The emerging role of India in Afghanistan: Pakistan’s concerns and policy response
1. Introduction and historical background
India has remained a key factor in Pakistan’s Afghan policy. Bilateral relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have always been more or less uneasy since the former’s independence in 1947, which many attribute to Indian influence in Afghanistan from early on. Since the signing of Friendship Treaty on January 4, 1950, India and Afghanistan had started to consolidate bilateral ties, which they have maintained quite effectively over the past decades with the exception of few periods of hiccups. Even during the periods when Pakistan had a leverage over India, such as during the Soviet-Afghan war, Delhi “maintained its influence in Afghanistan through investments in developmental activities including irrigation, agriculture, and hydroelectric projects” (Ganaie, 2022).
On the other hand, Afghanistan had started to promote the idea of annexing Pakistan’s Pashtun-dominated areas immediately after the founding of Pakistan and continued troubling Pakistan in this regard through the 1950s and 1960s to the late 1970s. Pakistan’s Afghan policy in the 1980s and 1990s largely remained focused on seeking oft-quoted ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, which actually meant to countering the traditional Afghanistan-India alliance. This alliance had been creating trouble for Pakistan by supporting the Balochi insurgents and promoting the idea of a greater Pashtunistan.
Afghanistan rejected the July 1947 referendum in Pakistan, saying it offered no choice to the Pashtuns of the erstwhile North-West Frontier Province, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, other than that of becoming part of either India or Pakistan (Grare, 2006). Nonetheless, Afghanistan continued to challenge Pakistan over the Durand Line “through diplomatic pressure, tribal incursions, and support for secessionist movements” in Pakistan (Tellis, 2011: 3). As far as Pakistan’s response is concerned, according to Naseerullah Khan Babar who at the time was serving as inspector-general of the Frontier Corps, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government had started supporting the anti-Daud resistance movement in Afghanistan as early as 1973 in the form of providing weapons and clandestine guerrilla training, with a view to countering such moves by Afghanistan (Amin, 2001). Later, during Ziaul Haq’s rule in Pakistan, Hekmatyar and Rabbani continued to receive funding, training and equipment from Pakistan.
Indeed, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent Soviet-Afghan war (1979-89) gave Pakistan the opportunity to counter the Indian and Soviet influences in Afghanistan, and to attempt to install a friendly government there. Although the war was called a “jihad” against “Soviet infidels”, there is a near consensus among political analysts that Pakistan’s decision to support the Afghan Islamist resistance groups in the late 1970s and 1980s was strategic and not ideological in nature (Rana & Sial, 2013). At the same time, not all of the Afghan mujahideen groups received equal treatment from Pakistan in terms of the channelling of funds and weapons to them and training. According to Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, there were significant elements within the Afghan mujahideen that were more open to cooperation and civility with the West, and there were hard-liners, but the hard-liners were supported by General Zia. Looking beyond the end of the war, Pakistani security agencies “seemed keen on developing close working relations with these elements within the mujahideen whom they would try to empower to rule the new Afghanistan and give Pakistan strategic depth by extending Islamabad’s influence northward to counter Kabul’s traditional ties with India” (Bhutto, 2008: 113-14).
While Pakistan was courting mujahideen groups to seek strategic depth in Afghanistan, India considered it extremely important that Afghanistan should not fall under Pakistani influence. Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had told the Soviet president in 1987 that such a scenario would be absolutely unacceptable to India. Afghan president Najibullah told his Soviet counterpart during his meeting with him in Moscow on August 23rd 1990 that India was pursuing its own interests in connection with Kashmir and was “stubbornly trying to involve Afghanistan in opposing Pakistan without trying very eagerly to give specific support to settling the Afghan problem” (Ostermann, 2003: 191). India had initially opposed the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. However, fearing that the Soviet withdrawal could lead to victory of mujahideen and serve Pakistan’s interests, it “chose to abstain from key UN resolutions calling for the complete Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan” (Ganaie, 2022).
During the 1990s Afghanistan witnessed the fall of the Najibullah regime, a subsequent civil war and then the rise of the Afghan Taliban to power. Till the advent of the Taliban regime in 1996, India remained open to establish contacts with anyone and everyone willing to meet India, and deal with whosoever was in power in Kabul with a focus to cultivate a friendly government in Kabul. Another Indian policy focus was to contribute to Afghanistan’s economic welfare within its capabilities and resources. According to an Indian observer, this policy certainly did not help India’s cause, mainly due to civil strife and violence, and “India had to close down its embassy on several occasions owing to heavy shelling in and around Kabul” (Bhadrakumar, 2011).
The Taliban victory came at a cost of political isolation for Pakistan because no other country in the region was happy with either the Taliban or Pakistan’s support for it. Pakistan was one of the three nations that had recognised the Taliban government, the other two being Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (Rashid, 1999). India, Iran and Russia supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, fearing that the Arab, Central Asian and Pakistani militant groups sheltered in Afghanistan could create security challenges for them. India was concerned about the Kashmir-focused Pakistani militant groups’ nexus with the Taliban and the Arab and Central Asian militant groups.
Pakistan continued to pursue its traditional Afghan policy during the post-9/11 environment and the subsequent “war on terror” without making any compromise on its legitimate interests in Afghanistan. By joining the U.S.-led war on terror, President Pervez Musharraf tried to avoid Pakistan’s isolation from the world and its being bracketed with the militants; counter India’s possible rise in the Afghan theatre; and secure political legitimacy and financial assistance for his regime. Pakistan wanted the inclusion of some moderate Taliban leaders in the new Afghan setup, but the Northern Alliance, Russia, India and Iran were against this option (Grare, 2006). Despite being disturbed by the possible rise of the pro-India Northern Alliance, Pakistan had fewer options in the post-9/11 situation to assert its likes or dislikes (Abbas, 2010).
Pakistan’s decision to join the war on terror was also due to the fear of a potential U.S.-India alliance in Afghanistan that could further cement the traditional Northern Alliance-India alliance against Pakistan. Secondly, India could have placed Pakistan under immense pressure with support from the international community over the issue of militancy in Kashmir by Pakistan-based groups (Zeihan, 2010). The Musharraf regime remained worried over Indian policy and activities in Afghanistan. While India’s key concern was that the Taliban should not hold power again in Afghanistan and give shelter to anti-India militant groups supported by Pakistan, Pakistan thought “India’s economic and political linkages were building up Indian capacity to destabilize Pakistan through supporting Baloch insurgents” (Verma & Schaffer, 2010: 1).
And Pakistan’s concerns were not unfounded. The US-led military intervention had indeed offered India a much-needed opportunity to re-establish diplomatic ties with Kabul (Ganaie, 2022). Acting swiftly, India’s minister for external affairs Jaswant Singh reached Kabul and participated in the Karzai government’s inauguration and reopened the Indian embassy, which had been closed after the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. That ushered a new era in Indian-Afghan ties with a number of factors facilitating the ‘renewal and rejuvenation of bilateral diplomatic ties’ For one, on October 4, 2011, India and Afghanistan signed the “Strategic Partnership” agreement that included “provisions for both security and economic cooperation, training and equipping of Afghan National Security Forces, provision of economic aid and assistance, development of mining and energy production, and establishment of ‘strategic dialogue’ between their national security advisers to provide a framework for cooperation in the area of national security” (Wright & Stancati, 2011).
Unlike his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani initially adopted a policy of rapprochement towards Pakistan. To that end he delayed the implementation of the strategic partnership agreement with India, sought close ties with Pakistan’s security establishment (unlike Karzai, who preferred to establish warm military and defence ties with India), and instituted specific initiatives to alleviate Pakistani concerns over cross-border terrorism. Pakistan, in turn, managed to bring Taliban representatives to the negotiation table in Murree on July 7th (2015). The fledgling Afghan government-Taliban peace process derailed after the announcement of the death of Mullah Omar (Sial, 2016). Bilateral pledges made by the two countries during Karzai regime could not be fully realised. There were two main reasons for this: firstly, Ghani’s high-level decisions vis-à-vis Pakistan did not enjoy across-the-board and top-down acceptance in Afghanistan; and, secondly, increasing Taliban attacks after the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death increased political and security opposition to Ghani’s pro-Pakistan overtures. It was just a matter of time that the both states again engaged in mutual blame-game of not doing enough to stop cross-border terrorism and providing sanctuary to the other’s militants.
Most official and public responses from Pakistan welcomed the Taliban takeover of Kabul; some government officials even described it as victory for Pakistan and defeat of India. Pakistani government and military establishment apparently also seemed content with the Taliban takeover thinking it would it give Pakistan long-sought strategic depth in Afghanistan against India and alleviate the fears of Indian use of Afghan soil to create trouble in bordering provinces of Pakistan (PIPS, 2021). Most religious circles and groups also supported the Taliban ‘victory’ on religious-ideological grounds, apart from Indian factor. Still, some nationalist political parties and others have been critical of the Taliban takeover thinking it could be counterproductive for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Meanwhile, a key notion that ran through most of the media commentaries and analyses also manifested this belief that the Taliban takeover gave Pakistan long-sought friendly government in Afghanistan and alleviated the fears of Indian use of Afghan soil to create trouble in bordering provinces of Pakistan.
However, as things later unfolded, Pakistan’s expectations of the Taliban did not come true. Apart from their indifference to repeated denial of growing TTP threat to Pakistan and border insecurity, the Taliban have gradually become more pragmatic in establishing relations with India, thus invalidating Pakistan’s fledgling jubilation. Initially, India thought the Taliban’s capturing Kabul could pose a renewed threat in Kashmir due to a possibly growing role and influence of Pakistan in Afghanistan. However, as the Taliban expressed their aim of broadening their diplomatic and economic clout in the region, it became highly unlikely that they would maintain a hardline approach towards India, which has invested in development projects in almost each province of Afghanistan. Indian delegates’ first formal meeting with the Taliban in Qatar in August 2021, where a Taliban representative assured the Indian envoy that India’s concerns regarding Afghan soil to be used against India would be positively addressed, was the first glaring example of this approach (Al Jazeera, 2021).
Indeed, India has a history of creating a strategic space and capital in Afghanistan, including through assistance and engagement in economic and social development projects. India continues to follow the previous tradition of providing financial and development support to the Taliban-led Afghanistan, creating warmer conditions of bilateral engagement. In June 2022, India reopened its embassy in Kabul, after security guarantees from the Taliban, to coordinate humanitarian assistance and restart engaging with the Afghan people (Haider, 2022).
According to one assessment, over the past two decades or so, India has provided about “US$750 million in humanitarian and economic aid, invested US$3 billion in the welfare of the Afghan people, and has undertaken 500 projects in critical areas of power, water supply, road connectivity, healthcare, education, agriculture and capacity building” (Wani, 2022). While most Afghan people have a favourable view of India, as compared to Pakistan, many in the Taliban also see India as a sincere friend. Also, as cited earlier, the Taliban appear more pragmatic this time, which is also facilitating their reproachment to India.
In October last year, the head of Afghanistan’s central bank, Abdul Qadir Idris, met with Bharat Kumar, head of the Indian government’s technical team, to discuss Afghanistan’s economic situation, banking issues and joint cooperation between the two states. According to officials of Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), the Indian government had agreed to offer technical assistance to the bank. A trade agreement was also signed for the reopening of the air corridor between India and Afghanistan. The agreement allows Afghan traders to continue their trade with India via the air corridor (Ariana News, 2022a).
Earlier, on February 1st (2022), New Delhi had allocated around US$ 27 million for assistance to Afghanistan in its 2022–23 fiscal budget. The amount was earmarked to pay for existing Indian projects in the country, scholarships for Afghan students, and aid for the Afghan people. According to Afghan ambassador to India, the assistance was a signal that India was not switching off (Ganaie, 2022).
The Taliban de facto government’s minister of urban development Hamdullah Nomani met with India’s Charge d’Affaires to Kabul in December 2022. He stated his country needed Indian help in rebuilding and sustaining Afghanistan’s infrastructure. Nomani also told the Indian diplomat that India could also resume work on their over dozen incomplete or stalled projects that they had started during the previous Afghan regimes (Ariana News, 2022b). Similarly, in his meeting with Indian foreign ministry joint secretary in Kabul in June 2022, the acting deputy foreign minister of the de facto Taliban government, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai thanked the Indian government for its humanitarian aid, and said their bilateral cooperation “would not be influenced by other countries’ inter-rivalry” (Wani, 2022).
On the whole, while the share of Afghanistan aid has reduced in the Indian annual budget, the country still passed a budget of 26.7 million USD for 2022-2023 (Maitra, 2022).
The Taliban regime has apparently also engaged with India for training Afghan human resource including security forces. According to some social media in March this year, India has started a training course for the Taliban diplomats in the capital Kabul. The Taliban officials being trained will probably take control of the Afghan embassy in Delhi after this course. Similarly, the Taliban officials warmly welcomed a batch of 25 Afghan military cadets on July 29th (2022), who returned to Kabul after completing their training in India. The retuning Afghan cadets were sent to India before the Taliban came to power. (The Print, 2022). A month before this event, Afghanistan’s defence minister Mullah Yaqub (son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar) expressed his willingness to send Afghan army personnel to India for military training, saying the Taliban did not have any issue with it (The News, 2022).
India has recently also provided humanitarian assistance in form of wheat or food to Afghanistan including through Pakistan under an agreement it has signed with the World Food Program. While initially, Pakistan showed some reluctance in allowing India to use its soil for sending food assistance to Afghanistan, the government later allowed Indian aid through Pakistan. In a rare gesture, the first shipment of 2,500 metric tons of Indian wheat reached Afghanistan in February 2022, crossing Pakistani land with whom India had suspended transit trade three years ago over heightened tensions. However, earlier in January 2022, the National Security Advisor, Dr Moeed Yusuf had called the Indian pledge to send wheat to Afghanistan a “publicity stunt” and a deliberate effort to blame Pakistan, believing that Pakistan would not allow Indian assistance through its land (AP, 2022).
Like Pakistan, other neighbours of Afghanistan including Iran, India and Central Asian states are concerned about the regional security implications of the Taliban takeover of Kabul. For instance, the 31st report by the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the UNSC, released on February 13th, noted that Afghanistan remains the primary source of terrorist threat for Central and South Asia. It originates from groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan, Al-Qaida, Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, as well as ETIM/TIP, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Group, Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari, Khatiba al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, Jamaat Ansarullah, and others. The report further noted that these groups, many of which are a direct security threat to Central Asia, enjoy greater freedom of movement in Afghanistan owing to the absence of an effective Taliban security strategy.
In that backdrop, India also sees Afghanistan as an important country due to its proximity with Central Asian states; India has strengthened its relations with these states over the past few decades in the areas ranging from military technology, defence, counterterrorism, and economy to culture. Many Indian foreign policy analysts have been highlighting following the Taliban’s return to power that India must further consolidate its ties with Central Asia due to emerging security, geostrategic, and geo-economic challenges. For one observer, it was due to Pakistan’s resistance to facilitating any Indian connectivity through its territory that New Delhi established connectivity with Central Asia and contracted with Iran to develop the Chabahar port; India has invested US$150 million in the 218-km Zaranj-Delaram Highway, which connects Afghanistan to the Chabahar port via Milak in Iran, and linking further to Tajikistan (Wani, 2022).
India also continues to voice its concerns, like other countries in the region, about the use of Afghan soil by militant groups to attack India or its interests in the region including in Central Asia. This also helps India in promoting its traditional narrative of linking militant groups of Pakistani origin to terrorism landscape of Afghanistan and thus undermine Pakistan. In the Indian-hosted conference of top security officials from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in Delhi in December last year, India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval termed the existence of terrorist networks in Afghanistan as a matter of concern for India (Sultana, 2022). Similarly, at the UN Arria formula meeting in November 2022, India’s UN representative Madhu Sudan had stated that “Afghanistan should not be used for sheltering terrorists or training, planning or financing terrorist attacks. The deputy spokesman of the Taliban regime downplayed these concerns and said Afghan soil would not be used against other countries (Daryosh, 2022).
Apart from terrorism concerns, India has been raising voice about human rights violations. For one, on April 11, 2022: India foreign minister Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Lloyd J Austin III in the 2+2 minister dialogue urged the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to respect human rights, rights of women and girls, rights of minorities, and uphold rights to travel. The four ministers also called on the Taliban to abide by the UN Security Council resolution which demands Afghanistan not be used again to threaten other countries’ security.
Since the U.S.-Taliban February 2020 deal in Doha, Pakistan’s responses on the Afghan situation have remained oriented around some of its key strategic as well as geo-economic foreign policy objectives. Before the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Pakistan repeatedly asserted that it supported a negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict and opposed the Taliban taking over Afghanistan militarily. It also frequently stated that it did not want the Afghan soil to be used for perpetrating and supporting terrorism against Pakistan including through Indian influence.
As cited earlier in the report, after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, most official and public responses from Pakistan were welcoming, with some describing it as victory for Pakistan and defeat of India. Pakistan has also been urging the international community to engage with the Taliban and not leave Afghanistan alone to avoid humanitarian crises, governance collapse as well as the likelihood of a civil war. Similarly, Pakistan has been helping in facilitating and providing humanitarian aid to the country including from India. Still, Pakistan may not be the first country to recognise the Taliban government because there are many political risks and security threats attached to that.
As the Taliban approach to completing their second year in office in August this year, initial Pakistani jubilation is almost over now. Indeed, Islamabad is increasingly concerned about the Taliban not being willing or able to help in countering the TTP threat with the terrorist group becoming a major irritant in Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban government. Apart from the establishment of the Taliban government next-door, Pakistan’s negotiation ventures also emboldened the banned TTP to regroup and escalate terrorist violence in Pakistan. According to yearly data collected by PIPS, the group carried out 89 terrorist attacks in Pakistan in the year 2022. However, the TTP itself issued an infographic for attacks it carried out in 2022 (for 8 months excluding 4 months of ceasefire) according to which the group perpetrated 367 attacks, compared to 282 in 2021. According to a report of the UNSC-led 1988 Taliban sanctions committee monitoring, “the group [TTP] is focused on a long-term campaign against the Pakistani state,” and that it “has arguably benefitted the most of all the foreign extremist groups in Afghanistan from the [Afghan] Taliban takeover” (Syed, 2022).
Pakistan has also been concerned about the deteriorating security situation at the Pak-Afghan border since the Taliban took power in Kabul in August 2021. Cross-border migration also remains a pronounced worry of the Pakistani government, but due to border fencing and strict security measures the phenomenon has so far been under control. However, if further humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan is not prevented, more refugees will certainly cross the border to enter Pakistan.
The Taliban have apparently taken a stricter and nationalistic stance in their response to Pakistan’s efforts to fence the border. Secondly, apart from incessant cross-border terrorist attacks, the refugee issue as well as illegal cross-border movements have also added to border tensions. There is evidence to suggest that not only the number of cross-border attacks and clashes has increased but intensity of such incidents has also grown resulting in more deaths and injuries. Only in 2022, 34 Pakistani citizens lost their lives (including 20 security officials) in 13 such attacks/clashes along the Durand Line. Importantly, in the past, or during Ghani regime, most of the cross-border attacks from Afghanistan were carried out by the TTP or other militant groups, but now many of such incidents involve Afghan border forces under the Taliban regime.
Nonetheless, Pakistan believes that through its engagements in Afghanistan, India has been playing a role of ‘spoiler’ with a key objective of restricting Pakistan’s influence there. For one, Pakistan decided not to attend an Afghan moot hosted by India in November 2021 on the same pretext. “I am not going [to India]. A spoiler cannot be a peacemaker,” National Security Adviser Dr Moeed Yusuf told a news conference (Yousaf, 2021). The moot was chaired by India’s national security advisor Ajit Doval and attended by his counterparts from Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan with key focus on terrorism, radicalization and extremism. After Pakistan’s refusal to join, China cited ‘schedule clash’ as the reason for its absence, which many saw as a covert geopolitical message to the world. Pakistan also skipped an Afghan moot held in Moscow in February this year where it was invited alongside China and India. The two-day conference was attended by national security advisers of regional countries from India, China and Iran along with Central Asian countries. Experts agree that the main reason Pakistan opted to stay out of it was because it was the Indian initiative, and according to foreign office statement, Pakistan believes “(it) can make a better contribution in formats and forums which can contribute constructively to peace in Afghanistan” (Yousaf, 2023a).
According to some accounts, Pakistani efforts to talks to the TTP were also partly led by the Indian factor. In July 2022, the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) discussed the emerging security threats from terrorist groups and options of talks with the TTP. The committee was also apprised that the RAW (Research and Analysis Wing of India) was attempting to re-establish itself in Afghanistan and that Pakistan needed to reach out to the reconcilable components of the terrorist organisation, i.e., TTP. Nonetheless, the military leadership informed parliamentarians that nothing was final, and that the negotiation team would follow the instructions of parliament and the administration. Thus, PCNS formally gave a go-ahead for continuing talks with TTP (The Express Tribune, 2022).
Nonetheless, because the hideouts of two major perpetrators of terrorist violence in Pakistan, i.e., TTP and Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), are in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been continuously requesting the Taliban regime for a crackdown against the terrorist networks operating from their soil. In response, the Taliban leadership maintains that all terrorist activities are happening “from inside Pakistan” – a position resonating with that of Ashraf Ghani’s administration, which Pakistan used to see as an outcome of Indian influence in the region. For long, Pakistan has been connecting TTP presence in Afghanistan with ties between India and Ghani regime. Contradicting this view, the TTP has claimed and demonstrated strong alliance with the Afghan Taliban since the fall of Kabul.
The TTP has intensified its attacks in recent months compounding Pakistan’s Afghanistan-related concerns. After the January 30th lethal attack on Peshawar Police Lines mosque, which claimed about 100 lives including mostly policemen, Pakistan recorded its strong protests before the Taliban. At the end of February 2023, Defense Minister Khwaja Asif along with DG ISI Nadeem Anjum and other high officials visited Afghanistan and met with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar of Kandhari group. This group is one of the anti-Pakistan factions among various groups of Afghan Taliban which includes Mullah Yaqoob Omar, who has given pro-India statements several times. This visit was important as Pakistan took a far clear stance and presented strong evidence against TTP hideouts along with the precise location of its leadership. In response to this, Afghan leadership reportedly proposed that Pakistan should bear the cost of disarming and rehabilitating the outlawed Tehreek-e Taliban members and their families numbered around 30,000 from the Pak-Afghan border areas (Yousaf, 2023b). As note earlier, the TTP continues to be a bone of contention between the two countries.
The security fallout of the Afghan situation and growing Indian engagement with the Taliban also threaten Pakistan’s regional connectivity and geo-economic policy pursuits. In U.S.’s larger Indo-Pacific strategy, India is its key strategic partner. The China factor, among other things linked to U.S.-India bilateral engagements, will continue to increase U.S. inclination towards India strengthening its position as a U.S. pivot. As far as Pakistan’s position on these battle lines is concerned, it is a major partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and is also largely reliant on the U.S., as well as IMF and World Bank, for its economic survival. Pakistan is faced with great challenge in maintaining a balance in its relations with China and U.S. including in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, it will be unrealistic for Pakistan to desire a zero involvement of India in Afghanistan. Therefore, Pakistan needs a specific policy frame to manage its equation with India in the Afghan context.
Revisiting and reordering its Afghan policy was never essential for Pakistan as today. But in order to achieve this aim, Pakistan also needs to reassess its policy towards India as any effort at rationalising Pakistan’s official policy towards Afghanistan will largely depend on a similar rationalisation of its policy towards India.
Overall, Pakistan needs to revisit its ideological standpoint and employ a more practical approach towards Afghanistan. A new policy may be based on both its national interests and dynamics of the wider region.
Pakistan may also refrain from over optimism. As discussed earlier in the paper, the Taliban’s government in Kabul neither means a zero Indian presence in Afghanistan, nor will the Taliban engage with India and Pakistan on zero sum game. There are already clear indications of the Taliban optimism shown towards Indian engagement in their country.
Pakistan also needs to adopt a regional perspective on the Afghan problem. Pakistan’s policymakers need to seriously think about the future regional and national dynamics of Afghanistan crisis. In that context, foreign interventions and regional states’ policies towards Afghanistan are also important to be evaluated.
In particular, Pakistan needs to be careful in its dealing with the Afghan situation as well as the Taliban. Some recommendations, based on Pak Institute for Peace Studies’ expert consultations held on Pakistan’s Afghan policy priorities in the past two years, are listed below:
- Pakistan needs a complete reorientation of its policy towards Afghanistan in the wake of growing threats of terrorism in the country after the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) called off a ceasefire it had agreed to with the government earlier 2022. Civil-military leadership, political parties, bureaucracy and ulema should be on the same page to tackle the threat, and there should be an inclusive policy on how to deal with Afghanistan and the TTP.
- Pakistan needs to bilaterally engage and talk with Afghanistan, i.e., the Taliban, on the issues of countering terrorism, enhancing trade, and evolving mechanism on border security and refugees, etc. Pakistan can formulate such agreements under the table, and once the Taliban government is recognized, these can be made formal. It seems strange that despite their proximity, Afghanistan and Pakistan share no formal agreement regarding refugees, trade, or border.
- Pakistan’s Afghan policy has largely remained centred upon the groups, warlords, and politicians, instead of citizens of Afghanistan. Therefore, Pakistan may work on developing a policy that focuses on winning hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Reaching out to different factions of Afghan society and polity will help in removing misperceptions held by many Afghans about Pakistan, and also in countering Indian influence.
- Pakistan should continue taking lead in ensuring the reach of humanitarian assistance to poverty-ridden Afghanistan. The primary pathway to achieve this is by keeping its humanitarian air and road corridors open, along with the land routes for UN agencies, NGOs and other donors. Moreover, Pakistan shall be on the front foot with regards to implementation of OIC’s commitments pertaining to the Afghan situation.
Pakistan may devise a policy that facilitates trade with Afghanistan include doing so in Pakistan’s national currency and enabling barter mechanism until Afghanistan gains financial stability. This will be a practical implementation of Pakistan’s National Security Policy that asserts that Pakistan’s security-oriented outlook has shifted to economic. An impetus to Pak-Afghan trade can be a game changer for both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
 Parts of this section are reproduced from the following 2013 report by one of the authors (with original references retained): Sial, Safdar. 2013. “Pakistan’s role and strategic priorities in Afghanistan since 1980.” Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF), May 2013. <https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/165432/9bc5b02e91c5a9b8ba49a5c46dbfd41a.pdf>
 Excerpt from the record of a conversation between M. S. Gorbachev and the then-general secretary of the Central Committee of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, Najibullah, July 20th, 1987, as cited in Ostermann (2003).
 The 31st report by the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the UNSC, 13 February 2023, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N23/038/91/PDF/N2303891.pdf?OpenElement
 The opening remarks can be seen here: https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-secretary-of-defense-lloyd-austin-indian-minister-of-external-affairs-dr-s-jaishankar-and-indian-minister-of-defense-rajnath-singh-opening-remarks-at-the-u-s-india-22/.
 An overview of PIPS’ Pakistan Security Report 2022 can be downloaded here: https://www.pakpips.com/web/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/SR22-Preview.pdf.
 The data and statistics are derived from Pak Institute for Peace Studies’ digital database on security incidents: www.pakpips.com/app/database.