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India Turns to Russia and Iran for a New Afghanistan and Pakistan Strategy

Last month, in one of the largest single disclosures of such information in US history, WikiLeaks released more than 91,000 classified documents, some of which confirmed that Pakistani intelligence is involved in the Afghan insurgency even as it continues to receive more than $1 billion a year from Washington to combat extremists.

The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has been helping Afghan insurgents plan and carry out attacks on US forces in Afghanistan and their Afghan government allies. The efforts by the ISI to run the networks of suicide bombers and its help in organizing Taliban offensives at crucial periods in the Afghan war have also been underlined.

Pakistan’s double game of appeasing certain American demands for cooperation while striving to exert influence in Afghanistan through many of the same insurgent networks that the Americans are fighting to eliminate has long been evident to the US military and political  leadership. After all, it was General Pervez Musharraf who was forced to acknowledge the possibility that former ISI officials were assisting the Afghan insurgency.

The report made it clear that India has been targeted by the ISI. The bombing of the Indian embassy was at the behest of the ISI and Haqqani network sent bombers to strike Indian officials, development workers and engineers in Afghanistan. The ISI paid the Haqqani network to eliminate Indians working in Afghanistan, and gave orders to orchestrate attacks on Indian consulates in Afghanistan. That the Pakistani security complex has engendered targeting of Indian interests in Afghanistan was hardly news in New Delhi. But what has been troubling Indian policy-makers is Washington’s reluctance to counter Pakistan’s designs in Afghanistan.

Indian influence in Afghanistan rose significantly as American support for Pakistan shifted and Washington demanded that Pakistan adopt policies that India had long wanted in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Moreover, India emerged as a major economic actor in Afghanistan. But by refusing to use hard power India soon made itself irrelevant as the ground realities changed and a divergence emerged between the strategic interests of India and Washington.

The Obama Administration, intent on moving out of Afghanistan, has managed to signal to Indian adversaries that they can shape the post -American ground realities to serve their own ends. India has lost the confidence of its own allies in Afghanistan. If India was unwilling to stand up for its own interests, few see the benefit of aligning with India.

Moreover, Pakistan’s weak democracy and powerful military and intelligence apparatus has failed to get a grip on the problem that now threatens to overwhelm the Pakistani state itself. The three-year extension granted to Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani will ensure that a return to meaningful democracy will continue to elude Pakistan and the inflexible India-centric security perception of the army will make a rapprochement with India a non-starter. Kayani is clear that he wants to call the shots in Kabul. He remains wedded to the notion of “strategic depth” - that is, to making Afghanistan the kind of proprietary hinterland for Pakistan, free of Indian or other outside influence, which it was from 1992 to 2001.

This changing strategic dynamic is forcing New Delhi to reach out to Russia and Iran promptly, as they share similar concerns about the emerging power configuration in Af-Pak. New Delhi has made some moves in this direction with the Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit to Moscow to reiterate the two nations’ shared positions on Afghanistan and Indian attempts to do business with Iran despite western sanctions on Tehran.

Moscow is refocusing on Afghanistan as Islamist extremism and drug trafficking emanating from Central Asia have emerged as major threats to its national security. Moscow hosted the presidents of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan in mid-August, and has promised to invest significant resources in Afghanistan to develop infrastructure and natural resources.

After keeping itself aloof from Af-Pak for years after the ouster of the Taliban, Russia is back in the game, and even the US is supporting greater Russian involvement. This has prompted greater cooperation between India and Russia on Afghanistan. Iran is the third part of this triangle, and India’s outreach to Tehran has become serious after signals from Iran that the relationship was drifting.

In the second ministerial-level visit in less than a month, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister was in India in early August to coordinate a joint approach towards Afghanistan. Despite western sanctions, the Indian government is encouraging Indian companies to invest in the Iranian energy sector so that economic interests can underpin a political realignment between the two countries.

The rapidity with which events are unfolding in India’s western neighbourhood requires a sustained Indian policy response to minimize the adverse effects of the American proposed withdrawal and Pakistan’s growing adventurism. It is still too early to determine whether India’s gravitation towards Russia and Iran will be enough to keep the situation in Af-Pak from evolving to India’s disadvantage.

By. Harsh V Pant

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