October Issue 2015
Cover Story: Now Brothers Now Enemies
The bonhomie between the Afghan and Pakistani civil and military leaders in December 2014 and during the early part of 2015 had come as a pleasant surprise. But the growing animosity between the two neighbouring countries being witnessed nowadays is not surprising because this is how they have conducted their relationship since Pakistan’s independence in 1947.
The ongoing phase of the unfriendly Pak-Afghan relations is largely due to the violence being perpetrated by militants on both sides of the Durand Line border. This has added to the distrust already existing between Islamabad and Kabul and made it difficult for them to cooperate in fighting the war against militancy and terrorism.
The situation was compounded recently by the war of words unleashed by Afghan President Dr Ashraf Ghani against Pakistan in his press conference in Kabul on August 10. He has repeatedly accused Pakistan of being insincere in its actions and for failing to inform Afghanistan that Taliban supreme leader Mulla Mohammad Omar was dead. He even charged Pakistan with complicity by not taking action against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network leaders based in Pakistan.
Ashraf Ghani’s outburst followed three devastating bomb explosions in Kabul in a day that also killed civilians and, at the same time, exposed the Afghan government’s helplessness in stopping such attacks. His allegations upset the government of Pakistan as it had painstakingly pursued the difficult path to improve relations with Afghanistan since Ashraf Ghani’s installation as president on September 29 last year.
Pakistan showed patience as it reacted calmly instead of being provoked by the accusations made against it by the Afghan ruling elite ranging from President Ashraf Ghani to Chief Executive Officer, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, and from First Vice-President, General Abdul Rasheed Dostum, to Kandahar police chief, General Abdul Raziq. The last-named two are pathologically opposed to Pakistan: Dostum recently alleged, without providing any evidence, that a Pakistan Army general was leading the Taliban fighters in the northern Faryab province, while Raziq argued that Pakistan was responsible for every problem that Afghanistan is facing today. Dostum’s allegation was so outrageous that his own government didn’t endorse it. As for Raziq, he is in the habit of making frequent anti-Pakistan, or specifically anti-Punjabi, statements. With Ashraf Ghani in the lead, other Afghan government functionaries felt emboldened to make every kind of accusation against Pakistan.
President Ashraf Ghani believes that Islamabad and Kabul have been in an undeclared state of hostilities for the past 13 years and the two countries need to first resolve their disputes before they could focus on fighting the militants and terrorists. He claimed in one of his interviews that Pakistan had accepted the notion that the real conflict has been between the two states rather than within Afghanistan. He termed this a breakthrough, even though Pakistan has yet to concede that it agreed with his assessment of the situation.
Ashraf Ghani, known for his temper, went a step further in his latest statement when he refused to consider the relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan as brotherly. Instead, he said their ties were like those between two states and no more. It appears that Ashraf Ghani is in competition with his predecessor Hamid Karzai.
Pakistan too has many grievances against Afghanistan, but it has not indulged in the kind of bitter rhetoric that is frequently heard in Kabul. Pakistan has been complaining about the presence of Pakistani Taliban fighters, led by Maulana Fazlullah, in the three eastern Afghanistan provinces of Kunar, Nuristan and Nangarhar and the use of Afghan soil to launch cross-border attacks in Pakistani territory. Pakistan is also concerned about the support given to Pakistani Baloch separatists in Afghanistan. Besides, Islamabad has publicly complained about the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan and the ease with which New Delhi is able to use Afghan territory to destabilise Pakistan.
The reasons for continued strained relations between Islamabad and Kabul are many. One such reason was the September 18 attack by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants on the Pakistan Air Force camp in Badaber near Peshawar in which 29 security forces personnel were killed and 27 others were wounded. Pakistan immediately made the claim that the attack was planned in Afghanistan and carried out by militants who had come from across the border. Afghanistan predictably rejected the claim. This was no different from Kabul’s allegations that attacks taking place in Afghanistan are planned in Pakistan. Obviously, Islamabad has been rejecting all such allegations. Given the kind of uncertain relationship that they have, it is hard to imagine the two agreeing on most issues.
As if all this wasn’t enough, the capture of Kunduz by the Afghan Taliban on September 28 inserted a new divisive element into the uncertain Pak-Afghan relationship as Kabul has all along alleged that the Taliban were a creation of Pakistan and were being used to achieve foreign policy objectives. This was the first city that fell to the Taliban since the collapse of their regime in December 2011 and showed the Taliban military strength and the shortcomings of the almost 400,000-men strong Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The fall of Kunduz, a city of more than 300,000 people, could embolden Taliban fighters elsewhere in Afghanistan to launch bigger attacks and make it even more difficult to persuade the Taliban and the Afghan government to resume the peace talks. The increase in bloodshed would contribute to stiffening of positions by both sides amid calls for revenge.
The strained Pak-Afghan relations have negatively impacted even their trade ties and led to a significant drop in the Afghan transit trade carried out overland through Pakistan. The almost three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan could come under pressure to leave if the relations deteriorate further even though Islamabad has given assurances that those registered won’t be forcibly repatriated while the unregistered ones would be dealt with under the law. In these circumstances, the more than 100,000 Pakistanis who have found employment in Afghanistan would face problems and many would have to return home. Much to Pakistan’s dismay, India would gain further influence in Afghanistan and become a factor of destabilisation in the AfPak region. The ultimate sufferers would be the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan as they would have nothing to gain and everything to lose in case the two countries fail to peacefully resolve their disputes.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.