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The Most Dangerous Place: A History of the United States in South Asia review: Tangled up in knots

When Afghanistan’s new Emir Amanullah Khan took over from his father (Emir Abdul Rahman Khan, who was assassinated) in 1919, he decided to bring rapid social reform to his country, and once famously, at the end of a public rally announced that Islam did not mandate the veil and Afghan society should not insist on it. His wife Soraya promptly removed her veil on stage, inspiring others in the audience to do the same.

News of Amanullah Khan’s dramatic moves to modernise Afghanistan spread quickly, but had not reached American shores in July 1921, when he sent a delegation to Washington to ask the U.S. to grant Afghanistan diplomatic recognition. U.S. President Warren Harding did meet the delegation, but declined the request, owing to the U.S.’s hesitation in encroaching on the British Empire’s turf. It wasn’t until 1934, in fact, that Washington recognised Afghanistan and not until 1942 when it sent Cornelius Van H. Engert as the first “United States minister plenipotentiary” to live there and set up the U.S. Embassy. These events form a part of historian Srinath Raghavan’s latest gift to his readers, The Most Dangerous Place: A History of the United States in South Asia, where he chronicles the U.S.’s moves in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, mapping its shifts and recording its repetitions.

Many layers

Clearly, a century after Amanullah Khan, the U.S.’s involvement in Afghanistan is second to no other world power, and much has changed in the way it views the “Jewel in the Crown” of the former British Empire, the erstwhile undivided India. In Raghavan’s recounting of the past century and more, the U.S. engagement with the region comes out in glorious layers, from the engagement with the ideas of visitors like Mark Twain and Josiah Harlan (the man who inspired Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King) to Indians who impacted the U.S., like Vivekananda, Lala Lajpat Rai, to U.S. interest in building a balance in South Asia as a geopolitical necessity, and then on to the U.S.’s political and military machinations that have kept it busy in the region for the last few decades.

As he chronicles all that has changed, it is hard to miss the many American decisions that got repeated in a loop, complemented by India and Pakistan’s circular motion that goes from engagement to conflict to disengagement to engagement again. Afghanistan’s role, buffeted between regional powers India and Pakistan on one hand, and global powers like the U.S. and Russia on the other, also seems to tread a nauseatingly familiar path. In 1930, a State department official says, for example, in words that could have described the American view in subsequent decades and right up to the present: “Afghanistan is doubtless the most fanatic country in the world... No foreign lives in the country can be protected and no foreign interests guaranteed.”

Claims, counter claims

In 1950 too, the U.S. “wearily concludes” that its attempts at brokering Pakistan-Afghan peace are going nowhere as Pakistan claims an Indian hand in Afghanistan, while Afghans say the central problem is that of “trans-Afghan Pashtuns”. Pakistan insists, “If the Kashmir question is settled, Afghanistan would immediately abandon its sponsorship of Pushtoonistan.”

None of these claims and counter-claims have faded 70 years later, and the U.S.’s attempts to disentangle the threads that choke South Asia, have bound it closer and more inextricably to the region each time it tries. In every decade, U.S. officials have announced a “new tack” that often turns out to rebound further, or just becomes another old tack. The title of the book The Most Dangerous Place (the U.S. version is entitled Fierce Enigmas) itself is a phrase oft repeated, in diplomatic annals pre-nuclearisation to its more public usage by Bill Clinton in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2009.

The politics of the subcontinent and the U.S.’s “entanglement” with South Asia, as Raghavan puts it, is a well-worn path for historians, military experts and journalists however, and many of the events in the latter part of his book may be familiar reading.

Mapping thinkers

The first two chapters, are, however, unique and delightful, as they map travellers and thinkers from the U.S. and South Asia who have crossed into each other’s geographies, beginning from 1784. There, from Walt Whitman’s Passage to India, to Twain’s Following the Equator, and his hilarious letter to Kipling (“You must be on hand with a few bottles of Ghee, for I shall be thirsty...”) to the lectures of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, one can see India from “Under American Eyes”, which are clearly distinct from imperial British ones. One is left wishing that Raghavan’s recounting of this U.S.-South Asia exchange of ideas across the world had also extended to American Indologists and Indian thinkers in more recent times rather than just diplomats and leaders.

Notwithstanding that small grievance, it is a wonder that Raghavan has been able to encompass so much history across the expanse of the subcontinent in under 400 pages and few details miss his archive-trained eyes. Readers of his previous volumes on World War II (India’s War), the India-Pakistan rivalry over the decades (War and Peace in Modern South Asia), and Bangladesh’s Liberation War (1971, A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh) will be enthralled with this addition to their understanding of the region and America’s trials and tribulations.

The Most Dangerous Place: A History of the United States in South Asia; Srinath Raghavan, Penguin/ Allen Lane, ₹699.


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An earlier version of the article misstated Mark Twain's work quoted in the book to be from Innocents Abroad. It is actually from Following the Equator.

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