India and Pakistan’s Afghan Endgames: What Lies Ahead?

In 1960, Aslam Siddiqui, an important figure in Pakistan’s Bureau of National Reconstruction, wrote that because Pakistan faced simultaneous threats from India to the east and Afghanistan in the west, Islamabad ought to seek “a fusion of the two states of Afghanistan and Pakistan in some way or other.”

This fusion, he believed, would provide “strategic depth,” filling two of Pakistan’s needs. The first was physical space to defend against an Indian attack. Most of Pakistan’s population centers and economic resources lay along the Indus River, adjacent to the Indian border and vulnerable to a sudden Indian offensive. To absorb such an attack, Pakistan would need to seek defense northward into Afghanistan. It would not be difficult to acquire some influence. Afghanistan has historically been dependent on Pakistani land for access to maritime trade from the Arabian Sea, giving Islamabad a monopoly on most trade with Kabul and influence over much of Afghanistan’s economic and political life.

The second Pakistani need that “fusion” with Afghanistan would satisfy was domestic, in the sense of ensuring Pakistan’s internal cohesiveness. The Baloch, Pashtun, and Kashmiri ethnic groups straddle Pakistan’s borders with Iran, Afghanistan, and India. Their calls for self-determination have long challenged Pakistan’s internal security and national defense. The Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) of Khan Abdul Wali Khan—whose Gandhian pro-India father, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, always set off alarms in Islamabad—is one example. And when an anti-Islamabad insurgency erupted in Pakistan’s western Balochistan Province in the early 1970s, it received support from Afghanistan’s leader, Daoud Khan. To try to divert domestic groups from their demands for independence, Islamabad lent logistical, military, and ideological support to Islamist militants operating across those regions. Thus they used an ideology of pan-Islamism that would unite all of the groups under the banner of “Islamic” Pakistan and redirect their revolutionary fervor toward external enemies. Between 1973 and 1977, years before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto used his country’s Frontier Corps to train more than five thousand militants, including the Afghan fighters Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Ahmed Shah Massoud. This initiative continued through the 1980s anti-Soviet war in the form of support for the Afghan mujahedin, for Pashtun factions of the early-1990s Afghan Civil War, and for the Taliban regime thereafter.

Related Essay

AfPak for Dummies: A Primer

As more Americans head to Afghanistan, the former Indian ambassador to Pakistan offers a rundown of what they might expect to find there.

From Islamabad’s point of view, “fusion” has largely worked. Yet there has been significant fallout for the other regional power—India. The same militant infrastructure that was set up along the Durand Line, Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, was used to train the Khalistani insurgents that rebelled against the Indian government in Punjab in the 1980s. It was also used to equip Kashmiri, Punjabi, and foreign militants that fought the Indian Army in Kashmir in the 1990s, and to host and train groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba that operated throughout mainland India thereafter.

In response, India has sought to blunt Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan. Part of this counterstrategy’s objective was to curb Islamist militancy that spread southeast into India. But the strategy was also part of a larger Indian effort to weaken Pakistan, stemming from India’s own version of a Monroe Doctrine, in which New Delhi sought to dominate South Asia in the decades after independence. Even after it supported the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971, New Delhi continued to back Baloch insurgents in western Pakistan and to carry out terrorist attacks in Karachi in retaliation for Pakistan’s support for Khalistani rebels.

Through the 1990s, India supported the Afghan Northern Alliance, comprised primarily of Uzbeks, Hazaras, Tajiks, and the Pashtun Eastern Shura, against the main Pakistan-backed Pashtun factions: the Taliban and Haqqani and Hekmatyar networks. New Delhi even expanded the Ayni air force base in southern Tajikistan, adjacent to the northern Afghan border, to serve as a medical facility for wounded Northern Alliance soldiers in early 2001.

Of course, India’s efforts have been offset by Pakistan’s geographic advantage. Supported in the 1980s by Saudi funds and American, Chinese, and even Israeli weaponry, Islamabad retained dominant influence in Afghanistan. With Pakistan’s support, the Taliban took over most of Afghanistan by 1998, neutralizing India’s influence. Even after the toppling of the Taliban by the United States in 2001, Pakistan has been waiting for America’s retreat from the region to re-extend its influence and continue the deepening fusion with Afghanistan it began decades ago.


Since India’s economic deregulation and the opening of its markets to foreign investment, along with the retreat of Russia from Eurasia, New Delhi’s goals to its northwest have evolved as much as Pakistan’s have stayed the same.

Like firms from China, the United States, and elsewhere, Indian companies have looked at the newly independent Central Asian republics and their energy sectors with a new interest. Turkmenistan has proven oil reserves of nearly two billion barrels and natural gas reserves of approximately seventy-one trillion cubic feet (tcf); Uzbekistan has almost six hundred million barrels of proven oil reserves and more than sixty-two tcf of natural gas; while Kazakhstan has up to forty billion barrels of oil reserves and sixty-five to one hundred tcf of natural gas. The Caucasus and Caspian Sea, meanwhile, are estimated to contain more than four hundred billion barrels of oil and potential reserves, and nearly three hundred and fifty tcf of natural gas.

Beginning in the late 1990s, India signed a number of Memoranda of Understanding with Kazakhstan focusing on natural gas provision and delivery, pipeline and liquefaction infrastructure development, a steel mill outside Astana, and even uranium trade for nuclear energy. The Gas Authority of India Limited has worked with Uzbekneftegaz to build liquefied petroleum gas facilities outside of Tashkent, while Turkmenistan has received Indian investments in liquefaction facilities, refineries, liquefied natural gas ports, and city gas distribution and petro-chemical plants in exchange for discovered fields.

Even Iran has been a beneficiary of India’s growth. New Delhi has sought to develop Iran’s first liquefied natural gas plant, and, by the end of the 2000s, Iran became India’s second-largest supplier of petroleum. Indian firms have invested nearly $11 billion in Iran’s Farzad B gas field as well as the South Pars gas field. Because Iran lacks a significant refinery infrastructure, it is forced to rely on imports for more than forty percent of its own consumption and, by some accounts, forty percent of the oil imported by Iran once came from refineries in India. (In the face of American opposition, however, many Indo-Iranian trade initiatives have fallen by the wayside.)

These arrangements are part of the larger “New Silk Road” across Eurasia that includes natural gas and oil pipelines between China’s western Xinjiang Province and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, respectively. China has sought to develop highways and railways between Xinjiang, Iran, and even Eastern Europe. Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan have inaugurated a multi-country railway that would bridge Europe and Central Asia. And the North-South Corridor—which India, Iran, and Russia are developing to connect Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia with Southeast Asia through a mix of road, rail, and sea links—would enable India to turn those regions into a vast market for its own exports.

At the very center of all of this activity is Afghanistan, which has historically been a geographic hub of east, west, north, and south Asia. After the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the dislodging of the Taliban regime, India sought to re-establish its presence in the country. Its investments in Afghanistan have had the strategic intent of developing economic infrastructure that would provide stability, enable Kabul to reconnect to the rest of the region, and, more to the point, allow India access to its Central Asian investments.

To those ends, India has become a formidable aid and economic presence in Afghanistan over the last decade (and the host of nearly sixty thousand Afghan refugees). India constructed Afghanistan’s Parliament building, as well as the Zaranj-Delaram highway in western Afghanistan’s Nimruz Province that connects the Afghan ring road to the Iranian border. Indian firms have large stakes in Afghanistan’s Hajigak iron mine, while New Delhi has arranged to train the Afghan National Police and Army. All of this has amounted to pledges of more than $1 billion since 2001.

In spite of these investments, India has had a difficult time accessing Afghanistan, as Pakistan long disallowed transit trade between Afghanistan and India across its borders. Islamabad agreed to (but delayed implementing) a deal allowing Afghan exports to travel through its territory into India, but has prohibited Indian goods bound for Afghanistan from crossing Pakistan.

To get around this hitch, India constructed the Chabahar road in eastern Iran. The road begins at the Chabahar port on the Gulf of Oman, passes through Iran’s Sistan-o-Baluchistan and Khorasan-e-Jonubi provinces, and continues onward to the Afghan border town of Milak. From there, it meets with the Zaranj-Delaram highway, the Afghan ring road, and finally southern Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Province. India, Iran, and Afghanistan have planned to line much of the path with a railway to facilitate trade.

At one hundred and thirty-five miles in length, the Chabahar road is a much shorter and more stable route to the Afghan border than the eleven-hundred-mile trip from Karachi to the Torkham border in northeastern Pakistan (via Peshawar), and even shorter than the five hundred miles from Karachi to the Chaman border in the northwest (through Quetta). India used Chabahar to ship one hundred thousand tons of wheat and food aid to Afghanistan in April 2012, and plans to import minerals from Hajigak the same way.

As Thomas Barfield, author of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, puts it, the road through Chabahar “may change regional power dynamics” in Central Asia. By ending “Pakistan’s monopoly on seaborne transit trade to Afghanistan,” it makes “Iran the most efficient transit route into Central Asia” and gives India “the capacity to dispatch troops and supplies directly to Afghanistan via Iran if it chooses to do so.”


In spite of this potentially game-changing influence that India is acquiring, Washington has been reluctant to encourage India’s presence in Afghanistan, largely because it feels compelled to recognize Islamabad’s fear of being encircled by India.

Resolving this fear was at the center of President Obama’s 2009 Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, which originally planned to bring India into the regional picture. Washington ought to settle the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, the logic went, to make progress in Afghanistan. Of course, New Delhi strongly insisted that Kashmir was an internal issue and not a US bargaining chip. So, when the office of the US Special Adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan planned to include Kashmir in its purview, New Delhi successfully lobbied against it. This accomplished India’s objective of keeping America away from Kashmir and “de-hyphenating” itself from Pakistan in America’s eyes, ensuring that Washington’s engagement with New Delhi and Islamabad occurred on unrelated tracks. The downside of this move was that India took itself out of Washington’s broader Afghan calculus.

And yet, away from America’s eyes, a fragile reconciliation between India and Pakistan is in fact under way. To remain focused on its growing strategic interests beyond South Asia, India is restructuring its defense apparatus away from Pakistan in the west and toward China to its north, northeast, and the southern Indian Ocean. Even the Chabahar port and expanded Ayni Air Base in Tajikistan, which India is developing as a de facto Indian air base hosting a squadron of MiG-29 fighter jets, are elements of this strategic shift beyond the subcontinent: Chabahar is a counter to the Chinese-developed port of Gwador, in western Pakistan, while the expansion of Ayni is meant to offset Beijing’s presence in Central Asia.

Along with Pakistan’s focus on the Durand Line, a confrontation with the United States, and events within its own borders, political breathing space between Islamabad and New Delhi has opened up.

India-Pakistan talks have already produced a number of important breakthroughs that presage better bilateral days to come: the mutual granting of Most-Favored Nation status, and even discussions on the specific parameters of an agreement on Kashmir based around infrastructure that would economically integrate the region.

To these ends, India is unilaterally taking steps to restructure its energy industry in its northern Punjab state to be able to provide petroleum and natural gas products (from a new refinery infrastructure in Jalandhar) to both Kashmir and Pakistani Punjab, and Pakistan has agreed to purchase Indian products and electricity and open its borders for transit trade.

The importance of Kashmir to Pakistani identity is being publicly questioned and debated by Pakistani intellectuals and even politicians, while support for militants in Kashmir has diminished. All this amounts to Indian and Pakistani policies of “mutual avoidance” in the strategic realm that is enabling greater cooperation in the
economic sphere.

And even in Afghanistan, the India-Pakistan dynamic is not as zero-sum as it once was. The Asian Development Bank has long planned the Trans-Afghan Pipeline, known as TAPI, to ship Turkmen natural gas across Afghan and Pakistani territory to Indian markets, and to serve as a confidence-building measure for New Delhi and Islamabad. In May 2012, the Gas Authority of India Limited and Pakistan’s Inter State Gas Systems signed gas sales and purchase agreements for the pipeline, which would bring much-needed sources of energy to both power-starved countries. Unlike an alternative plan to develop a natural gas pipeline from Iran, TAPI has received the endorsement of the United States. This support is essential, as any major gas infrastructure requires American-made parts that are restricted under Washington’s Iran Sanctions Act.

India’s own commitment to any transnational pipeline, however, is uncertain: as a fixed piece of infrastructure, a pipeline would keep recipient countries (such as India) dependent on single suppliers and transit providers. To keep gas imports fungible, many in India have instead advocated for liquefied natural gas plants, and gasification and liquefaction terminals.

Yet trade across conventional modes of transport—roads and rail—through Pakistan remains a strategic imperative for New Delhi, for purely economic reasons. Vital as the Chabahar route is, its combination of road-to-rail, rail-to-sea, and sea-to-road links across multiple borders still comes with massive transport costs for India-Afghanistan trade. For that reason, India would ultimately prefer to import Central Asian resources across Pakistani territory. C. S. Verma, chairman of Steel Authority of India Limited and the head of a consortium of Indian industries invested in Afghanistan’s Hajigak iron mine, told Reuters, “We are very bullish and believe that, over the longer term,” transporting Afghan minerals over Pakistani territory “will be a productive investment. Not just for us, but others in the region including Pakistan. There are license fees, logistics, and so forth.”

Of course, full realization of any reconciliation between India and Pakistan will require more time and political space between the two countries. But the long-term implication of this may well be an economic “fusion” of the states and the region’s return to its more integrated, “corridors of communication” days. And if this happens, Afghanistan will be part of the solution rather than a symptom of the problem. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is already imagining a new status quo in which ease of international travel in the region will make it possible to “have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore, and dinner in Kabul.”

Neil Padukone is a Geopolitics Fellow at the Takshashila Institution and the author of a forthcoming book on India’s evolving strategic doctrine and foreign policy.

OG Image: