Foreign Policy Blogs

India, Pakistan and China: The importance of regional powers in a post-U.S. Afghanistan

SOURCE: AP/Saurabh Das

SOURCE: AP/Saurabh Das

By Tyler Hooper

With U.S., NATO and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel set to withdraw the bulk of their military personnel from Afghanistan in 2014, regional powers such as China, India and Pakistan will have the opportunity to play an influential role in the country’s future. Both India and Pakistan have historically been involved in Afghan affairs, and lately China has begun to show interest in expanding its Central Asian influence. With an Afghan election set for April of 2014, in which President Hamid Karzai will have to cede power, U.S. policymakers hope that the next Afghan leader will continue to combat Islamic extremism and the Taliban. Although the U.S. has plans to keep some of its military bases in the country, U.S. foreign policy interests are bound to shift away from Afghanistan towards other regions, such as Africa and the South China Sea. Ultimately, as western powers scale down their military forces, regional powers will be forced to play a greater role in Afghanistan’s future, and in terms of U.S. interests, India’s actions will be of vital importance.

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and subsequent withdrawal ten years later, a civil war between the Taliban, Northern Alliance and local warlords broke out across Afghanistan. The civil war and Taliban presence, supported by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), during the 1990s made Afghanistan a regional threat to India, which caused Indian leaders to support the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s chief rival. Since 9/11 and the U.S.-led invasion, India has played an important role providing aid to Afghanistan and its people and has continued to support international efforts to eliminate the Taliban. As a result, the U.S. has recognized India’s economic and strategic importance to the country, and lately U.S. policymakers have publicly praised India for its role in Afghanistan.

Recently, Robert Blake, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, stated during a Congressional hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that “any discussion of South Asia has to start with India.” Blake also highlighted the economic impact India has had on the Afghan economy: “We appreciate very much the significant role that India is playing in Afghanistan. In fact, we see India as kind of the economic linchpin for the future.” Blake was correct in calling India an “economic linchpin” as India is the largest regional contributor of aid to Afghanistan, having provided approximately $800 million in aid so far. The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has pledged to provide more than a billion dollars of foreign aid and has also put a sizable amount of cash into foreign investments, primarily in ore deposits like the one in Hajigak.

Unlike ISAF and the U.S., India has taken a “soft-power” approach when it comes to dealing with Afghanistan: instead of strictly providing military assets, India has invested in relief aid for the country, which goes towards building proper infrastructure, agricultural development and improving security. Because of this, relations between India and Afghanistan have been relatively good; Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who studied in India and speaks Hindi, has a good relationship with Prime Minister Singh, and the Afghan people have been known to get along with Indian workers and even embrace aspects of India’s culture. However, some U.S. officials worry that India’s hostilities with Pakistan are the primary motivator for India’s interest in Afghanistan.

In 2011, Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s newly appointed U.S. Defense Secretary, commented that India was using Afghanistan as a “second-front” in its feud with Pakistan. Although India publicly refutes these claims, there appears to be some truth behind Hagel’s comments. Both Indian and Pakistani officials have blamed each other for attacks in and outside of Afghanistan. Pakistan claims that India has funded rebel groups who target the ISI and the Pakistani military. Similarly, Indian officials accuse the ISI of being involved in the planning of the 2008 and 2009 attacks against the Indian embassy in Kabul in which India accused the Pakistan based al-Qaeda Haqqani network for planning the attacks, something Islamabad and Pakistani officials strongly deny. Relations became especially tense after the Mumbai attacks in 2008, in which the Pakistani based jihadist group Lashkar-e-Tayiba (LeT) — allegedly funded by the ISI – killed more than a 160 people and wounded almost 300.

But Pakistan and India are not the only regional powers to show interest in Afghanistan. China, who has invested in Afghan mineral and oil deposits, has expressed concern over the security with its Afghan border. The two countries share a very small border between Tajikistan and the Jammu and Kashmir region and recently China has become increasingly worried about the increase of Islamic extremist activity in its Xianjing province. Consequently, newly elected President Xi Jinping has taken interest in what a post 2014 Afghanistan will look like, and has even planned to meet with an Indian delegation to discuss the Taliban and the threat of Islamic extremism to the border regions.  However, a recent land grab by the Chinese military, which saw Chinese forces penetrate and build a camp more than 700 kilometers into India’s territory, has threatened to create a rift between the two countries, a rift that could bring more instability to the region and stall any discussions on Afghanistan.

Some speculate that China may have other reasons for being interested in Afghanistan. For instance, some argue that China may wish to use Afghanistan to expand its Central Asian pipeline, which already runs through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Dr. Alexandros Peterson recently wrote a very interesting article in Foreign Policy magazine in which he asked, “Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have grown wealthy and centralized partly due to Chinese energy investment. Could the same be true for Afghanistan in the future?” A pipeline built through Afghanistan would greatly expand Chinese influence in South and Central Asia. In addition, such a large project could be extremely helpful to the Afghan people, creating potential jobs and bringing foreign business and investment to the country. However, a pipeline is highly unlikely until Afghanistan becomes less of a security risk for foreign investors, and given Afghanistan’s current state, the outcome doesn’t look promising.

Afghanistan’s fate rests largely on what kind of role regional powers will play after the U.S. and other foreign troops withdraw the bulk of their forces in 2014. Currently, interest in Afghanistan remains high; both India and China have foreign investments in the country (China’s largest investment is a copper mine in Mes Aynak) and both would like to capitalize on the plethora of untapped natural resources. Moreover, Pakistan also has a heightened interest in the future of Afghanistan and recently Pakistani and Afghan forces have skirmished among the Afghan-Pakistani borders, creating tension between the two countries. Given the ISI’s history of involvement with the Taliban and other Islamic extremist groups, Pakistan will not let its influence in the country wane easily. As previously mentioned, 2014 will present more opportunities for regional powers to play a substantial role in Afghanistan’s future. In terms of U.S. interests, India’s involvement in both foreign aid and security aspects will be of vital importance. As western attention begins to turn elsewhere, particularly to Africa and Asia, other countries will need to pick where the U.S. left off.

Tyler Hooper is a freelance writer and journalist from Ottawa, Ontario. He has a Master’s degree in history from the University of Waterloo, in which his studies primarily evolved around Western and South Asian diplomatic relations during the Cold War. Tyler writes on a variety of subjects including politics and technology, but his passion lies in U.S. foreign policy, particularly U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Middle East. He has a blog and website at where you can check out the rest of his work. You can also follow him on Twitter @thooper8.