Fierce Enigmas

A History of the United States in South Asia


By Srinath Raghavan

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The two-hundred-year history of the United States’ involvement in South Asia — the key to understanding contemporary American policy in the region

South Asia looms large in American foreign policy. Over the past two decades, we have spent billions of dollars and thousands of human lives in the region, to seemingly little effect. As Srinath Raghavan reveals in Fierce Enigmas, this should not surprise us. For 230 years, America’s engagement with India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan has been characterized by short-term thinking and unintended consequences. Beginning with American traders in India in the eighteenth century, the region has become a locus for American efforts — secular and religious — to remake the world in its image.

The definitive history of US involvement in South Asia, Fierce Enigmas is also a clarion call to fundamentally rethink our approach to the region.



AT AROUND SEVEN O’CLOCK on the morning of May 21, 2016, a middle-aged Pashtun man crossed the border from Iran to Pakistan. Although he was carrying a Pakistani passport bearing the name Muhammad Wali, he was detained at the border crossing for nearly two hours. When allowed through, he got into a white sedan and proceeded on the eight-hour drive to Quetta, capital of the Pakistani province of Balochistan. As the car approached the small town of Ahmad Wal, about two-thirds of the way to Quetta, Hellfire missiles from an American drone tore into it, incinerating the driver and passenger. The US Joint Special Operations Command had assassinated Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, the leader of the Taliban.

Two days later, President Barack Obama announced the killing in a press conference in Hanoi. The strike, he said, “removed the leader of an organization that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and Coalition forces, to wage war against the Afghan people, and align itself with extremist groups like al Qaeda.” Stating that Mansur had rejected efforts by the Afghan government to engage him in talks, Obama expressed hope that the Taliban would “seize the opportunity… to pursue the only real path for ending this long conflict—joining the Afghan government in a reconciliation process that leads to lasting peace and stability.” Obama added that the United States would continue to “work on shared objectives with Pakistan, where terrorists that threaten all our nations must be denied safe haven.”1

The Obama administration hailed the assassination of Mansur for two reasons, primarily. First, it was part of a strategy to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, a strategy that now seemed likely to succeed. Mansur himself had taken over as leader of the Taliban less than a year prior—after revelation that he had muzzled news of the April 2013 death of Taliban supreme commander Mullah Mohammad Omar. Mansur’s killing, it was assumed, would throw the organization into disarray and embolden the moderates within the Taliban to enter into talks with the Afghan government.

Second, the strike would send a strong signal to Pakistan that it could no longer harbor Taliban leaders while pocketing American financial aid. Pakistan’s policy of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds was well known to American policymakers. In Obama’s first intelligence briefing in 2009, the director of central intelligence had wearily told him that the Pakistanis were “a living lie.” American officials believed that Pakistan’s mendacious stance stemmed not just from its desire to prop up the Taliban and ensure that Afghanistan remained its strategic backyard but also from its long-running rivalry with India over Kashmir and its fear of Indian influence in Afghanistan. Over the years Obama realized there were limits to how much Washington could cajole India into engaging with Pakistan even as the latter supported anti-Indian terrorist outfits. Instead, he came to rely heavily on a covert action program—human and technical intelligence, Special Forces, and Predator drones—begun under his predecessor to target terrorist leaders inside Pakistan.2

The assassination of Mansur did not, however, deliver the desired outcomes. Days after the strike, the Taliban leadership council in Quetta chose Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, a religious scholar, as his successor. And they soon escalated attacks inside Afghanistan. By the time Obama left the White House in early 2017, more than 40 percent of Afghanistan’s districts were under the Taliban’s control or influence, or contested by them. With more than 11,000 civilians killed, 2016 was the most violent year in the country since 2009. The Afghan security forces too suffered heavy casualties that year, with over 6,700 dead and nearly 11,800 injured.3

As for the impact on Pakistan, it turned out that the United States might have grossly misjudged the dynamic between the Pakistanis and Mansur. Former associates of Mansur as well as knowledgeable Afghan officials subsequently disclosed that in the month prior to his assassination, the Taliban leader had been at loggerheads with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the intelligence agency known for its far-reaching power and influence over the very top layers of the Pakistani government. Mansur had apparently resisted ISI orders to target infrastructure in Afghanistan, to promote a hardline Pakistani protégé, Sirajuddin Haqqani, as his deputy, and to advance Pakistan’s particular interests in future negotiations with the Afghan government. During this period Mansur had conveyed to Taliban commanders under him that he was prepared to negotiate for peace. In a bid to loosen the ISI’s grip on the Taliban, he was reportedly prepared to accord greater autonomy to his commanders in the field and was exploring the possibility of securing assistance from Iran to avoid relying so heavily on Pakistan. The ISI, in fact, may well have created the trail that led the Americans to Mansur.4

These details emerged over fourteen months after Mansur’s assassination. By then, the war in Afghanistan had garnered the dubious distinction of being the longest war in American history: twice as long already as the Vietnam War. Despite a heavy commitment of troops and money, drones and Special Forces, the United States still found it difficult to distinguish who was on which side of this tangled conflict.

Barack Obama was not, of course, the first American president to grapple with the complexities of South Asia. Nor were George W. Bush or his immediate predecessors. In fact, the story of US covert action in the region goes all the way back to 1827, when Josiah Harlan raised the Stars and Stripes at the outskirts of the town of Ludhiana in the Punjab and recruited a ragtag militia to foment a rebellion in Afghanistan against its ruler, Dost Mohammed Khan.5

Born in 1799 to a family of Philadelphia Quakers, Harlan had come to Calcutta in 1822 as “supercargo”—the agent responsible for overseeing cargo and its sale—on a merchant vessel. A year later, he signed up to serve as a doctor in the British East India Company’s army for the war on Burma. During a period of convalescence after being wounded in the field, Harlan chanced upon a recently published book on Afghanistan by the British official Mounstuart Elphinstone. Although the British nominated Elphinstone as their envoy to the court in Kabul, a regime change in which Dost Mohammed had deposed Afghan ruler Shah Shuja prevented him from taking up his appointment or living in the city. That did not prevent Elphinstone from concocting stories of Oriental splendor and strife, bejeweled princes and wild tribesmen.

The adventurer in Harlan was hooked and decided to redeem Shuja. He set off on a covert expedition into Afghanistan aimed at restoring Shuja to the throne of Kabul and securing for himself a little kingdom to rule. It did not quite work out as he had planned. After much intrigue and travail, Harlan actually ended up training an Afghan force for Dost Mohammed Khan. In the summer of 1838, Harlan himself led this force in a campaign against the khan of Kunduz. Thereafter, he claimed to have struck a bargain with a Hazara chieftain to become the ruler of that province as a reward for securing it from its traditional enemies. By this time, the first Anglo-Afghan war was underway, and a bitter Harlan had to depart Afghanistan. Back in the United States, he embarked on several failed business ventures, including one to import camels from Afghanistan.

Harlan’s encounters with India and Afghanistan were a product of attempts by commercial and entrepreneurial classes in the young American republic to edge into the maritime commercial world dominated by the older European empires.6 But they also prefigured the themes that would shape American engagement with South Asia over the following centuries: power and hierarchy, race and religion, ideology and empire. In his quest for wealth and power, Harlan may have relinquished some core tenets of his Quaker faith; yet it deeply informed his paternalistic belief that even the “barbarians” of Afghanistan could receive the benefits of “civilization.” Harlan also took a dim view of British rule in the subcontinent and contrasted it unfavorably with Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an imperial republic of yeomen farmers committed to the improvement of the land and securing their own liberties.7

Harlan’s forays, and the significance thereof, later became the subject of a remarkable story by Rudyard Kipling, “The Man Who Would Be King.” While Kipling never directly conceded the inspiration, he apparently picked up Harlan’s story from a fellow Freemason in India. In Kipling’s version, two adventurers, Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, set off to win the kingdom of Kafiristan in a remote corner of Afghanistan. They train a local militia, fashion a new religion, and manage to convince the tribe to proclaim Dravot king. When the illusion of power spun by the interlopers is broken, the local inhabitants turn on Dravot. Back in Lahore, Peachy meets the narrator and produces his friend’s shriveled head from a bag: “You behold now the Emperor in his habit as he lived—the King of Kafiristan with his crown upon his head.”

Published in England in 1888, the story was a parable of the temptations of empire. At the same time, though, Kipling was elsewhere calling on the Americans to take up the “white man’s burden.” Kipling’s exhortations had a considerable impact on America’s turn toward empire—even if many readers did not catch the nuances of his view of imperialism. More importantly, Kipling’s writings provided the first, and often only, introduction to South Asia for most educated Americans and informed their attitudes for generations to come.

American involvement in South Asia was not a one-sided affair though. Even as Americans were drawn to the region for a variety of reasons, South Asians were pulled toward the United States—not least by the allure of American modernity and technological expertise. Thus, in 1910 Amir Habibullah Khan—son and heir of Amir Abdur Rahman, founder of the modern Afghan state—invited prominent American engineer A. C. Jewett to install a hydroelectric plant to power the nascent workshops and production facilities of Kabul as well as the royal palace. Jewett was a pioneer in electrical infrastructure, having built a number of electrical streetcars and power stations on the Pacific coast. He was also well known in the subcontinent. He had installed a power plant in the Kolar Gold Fields of the southern Indian princely state of Mysore as well as built the Jhelum power installation in the northern state of Kashmir. Indeed, soon after his stint in Kashmir, he received the commission from Habibullah Khan.

Jewett reached Kabul in May 1911. He was the first American to reside in that city since Harlan. Nothing in Jewett’s storied career had prepared him for the assignment. No skilled laborers were available, so he had to train his own workforce. The equipment ordered by the amir from a British firm in Bombay took a long time to arrive. “None of the plant has reached Kabul yet,” he wrote in November 1912, “but I hear there is some on the way. Inshallah [god willing], it will come some time.” There were more delays with the onset of World War I and the resulting scarcity of motor transports. Eventually the power-generation equipment had to be carted across the Khyber Pass on elephants. And then there was the sheer geographic challenge of building a power plant in the mountains of Jabal-us-Siraj.

The work took six and a half years to complete. When the lights came on, it seemed almost magical. “You should have seen the natives,” Jewett wrote home, “first wide-eyed and staring—then a broad grin on every face. Most of them had never even seen a kerosene lamp.” While Jewett worked tirelessly to bring a slice of American modernity to South Asia, he shared his countrymen’s racial and paternalistic condescension toward the region’s inhabitants. “The average Afghan’s mental development seems to have stopped at about the age of fourteen,” he wrote, after spending years in the country. “The Afghans are a lot like very bad children.” As for the people of Kabul in particular, they were “a lazy, lying, thieving, licentious lot. They are cowards too; the barbarians are better fighters and better men all round.”8

Ambivalence continued to thread American engagement with the country long after Jewett left. But the broader context changed. In a prefatory note to Jewett’s account of Afghanistan that she compiled from his letters and journals, his daughter Marjorie Jewett Bell wrote in June 1948, “The British Raj is gone and beyond the Khyber lies the friendly state of Pakistan. To the north, on the other hand, along a thousand-mile border in old Turkestan, are the Soviet Turkomen, Uzbek and Tajik—republics of a new and powerful Russia.” As Afghanistan was “building a modern nation to maintain her position in Central Asia,” she noted, there was “an influx of Americans—technical advisers, industrial engineers, contractors, and skilled workmen—to plan and promote these improvements, which are destined to bring about a revolution in the industry and living of the Afghans.”

Bell underestimated the tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan and overestimated the scale of American commitment to the country. Yet she was right in thinking not only of regional matters of but geopolitics. Even as she wrote, the American civil engineering and construction firm Morrison-Knudsen was embarking on an ambitious attempt to dam the Helmand River in southern Afghanistan to provide electricity and canal water to the valley’s inhabitants. This enormous project would have significance far beyond its immediate environs.

Not until 1975 did the US Agency for International Development (USAID) install two 16.5-megawatt hydropower generators on the dam and provide the first burst of electricity to the cities of Lashkar Gah and Kandahar. Before a third turbine could be installed, there was a Communist-led coup in Kabul. In the ensuing years, the Helmand Valley became a site of major battles between the Soviet forces and the Islamist fighters backed by the United States. The region was also the cradle of the Taliban, deposed on the heels of the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Soon after, USAID returned to the Helmand dam. In 2003, it hired the Louis Berger Group, an American engineering firm, to repair the two old turbines and install a third. The project pulled 4,000 North Atlantic Treaty Organization soldiers away from their combat duties to secure a convoy carrying equipment. The organizers of the convoy, however, failed to include the seven hundred tons of cement needed to complete the repairs. In the event, Louis Berger relied on expensive helicopter flights to transport equipment and experts to rehabilitate the two older turbines. Plans for the third remained in abeyance. “What had once been a manifestation of America’s initiative and generosity,” writes Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “now stood as a monument to its incompetence.”9 In a bid to deflect the failure, American officials talked up the schools and clinics they were building. They also blamed the avarice, corruption, and unreliability of Afghan subcontractors.

THESE THUMBNAIL SKETCHES REVEAL the long and varied history of American involvement in South Asia. And this history continues to shape American policy in and engagement with the region today. Yet most accounts of the United States and South Asia tend to focus on shorter periods (especially the early Cold War), on limited subjects (especially high politics), or on relationships between the United States and individual countries in the region (especially India).10

While this body of scholarship has enriched our understanding of the United States in South Asia, we still lack a longer, broader account. Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, treating the history of American involvement in the region primarily as a subset of Washington’s antagonism toward the former Soviet Union seems decidedly inadequate. We need to look behind and beyond the Cold War and place South Asia in the longer story of the United States’ ascent to global dominance. Such an account would need to view US engagement with the region against the backdrop of key trends in American and global history since the late eighteenth century.

Such are the aims of this book, which narrates the United States’ relations with South Asia from the founding of the republic to the present. My treatment is neither encyclopedic nor geographically comprehensive. I do not try to cover American relations with all countries of the region. In contemporary usage, “South Asia” refers to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, and the Maldives. An older parlance collectively referred to the first five of these countries as the Indian subcontinent. Given the span of this book, I use the terms interchangeably, but I focus on India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan because these three countries were of greatest interest and concern to Americans over this long period.

I wish to suggest that the history of the United States in South Asia illuminates the particular histories of both regions. Historians of US foreign relations typically tend to treat South Asia as peripheral to the concerns of American policymakers. As the thinking goes, even at the zenith of American power, let alone in other periods, South Asia ranked lower in priority than, say, East Asia or the Middle East. This assumption is seriously misleading. In the first place, history has seldom played out in accordance with the intentions of even the most powerful policymakers and statesmen. To paraphrase Helmuth von Moltke, no policy-planning document has survived contact with the vicissitudes of international politics. The periphery often ends up imposing itself on policymakers who would prefer to concern themselves with core challenges—a pattern that appears in the history of United States and South Asia perhaps most strikingly in the coincidence of the India-China war of 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

More problematic is the tacit assumption that studying engagement with the periphery is not particularly useful in understanding the course of American ascendancy—except to show, at various times, how the United States frittered away some portion of its material and moral resources. If we wish to understand the establishment and character of American hegemony, then we would be better off focusing on the interplay of coercion and consent in western Europe and East Asia. This book argues, by contrast, that an ostensibly peripheral region like South Asia actually tells us more, and something different, about American hegemony in the twentieth century.

This book also aims to provoke us to reconsider our assumptions about the historical interactions between South Asia and the world. Scholars of the early modern era have already encouraged us to look behind the colonial experience in order to understand “connected histories” of societies that have not been placed within a common historical framework.11 Yet historians of modern South Asia remain resolutely focused on the encounter with the British Empire.12 Temporally, too, they remain hesitant to look beyond the moment of decolonization in 1947. In consequence, the United States rarely features in the historiography of modern South Asia. I have tried to broaden our view by underscoring the significance of the United States in understanding the modern history of the subcontinent, especially but not exclusively in the twentieth century.

The narrative that follows is not one of smooth, sustained, and deepening American engagement with the Indian subcontinent over time but one marked by ruptures, retrenchment, and recalibration. Starting soon after the founding of the United States with attempts by New England merchants to enter the India trade, I explore the early sojourns and exploits of American traders, missionaries, and travelers in South Asia up to the mid-nineteenth century. The subsequent decade marked a major break in US engagement with the subcontinent, owing to the great rebellion of 1857–1858 in India and the American Civil War. Over the next seven decades, both the United States and India engaged in seemingly autonomous projects that actually touched each other at important points: national regeneration after the Civil War paralleled the gradual development of nationalist ideas and political movements in India; the US acquisition of overseas empire spurred a renewed interest in India’s colonial experience, while the onset of World War I drew both the United States and the Indian subcontinent into more global concerns.

From the late 1930s, as another major war loomed in Europe, the United States began to regard South Asia as a region of strategic importance. Indeed, the Allies relied on the subcontinent’s strategic location, vast reservoir of manpower, and potential industrial strength for the campaigns against the Axis powers in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. In turn, US political support in particular proved crucial at significant moments in the run-up to India’s independence. Decolonization in South Asia came with partition and the creation of the new state of Pakistan. It also coincided with the onset of the Cold War. The conjunction of decolonization in South Asia and the Cold War created recurrent problems in the United States’ engagement with the region over the following decades.

Some of these proved intractable and periodically neuralgic for American policymakers. Above all, they made the exercise of US hegemony trickier than in regions like East Asia and western Europe, where internecine rivalries between non-Communist powers were pacified. In South Asia, India and Pakistan were locked in a bitter rivalry and fought three wars in as many decades, and Pakistan and Afghanistan were at odds over territorial and ethnic claims and periodically embroiled in crises. What is more, both India and Afghanistan took a stance of nonalignment in the Cold War. And the American decision in 1954 to pull Pakistan into a military alliance at once complicated South Asian geopolitics and opened up the region to Soviet influence.

In the wake of the India-Pakistan war of 1971, the United States had to grapple with two further developments in the region that would eventually push aside the usual Cold War concerns. The first was the competitive pursuit of nuclear weapons by India (which tested its first in 1974) and Pakistan—a dynamic that threatened to tear a gaping hole in the nuclear nonproliferation regime constructed by the United States and to increase instability in the region. The second was the rise of Islamist politics in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1970s. Pakistan initially used the Islamists as a check on Afghan irredentist ambitions. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the United States relied on the Islamist military dictator of Pakistan to support and provision the Islamist Afghan fighters in their jihad against the Red Army. The two developments were connected, too, for while encouraging Islamist militancy, the United States willingly turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s covert pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The late 1970s were thus as important in the long history of US–South Asian relations as the mid-nineteenth century, the late 1930s, or the mid-1950s. The difference is that in the 1970s, we can see most clearly the origins of the present day. Although the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War made the exercise of US hegemony in South Asia easier than before, the combination of nuclear weapons and Islamist terrorism means that the problems facing American policymakers are perhaps graver than ever. At least two recent presidents—Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—have declared the subcontinent the “most dangerous place in the world.”13

In the narrative that follows, I focus on three key dimensions of US engagement with the region. The first is power—economic, political, and military—and its expression and pursuit. The balance of importance among these facets of power has varied with time and shifting contexts and policies.

The search for profits first drew merchants of the young republic to the Indian subcontinent. As American capitalists subsequently turned their gaze to the continent-sized market at home, their interest in India declined. Nevertheless, the globalization of factor markets in the nineteenth century ended up linking the American and Indian economies in important ways. From the late 1930s, American economic and strategic interests in the subcontinent were intertwined. American policymakers saw decolonization as imperative to integrating South Asia into a liberal capitalist global order. But pursuit of markets and profits for American businesses was not the primary driver of this objective. Rather, they wanted to preserve capitalism globally in order to ensure that the United States was not forced down an autarkic path. Later, when India sought to pursue a model of state-led economic development and disregarded American calls for an open economy, the United States still aided its economic efforts in order to ensure that it did not move into closer orbit around Moscow. Similarly, so long as Pakistan has been willing to contribute militarily to advance American interests, the United has continued to funnel aid, ignoring the actual state or performance of its economy.

The second dimension is ideology. From the start, a religious belief in divine favor and a political faith in republican liberty have shaped American ideology.14 From Thomas Jefferson’s idea of an “empire of liberty” to the notion of “Manifest Destiny,” from Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation of American moral leadership to Barack Obama’s avowal of the United States as the “indispensable nation,” the notion of the United States’ providential role in helping the spread of liberty has conditioned American engagement with the wider world.

Few recall, however, that India played an important role in these providential beliefs: the brutality of the British conquest of India provided the background against which the United States could expound the blessings of American expansionism in the nineteenth century. Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt would invoke a similar distinction between American “leadership” and old-world imperialism exemplified in places like India. The US-led attempt over the past fifteen years to turn Afghanistan into a passably democratic state shows that the ideology is not a mere fig leaf for naked American power. Likewise, successive American presidents (as well as Indian leaders) over the past two decades have extolled India’s success as a liberal democracy and regarded its political system as a lynchpin of the United States’ strategic partnership with India.


  • "Srinath Raghavan's remarkable historical command yields a definitive, unrivalled account of America's long, ambivalent and ultimately transforming relationship with South Asia: a place of danger and treasure, and a strategic prize still to be won."—Sunil Khilnani, author of The Idea of India
  • "Srinath Raghavan, one of the very best diplomatic and military historians working on modern South Asia, has written an excellent and ambitious book. Sweeping and insightful, Fierce Enigmas shines new light on the United States' troubled engagement with India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, showing how power, ideology, and culture drove these strategic relationships. Deeply researched and elegantly written, the book is rich with insights on democratic foreign policy, nuclear proliferation and confrontation, Islamist resurgence, and more-shaping the political and social bonds between the last superpower and almost a quarter of humanity."—Gary J. Bass, author of The Blood Telegram
  • "A treasure trove of information and fresh excellent work of clarification for readers curious about past and present associations between the U.S. and South Asia."—Booklist Online
  • "Raghavan is to be commended for the rich temporal tapestry he has woven and it is a complex yet rewarding trapeze. His nimble pen points to stimulating linkages."—Financial Express (India)
  • "Raghavan's mastery has been in bringing together a vast trove of material to write this eminently readable history of the US in South Asia."—Outlook (India)
  • "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 eye."—The Hindu (India)
  • "IT is a definitive account, and the sheer scope of expanse of coverage sets the book apart from all earlier efforts on US and South Asia."—Indian Express (India)
  • "Raghavan's broad and detailed swathe of the US-South Asia relationship beautifully brings out this inherent contradiction in the heart of US policy."—The Print (India)
  • "This is one of the best histories of US engagement with South Asia offering a more nuanced and coherent perspective. Raghavan has burnished his reputation as India's leading contemporary historian and political analyst."—India Today
  • "Raghavan's treatment is sure footed and his narrative animates the interplay of personalities, interest and power, as US presidencies rub up against Indian and Pakistan leaders."—Open Magazine (India)

On Sale
Oct 16, 2018
Page Count
496 pages
Basic Books

Srinath Raghavan

About the Author

Srinath Raghavan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and a visiting senior research fellow at King’s College London. He is the author of three books, including India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945. He lives in Mumbai.

Learn more about this author