July issue 2016
Now Friend, Now Enemy: Pak-Afghan Relations
President Ashraf Ghani wasn’t wide off the mark when he remarked some months ago that Afghanistan and Pakistan weren’t really brotherly countries but were two neighbours trying to have normal relations.
If this wasn’t the case, the neighbouring Islamic countries would not have come to blows recently at their Torkham border. For three days in mid-June, their forces used light and heavy weapons to fire at each other from across the Durand Line border. When the firing stopped, Pakistan had lost Major Ali Jawad Changezi and Afghanistan counted a soldier and a civilian dead. Many more soldiers and civilians were wounded in the clashes and properties were damaged.
The six-day closure of the busy Torkham border also caused loss of revenue to the two governments and traders and affected the livelihoods of a large number of people living close to the Pak-Afghan border in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. More importantly, it widened the gulf between the two countries as patriotic sentiment swept their countries, more so in Afghanistan where the state-managed narrative blamed Pakistan for the Afghans’ woes.
Obviously, most Pakistanis didn’t like the Afghan President’s blunt statement and many recounted the good deeds that Pakistan had done for Afghanistan these past years, including hosting the largest number of refugees in the world for such a long period of time. Some complained that the Afghans were generally ungrateful while others felt Ashraf Ghani’s indelicate statement was due to his government’s growing friendship with Pakistan’s arch-rival, India.
In fact, the subsequent elaborate border management measures initiated by Pakistan to upgrade its security at Torkham and elsewhere on the 2,500 kilometre Durand Line and its unusually tougher line on the question of the repatriation of Afghan refugees could be Islamabad’s answer to the Afghan President’s stance, as Pakistan was no longer a brotherly country and, therefore, under no compulsion to behave as a brother to Afghanistan.
Pak-Afghan relations have seldom been friendly, though there have been periods of cordiality like the 1965 India-Pakistan war when the Afghan King Zahir Shah reportedly assured President Ayub Khan not to worry about the western border with Afghanistan and instead concentrate on the eastern border with India. In the subsequent 1971 war with India following the East Pakistan/Bangladesh crisis, Pakistan didn’t have to worry about its border with Afghanistan at a time when its forces were stretched thin in the eastern wing of the country and on the eastern border with India and the Line of Control in Kashmir. However, the burden of history continued to haunt Pak-Afghan relations. Afghanistan’s opposition to Pakistan’s membership to the United Nations at the time of independence in 1947, its refusal to recognise the Durand Line as an international border, and its espousal of Pakhtunistan as a vague homeland for Pakistani Pakhtuns contributed to the bitterness in their relations and sowed the seeds of perennial discord.
Occasional border skirmishes and the policy of hosting each other’s dissidents kept Islamabad and Kabul at a distance and inserted the element of uncertainty into their uneasy relationship. Pakistan allowed itself to be pulled into the Afghan quagmire following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, to sustain the struggling Afghan communist regime and after the US military intervention in October 2001 to punish al-Qaeda for sponsoring the 9/11 attacks and oust the Taliban regime for harbouring Osama bin Laden. The impossibility of checking the movement of goods and people across the long and porous Pak-Afghan border contributed to the challenges facing Afghanistan and Pakistan as refugees, smugglers and militants crossed it with ease and gun-running and drug-trafficking flourished. The existence of uncontrolled spaces in the border areas and the divergent agendas of Islamabad and Kabul facilitated the Afghan, Pakistani and foreign militants to set up sanctuaries for launching cross-border attacks and sponsoring acts of terrorism to destabilise both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As if all this wasn’t enough to poison Pak-Afghan ties, the India factor has made the situation worse. India and Pakistan have been on opposite sides in the Afghan conflict since the communist Saur Revolution in Afghanistan in April 1978. India backed the Soviet-inspired Afghan communist regime and Pakistan sided with the Afghan mujahideen. India was shunted out of Afghanistan when the mujahideen came to power in April 1992 and Pakistan assumed the role of a king-maker. India began assisting the Northern Alliance with arms and money when the Taliban emerged on the scene and captured Kabul in September 1996.
The proxy war in Afghanistan involving India and Pakistan was now no longer a secret as they were backing rival sides in the Afghan conflict. The fall of the Taliban regime in December 2001 enabled India to make a strong comeback in Afghanistan and invest heavily to win the hearts and mind of the Afghan people. India is now one of the closest allies of the Afghan unity government of President Ashraf Ghani and his Chief Executive Officer, Dr Abdullah, and among the biggest donors to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. India also cleverly brought Iran into the equation by deciding to develop its Chabahar seaport and link it with southwestern Afghanistan to provide an alternative export and import route to Indian and Afghan goods bypassing Pakistan. In comparison, Islamabad’s relations with Kabul have deteriorated to such an extent that Pakistan is seen as an enemy in Afghanistan, particularly by the Afghan ruling elite.
The deterioration in Pakistan’s relations with the US due to a host of factors has also made it difficult for Islamabad to improve its ties with Afghanistan. Like Kabul, Washington has been demanding that Islamabad should move decisively against the Haqqani Network and either persuade the Afghan Taliban leaders residing in Pakistan to hold peace talks with the Afghan government or take action to punish the irreconcilable among them. Islamabad hasn’t been able to do any of these tasks. It wants peace to be given a chance and has been seeking more time to work on the Taliban leadership, which was in disarray following the death of their supreme leader, Mulla Mohammad Omar and the assassination of his successor, Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, in a US drone strike on May 21 in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Also, Islamabad is in no mood to take action against the Afghan Taliban leadership due to its concern that this would bring the Afghan war to Pakistan.
The stalemate has dampened hopes for the revival of the Afghan peace process. With the summer fighting season becoming intense and all sides to the conflict talking of war and revenge, the chances for peace are receding. This is making it harder for Afghanistan and Pakistan to resolve their disputes. Until the Afghan conflict is brought to an end, there is little chance the two countries could take meaningful steps to become brotherly countries in the real sense.
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.