Afghanistan’s Foreign Policy: From India-Iran Circle to Saudi-Pakistan Belt

On 5th May 2015, President Ashraf Ghani announced that he would focus on domestic issues in the next five months. He made such a promise because he had almost exclusively focused on foreign relations in the first eight months in office. His critics sarcastically suggested that the President believes Afghanistan is too small for him; he is elected to bring global change. But he seems to have understood it well that anything that happens inside Afghanistan is a function of a decision made outside Afghanistan; its neighbours, the region and a few capitals of the world.

In the first statement of the foreign section of his election platform, Ghani had stated that “the [domestic] stability of our country depends on how we establish our foreign relations.”[1] He explained it further that in order to manage our foreign policy we better see our relations in five circles: 1) neighbours 2) Islamic countries 3) Europe, America, Canada and Japan 4) Asian Countries and 5) International Organizations.[2] He stayed in tuned with his emphasis on importance of foreign relation but in practice he does not seem to follow those circles. What he has consciously done was to repair the Afghan-US relations with success. However, it was not the relation with the US that occupied Afghan foreign policy in the last eight months in office. The tilt towards Pakistan-Saudi from previously important countries during Karzai i.e. India-Iran is the central change in Afghan foreign policy.

Karzai and the tilt towards India and Iran 

Indo-Afghan relations developed to a strategic level during Karzai. India has contributed USD 2 billion in aid,[3] educate Afghan students and military officers and suggested to purchase heavy weapons on the behalf of Afghanistan. This is a fact that Karzai was educated in India but that was hardly a reason for this close relation. In 2001, the Northern Alliance, a military group supported by India against Pakistan-supported Taliban, came to power and made the backbone of Afghan armed forces and foreign policy during Karzai. In spite of previous animosity with Pakistan, Karzai tried to cooperate with Pakistan to contain the resurgence of Taliban. After several failed attempts to convince Pakistan to cooperate, the Spanta Circle[4] decided to confront Pakistan; this time by establishing military and intelligence relations with India and even as some suggest, supporting the Pakistan Taliban. President Ghanihas described the relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan as two countries in a state of undeclared war in the last decade.[5]


The power of Northern Alliance in Karzai regime was also the reason for warm relations with Iran. India and Iran have decided to reduce Afghanistan’s economic dependence on Pakistan ports by connecting Afghanistan to sea through Chabahar port of Iran.[6] In the past, Iran had supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and they both share the same language and ethnicity. Another reason was Iranian’s active diplomacy to reach out to Karzai while maintaining good relations with other ethnic groups. In spite of the US and its Allies’ domination in Afghanistan, Iran successfully banked on Northern Alliance and secured Karzai’s leaning towards itself. At the regional level, Tajikistan a country having close relations with Iran and India and with full backing of Northern Alliance also benefited from its good relations by signing a power contract with Afghanistan. Naturally at the international level, it was Russia who also enjoyed some infrequent attention from the Afghan state especially when the relations with the US got ugly; Karzai supporting Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Indian proposal to buy heavy weapons on the behalf of Afghanistan from Russia are some of the pointed examples.[7]

In real-politick language, Afghanistan used India against Pakistan, and Iran against Saudi Arabia. The Pakistani officials repeatedly expressed their concerns to their Afghan counterparts of Indian influence in Afghanistan while the Saudis had the same concerns about Iran in Afghanistan. This was against the myth that exists in full sway in Afghanistan foreign policy i.e. neutrality.The official historians have erroneously argued that neutrality is the central doctrine of Afghanforeign policy. But in practice, Afghanistan was part of the Soviet bloc while maintaining its Non-Aligned membership; during the First and Second World Wars it had supported Germany while declaring itself as neutral. In spite of favouring India and Iran over Pakistan and Saudi, Karzai regime announced their official stance as neutral. This also applies to the current change in Afghanistan’s foreign policy viz. favouring Pakistan and Saudi over India and Iran but still declaring1 itself as neutral.

Ghani and the tilts towards Pakistan and Saudi 

When Ghani took office, he cancelled a contract based on which India was supposed to give Afghanistan heavy weapons.[8] The President also cancelled the training program of Afghan officers in India. Instead the officers were sent to Pakistan for training. The tilt started with that but did not end there. When Ghani visited Pakistan, he went to meet the Chief of Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi against all diplomatic norms. They were enough to provoke the former National Security Advisor and Foreign Minister, Dr Spanta, to announce that he is ready to come out in the streets to protests against Ghani’s policy towards Pakistan. It was a matter of time to witness national protests against Ghani’s favouring Pakistan over India.


On 19 May 2015, the news of signing a MoU between Afghanistan National Security Directorate (Spy Agency) and the ISI was received with harsh criticism of Ghani administration’s approach towards Pakistan. The strongest reaction came from the former President who has requested to revoke the MoU immediately. Another critique called it a “naive overture towards Islamabad [that] seems to be gradually subduing Afghanistan to Pakistan.”[9]

Another ally of Pakistan in the region is Saudi Arabia. President Ghani has visited the Kingdom four times and is reported to have received warmer welcome than his predecessor. Such visits did signal Afghanistan’s new approach towards Saudi Arabia but it was Afghanistan supporting Saudi’s stance on Yemen that provoked criticism at home, especially from the Shia community. The more strategic ally of Pakistan in the region is China both of which have joint interests in containing India. President Ghani has visited China and is reported to have received Chinese support to put pressure on Pakistan to cooperate in the peace process.

Comparing the two approaches 

In the final months of Karzai in office the country was insecure, unemployment had increased and corruption was pervasive. In the first eight months of President Ghani, insecurity, unemployment and corruption have worsened. Does this mean that Ghani government has failed in its foreign policy initiatives and domestic reforms?

The paradigm shift in Afghanistan’s regional foreign policy will have far reaching ethnic implications in the domestic affairs than they are expected.[10] But that aside, the purpose behind this shift is to facilitate/accelerate peace process with the Taliban. If Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are committed to contribute to peace process in Afghanistan, they would certainly can influence Taliban to a great extent. And President Ghani and his advisors believe that these countries will sincerely contribute to peace process if they are given enough concession i.e. cutting down India and Iranian influence in Afghanistan. Now that this shift is in full swing in spite of domestic protests, one should wait at least some maybe one year to see a significant decrease in insurgent activities in the short term.



[1] Ashraf Ghani (2014), “Change and Continuity Election Platform”, Pajhwok New Agency, (accessed on 25 May 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Katharine Houreld and Mirwais Harooni (2014), “India and Pakistan ramp up aid as they jostle for influence in Kabul”, Reuters, (accessed on 25 May 2015).

[4] Dr.Rangin Dadfar Spanta was Afghanistan Foreign Minister and later National Security Directorate. He along with Amrullah Salah (the Head of National Security Directorate) and to a lesser extend two official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Dr.Davwood Moradian and Dr.Faramarz Tamana are the architects of a confronting foreign policy towards Pakistan.

[5] Ahmad Qureshi (2015), “Pakistan in state of undeclared war with Afghanistan: Ghani”,Pajhwok News Agency, (accessed on 25 May 2015).

[6] DW (2015), “Examining the implications of the Indo-Iranian Chabahar port deal”, DW, (accessed on 25 May 2015).

[7] Richard Weitz (2014), “Russia-India Afghan Arms Deal Comes With Regional Implications”, World Politics Review, (accessed on 25 May 2015).

[8] Karim Amini (2015), “President Ghani Suspends Karzai’s Request for Indian Arms”, Tolo News (accessed on 25 May 2015).

[9] Aimal Faizi (2015), “Afghan government is sleeping with the enemy”, Al Jazeera (accessed on 25 May 2015).

[10] Moh. Sayed Madadi, Tabish Forugh (2015), “Afghan Peace: Between A Rock and A Hard Place”, Foreign Policy, (accessed on 25 May 2015).

Naser_photoNaser Timory is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Herat University and Junior Researcher at Integrity Watch Afghanistan.

One thought on “Afghanistan’s Foreign Policy: From India-Iran Circle to Saudi-Pakistan Belt

  • September 7, 2015 at 10:31 am

    The issues were well organized and analyzed. I think Pakistan never will help afghanistan and is always trying to establish a weak government in Afghanistan.


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