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Afghanistan’s neighbours: Great Game, Regional Approach or Limited Liability Opportunism?

August 27, 2010

The impact of neighbours, September 2010

By Tim Foxley

Afghanistan’s neighbours: Executive Summary
Afghanistan’s future is completely dependent upon positive and constructive approaches from its neighbouring and near neighbouring countries and, since 2001, humanitarian aid, as well as political, economic and reconstruction support has been received by Afghanistan from all its neighbours. However, the intentions and actions of Afghanistan’s neighbours are not always as constructive as they might be. Much activity can still be defined as ‘malign interference’. Iran, and most crucially, Pakistan, look to have covert agendas that are intended to serve their own interests—at the expense of Afghanistan if necessary.

It is not merely the issue of covert agendas that are restricting the value of neighbourly interventions. Lack of capacity and resources will hinder the potential of the Central Asian States to make significant contributions for a decade or two. With the exception of China, all of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours appear to be at moderate to serious risk of internal strife over the next two to five years.

The uncertainty generated by the deteriorating security situation, which is now spreading into non-Pushtun areas of Afghanistan, is causing growing concern. Both inside and outside Afghanistan, increasing criticism and a sense of ‘wait and see’ is making it even harder for the Afghan government and international community to create the forward momentum necessary.

These remain critical years for Afghanistan. While it is hard to find a neighbour that does not desire—both publicly and privately—peace and stability inside Afghanistan, each neighbour has a distinctly different vision of what this peace and stability should look like. For certainly the next five to ten years, Afghanistan’s growth, development and security will be dependent, for good or ill, on the activities of its neighbours. These efforts have been, are, and will continue be a mixed bag of positive assistance and damaging interference

The Central Asian States

Seeming regularly to teeter on the brink of becoming ‘new Afghanistans’, this corrupt, ineffective and repressive collection of post-Soviet regimes continue to make the region unattractive to international investors. But their contribution to ISAF supply routes makes them important to the international effort in Afghanistan, and there is longer-term potential in developing trading routes that feed into and through northern Afghanistan. However, the CAS’ inability to do much of anything proactive makes them of questionable value for Afghanistan. The regular risk of internal unrest in the CAS makes them more likely to be a problem than a solution in the near term.


The relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan is complex and controversial. Historic differences rub shoulders with recent and more pressing disputes. Pakistan’s problematic relationship with India, its willingness to sponsor terrorism and its tendency to flip between military dictatorship and weak and corrupt civilian rule, continue to make Pakistan unattractive as a neighbour. Pakistan would prefer a Pushtun-dominated and passive client state to its west, but Afghanistan clearly has no immediate desire to fill this role. There is much evidence for Pakistani intelligence services continuing to support the Afghan Taliban and this is a source of major friction between Afghanistan and Pakistan.


India’s relationship with Afghanistan is usually seen in the context of its more fraught relationship with Pakistan. Its relationship with Afghanistan has been constructive, with Indian economic and trade initiatives with Afghanistan substantial. But India remains keen to thwart Pakistani ambitions in the country. Road, pipeline and transmission line initiatives form part of India’s strategy of reach around and across Pakistan and into resource-rich Central Asia. An improving relationship between India and Pakistan remains crucial to the stable development of Afghanistan. It also remains unlikely in the near term.


Instability emanating from Afghanistan has been a major cause of concern and cost for Iran for several decades and Iran has much to gain from a stable Afghanistan offering trade opportunities. Much of its engagement has been mature, pragmatic, and constructive. But Iran calibrates its activities in Afghanistan based on wider strategic contexts—its relationship with the international community and the United States in particular. Sometimes Afghanistan has been caught in disagreements between Iran and the West. Although Iran remains fundamentally opposed to the Taliban, reporting suggests that Iranian weapons have fallen into the hands of the Taliban. This is likely to be a warning to the West that its presence remains unwelcome. In any future deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Iran may revert to the practise of providing weapons and money to favoured proxies inside Afghanistan that would include Shia communities.


China views uncontrolled instability in the region with alarm, fearing spill-over across its borders. It remains keenly interested in peace and stability returning to Afghanistan. China’s biggest interest in Afghanistan lies in trade and economic development, as a part of a wider strategic drive towards the energy and resources of central and southern Asia. Despite an essentially cautious approach, China has invested significantly—a $4 billion stake in Afghan copper mines. The relationship between China and Afghanistan is cordial and continues to improve with the increasing investment China is making.


Russia has avoided military entanglement this time, after the painful lessons of its own intervention in the 1980s. It remains happy for the US to combat the Taliban—and even happier to gain leverage over NATO through the assistance it provides with ISAF northern supply routes. But Russia remains concerned at the prospect of a semi-permanent US presence in the region. Its most pressing concerns are the flow of narcotics into Russia and the desire to see the spread of Islamic fundamentalism rolled back from its borders. Otherwise, Russia appears to prefer to bide its time, looking for future trade and economic opportunities in Afghanistan for as little effort as possible.

The International Community

Years of neglect or indifference followed by bursts of confused attention and fragmented activity have been the key themes of the international community’s involvement in Afghanistan for decades. Mixed messages and limited understanding of the drivers of the country and the region are hampering Afghanistan’s development. In part, this is the reason for the wide range and scale of Afghanistan’s problems today. Few neighbours now appear to believe that the international community will stay to complete the task of rebuilding Afghanistan and will be starting to look at new ‘coping strategies’ as they contemplate the prospect of a fragile ‘unfinished’ state, that risks drifting towards collapse.

Northern Afghanistan

Northern Afghanistan is probably the most benign of the operating areas for ISAF. Furthest away from the natural Taliban operating environments of the south and east, Northern Afghanistan was the last area to be reached by the Taliban during the civil war of the 1990s and was never fully controlled by them. But, although Northern Afghanistan is currently still stable, Afghanistan’s problems, in particular the confident and capable insurgency, look increasingly evident in the north.

With a worsening of the security situation and a lessening of international involvement, Northern Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries demonstrate no real evidence of the skills, desire and resources necessary to intervene proactively in a benign and constructive manner. The civil war in the 1990s may offer indications of the way developments might unfold in Northern Afghanistan in the event of worsening instability in Afghanistan in the next two to five years. Neighbouring countries might again ‘cherry pick’ the leaderships of the militia, religious and political groups that are closest to their own agendas to be recipients of covert support. This might evolve into a North against South form of civil war

Future Prospects

If even one quarter of the plans for developing Afghan trade, transport, government and infrastructure networks were reality, Afghanistan’s future would be assured. But neighbouring countries will remain unlikely to commit in a constructive and co-ordinated fashion because they do not yet know which way Afghanistan is going and their individual agendas are often in violent conflict. In pursuit of these agendas, some neighbours may be more interested in destructive ‘spoiler’ activity, at least in the short term.

With the increasingly obvious desire of the international community to get out of Afghanistan, Afghanistan’s neighbours and near neighbours will start repositioning themselves for the consequences. The best that can be expected from neighbours and near-neighbours are self-interested effort at minimal risk. They will protect investments as necessary, expanding them where possible, and hoping for a stabilisation of the situation that will require minimal effort of their own. Afghanistan will struggle to break out of its slow spiral downward as a result.

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