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Hey, everybody, thanks for listening to receive Khan's unsupervised learning. Today I am talking to Myra MacDonald, who has written several books, which I think are quite relevant to what's going on in the world right now. And which is why I reached out to her. I follow her on Twitter, and she's pretty incisive on topics related to the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan Pakistan region. So she's the author of defeat is an orphan, how Pakistan lost a great South Asian war, which I'm not sure if I would agree with the title anymore, we'll see. And then white as the shroud India, Pakistan and war on the frontiers of Kashmir, and just just for the listeners, I mean, I know most of you probably pretty well situated with geography. But um, you know, Kashmir is in the very northern part of the subcontinent. It's like just a little bit East kind of, of Afghanistan, which is on the other side of Pakistan. So everything is kind of crunched together here at the roof of the world, so to speak, where you have Tibet, Kashmir, Central Asia, Afghanistan, northern Pakistan. And, you know, the, the historical context of this actually goes back really far, at least in terms of modern politics with the great game between the Russians and the British. So there's just so much to say. But um, I want to really focus on what happened recently in Afghanistan, what is happening, the turn that is taken in 2021. and how that relates to the past generation or two of geopolitics, which most Americans to be frank, have just not been paying attention to Myra.
Okay. Hi, um, let me start by introducing myself very quickly, I worked for Reuters, and our routers, I think you call it in the states for nearly 30 years. I arrived in India, in 2000. expecting to cover the rising economy, but very quickly got hit, I was the bureau chief for Reuters, but very quickly got hit hit by 9011, Indian Pakistan nearly went to war. And I have since then, pretty much focus on India, Pakistan, Kashmir, I've covered Afghanistan only in as much as it's affected the india pakistan story. So I wouldn't consider myself to be an Afghan expert. But I did cover it in detail for a while. And I also got involved for a while and covering Taliban talks quite a few years ago, when they first took off. I don't know if you want to jump straight into Afghanistan. But maybe I could say, just in a way to preface this is this is quite hard for all of us who've followed this subject for a very long time. And because you start feeling there is nothing you say. I think I was asked to write my first story. But on Afghanistan, a couple of days after 911, when they asked me to write a history of failed interventions in Afghanistan. And, and obviously, I talked about the British experience of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union's experience of Afghanistan, it's it's in some ways fortunate for me not available online anymore, because I used all those cliches like graveyard of empires, which I noticed Even President Biden used last night, which really, after 20 years we should have grown out of, but I think I mean, in terms of the big context for me is that during the first Obama presidency in particular, and I and lots of other people went through every single detail for how that situation in Afghanistan might be solved. There was huge amounts of debate of commentary. And I really had the impression by about 2011, at the very latest that the Americans had tried everything by then. And after that, it was simply treading water, partly for sunk cost reasons. And, and certainly when I heard President Biden speak last night, I thought he could have said that 10 years ago, and it would have also stood true. So that's kind of big picture.
Yeah. Let me just, yeah, let me just say, you know, as an American, you know, we've, you know, seen this stuff happen with 911, the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq. And one thing that I think a lot of us feel is deja vu, insofar as just the same arguments are cropping up again, and it's just it's really bizarre. And I do remember One thing that's really striking to me, and I want you to talk about Pakistan a little bit in the bigger geopolitical context, because a lot of the people that I follow on our island are Indian, and some of them are Pakistanis. And they're just talking about things I don't really understand in terms of intelligence agencies and all these things. And if I don't understand it, I'm going to tell you, most Americans have no idea what's going on. So um, first of all, it's interesting to me, I remember, when we came into Afghanistan, we as an America in 2001, and 2002. I remember specifically, some Pakistani commentators were saying, you know, let's be honest, you guys are gonna leave, and we're gonna be here. So we're just gonna wait, because ultimately, you're not in it for the long haul? And, you know, I don't remember. I don't think I thought, Yeah, probably, that's true. But, you know, we'll probably put it in like, I don't know what we thought I thought we would put in like, but any case, that's kind of what happened from my percept perception, they just waited us out. Pakistan just waited us out. It took 20 years. That's a long time, I think this longer than they thought but longer than we thought to. But ultimately, that worked. And I remember people were talking about how, well you know, ultimately, the costumes. They don't, you know, they'll resist, and they're hearty fighters. And, you know, we just kind of like rolled over Afghanistan very quickly. And we've suppressed it for, you know, two decades with our drones and our technology. But ultimately, they're back. I mean, the Taliban are back, just like they were. I mean, most of these guys don't remember, the last time the Taliban was even in power. They're so young, but the whole thing is very, very dated. Can you talk about, like your books, and in terms of like, what their general conclusions are, and just the whole context of South Asia and this region around Afghanistan?
Right. Okay. So let's try and do divided into segments. So I guess there's the pre the British period, pre 1947, Afghanistan was never obviously controlled by the British, not because of anything sort of inherent in the Afghan national character, but because it simply didn't lend itself easily to empire building. Whereas actually, what was then united India was easier to run by co opting an urbanized elite over the subcontinent, then what happened is that that's not me, if ever I if I start being overly simplistic or overly complicated, but I think we then look at so let's start with the big picture, you've got Indian Pakistan reasonably well run whatever you think about Empire, with a massive bureaucracy run by the British. And then you've got Afghanistan, which was never urbanized in the same way or developed in the same way. And you then come to 1947, and independence of India and the partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. I'm really, without going back to that 1947 thing, you're probably never going to completely grasp the nature of Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan. Now, first of all, Afghanistan refused to recognize Pakistan at the outset, in 1947, it continues to refuse to recognize the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. So Pakistan has always tried consistently to keep Afghanistan unstable, off balance. And generally, the weaker, the weaker of the two neighbors between Pakistan and India, or sorry, between Pakistan and Afghanistan, then if you look at Pakistan and India, you have the problem of Pakistan being a very insecure state, right from the outset. And as you obviously know, split between East Pakistan, West Pakistan, between a much stronger, more stable India. So Pakistan has been obsessed with believing itself to face a security threat from India pretty much since the beginning. And that sense of security threat is multiplied in Afghanistan, because if India has a friendly relationship with Afghanistan, Pakistan believes I don't believe it's handled it right. But Pakistan believes that it is threatened on two fronts that is encircled by both Afghanistan and India. And perhaps the most striking thing is, for those of you who know that, Indian Pakistan beat started there for their new independent lives at war and after 1947. It's worth bearing in mind that had India won control of All of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which has been the main bone of contention, since the beginning, and India would have had a corridor all the way through Kashmir Jammu and Kashmir through to Afghanistan, it seems to me reasonably unlikely that Pakistan would have survived in that, in that situation. So this notion of feeling threatened by Afghanistan as a subset of its bigger fear or dislike of India, and is kind of ingrained into its DNA. Now, Pakistan, to my mind, has then chosen absolutely the wrong way to go about it. It has relied on Islamic militant proxies to exert its influence in Afghanistan. And to the point where it actually really had no friends in Afghanistan, other than those Islamised proxies, whether those be militant groups are, indeed the Taliban, that it nurtured to take over power in Afghanistan in 1996. So essentially, that could never really be solved. Or at least the Obama administration came in arguing this. It would only be solved if Pakistan became a more comfortable state at ease with itself.
A more stable democracy and at peace with India. And until you got that to happen, you were always going to be stuck with Pakistan, interfering in Afghanistan, and basically keeping it off balance, because they were never going to allow a strong and stable Afghanistan on their doorstep that was friendly with India. Okay, go?
Well, I mean, I guess my question is, well, what about a strong and stable Afghanistan that's friendly with Pakistan? They'd be okay with that. Right.
Yeah. But they got themselves into a position that they didn't have leverage through anyone other than the Islamic groups. And that's, to some extent, a legacy of the the anti Soviet Jihad following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. Yes, it was heavily bankrolled by the United States and Saudi Arabia, but Pakistan very definitely chose or influence the fact that that jihad or the the opposition to the Soviet occupation would be carried out by Islamic groups, because it always believed it could control if Islamic groups more effectively, and a strong and stable Afghanistan that is nationalists, on the other hand, is a strong and stable Afghanistan, that we would press its claims on parts of Pakistan on what is now the Pakistan side of the border. So I don't believe that it ever wants a strong ethnic nationalist Afghanistan. Okay.
I see. I see what you're saying. So I think the issue that I wasn't entirely clear on is how seriously, the issues related to the map, the old maps and the borders are and that they're persistent and structural. Is that was that, my honor? Am I understand this correctly,
and Pakistan believes them to be persistent and structural, they probably are not so much anymore, in the sense that all the past students living on the Pakistan side of the border have, by and large, adapted to becoming part of Pakistan. So you do have a bit of a legacy problem is, is that, in theory, Pakistan could accept a strong and stable Afghanistan right now. But Afghanistan is never going to trust it, because Pakistan's main leverage has historically been through Islamic groups.
What's the what is the? What is your understanding? I guess, because, you know, I mean, everyone, well, not everyone, but most people know. Okay, so there's a Taliban in Pakistan, there's a Taliban in Afghanistan. The border is pretty porous, and they've given Pakistan has given refuge to the Taliban. I hear things about, um, I think the ISI the Pakistani intelligence have a connection to the Taliban. I mean, could you help unpack unpack all of this stuff for us here in the states where, I mean, look, we're not that great at geography, so it's easy for us to get lost.
Okay, so basically, again, I probably need to go back to the anti Soviet Jihad was run from the from Northwest Pakistan. So from what were known as the tribal areas of Pakistan. They were based in northwest Pakistan. And it I mean, to some extent, it industrialized the geohash. Pakistan would have used islamize to exert its influence in Afghanistan anyway, but it's certainly true that that huge influx of American and Saudi money industrialized it for the point that not only did the Islamised cause become much more powerful, but within Pakistan, the then dictator of zeal, Hark was able to Islam a size Pakistan much more effectively. And on top of that the Pakistan Intelligence Agency, the inter services intelligence agency, became much, much more powerful because they were they became the organization that was running a massive proxy war against the Soviet Union. The ISI has not lost those skills. And some of you will remember the time when I think it was Admiral Mike Mullen called the Taliban, the veritable arm of the ISI, or either the Taliban or the Haqqani Network, which is another of the Islamic groups, they have never lost their capacity to organize covert warfare in Afghanistan. And clearly manager extremely well, in the sense that they get away with saying publicly that they don't support the Taliban while privately providing a level of logistical support. Now, I'm I think it's difficult to say for sure how much support they give the the Afghan Taliban, the Afghan Taliban certainly have sanctuary in Pakistan. And we're not just talking the fringes of Pakistan, you're talking about right into the main cities, you know, push our quota, either Mullah Omar, the former Afghan Taliban leader died in hospital and correctly if I remember, rightly, so you're talking about the leadership being being proper and their families being properly settled within mainland Pakistan. The idea that which the Pakistanis put about for a while that they just crept over the borders into sort of the Wilder fringes and Pakistan couldn't manage it is certainly not true. Having said that, it would certainly be fair to say they do not exert 100% control over the Afghan Taliban.
you know, I'd be really reluctant to put a percentage on it, or maybe me, certainly, no, it'll be less because the Afghan Taliban have got their own base in Afghanistan right now. But, and they did also always face a difficulty, and that comes to the point you made is that having not trusted the Americans to stay, then they were never going to turn fully on the Afghan Taliban? Because they didn't want to be the ones that were then facing the backlash when the Americans left. I would, however, slightly quibble with your your comment in the opening remarks when you said that, you know, Pakistan said, right from the beginning around 2001 2002. They didn't believe the Americans were going to stay. I think that was, I mean, that was an element of it. But I think that provided useful cover for the fact that they were never going to turn on the Afghan Taliban anyway, in the first place.
Yeah, I mean, so I guess a question that I have, and I don't know what your insight on this is. So they Pakistan supported the Mujahideen, the United States support the Mujahideen in the 1980s. And, you know, well, basically, in the 80s, during the Reagan era, it was a big deal. You know, it was big in the media, and it was a cost 11 Congress. Some of those Mujahideen later became the Northern Alliance. And so and the Northern Alliance is the anti Taliban group that pretty much took over after 2001. And the remnants of that, I guess, are going to be the resistance. Apparently, there is a declaration of some succession in Pondicherry Valley in the north east of the country, the usual stuff. So I guess my question is, did Pakistan turn away from those allies in to the Taliban later? Like, how did it become that the 1980s Mujahideen became the moderates that India and the United States and the non Pakistan sides back? I mean, was there an evolution there Did something happen in terms of geopolitical events?
And I think what mainly happened was no. And now let's be clear that the decision Pakistan always had the by far the largest share of the influence and deciding which groups were going to be supported during the anti Soviet jihad. And then with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, then in 1989, you then saw the whole thing kind of collapsing a little bit into into factionalism. And then when the Soviet Union collapsed all together and withdrew its funding from but there was no Russian money coming anymore to the government in Kabul. The government then collapsed. And you saw from, from 1992 onwards, a truly brutal, ugly, ugly civil war in Afghanistan, that to some extent, we should be relieved that we're not seeing a repeat of because the casualties and the chaos and the violence was horrendous at that point. And people argue different ways about this, at that point. Some of the people, most of them were too young to have really been part of the anti Soviet jihad, the so called Taliban, who, depending who you believed either emerged spontaneously in around 1994, in Kandahar, or were put together by the ISI in Kandahar and dressed up as as a spontaneous movement, then kind of came to the fore to to start saying, look, we're ready enough of this this ridiculous factional violence. And we're going to start creating stability. Clearly backed by Pakistan. And we're then able to with with massive support from Pakistan, where they're unable to first rise to prominence, and then eventually take over couple in 1996. And as you know, they were there from 1996 to 2001. In Charge, so yeah, I mean, the big, the big, big change was, I guess, the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the it, that whole thing was exacerbated by a descent into factionalism. And I mean, we certainly shouldn't believe that all Islamic groups are united any more than we would ever believe that all christian fundamentalist groups were united, when Europe fought, it's worth. I mean, they're there. And they're not just it's not just defined by by religion anyway. I mean, there's huge ethnic divides, but there's also personal divides and personal ambition. So Pakistan to some extent, and I think probably as ever, one thing I've noticed in all my books I've done on Pakistan is they tend to do a lot of overreach. So they kind of pushed Afghanistan push the Taliban into Afghanistan, they never 100% control that when the Taliban were in charge from 1996 to 2001. I think the other thing that sets the two other things were going on before the Americans came in and in 2001, was, first of all the Taliban in charge, but they didn't have full charge of the country. As you mentioned, the old Northern Alliance was still quite powerful then. Because the Taliban didn't have full charge of the country. It suited it to rely on groups like Al Qaeda, to provide that extra fighting force. And this is an important reason, the important thing to bear in mind when you think why did they not throw al Qaeda out sooner? Part of it was that they were they were weak enough to be dependent on Al Qaeda and various other groups. The just to be clear, for those who aren't well, Pakistan supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance was supported by India and Iran. So the other side, the other thing that's very important to bear in mind is that in the run up to 2001, Afghanistan was very useful for Pakistan, for providing training camps for militants that Pakistan was using to fight in Kashmir. Because there was no real international access to Afghanistan, then.
Pakistan was able to train militants using the skills it had learned during the anti Soviet jihad, train those militants up and send them into Kashmir when the anti India separatist insurgency in Kashmir was at its height. So you, you saw a lot of stuff happening around that in Kashmir. suicide bombings and so on. That really was a spillover from from from Afghanistan.
Yeah. I mean, I guess I guess that's one of the reasons I reached out to you because I'm hearing people on social media. Indians talk about you. know the consequences for Kashmir and you know, just think how Pakistan has, you know, the upper hand. And so there's obviously their perception is there's their bigger geopolitical implications. Now, I do want to say, you know, I think your book defeat is an orphan, basically, I think it seems to argue that strategically Pakistan was wrong footed in the last generation last generation. And, you know, let me just say, economically, I just checked it before we got on the podcast. You know, my family's from Bangladesh. As most listeners know, there's a war of independence 1971 against Pakistan, West Pakistan, and Bangladesh was like a basket case, really poor nation. Now it has a higher GDP per capita than Pakistan. And Pakistan is just it is of the Big Three South Asian nations. It's the one with the least economic resources now, in many ways, whereas, you know, in the late 1990s, it wasn't like that Pakistan was actually, even if its aggregate GDP was lower than India, it was on a per unit basis, a richer country than Indian, but it was a far richer country than the Bangladesh. And so here we are in 2021. A lot of Pakistanis I know are, you know, they're mildly happy. I mean, I think most of them know that the Taliban is, that's a dangerous game to be playing, but they feel like they've gotten a strategic victory here. But it's 2021. Pakistan is economically kind of a basket case that is relying on China and the international financial institutions to keep it afloat. So my question is, in light of the change situations in a generation, where Pakistan's trajectory, in macroeconomic sense, is just not very good, not very healthy. What are they doing playing these geopolitical games? And are they going to be able to sustain them?
Um, okay. So quite a lot to unpack there. But, I mean, yeah, absolutely. To reinforce your point. I mean, you know, even the first time I went to Pakistan, which was in 2003, I think. I mean, it is remarkable when you go there from Delhi, because it was so much richer, that India, and obviously, so many more consumer goods in the shops. It changed in 2009, I think, is when Indian GDP per capita, rose above Pakistani GDP per capita for the first time. And since then, that trend has continued. I think it would be fair to say that Pakistan has been burned. And that it's a huge, huge blowback from the the war in Afghanistan, it saw the rise of the Pakistani Taliban that then turned on the Pakistani state itself was tremendous, you know, there are a whole spate of really terrible bomb attacks in Pakistan itself. So I would say that, while people might have a little bit of shattered froideur about India having its wings clipped in Afghanistan, I wouldn't say that, I'd be very surprised if the generals in Iraq when they're sitting there celebrating this, I mean, it's, it's it's not a, it's not a hugely happy situation for Pakistan. And as I said earlier, you know, they they, their control over the Afghan Taliban depended on them being the only country that gave the Afghan Taliban sanctuary. The Afghan Taliban don't need that anymore. So you know, yeah, they'll maintain relations. And there'll be old, old ties and old networks. But, you know, the Afghan Taliban don't trust the Pakistanis either. So they're not in a comfortable place at all. I mean, I guess the one thing that's probably worth keeping in mind in terms of the economy is that as long as the top brass and the military and their allies can continue to get rich, then the question of GDP per capita is less significant than it seems. But obviously, it's not entirely clear that they will be able to continue to get rich in a country that is becoming poor. It's also not I mean, it is, I think, would be very interesting to see what happens to the US Pakistan relationship now. As you know, the US was horribly dependent on Pakistan during the war in Afghanistan, because it really it had to move its supply lines for Afghanistan through Pakistan. It could never, it got caught in a complete bind, it could never really turn on Pakistan to try and or to try and force it to end it support for the Afghan Taliban, because then its supply lines would have been closed, and it would have lost the war anyway. I think it's quite interesting to see what happens now that the US really isn't particularly dependent on on Pakistan anymore. They don't need those supply lines. And I just wonder if that will allow for a much needed cooling off the relationship that there are so many variables supply, that is not clear, but but I would have thought that there'll be huge resentment in the US administration, whatever they say publicly against Pakistan. There is also a sort of interesting bit that I, I'm not sure we're entirely clear on but there was peace talks, whatever you think about the peace talks, the American side with the Afghan Taliban, they do seem to have built their own their own relationship with them, which means that they will not be going through, they will not be going with a begging bowl, to Pakistani intelligence and asking Pakistani intelligence to introduce them to the guy that matters and the Afghan Taliban, they have their own their own connections now. So I would have thought, and I don't think a cooling off period between the US and Pakistan is a bad thing by any maintenance. And the relationship had got too tangled and messy. So that then would lead you to think that Pakistan will become more and more dependent on China. I, again, I have my doubts as to how that will play out. I mean, culturally, Pakistan is much more orientated towards the west.
The, you know, the generals will send their kids to universities in America, they you know, they don't have a, you don't have to see it, there's a lot of you know, you don't see any depth of of, and in terms of depth in terms of the Pakistan China relationship. It's it's, it's it's obviously very strong at the sort of strategic level. But culturally, Pakistan is not a natural fit with China by any means. So, you know, whether the generals can pull this off, I don't know, I do not believe that they will want to be sucked into completely into the China camp. I think they're actually going to want to try and keep keep some ties going with the US. with Europe, obviously, with Britain. That's, that's inevitable. So what are we very interesting is to see how they pull it off. Because what you're now going to have is an America cooling towards Pakistan, and Pakistan kind of waking up and thinking, but wait a minute, if we don't kind of hang on to the west a little bit, we're going to get sucked completely into China, which is probably not not particularly what they want to do. I don't know if that's been changing recently. But you know, you would need to seeing real evidence generals and everybody else sending their kids to, to university in China, there's a bit more of learning Chinese. But, you know, not not really across the board in any in any real way. The even if you you know, so well, since I've been to Pakistan, but I mean, just even in a sort of popular culture sense. You'll hear people complaining about how shoddy Chinese goods are compared to Western goods. Those little things that I think are actually going to be kind of it would be worth, in some ways drawing up a check sheet of those kinds of things. That I see them more as a kind of very, very wary of getting too sucked in.
Yeah, so let me ask you a question. Um, in this, you know, since I mean, I feel like so India has a Hindu nationalist government under Modi. On the other hand, I feel like there's a lot of Indian Americans in the United States. And you know, it's still a democracy is economically dynamic. Its cultural export as Bollywood. You know, a lot of Indians right now are expressing a lot of anger at the United States for the precipitous rapid pull out out of Pakistan. But on the other hand, it seems like There are just kind of gravitational forces, well push and pull, I think the push is, you know, the rise of China as a geopolitical, you know, force in Asia and is pushing that together. But also they're, they're being pulled together in some ways, I think by like aspects of kind of their cultural openness, maybe their diversity. Americans, I think Americans have a romantic view of Indian culture and going to OSH ROMs and vegetarian food, whereas they don't have as many positive associations, associations, to be frank with Pakistan. It's not as big of a country. But, you know, Pakistan is mostly in the news, not in a positive way in the United States. So I'm like, What do you think about that assertion?
Yeah, I mean, I think that the, that kind of romantic view of India is obviously incorrect. But it's, it's, it perhaps does help also, by far the bigger? Well, when two very big things about India, but I think the most important one is that as long as it remains a growing economy, with a huge, huge, huge, you know, billion strong pool of consumers, then Americans, and indeed, all Western businesses are going to be interested in getting in there. And, you know, that's, that's still, in relative terms, it's not a mature market. I mean, it's it's a, it's, it's still one per people are sort of getting on the ladder in terms of consumer purchasing. So amid the Indian economic pool will remain. I, I don't know how people will view, you know, my feeling is that I do sort of thing that the Indian democracy show will stay on the road. But I mean, I realized that that's less, less certain now than it would have been a few years ago. But it certainly feels to me also, you know, it does feel to me, like the sort of country that is so diverse and fractious, and, and voluble. And with everybody having a different opinion, I don't see it becoming a completely authoritarian state. So there will still be, as far as I can see a continuation of at least the electoral process in India. And as long as that electoral process continues, any government will be compelled to deliver economic growth for its people. And as long as economic growth continues, then Western businesses, including American businesses are going to be drawn to India. The other side of it is obviously China. And that's a little bit more complicated, because I, you know, the US clearly wants to build a relationship with India to counter China but without necessarily taking on India's baggage about China. India, as part of I've covered in my my most recent book, has a long run running border dispute with China. There is that goes back to 1962. And your China war, fought in 1962, at the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is how you remember the date. And I don't see America wanting to get sucked into that into your China border conflict either. So I mean, it's so in terms of strategy, and there is some overlap of interest, but there's probably a defense level a fair amount of wariness, too. And then the other point, I think that is worth making is that I mean, in terms of the West, and as much as there is such a thing as the West, US load West. The primary interests between in relations between India and Pakistan is to stop a war because nobody wants a war that they're afraid could turn into a nuclear war. So I mean, ultimately, people will always try to have a reasonably reasonable relations with both sides and try and and try and nudge people that nudge India and Pakistan, if not necessarily towards peace, because that's very ambitious, at least to keep lines of communication open.
Yeah, I mean, you know, a lot of your work from RXi is a, you know, involved in these. I don't know the great game in the Himalayas at this point like in Kashmir, Kashmir, I want to ask them, are you worried that Pakistan will use a strategic alliance with the Taliban to You know, raise up a new generation of militants that they'll send to Kashmir. I mean, this is the kind of thing I'm hearing from Indians. And they talk. I mean, to be frank, they talk a lot about Kashmir and I just ignore it. Because I'm American. And, you know, we don't you know what, we don't pay attention to stuff, aside from Israel, and like, maybe what happened in Iraq? There's not much we pay attention to. I understand Indians are really focused on this issue. I don't really get it. But that's again, I'm I'm not there. So do you think that that's a real worldly worry? Or do you think it's a paranoia? I mean, I'm just I'm trying to get your son's here.
Well, I spent a bit of both, I suppose. I mean, the origin of the paranoia is that, you know, they the insurgency in Kashmir began in or really began in earnest in 1989, the year of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. So clearly in the Indian mind, then, you know, there is a very obvious link between Afghanistan and Kashmir. And certainly it's true that when the Soviet Union withdrew, it's certainly true that Pakistan used Afghanistan to destabilize India and, and encourage and fuel the Kashmir insurgency. And I should just mention just by by way of repeat for people who might have forgotten this, but at the end in 1999, in something that was almost certainly orchestrated by Pakistan, or by the Pakistani intelligence, there was a plane hijacked from Kathmandu, in Nepal, to Kandahar in Afghanistan, flowing into Afghan control, enter Taliban controlled Afghanistan, with a plane load of Indian passengers, the Indian government was forced to hand over prisoners, including someone who'd been caught in Kashmir, a prominent prominent member of the anti Kashmir militancy was forced to hand those over. Because obviously, there was nothing else they could do in in Taliban controlled Afghanistan. So they've had there's a lot of words, and that paranoia is there for understandable in that it's it's still very raw. I mean, if you imagine, well, I guess in the same way as the the American Embassy thing is still rolling in. So going back to the Iranian Revolution, and that was 79. And I don't think that America has ever really recovered from that. So you know, it's reasonable to be raw about an old wounds not to heal. All that said, I'm not convinced that history will repeat itself. For two reasons. First of all, China has no interest in seeing Pakistan encouraged militancy. And because China is going to be worried about the rise of Islamic militancy in Xinjiang, which is just to remind everyone also on the border of Kashmir. So it's I should think China will keep Pakistan under quite a strict rein, to not let it build up the militancy to the peaks, we saw, ahead of 911, I should think America will keep Pakistan on quite tight rein if it can. It was a little bit lacks in the 90s. about letting this happen and not challenging enough. I don't see after 911 being as lacks again. And Pakistan has been burned itself. So you know, I just yeah, you'll see a little bit, but I don't you're not going to see I don't think I mean, you can never say anything for certain in that part of the world. But I don't think you're going to see a rerun of what happened in 1989. I think it'll be much more low key. And, you know, Pakistan faces far too many challenges. No, to start. I don't think it can manage those things. It. You know, it's all historically it has always tried to keep stuff on the India front, quiet. As long as Afghanistan was a problem when Afghanistan isn't a problem. The Indian front kind of flares up. But I don't think Pakistan scope the Afghan thing under control at the moment, and I don't I very much, don't believe believes that they think they have. So you know, they're going to be taking their time to work out how Afghanistan settles anyway, before they do anything. So I mean, that's not a reason to say that. India shouldn't be kind of trying to, I mean, but then I think this is always a standing requirement is I think India and Pakistan need to talk to each other. I don't think they need to talk to each other in public. But I think they always need to keep some kind of line of communication open. And the other point I would make is it's a little bit probably a bit over complicated, but
try and keep it simple. So as you know, they are 12 princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, it was split into between India and Pakistan in 1947 48. The part that Pakistan has control over. So gilgit Baltistan is a center. It's its main land bridge to China. It is through gilgit Baltistan that the Karakoram Highway runs it through there that the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor will run. So Pakistan has every interest in actually stabilizing and intensifying its control over gilgit Baltistan it is it is put forward measures in Parliament just last month, which were didn't get enough attention to actually make give gilgit Baltistan full provincial status. So I'm going to try and make that simple. Essentially, what it's doing is the division of Pakistan. Sorry, the division of Jammu and Kashmir in 4748. down what is now called the Line of Control is essentially being formalized and Pakistan has an interest in formalizing it. Because it It wants its side to be stable it under control, to allow it to maintain its landbridge with China. So it's not entirely clear to me that whatever they say in public and in terms of rhetoric, and so on, it's not entirely clear to me that they want to kind of bring all that Jammu and Kashmir stuff back to the boil again, because they've always tried to keep the violence and the instability to the Indian side and and essentially to the Kashmir Valley, which is the heartland of the former princely state. But you know, once you start throwing stirring the pot on that you start then asking questions about the whole of the former princely state, and that's not in Pakistan's interest. So that's it. Yeah. Sorry. If you if you don't follow it closely, I don't know if that's clear. But it's No,
no, it is. I do have to say, for the listeners, just I go check on Google Images, the Karakoram Highway. It's really, really, as someone who lives in the western United States, it's, it's familiar in terms of the VISTAs, but it's like, multi multiple fold up in the scale of the mountains. And just the majesty of it all. It's it's pretty incredible to me. And, you know, I mean, I support economic development, economic growth. I wish the Pakistanis well on that front. And you're right. I mean, it's not that far from the Line of Control. I mean, if that whole area blows up, that's not good for Pakistan. You know, it's got something, it's got something to lose there. As we, you know, I want to I want to close up this conversation. So I do want to ask you, the precipitous American withdrawal. You know, people are saying, you know, they could have withdrawn, but India didn't need to be happen this way. And, and all this stuff. What is your general general take on that? line of objection? I mean, obviously, I don't think anyone thinks that it was great to withdraw like that. On the other hand, we've been saying that, you know, from an American perspective, like, let's be frank, for like, 10 years now, people have been saying, well, now's not the right time to withdraw. And so it's been 10 years, I think a lot of Americans just feel like it's never gonna be the right time to withdraw. So, you know, this is just what's going to happen. But what is your take on that?
Well, yeah, I mean, that's that's definitely mine. I mean, I think it was a it is a judgment call to say whether or not it was the right time to withdraw or not, I'm, I'm slightly flabbergasted by people who think that there were any good options, I mean, stay on would have been a bad option as well. And it wasn't a stable situation, you could have kept maybe 3000 American troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban would have kept would have continued to increase in strength, and the only way the American troops would then hold them at bay is through airstrikes. And those airstrikes kill Afghan civilians, thereby making foreign troops even more unpopular. So the notion that America could have stayed and and that it would have remained stable is definitely wrong. I guess I think you can still say it's a judgment call. But I had a lot of sympathy for President Biden when he said he wasn't going to send any more troops or put any more troops in harm's way. For a war, that's essentially unwinnable. And I mean, this seems to me obvious is that a president or a prime minister, ultimately is responsible to their own citizens. And if you've come down to the point where it's a very narrowly balanced judgment call on whether you should be having troops put at risk, then you probably aren't really justified in putting them at risk. So I kind of think on balance, we'll have to see, but I think on balance, he's done the right thing. As for the manner of withdrawal? Well, I you know, I'm Yes, it could have been done very differently. But I must say, I wonder whether I'm just getting old and cynical here. But you know, I've never seen a war the ends nicely. You know, I just, you know, you either end up with the most horrible, brutal fighting and savagery with lots of civilians killed. You know, it there seems, I think, perhaps because I have written about wars, because I, I, you know, my first book was on the sea action war between India and Pakistan. I find some of the commentary a little bit kind of idealistic, is that the word? I mean, it's like, what what do you think happens when wars and it's horrible? And it's not the war is not ending in Afghanistan? Presumably, but the US war in Afghanistan is ending is that? Look, this is a mess. But where does this this idea come from? That you can end a war with it not being in a mess? I mean, it's it's as as messy as go, this is not that terrible. It's not, you know, selling of Kabul, it's, it's, yeah, in an ideal world, yes, they should have gotten their act together to get everybody out sooner to have a smoother evacuation plan. But, you know, you're running it, almost the idea that this war should have been ended cleanly, is almost speaks to the reason why America should not be in Afghanistan in the first place. You do not pull off a clean operation ending a war in a country like Afghanistan, like that, and every everything goes swimmingly, and beautifully, so you know, you're not running a logistics operation in Austin. So I, I don't know how it will play with the American domestic public, but certainly I look at it. And I think, you know, I look at some of the reactions, and I do sort of think that grow up guys. It's like, there's an awful lot of horrible things happen, and worse and horribly, and pretending that that is not the case is is sort of, it's very naive.
Yeah, I mean, you know, my own opinion, you know, well, seeing American adventures over the last generation is I think, America wants wants to have it both ways in terms of basically having an empire, but not taking the responsibility putting skin in this game, and also just imposing order like an empire would, you know, we go into Afghanistan, and we create a, you know, presidential liberal democratic system, the Afghan embassy is promoting LGBTQIA rights. We're excited that there's Gender Studies at the University of Kabul, this, none of this was organic. This was a demand for cultural change from the United States. But you know, we're just the ally, you know, we're not forcing people to do things. I think there's just a fundamental disconnect there, between the fact that we do have imperial ambitions, but you know, we're not going to do what the older colonial regimes did, which is, you know, get our hands dirty, and, frankly, be unpleasant and impressive. In some ways, if that's what you want to do. I think, you know, we, we just want to be loved, and yet also be like the Roman Empire or something. I don't know. It's just, it seems like we don't acknowledge it as a society. Our dual intense here.
Yeah. And also, I think, well, there's Yeah, two things. There's one if you were going to build an empire, you wouldn't do it in Afghanistan. I mean, the British didn't try and do it in Afghanistan, you do it in places where you've got, as I said earlier, urban elites that you can co OPT and have them collaborate with you. And then, you know, and then you do it piecemeal over years. I am. I also say America has a bit of a blind spot about the British Empire in that. You know, and I do not defend the British Empire. I'm not going to apologize for it. But I think there are some lessons that can be learned on things that Britain did get right. And America has such a sort of blanket, you know, knee jerk and obviously historical dislike of the British Empire, and that it rarely looks at some of those. And I was just, you know, thinking in terms of what went wrong with Afghanistan. I mean, after the early decades or the early years, even of British rule in India, it didn't do too badly at getting rid of corruption. I mean, there were all sorts of self interested reasons for that. But, but I mean, I think it is, it is worth looking at and thinking, well, how did Britain manage to set up a relatively non corrupt system of government, whereas America goes in, and it's set up the most corrupt system of government imaginable in Afghanistan, which contributed to its defeat. So, you know, you can look at some of the stuff the British got, right without, without without thinking, Well, yeah, then you're suddenly cheering for Empire, but you're actually looking at how do you get these things to work. But I would still say I don't think if you were going to do it, Afghanistan is the place to do it. Because I it's not because of anything intrinsically wrong with Afghans, but that that whole state had been so hollowed out by years and years war, that you didn't have a you didn't have anything that you could get purchase on and build on. Whereas, you know, Britain, Britain, basically built on the existing and you might say, leached off, but the existing structure that was already in place in India when it first came in, so it's very different anyway. Certainly one of my personal personal kind of beefs, as I think that Americans should probably try and it won't make America imperialist, but it simply actually trying to learn from some of the stuff that Britain did, even if say,
Good luck. Good luck with that advice on America, learning from history and learning from others, you know, because we're candu nation that could just do everything by ourselves.
I know, I know. America for his optimism, but I guess, I guess America has achieved a lot with his optimism as well. So maybe it just needs to hold on to his optimism, but not try and go into sort of deeply complicated places like Afghanistan.
Yeah, yeah, I think I think that's how a lot of us are feeling. So Mark is great, you know, giving you your insights and talking to you. I really appreciate it. I've looked forward to talking to you for many years. I really appreciate your social media presence. I think, you know, there's a lot of people out there that are just emoting and they're using social media to gain clout and I don't see you doing that. So you're definitely one of the good ones and I really commend your your presence out there and everyone should follow you. Thank you for for talking to us and, you know, your books, why does the shroud as the shroud and defeat is an orphan people should check that out. And, you know, let's hope that things get better than they are right now. Okay, well, thank you and I stopped here. Yeah. Yes, podcast for kids. David