India–Pakistan Relations and the Impact on Afghanistan

Tasneem Jamal Armed Conflicts

Nicole Waintraub

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2010 Volume 31 Issue 4

There is widespread acknowledgment of the profound influence that Afghanistan-Pakistan ties have on the prospect for long-term stability in Afghanistan. But we must expand this understanding to include the role of Pakistan-India relations. Pakistan’s longstanding conflict with India and suspicion of its regional engagement, especially in Afghanistan, have already adversely affected the security situation. While there have been encouraging recent developments between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Pakistan’s suspicion of India threatens to entrench relations of conflict and competition at the expense of cooperation and stability.

India’s involvement in Afghanistan

There are several ways to read India’s current engagement with Afghanistan. Since the overthrow of the Taliban, India has invested heavily in renewing its ties with Afghanistan. At present, India is the largest regional donor to Afghanistan’s reconstruction, having offered more than $1.2-billion (US) since 2001. This can be seen as a contribution toward greater regional stability.

India has been involved in various reconstruction and capacity-building projects, including major infrastructure development initiatives; women’s employability programs; medical missions; children’s health and school feeding program delivery; and training for civil servants, police, and diplomats. India has also strengthened its economic ties with Afghanistan to the extent permitted by the transit limitations between the two countries. Such involvement has contributed greatly to a positive public perception of India in some regions of Afghanistan.

India’s growing involvement in Afghanistan can also be seen as advancing more specific strategic goals. For one, Afghanistan is geographically positioned to serve as a viable access route for energy coming from Central Asia. This is increasingly important as India takes steps to foster greater energy cooperation in the region, including a signed memorandum of understanding with Turkmenistan to develop a natural gas pipeline (Gundu & Schaffer 2008).

One of India’s major infrastructure initiatives has been to construct a highway linking Afghanistan’s ring road to Iranian ports on the Persian Gulf. This highway could effectively reduce, if not eliminate, Afghanistan’s current dependence, as a land-locked state, on Pakistan for sea access (Rubin & Rashid 2008).

Where does Pakistan fit?

Some also see India’s involvement in Afghanistan as an effort to displace or counterbalance Pakistan’s influence in the country, which some elements within Afghanistan welcome (Bajoria 2009). India has strong ties to the so-called Northern Alliance. Many of its leaders were educated in India, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai (Bajoria 2009).

As India’s power in Afghanistan expands, especially its soft power, Pakistan is losing its position of economic and strategic privilege. In its place is a power with possibly hostile intentions against it. For example, India’s reconstruction and development projects through Afghanistan’s Pashtun belt are seen as ways of fomenting separatist movements in Pakistan.

Pakistan sees India’s growing influence, particularly its consular presence in Afghanistan, as a threat. Shortly after the fall of the Taliban, India reestablished several consulates.While India has legitimate consular interests in Afghanistan—Hindu and Sikh populations, commercial relations, and aid programs—there is some speculation by Pakistan that India has also been using these consulates as a cover for its intelligence agencies to carry out covert operations. Islamabad believes that India is colluding with Afghan officials to stoke Baloch separatism in Pakistan (Gundu & Schaffer 2008).

There have been small successes in resolving some concerns. The Pakistan Foreign Office is said to have stated in Parliament that they had received information on the staffing of Indian consulates in Afghanistan and no longer suspected India of using its consulates as bases for covert activities (Delhi Policy Group 2009).What’s more, some retired Pakistani officials are willing to state, off the record, that it is to be expected that any country will have some operatives based in consulates and that the reaction to this in Pakistan has been disproportionate to the actual threat.

Strategic depth and encirclement in South Asia

For decades India and Pakistan have contended for favourable positions within Afghanistan. Throughout this struggle, Pakistan has seen Afghanistan as a vital source of “strategic depth.” In early 2010, General Kayani, Pakistan’s Chief of the Defence Staff, stated that “a peaceful and friendly Afghanistan can provide Pakistan a strategic depth” (Hussain 2010). Though the meaning of this term has changed over time, its persistence in Pakistan’s strategic vocabulary evokes Pakistan’s perception of relations with Afghanistan as a way to defend against other outside forces. Although Gen. Kayani was clear that “strategic depth” must not be confused with “control,” Afghans remain highly sensitive to such language.

Pakistan’s military establishment has long viewed its engagement in Afghanistan largely from the context of its struggle against India. Thus India’s growing presence in Afghanistan contributes to Pakistan’s fears of encirclement. India’s establishment of its first overseas air base in nearby Farkhor, Tajikistan has further aggravated such fears (Gundu & Schaffer 2008).

Pakistan’s behind-the-scenes support for the Taliban is believed to be rooted, in large part, in its concern that India is attempting to encircle it by gaining influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban is thought to offer Pakistan its best chance at neutralizing India’s regional power expansion (Pakistan Policy Working Group 2010). This support has led to increased instability in Afghanistan, both through heightened terrorist activity and increased opium cultivation (Bajoria 2009). It has also further complicated the international efforts at reconstruction as well as intensified the strain on the already tenuous Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship. As calls for a ‘Grand Bargain’ increasingly include the Taliban, Pakistan’s ties with its various strands will become all the more relevant.

Some commentators have referred to Afghanistan and Pakistan as “conjoined twins,” not simply because of their complicated history, but also because the ties between the two have brought about many adverse effects. Consider, for example, the security threats linked to the porous border and the significant costs that Pakistan has taken on in accommodating millions of Afghan refugees.

Looking forward

This past summer saw some encouraging developments. In July, as a result of high-level talks, Hamid Karzai announced that a group of military officers would travel to Pakistan for training. This represents a significant symbolic shift in relations between the two countries. In that same month Pakistan and Afghanistan finalized a transit trade agreement, which would allow the transport of goods along a land route through Pakistan to India.

While these developments constitute important modifications in each country’s position, they must be viewed in light of longstanding strategic priorities and fears, especially those of Pakistan. If Pakistan still believes that it is facing a perpetually hostile regional security environment, enduring peacebuilding strategies are not likely to emerge.

The greatest challenge lies in achieving cooperation between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. This would require that India and Pakistan overcome longstanding political and psychological barriers (Maley 2009, p. 90) through direct engagement. At a minimum, they could discuss how best to stay out of each other’s way in Afghanistan. More ambitiously, they could usefully engage in a discussion of the best channels—bilateral, trilateral, or regional—through which to address various governance challenges. This discussion could also identify modest ways in which India and Pakistan might align their efforts, if not collaborate in achieving common goals. The initiation of formal engagement could chart the way to improved and increasingly transparent relations and ultimately a more stable Afghanistan.

Many experts and expert bodies have pointed out that an opportunity exists to move forward on a rich agenda of regional cooperation on matters, including water management, energy security, and economic cooperation.1 But the parameters of future cooperation are being set now through the bilateral maneuverings of regional players, most importantly India and Pakistan.



  1. See, for example, Maley 2009.


Bajoria, Jayshree. 2009. India-Afghanistan relations. Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder, July 22.

Delhi Policy Group. 2009. Afghanistan-India-Pakistan Trialogue: A Report.

Gundu, Raja Karthikeya & Teresita Schaffer. 2008. India and Pakistan in Afghanistan: Hostile spots. CSIS South Asia Monitor. #117, April 3.

Hussain, Zahid. 2010. Kayani spells out terms for regional stability., February 2.

Maley, William. 2009. Afghanistan and its region. In The Future of Afghanistan, edited J. Alexander Thier, USIP: Washington, DC.

Pakistan Policy Working Group. 2008. The Next Chapter: The United States and Pakistan.

Rubin, Barnett R. & Ahmed Rashid. 2008. From great game to grand bargain. Foreign Affairs, 87:6, pp. 30-44.

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