11 min read ⌚
A History of the United States in South Asia
America has had an interest in South Asia ever since its creation.
Has it evolved or devolved?
Srinath Raghavan tries to answer the question in:
Who Should Read “The Most Dangerous Place”? And Why?
If you want to learn more about the history of USA’s involvement in South Asia – there’s certainly no better place to start than Srinath Raghavan.
Be warned though: South Asia means “India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan” here; even though we can’t suggest you titles, we’re pretty sure that there are better books on US relations with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.
About Srinath Raghavan
Srinath Raghavan is a political commentator, bestselling author, and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
In addition to The Most Dangerous Place, he has also authored three books on India’s security and foreign policies: War and Peace in Modern India, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, and India’s War.
For his work, Raghavan has received two notable prizes so far, the Infosys Prize for Social Sciences and the K. Subrahmanyam Award for Strategic Studies.
“The Most Dangerous Place PDF Summary”
What This Book Is About in Short
The Most Dangerous Place by Srinath Raghavan is perhaps the best book one could read if he or she is interested into finding out more about the history of United States in South Asia – India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan more specifically.
At more than 400 pages, the book covers almost every event of importance – and many practically unknown in the West (and, thus, even more significant) – from 1784 to 2018, both through the eyes of South Asians and, for the first time – via thousands of pages of declassified documents – through the eyes of the highest echelons of American politicians.
And, in retrospect, these have been two pretty eventful centuries, during which American interest in South Asian countries has come a long way; particularly in relation to Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet Empire, and, even more, in relation to India after 1947.
You’ll find everything you’re interested in here: from the first contacts of Americans – mainly missionaries and merchants – with South Asia to the history of the American alliance with Pakistan; from US’s stakes in India’s struggle for independence to the birth of Bangladesh; from the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan to
And after 379 pages of history, in the very last of the ten chapters of The Most Dangerous Place (“The New Century”), Srinath Raghavan turns to the most recent landmark events, covering everything from the effects of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan to the nuclear rearming of India and Pakistan.
The final point?
America’s present interests in South Asia can’t be understood without a little history; and, without it, USA’s decision-makers will go on making the same mistakes over and over again – as they have already done quite a few times in the past.
The Murder of Mohammad Mansour
In a way, Srinath Raghavan’s final point is merely the corollary of an even more important one: the USA keeps getting South Asia wrong and tries to correct its mistakes by making new ones.
In fact, that’s how the book opens, with an analysis of the expected versus the actual effects of the murder of Taliban’s then-leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour via a drone attack in Pakistan, on May 21, 2016.
When Barack Obama announced the killing at a press conference two days later, he hailed it as a victory, for two reasons: it was both the decisive “part of a strategy to bring Taliban to the negotiating table” and an attempt to “send a strong signal to Pakistan that it could no longer harbor Taliban leaders while pocketing American financial aid.”
However, the assassination delivered neither of these two desired outcomes.
The Taliban quickly chose Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzad to be Mansur’s successor, and, under his leadership, Taliban attacks all over Afghanistan escalated. In addition, USA’s relations with Pakistan worsened, because the Pakistani government denied claims that it had been harboring Taliban leaders.
As it was revealed about a year later, this was the truth: to say the least, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) wasn’t that fascinated with Mansur, and it might have been ISI the organization which created the trail that eventually led the Americans to Mansur.
Two years later, the USA’s dealing with the very same problems, if not a bit worsened:
The war in Afghanistan [has] 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 [finds] it difficult to distinguish who [is] on which side of this tangled conflict.
Three Lenses of Analysis
As stated in the “Introduction” Srinath Raghavan’s The Most Dangerous Place tries to illuminate the history and evolution of America’s interactions with South Asia – in addition to India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives as well – through three lenses.
Power and Profit
This was the first thing which drove merchants of the young American republic to the Indian subcontinent somewhere near the end of the 18th century.
However, the interest quickly waned, since American capitalists realized that they have a continent-sized market at home, so they don’t need another subcontinent for now – especially in view of the fact that, unlike theirs, this one was firmly under British control.
However, the times changed, and after the 1930s, American interest turned yet again to the Indian subcontinent; and this time – it was a bit more personal.
American businesses weren’t just interested in profits and South Asia’s markets anymore: they also “wanted to preserve capitalism globally in order to ensure that the United States was not forced under an autarkic path.”
Consequently, financial interests were now both military and political – and it was difficult to distinguish where one of these ended, and another one began.
For example, Nehru’s India disregarded America’s calls for an open economy, but the USA still provided financial aid for the country “in order to ensure that it did not move into closer orbit around Moscow.”
On the other hand, even though Pakistan’s economy wasn’t exactly thriving, the USA backed India’s neighbor both politically and militarily – just in case India does move from the bloc of unaligned countries into the Eastern Bloc.
Speaking of the Cold War…
The second dimension of the USA’s interests and interventions in South Asia is purely ideological.
“From the start,” reminds us Srinath Raghavan, “a religious belief in divine favor and a political faith in republican liberty have shaped American ideology.”
And whether we’re talking about Thomas Jefferson’s idea of “empire of liberty” or Barack Obama’s avowal of the United States as the “indispensable nation,” the idea that the USA has a “providential role in helping the spread of liberty has conditioned American engagement with the wider world.”
South Asia is, of course, not an exception:
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 such as India. The US-led attempt over the past fifteen years to turn Afghanistan into a passably democratic state shows that the ideology is not merely a 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.
“The third major dimension of US involvement in South Asia,” writes Raghavan, “is culture, in particular, religion, race, and notions of hierarchy.”
Naturally, these were the first three things the Americans noticed after arriving on the Indian subcontinent.
And as it has been demonstrated numerous times in the past, almost all of them were repelled by the primitive rituals and practices of the Hindus.
In view of them, the egalitarian notions of the Muslims seemed much more Christian, and, thus, “more comprehensible and palatable.”
This shaped the American politics for much of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century: compared to the “beastly” Indians and their outdated Hindu religious views, Muslim Pakistan and Afghanistan seemed like much more suited to be allies.
Even though Americans – and Europeans – were appalled by the rigid social hierarchy of the Hindus, they based their judgment of South Asians on unscientific ideas of racial superiority.
And even after the Nazis “had discredited overt racism in international politics,” this old hierarchical view hasn’t disappeared to this day.
As Raghavan shows, it has merely been substituted with another one in “American theories of modernization” which rank societies “not explicitly on race but on a scale of ‘development.’”
However, as an interesting backlash, these notions of hierarchy are continually being subverted by American intellectuals, and on a pretty familiar terrain: religion.
Namely, after the 1970s, many European and American intellectuals have started seeing values in Eastern religions leading to a sort of a South Asian cultural and religious boom which is still going on.
In fact, one could even argue that nowadays it seems much more modern to be a Hindu or a Buddhist (and practice yoga and meditation) than to be a Christian or a Muslim and go to church.
A Brief History of US Involvement in South Asia
The first American ship sailed to South Asia in 1784; back then, the flag on the vessel was still unrecognized by most of the world and the Indians who saw it first were no exception.
As we said above, the reason why the American arrived in South Asia was simple: profits. They knew everything about it through the British East India Company which ruled the subcontinent and exported large quantities of Indian produce (especially textiles and spices) to the American colonies.
However, the British East India Company was just too big to be meddled with (or fail), and for the next century and some, America wasn’t that interested in South Asia.
Cultural Rekindling of US Interests
However, the interest was rekindled by the end of the 19th century, courtesy of none other than Rudyard Kipling and his very popular – and very racist – poem “White Man’s Burden.”
Theodore Roosevelt liked the poem so much that he grew liking the British Raj as well and called for American colonization of the Philippines.
In addition, Swami Vivekananda’s “Sisters and brothers of America” speech introducing Hinduism at the Parliament of the World’s Religions of Chicago in 1893 received a standing ovation from thousands of US citizens.
The 20th Century
There was an even bigger fascination for Mahatma Gandhi back in the US, but the partition of Pakistan from India in 1947 led to Harry Truman’s arms embargo on both countries.
During the time of Nehru and the Non-Aligned Movement, the USA realized that “risks to US security from a weak and vulnerable India would be greater than the risks of a stable and influential India.”
So, it provided financial and political aid until the “dangerous decade” between 1970 and 1980 when the world was on the brink of a nuclear war because of the inherent problems in the political landscape of modern South Asia.
At the end of the decade, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan opened new problems for the US, and for a while, it looked as if the world’s Western superpower had lost its primacy over South Asia to the Soviet Union.
The United States got closer to Pakistan because of Afghanistan, but this threatened its relations to India.
“In the decade following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan,” writes Raghavan of the effects of this, “the US’ relationship with India underwent a paradoxical change. On the one hand, the tremendous expansion in American aid to Pakistan for services rendered in Afghanistan met with deep disapproval from India… On the other hand, there was a change in the bilateral relations owing primarily to India’s aspirations to economic transformation at home.”
Terrorism and Extremism
During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US-funded Islamic extremist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Taliban in the hope that this would weaken the Soviet influence.
And they did.
However, it was these very two once-allies which became USA’s greatest enemies after the end of the Cold War, a quite conflict which culminated in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the American invasion of Afghanistan.
The Rise of China
In recent years, the US interest in India and Pakistan has been mainly governed by the fears of a nuclear war between the two countries and the rise of China on the East.
As a consequence of the latter, the current Indian government led by Narendra Modi is the first one to explicitly “tilt heavily” toward America, in an attempt to mend the “power gap” opened between India and China – something which the USA has wholeheartedly embraced.
Key Lessons from “The Most Dangerous Place”
1. USA’s Interest in South Asia Has Three Dimensions
2. The USA Preferred the Muslims Over the Hindus for Centuries
3. Fierce Enigmas: Americans Never Understood South Asian Nations
USA’s Interest in South Asia Has Three Dimensions
According to Srinath Raghavan, USA’s interests and involvements in South Asian history can be understood through three lenses: power and profit, ideology and culture.
Historically, it all began with an attempt to profit from the vast market of the Indian subcontinent: the first Americans to arrive there had been merchants.
After several attempts to change the “primitive” cultural landscape of the regions, America’s foremost interest was ideological: the USA wanted to win the Cold War and India, for example, was a Non-Aligned country.
The USA Preferred the Muslims Over the Hindus for Centuries
Even though it’s hard to believe this in retrospect, after their first arrival on the Indian subcontinent, the Americans were so appalled by the primitive rituals of Hinduism that they thought they’d have a much better understanding with the Muslims.
And this went on for a while until the military backing of Al-Qaeda and Taliban (as an indirect way to weaken the Soviet Union) backfired and resulted in the 9/11 attacks.
Interestingly, now Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions and practices of the subcontinent are all the rage this side of the Pacific.
Fierce Enigmas: Americans Never Understood South Asian Nations
Srinath Raghavan’s main point of the book is that the USA has never completely bothered to understand South Asia, resulting in a series of costly mistakes.
In fact, the American edition of The Most Dangerous Place is much more aptly titled Fierce Enigmas, two words taken from Walt Whitman’s poem “Passage” which serves as a more than worthy epigraph to the book – and a conclusion of our summary:
Passage to you, your shores, ye aged fierce enigmas!
Passage to you, to mastership of you, ye strangling problems!
You, strew’d with the wrecks of skeletons, that, living, never reach’d you.
Like this summary? We’d like to invite you to download our free 12 min app for more amazing summaries and audiobooks.
“The Most Dangerous Place Quotes”The British Empire created structural links between America and India. Click To Tweet 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. Click To Tweet The risks to US security from a weak and vulnerable India would be greater than the risks of a stable and influential India. Click To Tweet In the decade following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US' relationship with India underwent a paradoxical change. Click To Tweet The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were seen not only as a challenge to American primacy but also as a dramatic rupture in the course of world history since the end of the Cold War. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
The Most Dangerous Place has been hailed by many as “the definitive history of US involvement in South Asia.”
We promise you that, once you finish this book, that’s exactly how you’ll feel about it.