In scramble for Afghanistan, India looks to Iran

July 6, 2010

arghandab2Diplomats like to stress that Afghanistan is not a zero-sum game, that if only the many regional players — including Pakistan and India – can settle their differences, they can find common cause in seeking a political settlement that will offer stability. That view comes complete with an appealing historical template – the British in India were able to extricate themselves from their failed Afghan wars in the 19th century in part because they agreed with Tsarist Russia that Afghanistan should be allowed to remain neutral.

Yet in the feverishness of the 21st century Afghan war, the perception (right or wrong) of a likely early American disengagement may be encouraging more, rather than less, zero-sum gamesmanship. The danger then is that far from moving towards a settlement for Afghanistan, regional players back different sides in the Afghan conflict, leading to de facto partition and renewed civil war.

With India now convinced Pakistan is pushing for a political settlement in Afghanistan which could return its former Taliban allies to power in Kabul, New Delhi in turn has renewed a drive to work with Iran to offset Pakistani influence there.

“I would today reiterate the need for structured, systematic and regular consultations with Iran on the situation in Afghanistan,” Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said in a speech this week to Indian and Iranian think tanks, posted on the Ministry of External Affairs website.

“We are both neighbours of Afghanistan and Pakistan and have both long suffered from the threat of transnational terrorism emanating from beyond our borders. India, like Iran, is supportive of the efforts of the Afghan government and people to build a democratic, pluralistic and peaceful Afghanistan. Neither of our countries wish to see the prospect of fundamentalist and extremist groups once again suppressing the aspirations of the Afghan people and forcing Afghanistan back to being a training ground and sanctuary for terrorist groups.”

India has bad memories of Taliban rule when Afghanistan was used as a base for training camps for militants fighting in Kashmir.  Along with Iran and Russia, it supported the then Northern Alliance which opposed the Taliban government when it was in power from 1996 to 2001. It has since invested heavily in Afghanistan – raising hackles in Pakistan, which fears encirclement by its much larger neighbour. In particular, it built a road from Afghanistan’s Nimroz province to Iran’s Chabahar port, offering landlocked Afghanistan an alternative supply route and thus reducing its dependence on trucking goods through Pakistan.

Rao, the country’s top diplomat, said India was particularly keen to see the development of the Chabahar Port Project. “Improving the connectivity of Chabahar Port to the Zaranj-Delaram Highway, (which – still according to the MEA website – was built with Indian assistance despite threats and with the sacrifice of Indian and Afghan lives, and has transformed the economy of Nimroz Province in Afghanistan), will open up the Indian market to Afghan agricultural and other exports. It will also help in combating the scourge of illicit drugs production and export which has affected Iran more than any other country, and assist the trade, transport and transit network of Iran. It will help India transport its goods, including humanitarian supplies, to Afghanistan, Central Asia and beyond.”

In other words, it is not just any road – it is a road which can redirect trade flows and in turn affect the balance of political influence in Afghanistan.

So how will Iran respond? India’s once warm relations with Iran soured somewhat in recent years after Delhi gave some limited support to a U.S.-led drive to  impose sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear programme. It has since begun to chalk out a position that is more independent of Washington, and spoken out against unilateral sanctions on Iran.

Pakistan meanwhile has been working to improve relations with Iran, including saying it helped Tehran with the arrest earlier this year of Abdolmalek Rigi, leader of the Baluch Sunni rebel group Jundollah,  who was hanged in Iran last month. Yet relations between Tehran and Islamabad are also hostage to any fall-out in the row over Iran’s nuclear programme, particularly given Pakistan’s close ties to Iran’s main rival Saudi Arabia.

With fresh sanctions being imposed on Iran, some of the most explosive issues in global politics — from rivalry between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan and between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, to the row over Tehran’s nuclear programme, to the fate of Afghanistan and the battle against Islamist militants – are converging.  We have known for some time that these issues would run into each other sooner or later – but maybe not quite so soon, and at a time when U.S. policy on Afghanistan is so uncertain. Predicting the likely outcome is harder than ever.


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Missing in the above analysis is pakistan is morphing into sunni islamist state, despite significant shia population.

India has the tough task of befriending Iran and at the same time befreinding US.

It is all one bloody mess…isn’t it. Every one is caught in every one else’s web..

Posted by Seekeroftruth | Report as abusive

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India’s gonna have to navigate the tightrope between Iran and the US here. On the plus side, the Iranians haven’t been as uncooperative or as inflexible as one might think, when it comes to Afghanistan. A Taliban ruled Afghanistan is as much a nightmare for them as it is for the West. So there is some common ground.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive

[…] process forward. Both have an interest in trying to reduce tensions, if nothing else but because the uncertainty over U.S. policy in Afghanistan threatens new instability in the region. Yet neither country will find it politically easy to accommodate each other if Kashmir is going […]

Posted by Kashmir protests: another tragedy of timing | Report as abusive

Stability in the region is desirable by all the regional players; If peace comes to Afghanistan, all the regional stakeholders will reap the benefits of it. So instead of blaming each other, they must sit together and discuss the possibility of how peace can be brought to Afghanistan.

Posted by SZaman88 | Report as abusive

India will undermine the Pashtuns 55% dominant ethnic group, no one can forge peace in Afghanistan at the expense of any one ethnic group. Supporting their old northern alliance Uzek, Tajik and Hazara friends, India will spark a civil war between them and Pakistan backed Haqqani and Hekmatyar factions. Best thing would be if both india and Pakistan rather improve their own relations and work together in Afghanistan and settle their disputes like Kashmir. Outside if anyone thinks this mess can be sorted out without improved Indo-Pak relations, you live in a fool’s paradise.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive


Since where are the Pashtuns 55% of the population? Encyclopedia Brittanica: 2/5ths
Encyclopedia Iranica: 39.4%
CIA World Factbook: 42%
Joint Survey by ABC(USA)/BBC/ARD(Germany): 41%
Joint survey by The Asia Foundation, the Indian Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and the Afghan Centre of Socio-Economic and Opinion Research (ASCOR): 40.9%

So given that Pashtuns make up somewhere around slightly over 40% of the population, I fail to see why they should be given an absolute say over everything, or why we should go back to the Taliban days where Pashtuns were on top and the other 60% of the population were second class citizens. Might be the correct model for Pakistan given the Punjabi worldview. But it certainly does not make sense for Afghanistan.

As for India being responsible for a civil war…it takes two to Tango. If India’s suport of the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras is wrong, then so is Pakistani backing of Haqqani and Hekmatyar. Moreover, as a simple moral question, why should anybody else stand down and let the Pashtun alliance slaughter and lord over the other ethnicities in Afghanistan. Last I checked Afghanistan was more than a Pashtun playground.

The situation can certainly be brought to heel with improved Indo-Pak relations. Would either side feel compelled to support their horses in the race, if there was improved relations? But don’t think the world will side with Pakistan on this one. The Northern Alliance didn’t harbour jihadists with anti-India and anti-Western sentiments. The Taliban did. And if civil war breaks out, you can bet that Pakistan will be virtually alone backing the Taliban. Think how well it worked out for the Soviets being the lone backer of their horse in the Afghan race. This time around, it’ll be Pakistan. You can bet that the West, India, Iran and all of Central Asia will be behind the non-Pashtun tribes.

This time around, there won’t be superpower money backing Pakistan’s strategic depth ambitions. And you can bet that the squeeze will be coming on Pakistan at the same time. Once Western forces leave, you can bet that sanctions won’t be far behind if Pakistan persists in supporting anti-Western forces.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive


Cut off Taliban funding and various other forms of support from the PA for a month and you’ll have a viable and sustainable peace in weeks. Either the Taliban will be thoroughly beaten or their nose will be sufficiently bloodied that they’ll be compelled to negotiate.

Right now, their Pakistani sanctuaries are allowing them to punch above their weight.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive

Umair can indulge in as much propaganda (lies) as he wants….the fact of the matter is India wants a stable Afghanistan with a government truly representative of all its ethnic groups, especially and including the pashtuns. India has no desire to have puppets, but the Afghan govt’s loyalty should be to the all peoples living in Afghanistan.

The Pakistan army goal is to have a puppet, terrorist regime, who the P.A hope will be under their control. The welfare of Afghan people doesn’t come in this picture.

Posted by Seekeroftruth | Report as abusive

Iran must play a good great game 2 instead of lossing a
lot like in first great game ever.
Iran have to help Jammu Kashmir in becoming a Independent nation so Kashmiri can help Iran
Pakistan and India must leave Jaamu Kashmir alone !
We have seen the west like UK USA UN like a joke
So come forward Iran because you do not want to bad like these nations of blood sucking of the innocent people
Long live the Independence struggle of Jammu Kashmir

Posted by JammuKashmir | Report as abusive

Iran feels isolated and threatened by Sunni Islamists..India has second largest Shia population in the world.

Indians and Iranians are brothers!

Upwards on the horizon the Eastern Sun rises
The light in the eyes of the Believers in Justice
Bahman is the zenith of our faith.
Your message, O Imam, independence, and freedom, the purpose of our lives,
is imprinted on our souls
O Martyrs! Your cries echo in the ears of time:
Be enduring, continuing, and eternal,
Islamic Republic of Iran!

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Posted by Kipling redux | Unambiguously Ambidextrous | Report as abusive

I got a great idea.

How about nobody gets Afghanistan. Not China, not Pakistan, not India, not U.S., no outside forces, what so ever, especially Pakistani “strategic depth” 7th century goons.

In fact, how about Afghanistan for Afghans? Let the UN mentor the Afghans into the modern age. After all, the biggest gripe and biggest fear the Afghans have, is that they will lose their culture to outsiders.

Afghanistan should be administered by the UN, all countries that want to do business in Afghanistan should be going through the UN, this way, special interests cannot skew extract copper and other mineral resources from Afghanistan, like China is doing right now.

Posted by G-W | Report as abusive

@Long live the Independence struggle of Jammu Kashmir
Posted by JammuKashmir
:-) Instead you should wish that independence struggle is short lived and Kashmiris get what they want.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

Iran is a nuclear power, it is good if the Indian Govt. wants to larry ferry with the Iranian leaders. They could make oil and gas deals with them, but the condition would be to cancel their military alliance with Israel. Iranian leaders are very allergic towards the USA and Israel. Besides India has to deal with Turkey and Brazil who are the new mentors of Iran. This means no Indian Faqir rope tricks with Iran. Is India in a position to change its political strategies in the region. Well we will have to see.
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

“Instead you should wish that independence struggle is short lived and Kashmiris get what they want.”

Good one Rajeev! :)

Posted by Seth | Report as abusive


“Instead you should wish that independence struggle is short lived and Kashmiris get what they want.”

Good one! :)

Posted by Seth | Report as abusive

The Pashtoon simply and very simply are allergic towards foreigners! This is a fact and let no foreigner and I mean foreignerwho do not speak Pashto language and the dialect of the most powerful tribe. The former northern alliance folks are minorities and weak and accepted as the citizens of Afghanistan predominently in the very cold region. If they are unable to kow tow the Pashtoons line, they always have the option to return to their mother lands, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan etc. etc. India and Pakistan are non actors. They can carry on their affairs with the Kabul Govt. as in the past. The main question is if the Pashtoons are now in a position to break down the steel lock and have the unhindred access to the sea route with or without the support of their cousins living in Pakhtoonkhwa. The past arrangements of obtaining their supplies from the former North West frontier have proven to be restrictive.
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

India and Iran must work together to find peaceful solution in Afghanistan. Eversince, Pakistan has started dialogue with Talibans, Haqani brothers, etc , the Pakistani designs are absolutely exposed , Pakistan wants to take Afghanistan back to Taliban days which will not only affect Iran but entire Central Asia . India with vast stakes in Afghanistan, must work with Iran , if necessary India should be ready to violate US led sanctions against Iran.

Posted by manishindia | Report as abusive

[…] as part of efforts to reduce Afghan dependence on supply routes through Pakistan; and is looking to Tehran to develop the project further. Just to complete the circle, India is taking a more independent stance on U.S. efforts to step up […]

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[…] as part of efforts to reduce Afghan dependence on supply routes through Pakistan; and is looking to Tehran to develop the project further. Just to complete the circle, India is taking a more independent stance on U.S. efforts to step up […]

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