The Great Game In South Asia: Proxy Wars and Geopolitics

Note: This article is the first in the series of many articles yet to come on terrorism, proxy wars & geopolitics in South Asia.


The hybrid war on Pakistan by India is something that has been going on for some time (at least last 7-9 years) and every analyst and journalist in the region knows this. Here I will not talk about what happened in last few years (perhaps later in another article) but instead I will talk about what is happening NOW.

Pakistan-China Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a major thaw in the grand designs of India and its strategic partners (namely the U.S. and its allies) in the region who see CPEC as China’s way to advance its regional hegemony, which is obviously a threat to U.S. hegemony. For U.S., India is the most realistic ally in any counter-China scenario. Pakistan, on the other hand, is China’s “all weather friend” and cannot be pried away from China’s corner. Not that U.S. didn’t try. For years U.S. government under Obama waged a silent psychological and information war on Pakistan. USG poured millions of $$ into Pakistani media in exchange for influencing their coverage, but not to present a favorable view of U.S. but to directly influence Pakistan’s domestic politics/issues as well as to sow suspicion and distrust among Pakistanis for Pakistan’s establishment, especially the military and Pakistan’s top intelligence agency ISI. This is part of the common ground shared by U.S. and India. Both consider Pakistan’s military to be too powerful and influential which must be ‘cut down to size’. India holds this perception because it knows Pakistani military and intelligence agencies are the only thing stopping India from annexing most of Pakistan, while U.S. knows that Pakistani military-intel establishment is the sole reason China is pushing ahead with CPEC; take Pakistani military-intel establishment out of the equation and the Chinese will abandon CPEC and run away. No one seriously expects corrupt Pakistani politicians, who can’t handle trivial issues, to handle CPEC. While Indira Gandhi’s government played a crucial role in breaking away Bangladesh (which used to be East Pakistan) from Pakistan, people associated with India’s current far-right nationalist government openly dispute almost whole of Pakistan, except Punjab province. Part of India’s hybrid war on Pakistan is to create divisions within Pakistan on the basis of ethnicity. Pakistan has many ethnic minorities and Pakistan’s politics is also very ethnocentric. Different political parties have different ethnic vote banks. India has tried to exploit this reality by trying to influence or hijack some of the top political parties of Pakistan. For instance, take MQM, a political party that claimed to represent one particular ethnicity in Pakistan. Today there is overall consensus in Pakistan that MQM leadership (which is based in UK) was secretly in contact with Indian intelligence and was taking direct orders from it. Pakistani journalists say this party has been involved in dozens of criminal activities for several years, from murders to extortion. Pakistanis present tons of evidence to support their case. Recently Pakistan launched a crackdown on the mentioned political party after its leader publicly raised anti-Pakistan slogans and called for ‘help‘ from India during live audio speeches. Of course, India denies that it has been backing the mentioned political party yet Indian analysts have privately admitted to me (obviously on condition of anonymity) that India has been backing the party in various ways. If a political group supported by India claims to represent a certain ethnic minority in Pakistan and then if Pakistan launches any kind of crackdown on that group, it can be easily used as a justification for an overt Indian intervention using the same international framework of human rights that U.S. used to, you know, “promote democracy” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Simply put, a Pakistan divided on the basis of ethnicity would be very easy to bring down to its knees.

U.S. also shares India’s perception of Pakistani military-intel because it also views Pakistani military-intel as a hindrance, which cannot be bought or be convinced to go against Pakistan’s interests, unlike Pakistani politicians who’re often seen lobbying in DC for their own interests. All this makes complete sense. After all, U.S. government under Obama has also meddled in Israel’s domestic politics even though Israel is America’s closest ally. Indeed, for years U.S. under Obama admin has tried to influence and change Pakistan’s strategic thinking by various means in various fields. This is not a secret and it is casually admitted by several DC establishment analysts. U.S. ultimately hoped to influence/change Pakistan’s strategic thinking in 3 key areas: 1. Abandoning India-focused policy-making and acknowledging Indian projection of military power & its regional superiority. 2. Abandoning its strategic partnership with China for an openly pro-U.S. stance. 3. Ending support for groups/individuals in Afghanistan considered terrorist groups by U.S.

As of now, U.S. has all but failed in all three major goals. While U.S. information war has helped in sowing much suspicion and distrust in some Pakistanis for Pakistani military, Pakistan’s establishment has been hitting back with its own information war. Failure in the three major goals means U.S. now has to reevaluate its strategy, especially considering CPEC is rushing towards success.

Proxy Wars 

The use of proxies as a tool of foreign policy agenda in South Asia region is nothing new. It’s going on since the Afghan Jihad, when U.S. and Pakistan together trained and armed Afghan Mujahideen to fight against the Soviets. It ended with the defeat, and later collapse, of Soviet Union. The latest proxy wars in the AfPak region includes multiple Jihadi groups: Islamic State (Khorasan Province), Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (allied with IS and Pakistani Taliban), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP/Pakistani Taliban) and Afghan Taliban+Haqqanis.

There have been accusations from Pakistan that India and Afghanistan have been supporting TTP and JuA (both groups are operating from Afghan soil, as is admitted by both Western and non-Western experts). On the other hand, India has been accusing Pakistan of supporting anti-India militant groups, including in India-held Kashmir. Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of supporting Afghan Taliban/individuals within Taliban like Haqqanis, something also endorsed by U.S. While several high-profile Pakistanis (like ex-President Mr Musharraf and ex ISI chief Mr Asad Durrani) have publicly admitted that Pakistan has been supporting certain groups/individuals involved in Afghan war to secure its own interests. Important to remember here that Pakistan has always wanted to see a pro-Pakistan govt in Kabul and increasing Indian involvement in Afghanistan has not gone down well with Pakistani military. Similarly, several high-profile personalities associated with current or past Indian govt/establishment (including India’s current National Security Adviser, etc) have publicly all but admitted that India has been ‘fighting fire with fire‘ by supporting anti-Pakistan groups. In some cases, Pakistan launched crackdown on its own proxies due to internal+external pressure but at the same time India covertly stepped in and ‘flipped’ those groups, i.e., pledged support in exchange for activities against Pakistan. It is already documented India has successfully pulled off this classic COIN strategy in its own part of Kashmir where it ‘flipped’ some previously pro-Pakistan groups to serve Indian interests. If we take the statements from Indians and Pakistanis at face value, we find out that they both are indeed engaged in a bloody proxy war, which is just a small part of the grand hybrid war on Pakistan. As for the U.S., it knows what’s going on but in case of India it plays the part of a silent spectator out of strategic necessity. In case of Afghanistan, U.S. has tried to help Pakistan by going after anti-Pakistan terrorists. The capture of TTP chief Latifullah Mehsud by U.S. Special Forces from an Afghan govt convoy and then delivering him to Pakistan is just one of the many examples where U.S. has cooperated with Pakistan in the hope that the proxy war between India/Afghanistan and Pakistan will diffuse. But that never happened.

Pakistan for its part sees Afghan Taliban as a legit stakeholder in Afghanistan. The fact that U.S. doesn’t officially consider Taliban a terrorist group further helps Pakistan build its case. Moreover, now Pakistan’s position towards Afghan Taliban has been supported by Moscow, Tehran and Beijing. All three, like Pakistan, also see Taliban as a legit stakeholder in Afghanistan, that can also be used in the upcoming fight against Islamic State. U.S., no matter what DC analysts will tell you, also shares some of this perception, which is perhaps why it tried to negotiate with Taliban, allowed them to open an office in Qatar and still has not designated Taliban a terrorist group. All this doesn’t help America’s case but instead it helps the case of its adversaries. This is the ultimate flawed strategy I have so strongly criticized in the past, which I see as a self-defeating strategy.  To help improve their international image Taliban have been winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan by doing things like collecting utility bills, building roads, providing security to civilians from Islamic State militants, etc. On the other hand, U.S. has been mistakenly bombing dozens of civilians in Afghanistan in airstrikes, something that does NOT win you hearts and minds. So it’s no surprise that U.S. is badly losing in Afghanistan and Kabul govt controls less territory today than at anytime since the war started.

How Jihad and Proxy Wars Fit Together

Here I will only talk about some of those Jihadi groups that are operating in AfPak region.

Take Lashkar-e-Jhangvi as an example. It used to be a pro-Pakistan group that Pakistan once used as a proxy to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Later when it turned to sectarian killings, Pakistan declared it a terrorist group and went after it militarily. Its chief was shot dead in an encounter by Pakistani police and several of its members and top leadership also either arrested or killed. Today it is known as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami and operates from Afghanistan while Pakistanis claim LeJ Al-Alami is being secretly funded and armed by India. LeJ has also pledged allegiance to Islamic State. If these accusations from Pakistan are taken at face value, we find out that yesterday’s proxies of Pakistan are today’s proxies of India. This is how proxy wars work. There are constant attempts from the players to try to infiltrate opposing proxies in order to ‘flip’ them or at least divide or disrupt them from within.

Similarly, India keeps Pakistan’s proxies Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar in the top of its international agenda not just to harm Pakistan’s international image (although that is a tiny part of India’s strategy) but also to 1. harm Pakistan economically (investors run away when they find out the the country they’re investing in is an active ground of proxy war) 2. get Pakistan declared a state sponsor of terror 3. But most importantly, India wants to pressure Pakistan into going after Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar militarily so India can take advantage and ‘flip’ them too like it has done in the past. This is also why Pakistan doesn’t go after Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed militarily: Pakistan knows the day it does that, India will swoop in and pledge support to the two, effectively turning them into Indian anti-Pakistan proxies and using them to wreak havoc in Pakistan. That would be something that would take Pakistan back ten years in terms of counter-terrorism. All this is basic stuff, really. Intelligence professionals and COIN experts would know exactly what I’m talking about. Even journalists know. Conventional logic would ask: how can a Jihadi group comprising of Muslims work for an intelligence agency of a non-Muslim country and attack Muslims of another country? The counter-question to this would be: how did CIA arm and fund Afghan Taliban against Soviets? How did CIA and Pentagon both armed and funded two different groups in Syria and then turned both groups on each other? Answer is simple: Proxy war and Jihadist terrorism are not necessarily two mutually exclusive things. Terrorism and international framework of human rights is used by all powers for geopolitics and to advance their own interests. Many of these Jihadi groups operate as corporations, as has been proved by the various declassified documents publicly available. The top hierarchy of these corporate Jihadi groups usually knows who they’re working for, who they are targeting and (but not necessarily) why. The field agents, i.e. fighters, suicide bombers, etc usually don’t. The field agents are the real Jihadis. They really do believe they are waging righteous Jihad and they see the world in black and white as per their brainwashing via selective religious material, while their leadership is living in the ‘gray zone’. In some instances, one group could be working for two opposing parties (which could be countries, institutions or individuals) at the same time to target each other. This is considered normal in the world of proxy wars, since these groups work as corporations and service providers. The more spectacular and accurate your attacks, the more fee you get to charge for your services. And again, the clients are not just countries but could also be groups, institutions and even individuals.

The fight to control proxies in South Asia will get worse. And by worse I mean more bloody, since no one can agree on terrorism. Every state has its own interests and it is not necessary that someone or some group considered terrorist in nature by one country is also considered terrorist in nature by another country. Even allies don’t necessarily agree on terrorism. So these proxy wars are not ending anytime soon.

Pakistan, for its part, is likely to continue its support for groups and individuals in Afghanistan which it thinks serve Pakistan’s interests best. India and Afghanistan will also likely continue to support anti-Pakistan groups and will point towards Pakistan’s proxies as an excuse. In reality, India and Afghanistan will continue to support proxy war on Pakistan regardless of Pakistan’s support of any group in Afghanistan since the real target of India and Afghanistan’s backers, i.e. U.S. and its allies, is China/CPEC. Whatever policy Pakistan must initiate will probably take this crucial fact into consideration.

There are many opposing interests involved in South Asia’s regional game. How will Pakistan get out of this predicament is yet to be seen but one thing is for sure: China is closely watching. Beijing believes its future in the region is directly linked with Pakistan. Any attempt to destabilize Pakistan will be seen as a direct attack on China in Beijing. Beijing plays an amusing geopolitical ballet with Pakistan where it publicly defends its proxies but privately tells Pakistan to rein in its proxies and act smart. Pakistan in turn sees China as a more sincere and reliable ally than U.S., which Pakistan accuses of back-stabbing when U.S. blocked Pakistan in Afghanistan and favored India instead. Today India has a strong presence in Afghanistan and it is heavily engaged with Afghan govt, whose security forces India trains, funds and arms, all with tacit U.S. approval. Obviously this doesn’t go down well with Pakistan, which in turn has provided safe haven to the groups that attack Kabul govt/U.S./NATO.


What Are India’s Options?

India, that once used to be a strong Soviet ally and still maintains strong relations with Russia, has recently aligned its strategic interests with U.S. by forging a strategic partnership.  This partnership, unsurprisingly, was seen disapprovingly in Islamabad, Beijing and Moscow. India, for now, thinks its interests in the region are best served by allying with U.S. and that makes sense, because in the bigger picture India sees China as its main adversary, not Pakistan. But to contain China, India would first need to do something about Pakistan. That something, for now, seems to be trying to destabilize Pakistan through a mixture of things: proxy war, economic war, diplomatic war, information war, psychological war. For the economic war part of India’s hybrid war on Pakistan, India has been trying to push U.S. to sanction Pakistan, something that has not happened yet but can happen in future. A destabilized Pakistan and a weak Pakistani military-intelligence establishment means it would be easy for India to make use of its Cold Start doctrine (the existence of which has been publicly admitted by influential Indians) through which India would likely seek to annex as much of Pakistani territory as possible. Pakistan’s answer to that has been the development of tactical nukes but several experts point out that Pakistani military will face incredible backlash from local public if it uses tactical nukes on its own soil. India’s recent little adventure of ‘surgical strikes’ against Pakistan is also being seen as a new precedent set by India for future purposes.

Yet at the same time there’s a growing argument among Indian intelligentsia that it is not in India’s best interests to ally with U.S. against China. The supporters of this argument point out that China is India’s neighbor and India cannot change its neighbors while U.S. is a faraway country and its geostrategic priorities change all the time. Supporters point out how U.S. first encouraged and in other cases directly helped Syrians to take up arms against the Syrian regime and spent first two years adding fuel to the fire in Syria, only to change track and abandon the Syrian rebels to be killed by Syrian regime, Russia or Iran’s proxies. Perhaps this is also why Taiwan recently said it won’t allow itself to be used as a U.S. proxy against China since even Taiwan has learned some lessons from the Syrian disaster. Supporters of the argument also point out that allying with an unreliable U.S. against a neighboring China would be a geostrategic suicide for India. But it is yet to be seen how far this argument goes in India and how many supporters it ends up finding and what changes in India’s priorities they bring about. What we do know is that both U.S. and China spy on their regional proxy states (India and Pakistan, respectively) and even monitor what is being said about them on social media in these countries. This is the great game of South Asia, a game that will likely take and change many lives, split communities and bring enemies together as friends, split up existing nations and create new ones.

And the game has just begun.


Disclaimer: This article is an independent analysis of the author and does not reflect the views of any organization the author may be associated with. 


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