The fate of Afghanistan and the success of U.S. and coalition efforts to stabilize Afghanistan will in large measure be affected by the current and future policies pursued by its varied proximate and distal neighbors. Weinbaum evaluates the courses of action Afghanistan's key neighbors are likely to take.


  • Predatory neighbors have been a fact of life for the Afghan state throughout most of its history. In defense, Afghans have chosen both isolation and resistance. Today, openness and cooperation with regional powers offer the best prospects for security and economic progress for Afghanistan.
  • Conversely, the region's political stability and economic potential are broadly influenced by the ability of post-conflict Afghanistan to succeed in its recovery.
  • The region's opportunistic states are liable to revive their interventions in Afghanistan in the event of a faltering Kabul government or an international community that reneges on its commitments to help secure and rebuild the country. Already there are some indications that the forbearance shown by neighbors in recent years may be flagging.
  • Pakistan and Iran offer Afghanistan its most imposing and critical regional bilateral relationships. Whether they cooperate or create obstacles for Afghanistan's recovery is greatly influenced by American strategic policies in the region.
  • There is widespread belief among Afghans and others in the region that U.S. interest in the country will fade quickly once its major objectives in the region are realized. While an arguable expectation, perceptions alone are enough for many Afghan and regional power brokers to begin to hedge their bets in supporting the Karzai regime.
  • Afghanistan's emergence as a regional crossroads for trade and resource sharing in a post-Taliban era remains a distant though hopeful prospect. Endemic economic and physical constraints and retrogressive political developments block progress toward the region forming a vital new economic entity.


Landlocked and resource poor, Afghanistan is at risk of unwelcome external influences, its sovereignty and traditions vulnerable. The competition among external powers has at times enabled the country to enjoy their beneficence. More often, it has suffered at their hands. For more than a century, Afghanistan served as the classic buffer state between the British and Czarist empires. During the Cold War it was first neutral ground and then contested terrain between Soviet and surrogate American power. Under the yoke of the Soviet Union's occupation during the 1980s, at least one-third of the population went into exile and most of the contested countryside lay in waste. The state itself suffered near disintegration in a following decade of civil war sponsored in part by regional powers. By the late 1990s, Afghanistan hosted the opening salvos in a war between radical Islamists and their designated, mostly Western enemies. A post-Taliban Afghanistan, still not free from conflict, extracts benefits for its recovery from international patrons and hopes for the forbearance of traditionally predatory regional states.

Framing the discussions in this study is the assertion that Afghanistan's future and that of the regional states are closely bound. Constructive partnerships involving Afghans and their neighbors are essential to regional stability. Just as the capacity of Afghanistan to overcome its political and economic deficits will have deep bearing on the region's security and development, the domestic stability and foreign policies of the neighboring states will affect the prospects for progress in Afghanistan. Many Afghans insist that outside forces drive the current insurgency in the country, while for the regional players Afghanistan remains a potential source of instability through the export of arms, drugs, and ideology.

The study posits that over much of the last four years Afghanistan's neighbors have assessed that support for a stable, independent, and economically strengthening Afghan state is preferable to any achievable alternatives. None have directly opposed the internationally approved Hamid Karzai as president or seriously tried to manipulate Afghan domestic politics. All have pledged, moreover, some measure of development assistance. Undoubtedly, the presence of foreign military forces and international attention has contributed to their restrained policies.

The strategic approaches to Afghanistan by its neighbors are, however, always subject to readjustment. No regional state is prepared to allow another to gain a preponderance of influence in Afghanistan. Moreover, each retains links to client networks that are capable of fractionalizing and incapacitating an emerging Afghanistan. States in the neighborhood may well sponsor destabilizing forces in the event that Kabul governments fail over time to extend their authority and tangibly improve people's lives, or should Afghanistan's international benefactors lose their patience and interest. More immediately, as described below, political currents in several regional countries may be overtaking the economic forces on which more optimistic projections for regional cooperation have been based. Poorly considered policies by international aid givers and the Kabul government have in some cases helped to increase suspicions and tensions with neighbors.

This study first examines how Afghanistan has historically engaged and been impacted by neighboring states and other foreign stakeholders. The section looks at the way the country has at different times tried both to insulate itself and attract benefactors. A second section focuses on the dynamics of contemporary political and economic relations among countries of the region. It considers how as a regional fulcrum Afghanistan is leveraged by external powers pursuing competing interests. The two sections that follow focus on Pakistan and Iran, countries providing Afghanistan's most imposing and critical regional bilateral relationships. For each country, the study describes motives and forces driving policies that have been at times obstructionist and at others constructive. A fifth section looks more briefly at the stakes and changing parameters of engagement for each of the other countries bordering Afghanistan as well as noncontiguous Russia and India. The study concludes with an examination of the broader international community's contributions to the shaping of regional security. The section looks as well at how the international community can help create the opportunities and conditions that could foster cooperation in the region and safeguard against future instability. It also assesses briefly U.S. priorities and policies in the region and their bearing on the Afghan project of state building.

Afghanistan's Future and the International Implications

Following the events of 2001, the region's states seemed poised to accelerate their movement away from traditional rivalries toward greater cooperation. A rising tide of regional economic cooperation, it was hoped, would complement international assistance programs in carrying Afghanistan through the post-conflict years. But as this study has shown, the region contains as many problems as it does solutions. Particularly disconcerting are the indications that several states in Afghanistan's neighborhood are becoming more assertive, possibly reviving older geostrategic aims. While none of its neighbors and other interested powers have yet pursued a course to destabilize the Afghan state or threaten its recovery, some seem prepared to extend their influence in Kabul through their traditional, divisive Afghan clients. Only with a renewed commitment of the international community to Afghanistan will it be possible to succeed in holding back these potentially disruptive political currents.

Securing and rebuilding post-Taliban Afghanistan has been from the outset an international effort. At Bonn, the responsibilities were divided among several countries designated to lead in the areas of training a national army and police forces; constructing a legal system; eradicating poppy cultivation; and disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating into society (DDR) hundreds of private militias. Similarly, the financing of Afghanistan's humanitarian and developmental recovery began as a shared international project. Arguably, the failure of Bonn to assign the regional powers defined roles in the recovery missed an opportunity for them to become more responsible players and long-term partners with Afghanistan. But leaving them with less specified political and financial responsibilities probably prevented any of these countries from using means at their disposal to monopolize sectors of the recovery. It may also have been to Afghanistan's advantage to have regional states compete constructively in providing development assistance.

While most regional states have permanent interests in Afghanistan, international players have repeatedly demonstrated short attention spans. Bitter memories exist over how, soon after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Afghanistan's prospective international benefactors backed away from their commitments, and then almost entirely washed their hands of Afghanistan during its more-than-decade-long civil war. Only the rise of international terrorism and the more repugnant actions of the Taliban brought Afghanistan back onto the international agenda. Many Afghans, like the Pakistanis, are convinced that Washington will quickly lose interest with the capture of the al Qaeda leadership, and that without the Americans most donor countries and international agencies will soon drift away. The expansion of NATO peacekeeping forces and redeployment to several southern provinces, replacing U.S. combat troops scheduled for a 12 percent drawdown in the country, have fanned speculation that the United States is reassessing its commitment.

Predictably, the levels of financial assistance and the presence of foreign military and aid personnel will decline over time. But deserting Afghanistan may not be a prudent option for the United States and others. To deprive Afghanistan of humanitarian and development aid would be cruel in light of how the country has suffered and sacrificed. Realpolitik would also dictate that this resource-poor country should not be left vulnerable. Without a visible international involvement, there exists a strong possibility of domestic political turmoil and economic failure that could condemn Afghanistan to become a narco-state, and leave it prey to rapacious neighbors. Once again, Afghanistan could easily become a breeding ground for an Islamic militancy that is regionally and globally contagious. A nuclear-armed Pakistan and the dangers of its becoming a jihadi state also raise the regional stakes for the international community, and especially the United States.

The investment of the international community in keeping Afghanistan from becoming a narco-state has more immediacy than any of the other threats facing Afghanistan. As a direct consequence of a broken economy and a weak state system, opium poppy cultivation has spread across the entire country and criminalized much of its economy and governance. It has created a community of interests among dealers, local militias, government officials, and antiregime militants that defies the enforcement efforts of the Kabul government and those assisting it. The country's weak judicial institutions also stand as a major impediment. With Afghanistan accounting for almost 90 percent of the world's heroin output, it is not surprising that the United States and others continue to call for a more robust counternarcotics strategy. Attempts at wholesale eradication could, however, be politically destabilizing owing to the dependence of more than 2 million farm families on their poppy crops for their livelihood. The longer-term introduction of alternative crops within a comprehensive rural development program strikes most experts as a more feasible and sustainable strategy. But these and other supply side measures conveniently ignore that the explosion of drug production in post-conflict Afghanistan is only in response to the high demand for drugs in neighboring states and more distant international markets.

The more impressive political gains and the passing of the milestones laid out in Bonn have occasioned the recommitment of the international community. The January 2006 London conference, attended by more than sixty countries and international agencies, pledged $10.5 billion in development assistance over five years. The focal point of the conference was an Afghanistan Compact, drafted by the Karzai government, predicated on international engagement for progress in governance, the rule of law, human rights, and economic and social development. The conference participants were sympathetic to the requests by the Karzai government that it be handed primary control over aid resources. But strong doubts remain about the central authority's capacity to receive and spend the aid effectively. Agreement was reached, however, to create a trust that could release more funds to Kabul with evidence of greater transparency and accountability. Regarding concerns about Afghanistan's continuing security challenges, Pakistan was not named in connection with the growing insurgency. Instead, the Compact calls for "full respect of Afghanistan's sovereignty, and strengthening dialogue and cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbors."

Washington to date has been equivocal regarding Pakistan's Afghan policies. U.S. officials periodically press Musharraf to do more to rein in the Taliban and others engaged in anti-Kabul activities, and publicly praise the Islamabad government for its cooperation in apprehending Islamic terrorists. Actually, for most of the last four years Pakistan's leaders have had reason to conclude that curtailing the activities of the Taliban and their allies was of lesser importance to Washington than capturing those who could be linked directly to al Qaeda. Meanwhile, the United States has given Musharraf considerable slack in meeting his commitments to deal with domestic extremism or his promises to restore authentic democracy. The U.S. partnership with Pakistan would probably be on firmer footing through conditioned programs more dedicated to building the country's political and social institutions than rewarding its leadership.

Like Musharraf, Karzai is one of the pillars supporting U.S. policy objectives in the region. However, a military-focused partnership with Afghanistan may be the wrong way for the United States to demonstrate its commitment to Karzai and Afghanistan. It slights the contribution of reconstruction and improvement in the lives of most Afghans in making the country secure from its enemies. Many Afghans view a concession to Washington on long-term military basing as akin to those demands associated with an occupying power, having little relation to Afghanistan's own needs. A strategic partnership could also undermine what has been the Afghan president's largely successful personal rapport with most of the region's leaders. As this study has shown, Afghanistan is unlikely to succeed without coming to terms with its difficult neighborhood.

The United States is frequently accused of lacking a holistic approach to this turbulent region. Its regional policies on security, democracy, and development are said to be often inconsistent if not contradictory. The decision by the U.S. State Department to incorporate Central Asia's Islamic states into the same bureau as Afghanistan can contribute to a strengthened region-wide perspective. Along with the international community, the United States might also begin to address how it can benefit Afghanistan's quest for security and recovery through aid projects and other policies specifically intended to promote regional cooperation and integration. For this to occur, U.S. priorities that are now so unidimensionally focused on counterterrorism must be better aligned with the aspirations of citizens of Afghanistan and those of its neighbors.

About the Report

The fate of Afghanistan and the success of U.S. and coalition efforts to stabilize Afghanistan will in large measure be affected by the current and future policies pursued by its varied proximate and distal neighbors. Most analyses of Afghanistan have focused on its internal dimensions or the policies pursued by U.S. and coalition partners. To date, there have been few analyses that situate Afghanistan's future within the context of its region and the key players in this region. This is unfortunate because many states, including Pakistan, Iran, India, China, Russia, and the Central Asian republics, have an important ability to influence positively and negatively the course of developments in Afghanistan.

To address this analytical gap, the United States Institute of Peace, Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention requested Dr. Marvin G. Weinbaum to evaluate the courses of action Afghanistan's key neighbors are likely to take and assess their importance for Afghanistan's evolution toward a stable and robust state.

Marvin G. Weinbaum is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and served as an analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 1999 to 2003. He is currently a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect views of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policy positions.

Related Publications

Afghanistan’s Economy Once Again Nears the Precipice

Afghanistan’s Economy Once Again Nears the Precipice

Friday, November 17, 2023

By: Belquis Ahmadi;  William Byrd, Ph.D.;  Scott Worden

More than two years into Taliban rule, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world with some of the highest humanitarian needs. The situation has shown some signs of stabilizing over the last year — but many Afghan households are still struggling to procure basic needs, and many women have been driven from the workforce altogether. Unfortunately, financial troubles loom ahead, and the already beleaguered Afghan economy is now projected to decline. Combined with population growth and the influx of thousands of Afghans forced to return from neighboring Pakistan, this is a recipe for increased humanitarian need over the longer term in the absence of major structural and political reforms.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

EconomicsHuman Rights

In a Major Rift, Pakistan Ramps Up Pressure on the Taliban

In a Major Rift, Pakistan Ramps Up Pressure on the Taliban

Thursday, November 16, 2023

By: Asfandyar Mir, Ph.D.

On November 8, in an unprecedented press conference, Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar offered a blistering critique of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. He announced that the Taliban leadership was supporting the anti-Pakistan insurgency of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and that had contributed to a major increase in violence in Pakistan — leading to 2,867 Pakistani fatalities since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global PolicyViolent Extremism

A Shift Toward More Engagement with the Taliban?

A Shift Toward More Engagement with the Taliban?

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

By: Kate Bateman

Since the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the United States has found itself in a vexing dilemma — wanting to condemn and hold accountable the Taliban regime for persecuting women and girls, harboring terrorists and failing to govern inclusively, but also wanting Afghanistan to avoid famine and civil war, and achieve some economic and political stability. U.S. policymakers have thus tried to balance principle and pragmatism. To exert pressure on the Taliban, the United States has withheld diplomatic recognition and traditional development aid, frozen Afghan Central Bank assets and maintained sanctions on Taliban leaders.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

International Day of the Girl Is a Cruel Irony for Daughters in Afghanistan

International Day of the Girl Is a Cruel Irony for Daughters in Afghanistan

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

By: Belquis Ahmadi

As leaders, activists and families across the world commemorate the International Day of the Girl on October 11, the harsh reality faced by millions of Afghan girls stands in stark contrast to many of the planned celebrations. For 750 days and counting, Afghan girls have been forcibly deprived of their right to education and their future because of the Taliban regime’s repressive policies.

Type: Blog


View All Publications