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What Drives Pakistan’s Interest in Afghanistan?

April 1, 2011

In March 2009 President Barack Obama stated that Pakistan’s border region is “the most dangerous place in the world” because the majority of international terrorist incidents within the previous year had been either planned in or launched from Pakistan.1 Many of these terror plots directed against the United States and its allies came from terrorists who were trained by al Qaeda in the frontier areas of Pakistan. With such sobering threats to its homeland and a 10-year NATO war in Afghanistan, the United States continues its efforts to create an effective partnership with Pakistan. Yet the United States has a history of failed foreign policies in Pakistan because policymakers resist acknowledging the complexities of Pakistan and its relationship with Afghanistan. The continued failure of political leaders and strategists to understand these complexities, marked by Britain’s 1947 arbitrary division of British Colonial India, could lead the United States into a failed NATO strategy in Afghanistan, a debunked U.S.–Pakistani partnership and, worst case, a regional war between the two nuclear states of Pakistan and India.

Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has been plagued with instability as a result of from its haphazard partition from British Colonial India. A series of internal and external destabilizing factors throughout its 63 years of history leave it on the edge of becoming either a failed state or a regional power. Many of the challenges that Pakistan has had and continues to face in today’s world are inextricably linked to its western neighbor. Pakistan’s historical and current relationship with Afghanistan is vital to understanding and analyzing Pakistani motivations and concerns within this volatile region of the world. The seemingly causal impacts of other regional states and subnational actors in providing positive or detrimental effects on the stability in the region are also imperative to recognizing Pakistan’s political situation. Any major strategic action directed toward Pakistan from another country—particularly India, China and Iran—will very often have an impact on Afghanistan. Likewise, these countries’ interests in Afghanistan have become increasingly influential on Pakistan’s security, political and economic interests.

Four major components—internal security complexities, external security challenges, dynamics of internal Pakistani politics and the quest for economic resources—are interwoven with those of Afghanistan and will be addressed in this paper. Exploring Pakistan’s internal security complexities and their links to neighboring Afghanistan will determine what factors are having a destabilizing effect on Pakistan’s sovereignty. Necessary to a discussion of Pakistan’s external security is its strategy to protect itself from India by building an alliance with Afghanistan that provides Pakistan strategic depth while preventing Indian influence within Afghanistan. Chinese and Iranian influences in Afghanistan are also crucial to Pakistan’s security concerns. An examination of the Pakistani government’s internal politics will include inadvertent power sharing with the military, provincial governments, powerful elites and ethnic majorities. This investigation will also discuss the economic importance to Pakistan of gaining access to Afghan markets and natural resources.