This a shortened version of an article the widely respected historian and journalist William Dalrymple published in The Guardian on July 1 under the heading, “This is no NATO game but Pakistan’s proxy war with its brother in the south.”
…We continue to view the situation in Afghanistan through western eyes, as a battle between the US and NATO against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Internally, the war is viewed primarily as a Pashtun rebellion against a Tajik-, Uzbek- and Hazara-dominated regime, which has only a fig leaf of Pashtun window-dressing in the person of Karzai. For although Karzai is a Pashtun, under his watch NATO installed the Northern Alliance in Kabul and drove out of power Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority.
In this way we unwittingly took sides in the Afghan civil war that began in the 1970s – siding with the north against the south, the town against the country, secularism against Islam, and the Tajiks against the Pashtuns. We installed a government and trained up an army that in many ways discriminated against the Pashtun majority, and whose top-down constitution allowed for little federalism or regional representation. No matter how much western liberals may dislike the Taliban, they are in many ways the authentic voice of rural Pashtun conservatism, whose wishes are ignored by the government in Kabul and who are largely excluded from power.
Externally, the war has now turned, like Kashmir, into an Indo-Pak proxy war in which NATO is really a bit player. Under Karzai, India has established increasing political and economic influence in Afghanistan, opened four regional consulates and provided reconstruction assistance amounting to about $662m. The Pakistani military establishment, already terrified of India turning into a new economic superpower, has always believed it would be suicide to accept an Indian presence in what they regard as their strategic Afghan backyard, and is completely paranoid about the still small Indian presence, rather as the British used to feel about Russians in Afghanistan in the days of Great Game….
Karzai’s new deal with the Pakistanis, and his obvious intention to try to reach some accommodation with the Haqqani wing of the Taliban through Pakistan’s mediation, represents a major strategic victory for the Pakistani military and a serious diplomatic defeat for India – though it remains to be seen if the ISI really can deliver the Taliban, who today were proclaiming their unwillingness to negotiate with Karzai. It also remains to be seen whether the Pakistani military can defend their own country from the jihadi Frankenstein’s monster they have created.
This dangerous new situation does offer some opportunities. Until now India, relishing its ever-growing international status, has understandably and angrily resisted any linkage between an Afghan settlement and Indo-Pak peace, which would involve finding a final agreement on Kashmir. Yet the linkage is already there, and there are many clear benefits for India if it is prepared to accept ground realities and negotiate.
The stage is now open for a deal whereby India could agree to minimize its presence in Afghanistan – which it could accept as Pakistan’s sphere of influence – in return for Pakistan withdrawing its longstanding sponsorship of the Kashmir jihad, which it could accept as India’s domain. To satisfy NATO, an undertaking by Pakistan to drive al-Qaeda from the region would also need to be included.
Such a deal would certainly be difficult to sell domestically. There would be strong resistance by the many hawks in both India and Pakistan. Yet such an understanding would be the best and possibly only hope for a regional peace that might allow Afghans, Kashmiris, Pakistanis and Indians some chance of a stable future and to concentrate on the regional issues that really matter – feeding and educating the largest undernourished population in the world.
The truth is that a NATO diplomatic offensive aimed at selling this solution is likely to have a far more positive effect than any amount of counterproductive military surges and drone strikes. For in calming the dangerous paranoia of the Pakistan military lies the only realistic chance of regional peace – and the war is likely to continue until the ISI can be persuaded that its own jihadis are a far bigger threat to Pakistan than that posed by India, its South Asian big brother over its border.