The most consequential regional competition for influence in Afghanistan is the contest between India and Pakistan. Indian leaders strive to cultivate Afghanistan as a natural partner and reliable bulwark against Islamic militants, including Pakistan-backed groups, while Islamabad seeks to counter what it regards as an Indo-Afghan nexus to encircle and weaken Pakistan. This report examines the interests and strategies of both countries in Afghanistan within the context of peace negotiations and developments in Kashmir.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani arrives in Islamabad on June 27, 2019, for a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. (Press Information Department via AP)
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani arrives in Islamabad on June 27, 2019, for a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. (Press Information Department via AP)

Summary

  • India and Pakistan pursue mutually exclusive objectives in Afghanistan and leverage sharply different tools to achieve their respective goals. Pakistan utilizes militant groups, including the Afghan Taliban, as strategic proxies, while India places considerable weight on its soft power influence among Afghans.
  • India and Pakistan view the intentions and capabilities of each other through an adversarial lens. Pakistan, however, vastly misreads and exaggerates India’s activities in Afghanistan.
  • Pakistan is the regional actor with the most influence in Afghanistan owing to its patronage of a resilient Taliban insurgency, though the Pakistan-Taliban relationship is replete with tension. India believes supporting the existing Afghan system best serves its interests, a policy informed by the lack of plausible alternatives. New Delhi is unlikely to acquire, let alone deploy, the military power necessary to generate conditions favorable to Kabul.
  • Pakistan may decide to punish India in Afghanistan over India’s decision to mainstream the disputed territory of Kashmir. The incentives for Islamabad to intensify proxy warfare against India’s presence in Afghanistan would sharply increase should the United States decide to abruptly withdraw from Afghanistan without a broad-based intra-Afghan peace deal in place.
  • Confidence-building measures constructed around transparency and economic cooperation are not likely to improve India-Pakistan relations. Nevertheless, an inclusive Afghan settlement should at least reduce prospects for violence between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan, though means for Pakistan to conduct proxy violence against India are likely to persist.

About the Report

This report explores the dynamics underpinning the India-Pakistan rivalry in Afghanistan. The interests, fears, and strategies of New Delhi and Islamabad are situated within the context of the Afghan war, developments in Kashmir, terrorism, and proxy violence. The study was supported by the Asia Center at the United States Institute of Peace.

About the Author

Zachary Constantino is a senior U.S. government analyst with more than fifteen years of experience assessing political and security developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has served as strategic adviser to the U.S. commander in Afghanistan and as senior adviser to the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the views of either the U.S. government or USIP.

Related Publications

Dismembering Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance

Dismembering Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

By: William Byrd

In Afghanistan, where corruption and ineffective government have hampered efforts to build a functioning state, the Ministry of Finance has been a standout performer. Competently run since as early as 2002, the ministry collects substantial revenue, manages aid inflows, pays public employees, funds key public services and has won the confidence of donors. Now, all that is threatened. The Afghan government is eviscerating the ministry—carving out key constituent parts, putting them directly under the presidential palace, and gravely weakening one of the country’s most effective institutions. It’s a move that’s bad for Afghanistan’s governance and financial viability. It will harm the country’s development and jeopardizes the sustainability of peace if an agreement is reached with the Taliban.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Economics & Environment

Coronavirus Poses Yet Another Challenge to the Afghan Peace Process

Coronavirus Poses Yet Another Challenge to the Afghan Peace Process

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

By: Scott Smith

The Afghan peace process has been at a stalemate for weeks, as President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban remain far apart on the logistics of prisoner releases. Intra-Afghan talks that were tentatively scheduled for March 10 have not got off the ground. Meanwhile, the disputed presidential election has led to two rival camps claiming the legitimacy to govern. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s effort this week to bring the parties together failed and led the U.S. to reduce aid to Afghanistan. Amid all this uncertainty, Afghanistan is beginning to see the signs of a coronavirus outbreak, which could devastate the country given its poor health infrastructure and pollution problems. USIP’s Scott Smith explains how the coronavirus could further exacerbates an already complex situation.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

Taliban Fragmentation: Fact, Fiction, and Future

Taliban Fragmentation: Fact, Fiction, and Future

Monday, March 23, 2020

By: Andrew Watkins

For years, the U.S. military pursued a "divide and defeat" strategy against the Afghan Taliban, attempting to exploit the supposedly fragmented nature of the group. Drawing on the academic literature on insurgency, civil war, and negotiated peace, this report finds that the Taliban is a far more cohesive organization than a fragmented one. Moreover, Taliban cohesion may bode well for enforcing the terms of its February 29 agreement with the United States, and any eventual settlement arising from intra-Afghan negotiations.

Type: Peaceworks

Peace Processes

Afghanistan: Can This Be a Real Peace Process?

Afghanistan: Can This Be a Real Peace Process?

Monday, March 23, 2020

By: Sharif Shah Safi

Like every Afghan, I’m watching with fear and hope to see what will emerge from last month’s agreement between the United States and the Taliban. My hope is that it can help end more than 40 years of war. My fear is that the current process may not result in a just and dignified peace where all Afghans are considered equal citizens, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity. I fear that the Taliban’s rigid interpretations of Islamic laws will undermine our country’s gains of the past 18 years: an open media, women’s presence in public spheres, and more.

Type: Blog

Gender; Peace Processes; Youth

View All Publications