Achieving the ending ongoing violence and stabilising Afghanistan needs a better understanding of ongoing power plays within the country as well as between neighbouring Pakistan and India, which are also entangled in a protracted and bitter rivalry. These three nations have much in common, historically and geographically, yet have major differences in how each seeks to perpetuate its own specific interests. Relations among what are today’s India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, can be better understood with a sense of appreciation of the region’s history. Landlocked Afghanistan has long served as a gateway to the Indian Subcontinent. Muslim dynasties of Afghan and Central Asian origin ruled much of undivided India for centuries. Thereafter, Afghan rulers continued to plunder the Indian Subcontinent till it became the “jewel in the crown” of the British empire, and the arena of a “great game” between Russia and Britain.
The 1893 creation of the Durand Line, which bifurcated Pashtun tribal lands into an Afghan and British-Indian side, is a product of this historical legacy, but one which continues to create acrimony between Afghanistan and subsequently created Pakistan. While Pakistan considered the Durand Line a de facto border, Afghanistan was resentful of being denied access to the Arabian Sea and this issue served as a source of long strained bilateral relations. Meanwhile India managed to develop cordial ties with the leftist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which under Daud Khan, overthrew the Afghan monarchy in 1973.India was also among the first non-communist states to recognise the government installed by USSR after its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provided Pakistan the opportunity to push back against suspected Afghan support for Pashtun and Baloch insurgents in Pakistan and begin supporting religiously motivated militancy in the occupied country. Pakistan is accused by India of funneling US military aid and diverting mujahideen meant to resist the Soviet presence in Afghanistan to inflame the insurgency in Indian Kashmir. Pakistan’s alliance with the Taliban was also seen to provide Pakistan an element of strategic depth to buffer against Indian aggression. India thus joined hands with Iran to back the Northern Alliance. The situation changed drastically after the US invasion of Afghanistan. While the Western-backed Karzai and then the Ghani and Abdullah coalition governments had been beset by legitimacy challenges, the Indian government lent enthusiastic support to the Afghan government. India pumped in more than $2 billion into various development and infrastructure projects for Afghanistan — the largest aid package India has invested in any neighbouring country.
The hapless Afghan government has had more turbulent relations with Pakistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan have repeatedly traded accusations of each country harbouring militant groups engaged in cross-border terror attacks. While Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban cannot be overestimated, it demonstrated an ability to help bring them to the negotiating table with the Americans. Pakistan is of course not the only regional country with ties to the Taliban. Qatar and Iran have also built significant ties with them.
It is important to realise that the Taliban are not a static or homogenous group. They are now comprised of several factions. While the older guard (Mullah Baradar, Haibatullah, and Sirajuudin Haqqani) are considered closer to Pakistan, newer factions have been more conciliatory to other regional players. With the US withdrawal under way, Pakistan is also trying to work with the Afghan government and its resumption of cross border trade is a positive sign of these improved relations. India is also trying to find its place in this emerging geopolitical situation. The Taliban recently refuted media speculations that they will be joining the Kashmir jihad, and maintained they remain committed to non-interference other countries’ affairs. This signals that India is also working to change its relationship with the Taliban. While it is too early to say what the emergent power structure in Afghanistan will be after the US exit, it is possible that ongoing tensions between Pakistan and India could cause fictionalisation and infighting between the Taliban, which can further complicate the chances of Afghanistan’s stabilisation.