The release of a 2011 speech by new U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in which he says that India has been “financing problems” against Pakistan in Afghanistan, has set off a predictable storm in India. But several observers – in Pakistan, but also in the United States and India – are far from surprised. Indeed, they see nothing wrong with what Hagel said. Let me take this opportunity to outline (1) why the statement was misleading and (2) why it is dangerous.
First, let us size up the facts or, in their absence, the informed speculation. India has had a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan since 2001, where it has had an embassy and four consulates (no more, no less). There are members of India’s intelligence agencies based at these missions, just as there are other foreign intelligence officers in Afghanistan and just as India has officers posted in other major embassies around the region and the world. That is not the subject of dispute or of controversy.
What is, however, is the scale of India’s presence and the nature of its intelligence activities. Although exact figures are not publicly available, India’s external intelligence agency – the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW or RAW) – is tiny, and is in no way comparable to Pakistan’s ISI in terms of resources or standing. RAW has suffered from bureaucratic rivalries with other Indian intelligence agencies, the IB and MI, and in the words of one former officer has a “love-hate” relationship with the Ministry of External Affairs. While RAW’s involvement in East Pakistan/Bangladesh and in Sri Lanka are often cited by external critics, they conveniently overlook the setbacks the agency experienced under the Janata government in the late 1970s, and again under V.P. Singh and I.K. Gujral’s leadership in the 1980s and 1990s. Many Indian political leaders still harbour an inherent distrust of intelligence activity, and it could very well be that the intel agencies have remained resource-starved as a consequence. The idea that RAW would have a meaningful say in, for example, trade policy with Pakistan (as ISI does with India) is laughable.
With respect to Afghanistan, how much reliable public information is there to support the Pakistani contention that India is “financing problems” against it? As it turns out, not much. British and UN diplomats have told American academics that Afghan intelligence has provided weapons to Baloch insurgents in Pakistan, but they have simply assumed that this is being done at India’s behest. Yet Kabul has had as much, if not more, of a reason to play this game as New Delhi. Indeed, Karzai has admitted sheltering Baloch rebels, but has privately denied India’s involvement to American officials. Even critics of India’s activities have ultimately concluded that Pakistan’s allegations “are nearly impossible to verify”, its “most sweeping claims are ill-founded,” and “the scale of India’s activities in Pakistan pale in comparison to Pakistan’s sponsored activities in and against India.”
Let’s be clear. I do not mean to suggest that India is conducting no intelligence operations in Afghanistan, or that Indian intelligence has not pursued activities in the past meant to destabilize Pakistan. There is simply no evidence to indicate that India is currently using Afghanistan as a base to run operations against Pakistan in a manner akin to Pakistan’s continued sponsorship of violence against Indian and Afghan targets. India has neither a reason (the indication at every leadership level is that a stable Pakistan benefits Indian interests) nor the resources (as discussed earlier). Even if New Delhi did desire Pakistan’s destabilization, it is unclear whether RAW’s efforts are even necessary: Pakistan seems to be doing a fine enough job on its own.
Second, why are assertions about India’s intelligence activities in Afghanistan so dangerous? If India was indeed intent on undermining Pakistan, would it not be quietly celebrating rather than expressing outrage over Hagel’s comments? The reality is that such statements equate India and Pakistan as sponsors of terror, with blame being assigned equally to the perpetrator and the victim. When coming from the United States – a supposedly neutral source – this claim is particularly damaging, as it is used to continue justifying Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorist activities against Indian targets, such as the 2008 and 2009 attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul. This not only threatens Indian lives, it also directly compromises the safety of U.S. and Western personnel. Perceptions of India’s nefarious activities are also employed to apply pressure on India to scale back its activities in Afghanistan – including valuable development work being done on the ground. This makes the prospect of a stable, peaceful Afghanistan that much harder, which is simply tragic. The bulk of India’s efforts in Afghanistan is squarely in line with the interests of the Karzai government, and of U.S. and Western forces.
American observers can continue making claims based on flimsy evidence about India’s misdeeds in Afghanistan. Some – such as Secretary Hagel, a non-specialist – cannot be blamed for holding on to these views, although they should probably be aware of the consequences. The same cannot be said of others. As someone once told me, the most useful idiots are the ones that don’t even realize they are being used.