghanistan a result of tensions between India-Pakistan? AP

The theory fits right into Washington’s most popular narrative about South Asia – India-Pakistan rivalry is the root of all evil. It is regularly promoted by US analysts and officials. It ends with the fond hope that if only India would resolve the Kashmir problem as the Pakistanis fervently want, things would settle down. A version of it came recently from Bruce Riedel in his latest book, “Avoiding Armageddon: America, India and Pakistan.”

Dalrymple’s “proxy war” reasoning implies – even though he may not have intended it -- that Pakistan’s use of jihadi militants is somehow justified to counter Indian influence. And whatever emanates from the bunch of jihadis is indirectly India’s fault. It creates a troubling moral equivalence between India and Pakistan, between building roads and hospitals and bombing embassies.

By his own accounting, Indian actions in Afghanistan today are positive and India’s presence small. So why blame India?

Dalrymple ignores the fact that Pakistan’s support of Afghan jihadis is an old policy, uncomfortably old and has nothing to do with India. It was spawned to fight Afghanistan’s support of Pashtun and Baloch nationalism and predates the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Two citations should suffice: an article by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Tara Vassefi in the Yale Journal and a book by Pakistani scholar, Rizwan Hussain, Pakistan and the Emergence of Islamic Militancy in Afghanistan.” Kabul was largely responsible for an ambitious overreach to try to build support for the idea of an independent Pashtunistan, with chunks from Pakistan’s Pashtun areas. Tensions were high in 1955 and again between 1960-61. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto then crafted a response with a “forward policy” of supporting Islamist leaders inside Afghanistan. This policy grew and ultimately got married to the US Cold War objectives under Zia ul-Haq.

As many South Asian analysts have pointed out since Dalrymple’s essay came online on June 24, it is not because of India that Pakistani-trained jihadis and Al-Qaeda operatives are surfacing from Bosnia to Chechnya or that terrorists “decided to fly planes into the twin towers.” But his reasoning implies that vile actions by proxies of the Pakistan army can be laid at India’s doorstep.

Nitin Pai, a strategic analyst and director of Takshashila institution, tweeted: “US finances the war. NATO mucks up. Gulf kingdoms exert influence. Yet ‪@DalrympleWill sees Afghanistan as an India-Pakistan thing.”

Sorry, India can’t accept this special delivery. Dalrymple’s narrative will be contested hard. India has little to do in creating the terrorist forces now unleashed on the world. His casual causation is incorrect – to put it politely.

It has been reported that he was recently invited to meet President Obama at the White House to present his latest book “Return of a King” about the 1839-42 British invasion of Afghanistan. He also gave a series of talks around Washington where everyone is eager to hear reasons to end US involvement and bring the troops home.

Dalrymple's interpretations is disproved by other papers. AFP

Dalrymple's interpretations is disproved by other papers. AFP

When Dalrymple writes that the Afghan war is no longer a war between US/NATO troops on the one hand and the Taliban and al-Qaeda on the other, Americans nod in approval. “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.”

Framing the issue in the language of “our troops” and those people out there itself is loaded with politics.  Even the most pro-US government writers and academics use neutral language. But Dalrymple’s words help ease the qualms of departure without a proper exit strategy. He is essentially saying this is now an India-Pakistan issue, best left to them. We have done our bit or at least tried. Accept the fact that it became a graveyard for another empire.

On that last point it is important to cite a piece by Dhruva Jaishankar and Javid Ahmad where they demolish the myth of Afghanistan being the “graveyard of empires” and the western-centric reading of Afghanistan’s history.

Dalrymple’s analysis of the Afghan situation suffers from another major drawback – he cites a selective sequence of events from which the Americans and British are largely absent or make only cameo appearances. It would have been far more honest to write about “the deadly rectangle” with one arm representing US, British and Saudi subversions and meddling in the Afghanistan of 1980s and 90s.

But he dismisses this important aspect in one line: “the recruitment (of Afghan mujahedin) was always controlled by the ISI, but was originally also funded by the Saudis and the CIA.” He makes it sound like the CIA gave just some pocket change to the jihadis, not the bank. With that he ignores numerous accounts in as many books documenting the extent and amount of American involvement and money that went into Afghanistan.

George Crile’s “Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary History of the Largest Covert Operation in History” published in 2003 gives a full accounting of American enthusiasm for CIA’s Operation Cyclone, which pumped at least $3 billion through the ISI into the hands of extremists lovingly referred to by US officials as the “muj” in those days. The role of Britain’s MI6/SAS and Saudi cheque book diplomacy was equally important.

Surely, these factors changed the climate some.

But neither Washington nor London wants a history lesson at this time. Or ever for that matter. President Obama wants out of Afghanistan by whatever means necessary. The British, with their latest five-phase “peace plan” to open talks with the Taliban, are making it happen. Dalrymple’s narrative helps the process of rationalizing the exit.

Is it “Bollywood history” as Sunil Khilnani once said of his work?

You can read William Dalrymple's essay on the Brookings website.