Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Afghanistan’s security a victim of regional rivalries

Reading Time: 5 mins
Afghan security forces inspect the exterior of a car after a suicide bomb blast in Gardez, Paktia Province, Afghanistan, 18 June 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Samiullah Peiwand).

In Brief

Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to spar over terrorist acts committed in each other’s territory. Common ethnicity and similar terrain provides a convenient route for fugitives to escape from one country to the other. Dismantling terrorist networks in the region will not be successful without formal cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But how can such a settlement occur when the strategic interests of other powers, such as India, favour pitting one against the other?


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

Pakistan’s use of military force beginning two years ago succeeded in clearing much of the tribal belt of militants. In the absence of similar military action on the other side, hundreds escaped to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan, meanwhile, has remained in a state of internal war since the Saur Revolution in April 1978, when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan overthrew then president Daoud Khan. This coup became the prelude to Soviet intervention in 1979.

Afghanistan has a history of being a ‘graveyard of the empires’ and more recently is proving to be one for the United States. Despite spending nearly three-quarters of a trillion US dollars since 2001, the United States is still not sure how to extricate itself from Afghanistan.

The US hope of controlling Afghanistan by raising a new US-funded Afghan defence force has misfired. The soldiers retain their loyalty to their tribes instead of shifting their allegiance to the national army. The desertion rate is high. The officer corps is top heavy and corrupt.

The US-brokered national unity government, set up after a deeply contested election result, remains dysfunctional. Large-scale corruption persists in nearly every facet of public service, placing the country just above Somalia and North Korea in international rankings. With democracy a relatively new experiment in Afghan society, only the beneficiaries of the system support it.

The stalemate continues both on the ground and in the minds of men steeped in historic tribal governance structures. Short of domestic reconciliation or a winner on the ground, peace will remain elusive unless the interests of several countries with competing claims are aligned.

Afghanistan’s most troubled relations are with Pakistan. Opposing Pakistan’s admission into the UN at its independence in 1947, for nearly 25 years Afghanistan continued to host Pakistani Pashtun nationalists who sought autonomy for areas between the Durand Line and Indus River — cutting at the very state of Pakistan.

Afghanistan has subsequently come to reflect Pakistan’s identity related insecurities, due to Afghan non-acceptance of the Durand Line as the recognised border. With nearly 40 per cent of Pashtuns residing on the Pakistan side, shared ethnicities play a significant part in determining inter-state relations between Kabul and Islamabad. Pakistan’s fears of growing Indian influence in Afghanistan, which could trap Pakistan in a two-front situation, compels Pakistan to seek a friendly government in Kabul — which Afghans assume demands subservience.

Meanwhile India’s interests in Afghanistan typically exist in the context of strategic rivalry between India and Pakistan. India remains wary of the emergence of a fundamentalist Afghanistan that can provide a breeding ground for militants operating in the contested states of Jammu and Kashmir. But India’s larger interests in Afghanistan extend beyond Pakistan to its desire for increased trade and energy relations with Central Asia. And when Pakistan disallows the use of land routes through its territory due to its hostility towards India, both India and Afghanistan get parked in the same tent.

Peace in Afghanistan is deeply tied to India–Pakistan relations. Islamabad genuinely fears that Afghanistan may well act as India’s proxy. Until Pakistan is secure in its relations with India, it will continue to interfere in Afghan affairs to deny India space. As they both jostle for influence, the rift between the two contributes to unsettling Afghanistan.

Beyond the triangle of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, China’s policies towards Afghanistan are shifting in parallel with its increasing economic interests. A disturbed Afghanistan significantly jeopardises China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Stable Afghanistan–Pakistan relations with an influential Pakistan also weakens India’s influence in the region, blunting its capacity to compete with China. China is wary of strategic encirclement through a long term US presence in Afghanistan. Yet it would be happy to see the United States bleed while maintaining some order.

Russia’s primary concern regarding Afghanistan relates to its Central Asian neighbourhood. Russia does not want extremism based in Afghanistan and instability to spill into these states. Russia is also concerned about the flow of drugs into the region and into its territory. Russia, like China, wants to keep US influence to a minimum in Central Asia.

The United States, after 17 years of intervention, still seems to be confused about its goals in Afghanistan. From eliminating the Taliban, they have moved to nation building and then to leaving behind a stable but client Afghanistan. The biggest US folly is its messianic worldview of wanting to create disparate societies in its image.

In the absence of a political settlement, no power is likely to succeed in imposing peace in the country. From Alexander the Great, to the great Moghul Babar, to the British, the Russians and now the United States, no outsider has been able to hold Afghanistan. As George Santayana has said, ‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’.

Sajjad Ashraf is an Adjunct Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He was a member of the Pakistan Foreign Service 1973–2008.

One response to “Afghanistan’s security a victim of regional rivalries”

  1. Assembling facts, jumbling history and description of horizontally organized write up. What’s the argument? What’s the point? Wonder East Asia Forum gave space to it.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.