Resilience, Peace and Security

What does the new US policy on Afghanistan mean for India and Pakistan? 

Members of the U.S. military listen as U.S. President Donald Trump announces his strategy for the war in Afghanistan during an address to the nation from Fort Myer, Virginia, U.S., August 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - UP1ED8M04P4EC

'While the shift in policy has pleased the ideological camp in the Indian government, it has also set alarm bells ringing' Image: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Dietrich Reetz
Senior Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Political Science, South Asia, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient
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This article is part of: India Economic Summit

In a recent interview, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, alleged that the new US policy on Afghanistan is a paradigm shift. He emphasized two changes in particular: the first, that the policy is “holding out the prospect of treating Pakistan as an enemy”; and, the second, that it is “scaring Pakistan with the prospect of more Indian involvement in Afghanistan”, which would make Pakistan’s “nightmare come true”.

Looking at the internal contradictions of the proposed policy, some observers have serious doubts about its effectiveness and sustainability.

In the Indian media, the open reference to India by the US was seen as a first-time engagement and acknowledgement of the importance of India’s involvement in Afghanistan. A confrontation with Pakistan, long wished for by Narendra Modi, might now take place.

If one looks at the various assumptions and implications of this new US approach it becomes less clear if it will lead to a real change of direction.

Most Indian and Pakistani analysts argue that the direct involvement of India is meant to put more pressure on Pakistan. India's strategic involvement in Afghanistan is meant to evoke for Pakistan the foreboding of a two-front situation in a potential military conflict scenario. It is therefore regarded as an existential threat.

The US has, however, argued that its change of strategy was meant to be an “incentive for Pakistan to change” its course. If such a calculation is accepted it would mean that at some point down the road, the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have to sit at a table and that India would have to agree to certain limitations on its involvement in Afghanistan in exchange for assurances and changes of policy on behalf of Pakistan. At this point it seems that neither the Modi government in India nor the Trump administration are ready or able to go that far.

If India's involvement is no incentive for Pakistan, it would automatically turn into a threat, just as Haqqani mentions. If that is both the case and a calculation by the US and India, one would have to expect further mobilization by the Pakistani military and also by the Afghan insurgents along the previous lines of engagement.

While the shift in US policy has pleased the ideological camp in the current Indian government, it has also set alarm bells ringing in the well-versed and experienced Indian bureaucracy, which deals with foreign policy and military issues.

It is probably no coincidence that several Indian commentators immediately highlighted that India would not be involved with boots on the ground - for which India is very grateful - but rather with economic and infrastructural assistance. The former Special Envoy of India on Afghanistan and Pakistan, SK Lambah, has added a caveat to even that level of engagement, stating that the current security situation will not allow those works to proceed easily or even be expanded.

During US General John Nicholson's recent visits to India, the US made it clear that it would prefer to have more direct input from India in the military endeavour in Afghanistan. At present this has been limited to the supply of older, Russian-origin military hardware for repair and replacement purposes.

Furthermore, to many observers' surprise, last month US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took explicit note of the conflicts existing between India and Pakistan: "There are areas where perhaps even India can take some steps of rapprochement on issues with Pakistan to improve the stability within Pakistan and remove some of the reasons why they deal with these unstable elements inside their own country."

If that is so, how can India become a net security provider to the conflict in Afghanistan? This question has been raised by the new prime minister of Pakistan, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, on behalf of the whole of South Asia.

For Pakistan the internal contradictions of the new approach are so obvious that they have also been acknowledged directly by many US analysts.

Not long ago the US was a participant in the Quadrilateral Peace Talks on Afghanistan in which China, Pakistan and Afghanistan were also involved. Within that process the US practically accepted the existence of the representative bodies of the Afghan Taliban in Quetta and Peshawar, named the Quetta and Peshawar Shura. It is no secret that the US was also talking to the Taliban directly when they established their presence in Qatar, which the US helped to arrange.

It seems difficult to reconcile those actions with the new intention of increasing military pressure on the Afghan Taliban, while simultaneously stating that the ultimate and only realistic objective remains a negotiated settlement involving the Taliban.

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Inside Pakistan, resentment is growing in civil society against the continued free movement of militant jihadi groups such as the Haqqani network and the Kashmir groups, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Muhammadi. There are clear historical threads linking the formation of these groups to the American support for the Afghan Mujahidin in the late 1980s. After winning what was considered a strategic battle against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, the US did not demobilize the forces they had helped create, instead hoping they could be re-integrated into civil society.

Pakistan, Afghanistan and India now struggle to bring militant groups "overground "as they call it. The Afghan Taliban are supposed to take part in negotiated settlements. In Pakistan some of these groups are being pushed into the political arena such as the JuD or ASWJ and the Indian government has previously paid subsistence allowances to Hurriyat leaders in Kashmir.

At the same time the US wants to retain information and control over Pakistan’s and India’s nuclear development.

It remains unclear how the Pakistan military can be pushed by the US to bring these groups overground, give the US control of its nuclear power and help bring about a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, while at the same time the US wants to reduce military aid to Pakistan and threatens to downgrade its allied status to the US.

The drawback of such an approach is that if those policies are only meant as options, incentives or threats, then maybe nothing will actually change and things will only get worse.

As long as so many egos are involved on all sides wanting to prove they can win, there is not going to be any communication and compromise, which are perhaps the only ways forward. What is required is a careful analysis of all the elements operating in this situation, while trying to understand what is missing moving forward. That way everyone can be encouraged to give and take.

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