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The Roots of South Asian Instability

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Stability, according to Kenneth N. Waltz is defined as the durability of a system and its ability to peacefully adjust to changing circumstances.[1] Thus, the stability of a country, a region, and relations between states is achieved when, in any of these systems, there is an element of predictability and a high probability of peaceful, legal recourse for the resolution of any issues should the need to solve a dispute arise. Instability, then, is the converse of this description: it is characterized by unpredictability, an increase in violence and the use of force, and the decreased likelihood of order and cooperation.

As per this definition of instability, the region of South Asia is unstable on both the interstate and intrastate levels. There are several causes for this state of affairs in South Asia: interstate conflict is found in the form of continued tensions between India and Pakistan while intrastate conflict persists because Afghanistan and Pakistan both face terrorism and insurgency. These two causes of instability in South Asia are in fact related to each other and closely linked, primarily because the major source of militancy in the region is an insecure Pakistan, which often nurtured militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir in order to counter its rival, India.

The root cause of instability in South Asia is the conflict between Pakistan and India, which itself feeds numerous other types of conflicts in the region. This conflict is rooted in a territorial dispute over the region of Kashmir but has acquired a more general strategic dimension. One aspect of the conflict between India and Pakistan which causes instability is the nuclear weapons competition between both countries. Of course, it should be noted that nuclear weapons do not necessarily lead to instability; it is possible that rival states with nuclear weapons will continue to carry on normal relations.[2] This is the case with India and China, which, despite nuclear and strategy rivalry, have not been engaged in destabilizing each other and have been increasing their volume of trade over the past decade.[3] However, Pakistan’s nuclear program has been a destabilizing factor in South Asia, as noted by S. Paul Kapur.[4] Kapur noted that Pakistan’s nuclear program has made it more likely to pursue aggressive behavior since nuclear weapons shield it against all-out retaliation.[5] In fact, soon after Pakistan’s first nuclear test in 1998, Pakistani soldiers infiltrated Kargil in Indian Kashmir in 1999 with the intention of using their newly nuclear weapons status to their advantage by restraining India’s response and drawing international attention to the Kashmir issue.[6] Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have also shielded it against Indian retaliation in 2001-2002 in the wake of terrorist attacks against India’s Parliament traced to an extent back to Pakistan as well as during the 2008 Mumbai attacks.[7]

In response to Pakistan’s nuclear program, India has adopted measures that further destabilize South Asia. Pakistan as a state feels deeply insecure because of its comparative disadvantages vis-à-vis India in terms of population, resources, and military might.[8] This insecurity has been exacerbated by Indian strategies such as operation Cold Start which are designed to counter Pakistan’s potential nuclear use by striking swiftly at Pakistan in the case of war.[9] As a result of these fears, Pakistan has turned to alternative strategies to balance the scales between itself and India. Unfortunately, however, these strategies have destabilized both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pakistani concept of strategic depth requires that Pakistan acquire extra strategic depth by having the option of retreating into Afghanistan in the case of a war with India.[10] This requires that any government in Afghanistan be friendly to Pakistan, if not controlled by it. As a result, certain elements of the Pakistani government have been supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has been destabilized since the Soviet invasion of that country in 1979. Certainly, one of the major factors in the continued conflict in Afghanistan has been the support of Pakistan; however, there is no doubt that the conflict in Afghanistan has taken on a life of its own for other reasons. One reason is the continued American presence in the country which galvanizes a segment of the population into supporting the Taliban. However, the main cause for continued violence in Afghanistan is the opportunity for armed groups within Afghanistan to continue to have the ability to perpetuate their violence due the structural weakness of the Afghan state, which does not have a monopoly on violence within its country. When states weaken, power struggles among leaders intensify, regional leaders become independent and run parts of the country as warlords, and ethnic groups assert themselves.[11] Individual groups also feel compelled to provide their own security.[12] In such a scenario, according to Stathis N. Kalyvas, sovereignty either is segmented and fragmented, both of which denote that the central government lacks full control over its territory, as in the case of Afghanistan.[13] There are large pockets of northern Afghanistan where sovereignty is segmented- where several political actors exercise full sovereignty over distinct territorial parts of the state- as ethnic Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek militias essentially control various fiefs.[14] On the other hand, much of the rest of the country including the south and east where the Taliban are most active fall under the category of fragmentary sovereignty, where both the central government and the Taliban partially exercise limited sovereignty over the same part of the state.[15] The result is that neither is able to fully take on the functions of a state in controlling violence or building social institutions, resulting in continuing violence.

The continuing war in Afghanistan has negative security implications for Pakistan as well because the Taliban operate on both sides of the border between the two countries and their respective branches on both sides of the border aid each other. Coupled with the rise of Taliban related militancy, Pakistan has had to deal with the exponential increase in domestic terrorist groups, a problem partially of its own making as Pakistan long nurtured jihadist groups as potential weapons against India.[16] These groups were originally intended to either cause trouble for India in Kashmir or, in the case of the Haqqani Network in the Waziristan area along the Afghan-Pakistan border, to continue to supply and aid the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to guard against Indian influence there.[17] However, according to the noted Pakistan scholar Ahmad Rashid, at the behest of the United States after its invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan lost control over some militant groups because of it conducted counter-terrorism military operations in its tribal areas aimed at disrupting Taliban safe havens.[18] This in turn led to internal militancy against the Pakistani government in Waziristan, which then provided a safe haven for training extremists from other parts of Pakistan, who have now begun fanning over the country and disrupting the country through sectarian attacks and attacks on secular institutions.[19]

As a result, Pakistan’s already corrupt and overstretched state is finding it even more difficult to put resources into economic growth and education, which may reduce the appeal of militancy for segments of its population. Instead, in addition to the disproportionate amount of money it puts into its military, it must divert further resources to fight counterinsurgency, a problem that it shares with Afghanistan. According to some academic literature, developing countries with large young populations- a youth bulge- could use their large pool of cheap labor to climb on the path towards prosperity if there are ample educational and economic opportunities, as is the case with India and China.[20] On the other hand, failure to invest in human capital combined with a youth bulge can lead to an increase in youth violence.[21]

Thus, as demonstrated, South Asia’s security problems stem both from interstate factors and intrastate factors. However, of the two, interstate security issues are the key to understanding the root causes of instability and conflict in the region. This may seem surprising at first, given the immense internal security problems faced by Pakistan and Afghanistan. Furthermore, when two countries become strategic rivals, such as China and India, or China and the United States, the nature of their interaction is often along the lines of competition rather than the sponsoring of deadly, destabilizing internal conflict as is the case in South Asia. By this logic, Indo-Pakistani rivalry ought to be continuous hedging and strategic countermoves against each other, while the insurgencies have the potential to destroy Afghanistan and Pakistan. International competition is the potential for conflict in many circumstances. However, because the internal and international security issues of South Asia are so closely linked, the internal issues cannot be solved unless international issues are solved. Pakistan will continue to sponsor militant groups as long as its relations with India remain unresolved and as long it continues to disrespect Afghan sovereignty.

The chief policy recommendation for solving security issues in South Asia would involve turning what is essentially an international terrorist and insurgency issue spread across India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan into three distinct local conflicts to be dealt with internally by all three countries. This can be accomplished only by removing the international element of the problem so that each country can deal with internal issues without worrying about interference or reaction on the part of the other country. Thus in India’s case, this would involve dealing with the insurgency in Kashmir without Pakistani influence, which would make its efforts easier and reduce the possibility of international or nuclear war. Pakistan would have to stop using militants to further destabilize its neighbors India and Afghanistan, but in doing so, it also reduces the fuel on the fire of militancy which has come back to haunt Pakistan itself. Instead of focusing on its neighbors, Pakistan could dedicate its resources on providing security, education, and economic opportunities in its own country.

Therefore, in order to reduce the international factors that feed Indo-Pakistani tensions, the best solution would be to encourage the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Other countries such as the United States can encourage this process, but ultimately for there to be true peace between India and Pakistan, both countries and their elites must fully accept a permanent resolution through the mutual acceptance of an international border satisfactory to both sides. Both sides must accept that as facts on the ground stand, neither will be able to claim all of Kashmir; rather both sides ought to accept making the de facto border the de jure border. Hopefully this will assuage Pakistan’s immediate security concerns and turn the Indo-Pakistani rivalry into something more benign, such as strategic competition without a militant dimension that undermines the security of both countries. Reducing conflict in Afghanistan too will involve Pakistan ceasing its support of militant groups such as the Taliban. Pakistan is less likely to do so though, if it does not feel as threatened by India. If the Taliban do not have the guaranteed support of Pakistan, they may move more strongly in the direction of negotiation. It will be a long time until violence is monopolized by the Afghan government; however with a decrease in violence, other possibilities such as political favoritism, containment, and divide and rule can be used to reduce violence there. [22] To conclude: more stability will come about through better international relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan and India.


[1] Nuno P. Monteiro, “Unrest Assured: Why Unipolarity is not Peaceful,” International Security Vol.36 No. 3 (Winter 2011-2012): 9.

[2] Peter R. Lavoy, “The Strategic Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation,” Security Studies Vol.4 No.4 (Summer 1995): 697.

[3] Thomas J. Christensen, “Fostering Stability or Creating a Monster,” International Security  Vol. 31 No. 1 (Summer 2006): 90.

[4] Kapur, Paul S., “Ten Years of Instability in a Nuclear South Asia,” International Security Vol.33 No.2(Fall 2008): 72.

[5] Kapur, 72.

[6] Kapur, 72.

[7] Kapur, 83.

[8] Kapur, 90.

[9] Kapur, 89.

[10] Kapur, 90.

[11] Michael E. Brown, “The Causes of Internal Conflict,” from Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict: A Revised Edition (September 2001): 6.

[12] Brown, 6.

[13] Stathis N. Kalyvas, “The Logic of Violence in Civil War,” Cambridge Press, New York (2006): 88, 89.

[14] Kalyvas, 89.

[15] Kalyvas, 89.

[16] Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, “Washington’s Phantom War,” Foreign Affairs Vol.90 No.4 (July/August 2011): 15.

[17] Bergen, 15.

[18] Ahmad Rashid, “Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan,” Viking, New York (2012): 48-51.

[19] Rashid, 48-51.

[20] Jack A. Goldstone, “The New Population Bomb,” Foreign Affairs Vol.89 No.1 (January/February 2010): 34.

[21] Henrik Urdal, “A Clash of Generations? Youth Bulges and Political Violence,” International Studies Quarterly 50 (2006): 608.

[22] Paul Stainland, “The Future of Violence in Afghanistan,” The National Interest (July 18, 2012): 1.


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Written by Akhipill

May 5, 2013 at 10:07 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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China, India, and Iran: Goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan

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The purpose of this essay is to analyze the geopolitical strategies and goals of China, India, and Iran in the region that contains Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The focus of this essay is on the geopolitics of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and the strategies those countries and their neighbors, China and India, are pursuing in achieving their geopolitical and strategic goals in that region. This essay will focus on the geopolitical strategies of Iran, India, and China especially in regards to infrastructure. All the countries considered in this paper- Iran, India, and China- are pursuing strategic geopolitical goals in this region mainly for the following reasons: 1) to improve their own military and strategic position vis-à-vis their rivals, 2) to improve their economic position, and 3) to stabilize or destabilize the region depending on their needs. As a result, this paper will discuss military strategy, infrastructure, and trade in order to elaborate on what these countries are doing in pursuit of their geopolitical goals and why they believe such measures are necessary.


In the modern world, technology and transportation have made geopolitics seem antiquated, or at least forgotten.[1] However, technology and frontiers cannot erase the geographical truths that countries face when pursuing policies. The reality is that pipelines, roads, and most importantly at all, the consciousness of various nations and peoples all depend on the land and terrain. As the famous strategist and geography Nicholas J. Spykman pointed out, “geography is the most fundamental factor in the foreign policy of states because it is the most permanent. Ministers come and go, even dictators die, but mountain ranges stand unperturbed.”[2] The foreign policy goals of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and modern Russia are all surprisingly similar, as these states- no matter their ideologies- all had to deal with the same geopolitical choices.

Moving towards our region of focus, we find that geography also plays a large impact on the political and foreign policy calculations of the actors involved. For example, Afghanistan has always been important for whoever historically ruled any empire in northern India, which is today divided between the modern states of Pakistan and India. This is one of the reasons that both countries are interested in it today. Most invasions of the Indian subcontinent have come through Afghanistan, and into the Khyber Pass of the Hindu Kush mountains which leads to the plains of Punjab. This was a fact known to the Mughals who consistently fought with the Safavid Persians to control this border region and numerous native military leaders; Ranjit Singh, the Maharaja of Punjab expanded his empire to the Khyber Pass with the explicit goal of securing this passageway into India. Policy-makers in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India know that what was called the Northwest-Frontier was “historically no frontier at all” but the heart of a geographical and cultural continuity that persisted on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.[3] As such, India and Pakistan’s interests are both directed at each other, though they also both seek transportation and trade links. Iran and Persian civilization historically included much of Afghanistan as well and political and economic links remain. China too seeks to pursue its goals which include political stability at home, economic growth, and international clout, all of which are interrelated, in the region. China’s goals are primarily to secure energy and transportation routes, prevent any unrest in its own western Xinjiang region, and acquire resources.[4]

This introduction on the importance of geopolitics serves to tie the next sections of this paper- focusing on interests of China, India, and Iran- under a common theme: that despite the advent of the modern world, countries still need to pay heed to their geography, especially their immediate geography, in order to secure their frontiers and pursue their interests. This paper will now turn to Iran, India, and China in order to study what those countries are doing to pursue their interests in our region of study.


Iran has mostly been focused on its west, the Middle East, rather than the lands to its east for most of the past few decades. This is rather uncharacteristic of Iran’s traditional foreign policy, which has always also placed a lot of emphasis on the region to its east, Khorasan as well. There are several reasons for this development. First, the existence of the Soviet Union and the persistence of Russian influence in Central Asia meant that Iran was reduced to a secondary power in that region and Afghanistan.[5] Second, the states to the east of Iran were traditionally weak or subservient to Persian influence; however, this changed with the emergence of Pakistan, which is arguably stronger than Iran due to its professional military, nuclear weapons, some industrial base, and large population. However, thirdly, the converse was true to Iran’s west, where no Arab country emerged with a size or population greater than Iran’s. As a result of this, and because of Iran’s post-revolutionary rivalry with Saudi Arabia and war with Iraq, Iran spent much of the 1980s and 1990s focusing on the Middle East.

However, this is changing as Iran has been increasing its links with Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, Iran is interesting in pursing the following geopolitical goals: political and economic, although there are other reasons for its involvement in Afghanistan, such as the presence of Afghan refugees in Iran and the drug trade. Iran believes that it is important for it to assert political influence in Afghanistan in order to protect its eastern boundary. From Iran’s point of view, the presence of a friendly or at least neutral government or militant groups in Afghanistan is much more beneficial than a government that is beholden to or hosts troops from the United States, as Iran fears that American soldiers in Afghanistan can be used to attack Iran. Iran also has historically desired to counter Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, as the two states have sometimes had a tense relationship; likewise, Iran seeks to prevent the Taliban- who had abysmal relations with Iran when in power- from controlling Afghanistan.[6] As a result, Iran has supported Tajik and Hazara armed groups- which share linguistic or religious ties with Iran- since the 1980s in order to hedge against Taliban or Pakistani influence.[7] As a result, Iran supported the Tajik dominated Northern Alliance in the 1990s against the Taliban.[8] Iran has been able to use these groups and militias as proxies to pressure the Afghan government today not to implement policies that would adversely affect Iranian interests, such as shutting down trade with Iran, discriminating against Shi’as or diverting water from the Helmand River, which flows through both countries.[9]

This is not to suggest however, that Iran is beyond supporting the Taliban for its own political purposes, despite its support for anti-Taliban groups. In the same manner in which Afghanistan is geographical opportunity for Iran due to its close physical and cultural ties, it is also a liability for the United States, in the sense that the logistics of fighting in alien, mountainous terrain thousands of miles from home is a great difficulty for the United States, one that only becomes worse due to the Taliban. Consequently, Iran has also been supporting the Taliban since the 2003, when it was declared a member of the Axis of Evil by American President George W. Bush. This however, should not be constituted as Iranian support for a Taliban government in Afghanistan. Rather, Iran is using the Taliban for its own purposes against the United States. Peter Tomsen, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, summarized the Iranian strategy in 2006 by arguing that a weakened Afghan state [by the Taliban] lessens the likelihood it can become a U.S. ally against Iran. By maintaining a certain level of instability, he said, “it keeps us tied down. After all, we have air bases in Afghanistan where we could mount attacks on Iran.” Some analysts call it “managed chaos,” a strategy they say is similar to the one Iran employs in Iraq. Others see abetting the Taliban as a means to boost Iran’s leverage at a time when it is under pressure to end its uranium-enrichment program.[10]

Nonetheless, Iran does not wish to see the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan. Iran’s support of the Taliban will only be enough to cause discomfort to the United States and not enough to bring the Taliban back to power.[11] Iran is likely to abandon any assistance to the Taliban in the case of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Iran desires to see the United States leave Afghanistan and a government friendlier to Iran come to power there. To this end, Iran has hedged its bets in all manner of ways, such as establishing closer relations with the Karzai government through the distribution of aid, money, and economic projects, as well as allegedly, bribes.[12]

From the point of view of both politics and economics, western Afghanistan is the most important part of that country for Iranian goals, and is a vital interest in a way that the rest of the country is not. Western Afghanistan, the area around Herat, was part of the Persian Safavid Empire until it was seized by the Afghans in the 18th century, and as a result, Iran considers this area well within its economic and political sphere of influence.[13] Iran has developed significant economic ties to this region of Afghanistan. Due to the weakness of the central government of Afghanistan, it is difficult to enforce national or international laws in this part of the country, and thus, Iranian trade with Afghanistan is one way for Iran to lessen the pressure of international sanctions on it. According to the Afghan Chamber of Commerce, an estimated 2,000 Iranian private firms, many financed by the Iranian government, operate in Afghanistan. Many of these businesses are located in Herat and aided the city’s economic revitalization after the fall of the Taliban. The Iranian government also directly funded the development of Herat’s transportation and energy infrastructure. A planned railroad will link Herat to the northeastern city of Mashhad, facilitating much-needed commerce and providing revenue to the both the Iranian and Afghan governments.[14]

While Iran is able to exercise a role in Afghanistan from a position of some dominance, this is not true of its relationship with Pakistan. Thus, Iran has to thread more carefully in order to achieve its goals in Pakistan. Iran and Pakistan have had many ups and downs in their relationship. Although relations between the two countries was cordial during the Shah’s era, in retrospect it seems inevitable that both countries would also have friction, as both are large Muslim countries seeking to expand their hard-power and soft-power in the same region. Moreover, they had conflicting interests in Afghanistan, as well as their different attitudes towards Saudi Arabia and the United States, with which Pakistan was closer to.[15] As a result, Iran’s ability to influence Pakistan politically is not great.

Nonetheless, Iran and Pakistan have been moving closer together for reasons of mutual economic convenience, which may, in the future, lead to greater political convenience. As in Afghanistan, Iran’s economic ties with Pakistan can be a means by which it reduces the burdens of economic sanctions on its nuclear program. On the other hand, Pakistan’s reasons for starting to draw closer to Iran, at least as off 2013, are more complex and hypothetical. If, for example, Pakistan were to incur further international isolation for whatever reason, be it related to terrorism, domestic stability, or its nuclear program, it would have to draw closer to countries that would not go through with sanctions regimes against it, one of which happens to be its neighbor, Iran. Due to increased criticism of Pakistan, especially in the wake of the capture of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011, Pakistan has calculated that it is better off having fewer enemies and more friends, just in case; in addition to Iran, Pakistan markedly improved ties with India and assented to the greater lifting of trade barriers between the two nations.

Given these parameters, Iran’s chief geopolitical goal in Pakistan is one of economic nature that benefits both countries economically without the worry of either country trying to politically influence one another. This project is the implementation of a natural gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan, a project that both countries signed on March 11, 2013. [16] This pipeline of course has the benefit of alleviating sanctions on Iran, with the added benefit that it could be extended to India, bringing Iran more cash. From Pakistan’s point of view, this pipeline allows it to import energy directly and cheaply in order to assuage its domestic energy crisis and perhaps help power its development towards stability.[17]

Iran’s relations with Pakistan are complicated. While both countries will draw closer to the extent that it will be unlikely that either country will support or aid in any hostilities against each other, it is also unlikely that both countries will become fast friends as their geopolitical goals in Afghanistan are too different, and their foreign relations are often at odds with each other, with Pakistan cultivating close ties with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states while Iran has maintained good relations with India. Although Pakistan’s relationship with the United States has soured in the past two years, it is unlikely that the establishment in Pakistan will allow it to deteriorate to the point where Pakistan finds itself closer to Iran than the United States, though any time Pakistan’s relations with the United States are at a low, it will become closer to Iran, as seen in the last couple of years.


At this point, this paper turns to India’s geopolitical goals in Iran and Afghanistan as Iran is not just a geographical player but also part of the games of other countries. India’s goals in Pakistan mainly involve the resolution of the Kashmir dispute and India does not have any active infrastructure projects in Pakistan. India’s goals in Afghanistan are driven by economic needs and strategic needs vis-à-vis Pakistan. India’s goals in Iran are primarily strategic (militarily) or economic in nature and are mainly driven by its relations with three other countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China.

First of all, India has a strong interest in Afghanistan remaining free of outside influence, primarily Pakistani influence.[18] An Afghanistan under Pakistani influence could embolden Pakistan against India because Pakistan would not have to worry about its western border and it would have the “strategic depth” it so craves. Strategic Depth is a Pakistani strategy that envisions Afghanistan as an extension of Pakistan, a place where Pakistani forces and weapons could retreat to if Pakistan were to suffer a defeat from India.  On the other hand, an Afghanistan that controlled its own destiny would prevent Pakistan from using it. This would suit India. Furthermore, an assertive Afghanistan would undoubtedly put pressure on Pakistan by influencing the ethnic Pashtun in the FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (formerly NWFP). According to an Indian analysis, “once Islamabad is assured of a friendly government in Kabul, it will unleash all the terrorists at its disposal on India. This will only mean more trouble in Jammu and Kashmir, and it will embolden terrorist groups to attack our cities with greater frequency.”[19] Though this might be an exaggeration, there is genuine fear in India that an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban or influenced by Pakistan would lead to more terrorism in India. Likewise, India does not want Afghanistan to become a safe haven for anti-Indian terrorist and militant groups.[20]

India’s interest in Afghanistan is also strategic in nature, and in both an economic and geopolitical sense. Economically, India seeks to use Afghanistan both for trade and as a bridge to the rest of Central Asia and the Middle East. In order to increase its leverage in Afghanistan, prop up the stability of the Karzai government, and benefit its own growth, India has invested heavily in Afghanistan in the last decade. India has provided the most developmental assistance of any country to Afghanistan, estimated at between 1.3 to 2 billion US dollars in 2011.[21] India and Afghanistan have also signed a Preferential Trade Agreement.[22] Moreover, Indian companies have invested heavily in Afghanistan, “particularly in the agriculture, manufacturing, telecommunications, and mining sectors. Notably, in late 2011, no fewer than 14 Indian firms bid on an iron mining contract in Bamyan province that could generate $6 billion in investment.”[23]

India also seeks to use Afghanistan to project itself geopolitically into the region beyond, namely the Middle East and Central Asia. However, the Middle East is also accessible to India via sea, which Central Asia is not. Thus, India’s ability to project itself into Central Asia is particularly dependent on Afghanistan. India seeks to project its influence into Central Asia, both to live up to its aspirations as a great power, and in order to check the influence of other powers, namely China and Pakistan in that region. India currently maintains a military base in Tajikistan, which it uses to supply its projects in Afghanistan and which is supplied via Afghanistan.[24] According to India analyst Harsh V. Pant, India and the world will judge India’s success in Afghanistan and Central Asia as proof that it has become a global power; if India fails to succeed in its own backyard, this will cast doubt on its great power aspirations globally.[25] Thus, success in Afghanistan is essential to India.

However, India has a serious problem in achieving its goals in Afghanistan, due to the difficulty it has in directly accessing it over land. India’s traditional overland land routes ran out of the subcontinent through Afghanistan into the Middle East and Central Asia. However, the creation of Pakistan created a problem for India in the sense that an unsteady relationship with Pakistan largely cut India off of its traditional overland routes. In today’s terms, this makes it difficult for India to directly access energy resources via pipelines or trade using trucks and rail without an open border with Pakistan, something which has not happened yet. In fact, India cannot send goods directly to Afghanistan due to a restriction placed by Pakistan.[26]

As a result, Iran has come to occupy an important place for Indian policy-makers seeking to circumvent this issue by providing an alternative route to Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Middle East that bypasses Pakistan.[27]

Iran is important to India both for its energy resources and its transportation links. Iran is an important of Iranian oil and gas; however, this is not as significant as it could be because India does not wish to cross the United States, with whom it has a more important relationship, over the issue of sanctions on Iran.[28] Indeed, India has not fully supported Iran at the United Nations on the nuclear weapons.[29] India and Iran also share an understanding that neither wants Pakistan to have a free hand in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, despite all these other positives and negatives in the Indo-Iranian relationship, India’s main interest in Iran lies in its capability for India to solve its transportation and strategic issues. The most important element of the Indian transportation and infrastructure strategies in Iran and Afghanistan is the Iranian port of Chabahar, close to the Iran-Pakistan border. Iran is happy to host India at Chabahar because like its other projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Chabahar brings Iran cash and a decrease of its international isolation; likewise, Iran also benefits from the trade links India is building between Afghanistan and the port of Chabahar, which are many.

Numerous projects in Afghanistan all lead to Chabahar in Iran: “by constructing a 220-kilometer road between the Afghan cities of Zaranj and Delaram in 2008–2009…the Indian Border Roads Organization (BRO) connected the main Herat-Kandahar highway with existing routes leading to the Iranian port of Chabahar. Similarly, to facilitate Indian companies’ access to Afghanistan’s estimated $1 trillion in minerals and raw materials, Delhi is planning to build a rail link from Hajigak, a mineral-rich area in Bamyan province, through Zaranj, and onward to Chabahar. India is also working with Iran to build a 600-km road from Chabahar to the Iranian city of Zahedan, near the southwestern corner of Afghanistan that would follow a similar route to the rail line.”[30] Thus, Chabahar is extremely important in India’s Afghanistan strategy.


Interestingly enough, there is no major link between southern Afghanistan and the Pakistani port of Gwadar, which is near Chabahar. Consequently, Afghan goods will be able to travel faster via the Indian built infrastructure to Chabahar than to Gwadar, which is, of course, in India’s interests as this will decrease trade links between Afghanistan and Pakistan while increasing them between India and Afghanistan.[31]

In addition to serving India’s geopolitical purposes in Iran and Afghanistan and countering Pakistan, Chabahar port is also a key element in an emerging great game for influence and power in Asia: the rivalry between India and China. During the past decade, India and China’s rivalry has heated up as Asia’s largest powers have both expanded their strategic and economic interests throughout the region, often competing with each other. Chabahar is situated very close to Gwadar, in Pakistan; China has a strong interest in Gwadar, and in 2013, a Chinese company acquired the right to run Gwadar; the Chinese had been previously investing heavily in Gwadar for several years. In fact, the Indian decision to become active at Chabahar was partially influenced by the fact that China was in Gwadar, as India does not wish to be outflanked. Indian strategists fear that Gwadar is part of a Chinese strategy known as the “String of Pearls” strategy, which involves building a string of pearls (naval facilities) across the Indian Ocean in order to use them one day as military bases to protect its sea lanes and counter naval rivals, the chief of which is India.[32]

Indian analysts are especially concerned about Gwadar because it is better developed and funded than Chabahar. Chinese companies are also much more effective at constructing infrastructure. According to former Indian navy Admiral Suresh Mehta, “Gwadar has the potential to move much faster than Chabahar because the Chinese are involved. It will depend on how fast they can double the capacity of the Karakoram Highway [which connects China and Pakistan],” the Indian government official said, pointing to the pace with which China completed a port on Sri Lanka’s southern coast last year which has added to India’s fear of encirclement.[33] Beijing poured more money, $248 million, in Gwadar than India did at Chabahar.[34]  Although Chabahar is better linked to Afghanistan than Gwadar, India could swiftly lose its advantage to China; furthermore oil tankers coming from the Persian Gulf are more easily accommodated at Gwadar rather than Chabahar. More worryingly for New Delhi, the strategic location of Gwadar, 180 km from the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz [through which much of the world’s oil passes], offers China or Pakistan the chance “to take control over the world energy jugular and…[forbid the movement of] Indian tankers.”[35] As a result, the Chinese influence at Gwadar, along with other projects in the Indian Ocean (though Gwadar is the only Chinese project to the west of India, hence India’s fear of being flanked) gives China the access to the Indian Ocean that could allow it to become a major player in what was previously an ocean with only two large naval players- India and the United States.


The discussion on Chinese influence at Gwadar leads this paper to a discussion of Chinese strategic goals in the region. The paper will primarily deal with Chinese geopolitical goals regarding Pakistan, as China does not as yet have serious geopolitical strategies for Afghanistan and Iran. To resume the discussion on Gwadar and Chinese strategy in Pakistan, it is important to note the goals of Chinese strategy. Most importantly, China’s foreign policy is first and foremost driven by its own domestic concerns regarding economic growth and stability, and only secondarily by foreign concerns.[36] As a result, Chinese actions that are often interpreted by other countries to be hostile towards them are also deeply rooted in Chinese domestic concerns. A case in point is China’s String of Pearls strategy and Gwadar. China’s main concern is to secure its sea lines in order to prevent anything from hindering its economic growth; it is only an added benefit that such a strategy also helps it contain potential rivals.

Gwadar is important to China for two reasons, both of which involve bodies of water: straits.[37] The first strait is the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the energy that China depends on passes. China’s strategic purpose in Gwadar is to keep an eye on this strait and to potentially use naval force to prevent its oil imports from being cut off- in other words, to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. The second strait is the Strait of Malacca, the passageway in Southeast Asia through which a large percentage of Chinese energy imports and manufactured exports pass. As this is a bottleneck that could be used to strangle China, it is extremely vital for China strategically to seek alternative routes to lessen the impact of an incident in the Straits of Malacca on its economy. So in theory China need not ship all its oil supplies from the Gulf through the Indian Ocean and then up to Shanghai. Instead the oil tankers would drop off at Gwadar, and from there the supplies would be trucked through Pakistan and into China Thus, the development of Gwadar, close to the energy producing regions of the Middle East and the future possibility of extending the Karakoram Highway all the way to Gwadar is one means by which China can solve its “Malacca Dilemma.”[38]

The topic of Gwadar is closely related to the Karakoram Highway, the road between China and Pakistan. It is the first road across the Himalayas, where previously only narrow paths existed and most trade and travel routes had to go around the Himalayas. Thus, the Karakoram Highway is one of the feats of modern construction. As the historian John Keay writes about the highway: “it was thought geographically perverse. For if ever there was a frontier decreed by nature it was the Himalaya chain. This, after all, was India’s Great Wall; behind it the peoples of the subcontinent had traditionally sheltered from the whirlwinds of migration and conquest….”[39] The highway was built in the mid-1970s when both Mao Zedong and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto were in power in their respective countries; at a height of over 5000 meters (16,000 feet), it is the world’s highest highway and cost thousands of lives.[40] That the Chinese would instigate such a feat is clearly a demonstration of the long-term Chinese desire to have a dependable land route to the western Indian Ocean and the Middle East.  The Karakoram Highway is truly a geographical game-changer because it links East Asia and South Asia in a way that they have never been linked before. While it is linked to the Pakistani road network, it has yet to be linked directly to Gwadar. However, at the present moment, there are plans to do so and widen the highway from its present two-lanes to facilitate the movement of trucks and tankers.[41]

Karakoram Highway 2

Beyond Gwadar and the Karakoram Highway, China and Pakistan have traditionally have had very good relations, being described by former Chinese President Hu Jintao as “higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the Indian Ocean, and sweeter than honey.”[42] The genesis of this strong relationship was forged by both countries after the 1962 Sino-Indian War as both countries realized that they had a mutual interest in countering India.  In addition to serving its geopolitical goals, China’s relations with Pakistan are mainly strategic; however, overall, China’s relations and geostrategic goals in Pakistan are narrowly focused on security related issues and China does not consider Pakistan to be a major economic partner.[43] China’s interest in Pakistan is to mainly focus on using Pakistan to balance India. As the Pakistan scholar Steven Cohen puts it, China’s goal is “to pursue a classic balance of power strategy, using Pakistan to confront India with the possibility of a two-front war.”[44] The idea, however, is merely to keep the pressure on India, which China sees as a threat but not as an existential threat, and thus not one that needs to be dealt with too strongly. In the meantime, however, China and India have continued to develop economic relations and trade between the two countries has increased, making it less beneficial for both countries to go to war with each other. Thus, while China seeks to use Pakistan as a safeguard against India growing too comfortable in exerting its power in the region, it is not interested in any further action.

Thus, there seems to be a gap between the Chinese and Pakistani perception of where their relationship should go. Despite the fact that China considers Pakistan to be geopolitically convenient and a remarkably loyal ally, China is not as enthusiastic about its relationship with Pakistan as Pakistan is with China because Pakistan is merely one interest among many for a large power such as China, which has other pressing interests in East, Southeast, and Central Asia. On the other hand, Pakistan often considers its relationship with China to be its most important relationship and critical for its survival. This is demonstrated by Pakistan’s almost immediate offer to the Chinese that they establish a naval base after the events of Abbottabad in 2011.[45] This offer however was immediately rejected by China so as to not unduly alienate the United States or India.[46]

Beijing prefers to act cautiously and keeps in mind the longue durée when it comes to grand strategy. It also has a tendency to not act explicitly unless own territorial integrity or vital interests are threatened. As a result, it has repeatedly turned down Pakistani offers for more explicit, military cooperation or a formal alliance, preferring to help Pakistan more indirectly through by selling it weapons.[47] China is interested in working with Pakistan but not propping it up or taking part in military adventurism. In both 1965 and 1971, when Pakistan fought wars with India, China rejected helping Pakistan directly. Pakistan miscalculated that China shared Pakistan’s level of concern over India and would be willing to go to war against India in order to help a friend.[48] Even then, Pakistan persisted in seeking direct Chinese assistance, as during the Kargil War in 1999, in which Pakistani soldiers infiltrated Indian-Kashmir; Chinese leaders remained neutral and rejected requests for support from Pakistani leaders.[49] That Pakistan does not publically air its disappointment and continues to act reverent towards Beijing underscore the importance of China for Pakistan or rather the continued consensus within Pakistan towards attempting to deepen ties with China. However, to conclude from these cases, China’s involvement in Pakistan “will closely reflect Beijing’s own priorities and evolving risk assessments” rather than unequivocal support for any Pakistani priority. [50] Nonetheless, China will not abandon Pakistan as it has already invested so much money and effort into Pakistan in order to secure its own interests; it will just not give primacy to Pakistan’s interests but will keep Pakistan friendly, just in case.

China does have some interests in Afghanistan. Like most countries, China desires a more stable Afghanistan so that economic projects can be implemented and the threat of militancy be reduced. Numerous Chinese companies have major mining contracts in Afghanistan, worth billions of dollars. However, China has not grand geopolitical strategy for Afghanistan. Likewise, with Iran, China maintains some ties, primarily to keep its energy options diversified. However, Chinese companies eager to make profits are wary of doing business in Iran for fear of falling under American sanctions. China takes a cautionary position on Iran’s alleged nuclear program, but ultimately there are no strong geopolitical plans for Iran from the perspective of China. China’s main routes for land pipelines and roads pass through Central Asia or Pakistan.


In a region as prone to change as Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, it is difficult to make future projections as circumstances can rapidly change at any time. However, some possibilities can be noted. The future of the rivalry between China and India at Gwadar and Chabahar is uncertain. While both ports are important to these countries, they are but one element in grand strategies that span across Asia. The possibility exists that these ports may not meet their full potential: in Chabahar, India has not been developing the port as fast as it could because of wariness over American sanctions and a desire to maintain strong relations with the United States. Gwadar, which is in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, contains continued instability and an ethnic Baluch revolt which also slow down its development by the Chinese. Thus, one should not expect to see the rivalry between the two ports develop swiftly over the next decade. However, in the longer term, the rest of the century will continue to feature competition and rivalry between India and China. It is unlikely that either country will give up assets they already have, and in the medium-term future, it is likely that both ports will be the site of intense competition.

Moreover, even if the two ports are not used by the two countries to compete with each other, they are important for their trade-route strategies and are hardly replaceable geographically unless relations between China and India and India and Pakistan improve tremendously, so that the Chinese can reach the Indian Ocean overland by way of India and India can reach Afghanistan overland by way of Pakistan.  This, however, is unlikely. However, hypothetically speaking, if Pakistan and India were to resolve the Kashmir dispute and normalize relations, this would bring stability to the region and solve the geopolitical problem of Afghanistan. Pakistan and India would probably continue to remain rivals in this scenario, but it would be a more competitive and benign rivalry and the Chinese presence would not be so menacing for India. While this scenario is optimal for stability and economic growth, it is unlikely. Pakistan, India, and China have all been known to maintain their positions regarding key issues such as borders for long periods of time and have not shown much inclination to implementing a solution. Furthermore, from Iran’s point of view, as long as it is under sanctions, a grand settlement between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan might not be in its interests as this would reduce the necessity of Iran as a trade hub or ally. Overall, it is likely that current trends will continue: Indo-Pakistani Rivalry, Sino-Indian Rivalry, and Iranian resistance to giving up its nuclear program. Thus the current geopolitical trends, strategies, and developments will gradually continue to intensify.

To conclude, as stated in the introduction and demonstrated throughout this paper, geopolitics are extremely important in determining the strategies of Iran, India, and China in the region that includes Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Geopolitics is responsible for Iran’s strategy in Afghanistan and India’s strategy and infrastructure construction in Afghanistan and Iran. Geopolitics is responsible for China’s strategy of building the Karakoram Highway and involvement at the Pakistani port of Gwadar. It explains the Indo-Pakistani competition in Afghanistan and the Sino-Indian competition in the Indian Ocean and near the Strait of Hormuz as manifested in their activities at Chabahar and Gwadar. Geopolitics continues to be a key determinant and influencer of the policies of countries.


[1] Robert Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography (Random House: New York, 2012), 35.

[2] Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography, 29.

[3] Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography, xvi.

[4] “Not as Smooth as Silk,” The Economist, March 2, 2013.

[5] Shireen T. Hunter, Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era (Praegar: Santa Barbara, 2010), 3-17.

[6] Alireza Nader and Joya Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” The RAND Corporation (2011), 1.

[7] Nader and Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” 1.

[8] Nader and Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” 1.

[9] Nader and Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” 13.

[10] George Bruno and Lionel Beehner, “Iran and the Future of Afghanistan,” Council on Foreign Relations (March 30, 2009).

[11] Nader and Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” 7.

[12]Nader and Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” 7.

[13] Nader and Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan” 3.

[14] Nader and Laha, “Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” 7-8.

[15] Harsh V. Pant, “Pakistan and Iran’s Dysfunctional Relationship,” The Middle East Quarterly Volume XVI, No.2, (Spring 2009).

[16] “Pakistan and Iran: Barren Ground for a New Pipeline,” The Economist. March 16, 2013.

[17] “Pakistan and Iran: Barren Ground for a New Pipeline,” The Economist. March 16, 2013.

[18] David M. Malone, Does the Elephant Dance (Oxford University Press: New York, 2011):


[19] Peter Chalk and Larry Hanauer, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” The RAND Corporation (2012), 11.

[20] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 11.

[21] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 17.

[22] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 16.

[23] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 17.

[24] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 13.

[25] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 13.

[26] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 17.

[27] C. Christine Fair, “India and Iran: New Delhi’s Balancing Act,” The Washington Quarterly (Summer 2007), 145.

[28] Fair, “India and Iran: New Delhi’s Balancing Act,” 149.

[29] Fair, “India and Iran: New Delhi’s Balancing Act,” 153.

[30] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 17.

[31] Chalk, “India’s and Pakistan’s Strategies in Afghanistan,” 17.

[32] “Churning the Oceans,” The Economist, November 24, 2012.

[33] Sanjeev Miglani, “India and China’s Rivalry and a Tale of Two Ports,” Reuters, March 25, 2013.

[34] Miglani, “India and China’s Rivalry and a Tale of Two Ports,” Reuters.

[35] Miglani, “India and China’s Rivalry and a Tale of Two Ports,” Reuters.

[36] George J. Gilboy and Eric Heginbotham, Chinese and Indian Strategic Behavior (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2012): 45-53.

[37] “Churning the Oceans,” The Economist.

[38] “Churning the Oceans,” The Economist.

[39] John Keay, India: A History (Grove Press: New York, 2000), 113.

[40] Keay, India: A History, 113.

[41] Miglani, “India and China’s Rivalry and a Tale of Two Ports,” Reuters.

[42] Michael Beckley, “China and Pakistan: Fair Weather Friends,” Yale Journal of International Affairs (March 2012), 9.

[43] Beckley, “China and Pakistan: Fair Weather Friends,” 9.

[44] Beckley, “China and Pakistan: Fair Weather Friends,” 10.

[45] Beckley, “China and Pakistan: Fair Weather Friends,”  9.

[46] Harsh V. Pant “The Pakistan Thorn in China-India-U.S. Relations,” The Washington Quarterly, Winter (2012), 84.

[47] Beckley, “China and Pakistan: Fair Weather Friends,” 11.

[48] Beckley, “China and Pakistan: Fair Weather Friends,” 11.

[49] Beckley, “China and Pakistan: Fair Weather Friends,” 14.

[50] Evan A Feigenbaum, “China’s Pakistan Conundrum,” Foreign Affairs, December 4, 2011.


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Written by Akhipill

May 1, 2013 at 10:12 PM

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Nukes Do Not Help Pakistan

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Nuclear weapons have primarily constrained Pakistan in its rivalry with India. There are several important ways in which they have constrained its rivalry with India.

Firstly, Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons has led to the reduction of its international credibility vis-à-vis India, making it likelier that other states will increasingly align themselves with India and its positions in its rivalry with Pakistan. This is because Pakistan is generally considered an untrustworthy partner due to its history of double dealing (as with the US in Afghanistan) as well as a sponsor of militant and terrorist groups in neighboring countries such as India and Afghanistan. Given its history of instability and willingness for a first-use of nuclear weapons policy, its possession of nukes has only made other countries even more distrusting of it and willing to constrain it.

Secondly, Pakistan’s nuclear program is expensive, an expense it can barely afford given its crumbling economy, infrastructure, tax base and substandard education. As India’s economy is significantly larger, it can afford to spend more on its nuclear program and military while proportionately spending less of its revenue than Pakistan on the military. In the long run Pakistan’s attempt to keep up with India militarily will damage it as it cannot compete with an economy that is already 8 times larger than it.

Thirdly, the existence of nuclear weapons makes it harder for Pakistan to attempt to fight a conventional war with India (in order to wrest Kashmir from it, for example), as this could lead to a nuclear war. Pakistan is no longer in a position to attempt adventures like its 1965 War without risking a destructive scenario. As a result, its conventional military options become limited, forcing it to resort to more asymmetric options which are generally unable to make long term gains and make Pakistan seem even of a pariah state. These asymmetric options require militant groups which are destabilizing Pakistan itself.

Fourthly, in the event of a nuclear war with India, due to the reasons of geography and size, India would merely be severely damaged while Pakistan’s use of nuclear weapons would set into motion a chain of events that would probably led to its utter destruction.

It is true that nuclear weapons have emboldened Pakistan in some ways. They have led to the perception in Pakistan that it has erased the conventional military advantage of India and if it is able to construct and deploy tactical battlefield nukes, this advantage might be employed on a tactical level as well. Furthermore, it allows some cover for Pakistan to act with impunity in sponsoring terrorist attacks on India without fear of reprisal. While these issues have had some security consequences for India, they have not affected India’s overall long-term advantage over Pakistan nor are an existential threat to India. As long as India’s economy continues to grow, its advantage over Pakistan will continue to grow and unless Pakistan acts in an especially irrational manner by deploying nuclear weapons against India in a surprise attack, Pakistan will find its ability to influence India several constrained in the long run. In totality, despite Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons in an attempt to balance India, Pakistan has been declining more and more relative to India in power, prestige, and ability and it has found nuclear weapons to be a constraining factor.

Written by Akhipill

December 30, 2012 at 8:15 PM

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