Pakistan is caught between India and Afghanistan more than just geographically. New Delhi and Kabul are looking to deepen their relationship and counter Pakistani influence in the region. On Sept. 10, Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani arrived in New Delhi for a three-day stay and meetings with Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is the first high-level meeting between Afghan and Indian officials following U.S. President Donald Trump's Aug. 21 speech on his country's war in Afghanistan. In that speech, Trump called for India to deepen its role in the war through economic assistance. According to a statement from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, India is honoring that request.
Specifically, India and Afghanistan announced that they will cooperate on 116 suburban and rural development projects for socio-economic and infrastructure development spanning all 31 Afghan provinces. Additionally, the two sides struck a deal on defense, according to Indian media. Details are scant, but plans to provide up to $50 million for repairs on 11 Mi-35 helicopter gunships in the Afghan air force were floated earlier this year.
But Afghanistan isn't the only country expanding outreach to its neighbors in response to Trump's speech. Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javed Zarif in Iran on Sept. 11. The meeting is the second stop on a four-nation tour that includes China, Turkey and Russia. All of these visits are intended to court diplomatic support to counter pressure from Washington while Asif delays meetings with U.S. diplomats such as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
These developments are all par for the course in South Asian geopolitics. Pakistan has long been India's archrival and Afghanistan's dominant eastern neighbor. As a landlocked country, Afghanistan's long-running outreach to India is intended to counterbalance Pakistani influence. Still, both Afghanistan and India are limited in how far they can push Pakistan. India's deepening involvement in Afghanistan — especially in the military domain — will be negatively received by Pakistan. Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban leadership has very clear goals. Pakistan wants to formalize the Afganistan-Pakistan border so the Pakistani military can shift its attention toward the country's eastern border with India. By denying India a foothold in post-conflict Afghanistan, Pakistan seeks to prevent Indian influence from extending to both its eastern and western borders. The more Pakistan feels threatened by an Indian encirclement, the harder the country will push back by refusing to drag the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table.