Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan and implications for regional politics

Executive Summary

This essay, published originally by the National Bureau of Asian Research, discusses the long-term and current relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the intertwined militancy in the two countries, and the impact of India, the United States, China, and other regional powers on the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship.

Main Argument

Afghanistan’s peaceful future depends to a great extent on an auspicious regional environment, with Pakistan at its core. Conversely, an unstable Afghanistan threatens Pakistan, complicating the latter’s ability to refurbish its weak state and economy and suppress dangerous internal militancy. But in the absence of dramatically improved relations with India, Pakistan is likely to prefer an unstable Afghanistan to a strong Afghanistan closely aligned with India. Pakistan thus retains an interest in not liquidating its long-term relationship with the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, a policy that exacerbates Afghan instability.

Policy Implications

• Although the outreach to Pakistan by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has warmed relations between the two countries, Pakistan’s geostrategic outlook and the limitations of its selective counterterrorism policies have not resolutely changed.

• Pakistan’s policies toward both militant groups and Afghanistan are determined as much by incompetence, inertia, and a lack of capacity as by calibrated duplicitous manipulation.

• Crucially, Pakistan’s willingness to accommodate Afghanistan-oriented militant groups is motivated by a fear of provoking militants to incite violence in Punjab and threaten the core of the Pakistani state instead of focusing externally. This paralyzing fear persists despite Pakistan’s desire to defeat Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

• China’s increasing activity in Afghanistan might eventually motivate Beijing to put pressure on Pakistan in a way that it has previously been unwilling to do. Pakistan may thus face more united international pressure regarding its policies in Afghanistan and accommodation of militants than ever before.

• Nonetheless, an expectation of radical change in Pakistan’s strategic outlook and behavior toward militant groups will likely produce disappointment—in Afghanistan, India, and the United States. Yet all three countries would be wise not to sacrifice whatever limited collaboration with Pakistan is at times possible for the still-elusive hope of cajoling Pakistan into a full-scale and lasting counterterrorism partnership.


Afghanistan’s peaceful future depends to a great extent on an auspicious regional environment, with Pakistan at its core. Vice versa, an unstable Afghanistan will complicate Pakistan’s ability to refurbish its weak state and economy and suppress dangerous internal militancy. Assassinations and military coups have plagued Pakistan since the early years of independence, leaving behind a weak political system unable to effectively deliver elementary public goods, including safety, and respond to the fundamental needs of the struggling Pakistani people. Rather than being a convenient tool for regional security schemes as Pakistani generals have often imagined, an Afghanistan plagued by intense militancy, with Kabul unable to control its territory and effectively exercise power, will distract Pakistan’s leaders from addressing internal challenges. Such a violently contested, unsettled Afghanistan will only further augment and complicate Pakistan’s own deep-seated and growing security and governance problems.

Yet Afghanistan’s location at the crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia has for centuries made a friendly neighborhood elusive. Although religious, ethnic, economic, and cultural ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan run deep and wide, the two countries have frequently been at odds with one another. During the Cold War, Afghanistan became a battleground in the global conflict between the Soviet Union and United States, with Pakistan as a key U.S. ally supporting the anti-Soviet mujahideen. Pakistan has long been a difficult and disruptive neighbor, seeking leverage in Afghanistan, hoping to limit India’s influence there, and cultivating radical groups within Afghanistan as proxies. Despite a decade of U.S. attempts to bring Islamabad and Rawalpindi (the seats of Pakistan’s government and military establishment, respectively) on board with its efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan continues to be ensnared in—while also augmenting—Afghanistan’s instability. Pakistan fears both a strong Afghan government closely aligned with India, potentially helping encircle Pakistan, and an unstable Afghanistan that becomes—as has already happened—a safe haven for anti-Pakistan militant groups and a dangerous playground for outside powers. Whether the recent warming of relations between the two countries, following a change in government in Kabul in September 2014 when Ashraf Ghani became president, translates into lasting and substantial changes in Pakistan’s policy remains very much yet to be seen.

But if Afghanistan is unstable and harbors Salafi groups that infiltrate Pakistan, then Pakistan itself will become further destabilized and—crucially—distracted from tackling its other crises. These include militancy in the Punjab region and a host of domestic calamities, such as intense political instability, economic atrophy, widespread poverty, and a severe energy crisis. The Pakistani state is already hollowed out, with its administrative structures having undergone a steady decline since independence. Major macroeconomic deficiencies have increased, and deep poverty and marginalization persist amid a semi-feudal distribution of power, often ineffective and corrupt political leadership, internal social and ethnic fragmentation, and compromised security forces. The internal security challenge is far more insidious than that recently encountered by the Pakistani military in the tribal and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa areas. In actuality, it is the Punjabi groups, such as the Punjabi Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Sipah-e-Sahaba, who pose a deeper threat to Pakistan. Extreme internal fragmentation in Pakistan and a loss of central control, particularly if these problems extend to the military, could set off one of the most dangerous security threats in Asia and the world. After all, Pakistan is a large, nuclear-armed Muslim country that coexists in only a precarious peace with its neighbor India. Yet while a U.S. disengagement from direct fighting in Afghanistan could allow the United States to rebalance its relationship with Pakistan and shift the center of U.S.-Pakistan relations beyond the narrow prism of counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, an unstable Afghanistan will also ultimately be very unhealthy for Pakistan.

This essay proceeds as follows: It first discusses the long-term relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan and explores how the India factor influences relations. Next, the essay discusses militancy in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and the latter’s policy responses, including its support for the Afghan Taliban and affiliated groups. This section also explores how Afghanistan’s current security and political developments influence Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan. The subsequent section considers the U.S. dimension of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and explores this triangle with respect to militancy in both countries, as well as counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts and negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. The final section analyzes the impact of other regional actors on Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China. In particular, it examines the implications for Pakistan of China’s increasingly active and more multifaceted role in Afghanistan.

The full paper is available here.