The Troubled Pak-Afghan Relations

Wajahat Khalid & M. Suleman Khan

April 16, 2019

Pakistan and Afghanistan had a cold start in their relations as Afghanistan voted against Pakistan’s entry into the United Nations in 1947 over the issue of Durand Line. The bilateral relations deteriorated later as Kabul began to instigate the so-called Pakhtunistan Movement. The most painful period in their bilateral relations was the reign of Sardar Dawood Khan who served as Afghanistan’s prime minister from 1953 to 1963 and later as president from 1973 to 1978.

Dawood’s rule saw border clashes with Pakistan and sabotage activities in latter’s tribal regions. Dawood’s policy of supporting Afghan militias around the question of Durand Line was opposed both by Pakistan’s Baloch and Pakhtun nationalist leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan. The latter believed Afghan leaders exploited the issue for political ends. Towards the end of his rule, Dawood had probably realized the futility of pushing Pakistan over the issue as he had stopped talking on the Durand Line. And the Pak-Afghan relations have continued through the ups and downs ever since.

The Durand Line was drawn by the British India and the Afghan state under an agreement signed on November 12, 1893. Pakistan inherited at birth the territories acquired earlier under the agreement. Successive Afghan governments have toyed with the idea of what some call “ethnic reunification” of the Pakhtun population straddling either side of the Durand Line. During the initial decades following Pakistan’s creation, Kabul actively pursued the issue and fomented trouble in Pakistan’s tribal areas with Afghanistan. Pakistan responded forcefully by suppressing the intruding Afghan militias and blocking the trade routes to the landlocked Afghanistan. The hostility damaged the Afghan economy and Kabul increasingly relied on the former USSR for bailouts. With the exception of the Taliban leaders who brushed the Durand issue aside during their rule in Afghanistan in the second half of the 1990s, various Afghan politicians have been commenting on the problem.

There have also been Afghan voices that support Pakistan’s stand on the issue of Durand Line. For instance, Abdul Latif Pedram, a prominent Afghan lawmaker and head of National Congress Party, said he recognized the Durand Line as an internationally recognized border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In 2017, Pakistan approved a comprehensive plan to improve security in its militancy-hit tribal areas. The move elicited a prompt response from the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai who tweeted that “Pakistan government has taken some steps on Durand Line which are angering the Afghans”. Later he again tweeted “the Govt. of Pakistan has no legal authority to dictate terms on the Durand line. While we wish freedom for the people of FATA from FCR (Frontier Crimes Regulations) and other repressive measures, we remind the Govt. of Pakistan that Afghanistan hasn’t and will not recognize the Durand line”. Likewise, Mehmood Khan Achakzai, a Pakistani Member of Parliament and chairperson of Pakhtunkhwa Mili Awami Party, created a domestic uproar by saying that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) belonged to Afghans. His controversial remarks came after Islamabad expressed its intention to repatriate Afghan refugees to their country.

However, there have also been Afghan voices that support Pakistan’s stand on the issue of Durand Line. For instance, Abdul Latif Pedram, a prominent Afghan lawmaker and head of National Congress Party, said he recognized the Durand Line as an internationally recognized border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pedram said “I once again announce that the Line is an international border and Afghanistan and Pakistan should respect each other and respect the border of each other and refrain from interfering in internal affairs of each other”.

Similarly, Shahjee Gul Afridi, a Pakistani Pakhtun lawmaker from the tribal areas, quoted Afghan Vice President Abdullah Abdullah in March 2017 as saying “I am a supporter of the Durand Line and consider it a border between the two brotherly Muslim countries as it is no more a dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan”. Afridi claimed Abdullah wanted Afghanistan not to waste time on the border dispute with Pakistan. When asked about the US stance on the Durand Line, a US Department of State official said the US had no new policies with respect to the borders of Afghanistan.

The Durand Line issue had been a bone of contention between Pakistan and Afghanistan for decades. However, in recent years especially after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 the question of insurgency in Afghanistan has replaced the Durand Line issue as the main irritant in the bilateral relations. Cross border terrorism continues to create troubles for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both Islamabad and Kabul accuse each other of supporting Taliban militants against each other. The Taliban emerged from the chaos of the post-Soviet civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Pakistan supported and later recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan took a drastic turn in its Taliban policy in the wake of terrorist attacks in New York and the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Justifying the policy shift, Pakistan’s then President General Pervez Musharraf said Pakistan had no option but to support America’s anti-Taliban war efforts.

As the US planes began bombing Taliban targets, Pakistan deployed 80,000 troops on the border to prevent the militants from crossing over to Pakistan. However, with over 2000 kilometers of porous and poorly manned border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the spillover of militants into Pakistan was inevitable. Many Taliban groups took shelter in Pakistan’s tribal regions and later other banned extremist groups in Pakistan joined them to form the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007.

The TTP was established as a distinct entity free from the control of the Afghan Taliban. It sought to enforce a strict version of Islamic Shariah in its stronghold of North and South Waziristan and Swat valley which brought it face to face with the Pakistani government. The TTP has staged some of the deadliest attacks in Pakistan, killing thousands of Pakistanis. In 2017, a report by Pakistan government stated that over 60,000 Pakistanis including civilians and security personnel died in the war on terror from 2001 to 2017.

In June 2014, Pakistan launched a military operation nicknamed “Zarb-e-Azb” to cleanse the North Waziristan agency of the TTP militants. Earlier in the same month, the TTP had claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack on Karachi’s international airport. The airport attack that left 36 dead invited a decisive military action from the Pakistan government. The TTP carried out another deadly attack in December 2014 by targeting the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar. The attack left 148 dead including 136 schoolchildren.

Pakistan continues to battle Islamist militants including the TTP. However, despite its continued anti-terrorism operations  against extremist militant groups, Pakistan has been accused of harboring Taliban factions that carry out attacks inside Afghanistan. Pakistan has often been accused of pursuing a policy of differentiating between ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban’ – the good ones comprising those attacking Afghanistan, and the bad ones those that challenge the writ of Pakistani state. Pakistan denies the allegation, saying elimination of all forms of terrorism is in its own national interest.

One of the major allegations Pakistan faces is that it harbors the so-called Quetta Shura of Taliban allegedly based in Balochistan. The Quetta Shura is the self-claimed legitimate Taliban government of Afghanistan in exile. After the collapse of the Taliban government in 2002, a number of Taliban leaders who held top positions in the Taliban regime in Afghanistan formed a Council of Leaders (Rahbari Shura) which later came to be known as the Quetta Shura. Pakistan denied the existence of the Quetta Shura initially.

However, in Dec 2009, Pakistan’s Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar told Dawn News that Pakistani security forces had taken on the Quetta Shura and damaged it to such an extent that it no longer posed a threat. By 2010 it was clear that Pakistan had changed its policy toward the Afghan Taliban. Pakistani security forces had arrested a number of key Taliban figures like Mullah Kabir and Mullah Mohammad Younas. Kabir was an alleged member of the Quetta Shura, while Younas was the Taliban shadow governor of Zabul province. Commenting on the Pakistani crackdown on the Quetta Shura, a report in the New York Times said the development indicated a shift in Pakistan’s policy towards the Afghan Taliban.

But, the blame game between Pakistan and Afghanistan continues to this day, with Afghanistan repeating the allegation that Pakistan harbors the Afghan Taliban leaders. For many years, Afghan and US officials claimed that the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar was hiding in Pakistan. In July 2015, Haseeb Sediqi, the spokesman of Afghanistan’s Directorate of National Security (NDS), claimed that Mullah Omar had died in April 2013 in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. Another Afghan official said “we can confirm that Mullah Omar died two years ago…in Pakistan due to an illness”.

However, the claim about Mullah Omar’s presence and later death in Pakistan has been refuted recently by a Dutch journalist Bette Dam who spent five years digging out information on Mullah Omar. According to Dam’s research, the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar never lived in Pakistan after the overthrow of his government in Afghanistan. She claims, instead, that Omar lived near a US base in Afghanistan where he finally died of natural death.

Nevertheless, the mistrust between Pakistan and Afghanistan continues. Afghanistan refuses to acknowledge that Pakistan is serious in cracking down on all Taliban militants despite the losses Pakistan has suffered in the war against terrorism. US and Afghan officials have repeatedly asked Pakistan to do more against the Afghan Taliban allegedly based in Pakistan. Pakistan denies the presence of Afghan Taliban on its soil and accuses Kabul of providing safe havens to TTP militants that carry out attacks against civilian and security targets inside Pakistan.

On Sep 6, 2017, Pakistan’s Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa said “despite all our efforts, our countless sacrifice and over decades of war, we are being told that we have not done enough against terrorism,”, referring to a criticism by President Donald Trump over Pakistan’s alleged inaction against terrorist ‘safe havens’. He added that if Pakistan had done nothing against terrorism, then no other country had done anything. The army chief demanded of the world, instead, to do more.

Apart from the issue of alleged TTP safe havens in Afghanistan, the presence of India in Afghanistan is also a matter of serious security concern for Islamabad. Pakistan maintains that India is using Afghan soil to instigate insurgency in Balochistan province. In 2009, Pakistan’s then Interior Minister Rehman Malik claimed that India is involved in Balochistan unrest through the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA).

On Sep 2, 2016, the former interior minister repeated his claim during a press conference that India was fomenting unrest in Balochistan and helping the Baloch separatists. According to Shashank Joshi, a fellow at London’s United Services Institute, “India’s steps on Balochistan are largely a tactical move to deter Pakistan from raising Kashmir”. Joshi adds that India also hints at more extensive support for Baloch rebels should Pakistan not reduce its support for anti-Indian militants.

Pakistan rejects the claim that India is in Afghanistan primarily for the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country. Pakistan sees the proliferation of Indian consulates in Afghanistan as an attempt at strategic encirclement of Pakistan. In March 2016, Pakistani authorities arrested a serving Indian naval officer Kulbushan Jhadav from Balochistan’s Sarawan area. Jhadav confessed to his involvement in terrorist activities in Balochistan. Islamabad has also provided to the United Nations dossiers on the Indian involvement in terrorism in Balochistan. However, the blame game, suspicion, and mistrust between Pakistan and Afghanistan continue unending, with each side flaunting their own sets of facts to accuse the other of wrongdoing.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are unlikely to live as peaceful neighbors as long as the border dispute around the Durand Line remains alive. Some Afghan politicians have propagated an assumption that the Durand Line agreement was valid for a specific period, claiming that the territories had been leased out to the British India for a period of 100 years. This assumption is negated by the content of the actual agreement that has no mention of a specific time period. Nevertheless, many Afghan politicians and scholars continue to stick to their version, turning a blind eye to the actual agreement that handed over the territories to the British India.

Pakistan inherited the territories at birth. For Pakistan, the Durand Line is a non-negotiable reality. The issue is a matter of national security and territorial integrity and no claim, historical or otherwise, is likely to ever lead to a change in Pakistan’s stated position on its international border with Afghanistan. Even the diehard champions of the Durand Line like Afghan President Sardar Dawood Khan had to ultimately realize that it was a waste of time and resources for Afghanistan to push Pakistan over this question.

Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are suffering from multiple crises of poverty, illiteracy, terrorism, and violent extremism, etc. An early demise of the Durand Line issue would most likely usher in a period of more stability and peace in both countries. The Afghan leaders’ intermittent playing with the Durand Line issue has never helped the Afghan people whose several generations have grown up seeing nothing but war and destruction. A country annihilated by decades of war can concentrate its time, talent, skills, and resources to the social and infrastructural reconstruction instead of digging out a matter that invites only tension and instability.

Peace and stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan are interlinked. Neither is immune to what happens to the other and a development in either country spills over to the other. Both neighbors need to address the gaps in their bilateral relations. The mutual mistrust prevailing on both sides can be overcome by addressing each other’s concerns. Pakistan should ensure that its territory is not used by any shades of militants against Afghanistan. The National Action Plan, developed following the horrifying attack on the APS, needs to be activated with full force of the state and implemented indiscriminately across the country. On the other hand, Afghanistan must, likewise, ensure that Afghan soil does not become a launching pad for anti-Pakistan terrorist groups. Kabul needs to address Pakistan’s genuine security concerns around the Indian presence in Afghanistan. Only through a genuine commitment to peace and stability can the two neighbors build mutual trust and policies to root out the scourge of terrorism and insurgency permanently.