The India–Pakistan–Afghanistan triangle

The India–Pakistan–Afghanistan triangle

Altruistic and Hegemonic Ambitions in a Fragile State

02/2019  | Reading time: 10 minutes

The triangular relationship between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan might be characterized by the interwovenness of strategic interests and altruistic intentions that result in a complicated situation at the crossing line between Central and East Asia. Without exaggeration, it might be claimed that without solving this puzzle, neither Afghanistan’s development nor the India–Pakistan animosity would proceed in a positive direction. Although these three countries are on different levels of social and economic development, they share a historical bond which is significantly stronger than their relations with any of the other neighbouring states. Nevertheless, their political relations are more complicated than the Gordian knot.

The ancient scriptures of Hinduism, amongst them the Rigveda, and many of the literary and material heritage prove the several–thousand-year-long strong relations between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Even though at different points in history, this relationship lacked strong political bonds, a pronounced cultural interwovenness of these regions has been undeniable. The frontier between the lands that are today called Afghanistan and Pakistan, which had been known as Gandhara in the Vedic period, was one of the centres of Hindu and Buddhist cultures. In the Antiquity and the Middle Ages, beyond trade relations, it was the religion that served as a link among the territories of Central and East Asia that were ruled by many kingdoms. At the same time, due to the development of religion-based national identities, religion was one of the main reasons why the once strong bondages started to disintegrate. The emergence of Islam brought with itself the gradual downfall of Buddhism and Hinduism. While, for quite some time, Hindu and Buddhist communities have lived in harmony with the dominant Muslim community even in modern Afghanistan, Islamist and nationalist extremism eliminated a large part of religious minorities.

Similarly to Gandhi, who was a symbol for tolerance, Jawaharlal Nehru, the nationalist leader of modern India, also considered the division of the Hindustani Peninsula and the ethnic violence thereafter a tragedy. However, Nehru concluded in his memoirs he wrote during his prison years that although Islam could have enriched the Hindi culture, it arrived late and violently to the territory of contemporary India, which in turn had a self-destructive effect in the long run. Islam arrived peacefully to Sindh, currently a part of Pakistan, while Hindu communities of today’s India had met the militant Islam that caused everlasting wounds to local people. Although Nehru was struggling for a united India notwithstanding his above-mentioned opinion, the actual division of the territory and the subsequent ethnic-nationalist tensions eventually confirmed his thesis. Hindu and Muslim communities were unable to reach an agreement regarding the governance issues of the united India, which was the result of their mutual lack of intercultural sensitivity. The process of violent and accelerated population changes and today’s religious radicalism and related atrocities are proof of their insensitivity.


India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru
Source: Wikipedia, author: Walter Heilig/Keyan20, licence: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-61849-0001 / CC-BY-SA

India’s relationship with Pakistan and Afghanistan is interesting because it is safe to note that India acts as a responsible country for its former territories—a fact that also denies the claims that the reason behind the disintegration of Greater India had been cultural incompatibility. India’s behaviour is also based on altruism which is rooted in the tenets of Hinduism and Buddhism. On the other hand, critiques claim that India’s behaviour only appears to be altruistic, but, in fact, it has hegemonic aspirations. It is undeniable, however, that democracy promotion and building is an official foreign policy directive of the Indian government. This duality of altruistic intentions and hegemonic ambitions is the constant feature of the triangular relationship between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, depending on whether they describe themselves or judge the other. In any case, there is no doubt that even within the constraints of geopolitical realities, India is actively pursuing a foreign policy which aims to revive the many–thousand-year-old cultural ties with Afghanistan. It is even willing to do this by approaching Afghanistan, which is blocked from India by Pakistan, on the long sea and land routes through the Indian Ocean and Iran. Although this effort is also related to India’s energy needs, it is also expensive, cumbersome, and dangerous, and therefore, India could easily find a better alternative.


The borders of the Moghul Empire cutting across the territory of today’s Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India
Source: Wikipedia, author: Ogodej, licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

In spite of the interreligious and intercultural conflicts, Islam is undeniably a part and parcel of the Indian civilization, as Islamic empires played an important role in the history of India. The Moghul rulers had a strong geopolitical perspective, as they understood the importance of Kabul and Kandahar, two cities that crossed the mainland routes between Central Asia and India. This approach was inherited by the British Empire from the Moghuls because, for them, Afghanistan meant the buffer zone between India and the Russian Empire. At the same time, besides being important, Afghanistan was a major commitment and challenge for the empires that wanted to dominate the area. Maintaining the ruler–client relationship with the mainly Pashtu tribes of the area was not a cheap and easy task for the Moghul Empire. The Persian ruler, Nadir Shah’s conquest of the Pashtun area drove out the Moghul rulers, and later the Durrani Empire had a hostile attitude towards India in the 18th and 19th centuries. The thousands of years old close relationship between Afghanistan and India began to erode during this period. Subsequently, the Afghan territories’ relations with its neighbours could be characterized by continuous conflicts and wars. For some shorter periods, Afghanistan lost its political independence and it has always been dependent on its neighbours in order to survive. The British Empire finally marked the physical border between India and Afghanistan in the form of the Durand Line and set out to anglicize India linguistically, so the Persian- and Pashtu-speaking Afghanistan and the Hindustani- and English-speaking India moved culturally apart. After India gained its independence and Pakistan had been created, the direct physical link between Afghanistan and India was permanently cut. The distance was exacerbated by the physical and diplomatic blockade between Pakistan and India, which rendered the Muslim country an impenetrable wall between India and Afghanistan. Between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Durand Line meant the new border. However, because of the lack of geographic and ethnic logic, as well as its porosity due to its length and lack of control, it connects rather than separates the two countries, which are organically linked in this sense. At the same time, Afghanistan did not recognize the British-designated border, so it has become a matter of diplomatic debate between the two countries to this day.


The red line on the map marks the Durand Line
Source: Wikipedia, author: CIA, licence: Public Domain

Since Afghanistan ceased to be a buffer zone after India gained independence and had been partitioned, it had to redefine its foreign policy goals towards Afghanistan. The thousands of years of cultural ties became the cornerstone of India’s strategy in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, due to its unfavourable geographic dimensions—i.e. its character as a narrow North–South “corridor”—Afghanistan has become more valuable as a hinterland. Since Pakistan and India developed adversary relations after 1947, and this was largely the result of territorial disputes, Afghanistan became a natural ally for India to seek diplomatic and military relations with. So in case a major military conflict between Pakistan and India erupted, Afghanistan could function as the hinterland for Pakistan. On the other hand, Afghanistan’s territory has proved to be perfectly suitable for training Pakistani soldiers to be deployed in the Kashmir conflict. Based on this fundamental assumption, Pakistan built its diplomatic and military doctrine on the “strategic depth” of Afghanistan, trying to displace India from the region by counterbalancing it through friendly relations with Afghanistan’s governments. This utilitarianism was the driving force of Pakistan–Afghanistan relations in the 1980s, during the Afghan–Soviet War, and during the 1990s’ military regimes and the Taliban. An important instrument of this Pakistani policy was the training and arming of the Afghan tribes and the indoctrination of the region with militant Islamism. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, India had no opportunity to establish friendly relations with the Afghan leaders who had been loyal to Pakistan. As a result of the successful Pakistani indoctrination of the Afghans, not only relations between Afghanistan and India have been deteriorated, but also Hindu and Sikh communities in Afghanistan themselves have been threatened; their numbers have fallen from half a million to a few tens of thousands between the late 1980s and the early 1990s. The situation was not improved after the dissolution of the Taliban regime. By 2010, only a few thousand people remained in Afghanistan who have been culturally closer to India, as militant organizations continue to threaten them.

Although a new era began in Afghanistan after 2001, with an internationally recognized democratic government in Afghanistan, India is not in a position to influence the political processes of the region alone in the 21st century, and not only because of Pakistan’s blocking actions. Like India, Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic and multilingual state, but an important difference is that, unlike India, Afghanistan lacks the national unity and consciousness, while the stability of democracy depends on external supporters.

Although India and Afghanistan have concluded in 2011 a multifaceted strategic cooperation agreement in economic, cultural, and development areas, the stability of Afghanistan can only be sustained by NATO and US support. As the US has significantly reduced its military presence, and the territorial expansion of the Taliban forces, who enjoy Pakistan’s support, has been renewed, Afghanistan’s relations with India and the personal safety of thousands of Indian guest workers and members of the diplomatic body have been threatened. India’s military presence in Afghanistan, which could contribute to the country’s stability, would clearly be interpreted by Pakistan as a hegemonic intention. Despite the Afghan President’s initiative to visit India in 2013 for securing a defence and security co-operation with the Indian leadership, this goal could not be achieved without Pakistan’s approval. Even the US has no significant influence on Pakistan’s room for manoeuvre and policies, as the stability and co-operation of Pakistan are of strategic importance for the United States in its fight against terrorism. Eventually, Afghanistan became a playground for regional power competition between Pakistan and India.

The main argument supporting the veracity of the altruistic nature of India’s activity in Afghanistan may be that following the removal of the Taliban regime in 2001, its presence in the country has been very limited, and its activities were only related to development projects, even though the Afghan governments tended to have the intention to engage more deeply with India at the expense of the country’s relations with Pakistan. India has been one of the five largest donor countries since 2001, donating billions of dollars to infrastructure, communication networks, education, and health in Afghanistan, and it participated in concrete development projects such as the Afghan–India Friendship Dam (AIFD) or the reconstruction of the Afghan Parliament’s building. All this shows India’s commitment to democracy building and might be hardly seen as a tool for marginalizing Pakistan, although there is ample room for this. Although the Afghan governments have regularly signalled their need for security cooperation and experts said that India should be more committed to developing Afghan armed forces and in particular the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), so far, no major and regional power has made enough contribution to this, while Indian governments have so far refrained from such cooperation, trying to avoid the further deterioration of Indian–Pakistani relations.


Indian Prime Minister Modi and the President of Afghanistan Ghani jointly inaugurate the Afghan–India Friendship Dam in 2016
Source: Flickr, author: Narendra Modi, licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

The question arises as to whether the Indian–Pakistani relationship could have a positive turn, which would bring hope to Afghanistan’s development as well. Decades of unresolved Indian–Pakistani territorial disputes and Pakistan’s negative interpretation of India’s Afghanistan-policy, along with Pakistan’s experience in dealing with local armed movements, are all pieces of evidence of that there will be no willingness in Pakistan to prioritize regional security and development instead of sustaining conflicts. Pakistan had almost full control over the local militant movements during the Afghan–Soviet war, while recently it successfully eliminated the manpower and capacity of undesirable Islamist and separatist movements. As Pakistan already interprets India’s limited presence in Afghanistan as a violation of its sovereignty and as a proxy conflict, it is questionable what the reaction will be to the deepening Afghan–Indian relations; as both other parties seek for it, and it may also become justified after an anticipated decline in NATO’s presence. There are indications that the relations between the India–Pakistan–Afghanistan triad will only lead to the escalation of Indian–Pakistani and Hindu–Muslim tensions, while the extremely fragile Afghan State may fall victim to this irresolvable conflict.

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