The undercurrents of Pak-Afghan relations are often seen shifting, dictated by leaders in power, national security interests, and foreign policy ties. While many attribute erratic relations between the two countries to their historical baggage, others cite Afghanistan’s swelling affair with India as a reason for its disengagement, and Pakistan’s growing distrust. While Ghani’s appointment got many hoping that a reconciliation was possible between the two countries, more than it was under Karzai, soon into his tenure he was seen blasting Pakistan on international forums and media over its alleged covert and ‘undeclared’ war in Afghanistan, and functioning as a sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban.
However, what remains largely ignored in this narrative is an understanding of Pakistan’s concerns and core interests in Afghanistan, and consequently, its goals and motivations in the country.
Despite deep-seated ethnic, cultural, economic and religious ties, both counties have frequently been on a sour note with each other. Historically, this goes back to Afghanistan questioning the validity of the Durand line after the decolonization of the British, and making territorial claims so far as Balochistan, and the Khyber province. Afghanistan is of the belief that Pashtuns were separated due to the demarcation of this line, and therefore all of them are Afghan, despite the fact that the largest population of Pashtuns is found in Pakistan, where they form the second largest ethnic group. It is for this reason that Afghan governments have endorsed Pashtun militant groups, and in the past crossed the international border and entered Pakistan from the Bajaur Agency in the 60s to muster support for a Pakhtunistan and to highlight the Pashtun issue.
Pakistan’s policy of supporting ethnic groups in Afghanistan during the Cold War, leading to the emergence of the Mujahideen, and the consequent injection of the Taliban as a means to stabilize Afghanistan whilst keeping it close, only deteriorated the political situation in the country and bred more hatred for its neighbor. Another argument for Pakistan’s involvement during the Soviet invasion was because it felt that a Soviet allied Afghanistan would have solid backing in invading Pakistan’s western regions or enflaming insurgency in the border areas.
Afghanistan cozying up to India, and India making deep inroads in the political and economic sphere of the country through diplomatic gifts like the Friendship Dam, and a new Afghan parliament building, and open support for each other on international forums in their diatribe against Pakistan is adding to Pakistan’s anxieties. The Iran-India-Afghanistan Chabahar nexus, with Pakistan far from the economic scene, and the growing proximity of the two countries adds to this. Pakistan’s conundrum is this: an unstable Afghanistan, and a strong Afghanistan closely aligned with India. Geographically, since Pakistan is sandwiched between the two countries – deteriorating relations between India and Pakistan over issues like Kashmir, India’s covert warfare in Pakistan especially with regards to Balochistan, a fear of India using Afghan soil to destabilize Pakistan, alongside Afghanistan’s territorial claims and accusatory fingers puts Pakistan between a rock and a hard place.
Illegal flows and untoward outcomes
One of Pakistan’s major concerns is the presence of TTP on Afghan soil. Many of the TTP fighters, which Pakistan was conducting large-scale operations against in the tribal areas, managed to cross the border during these operations and found sanctuary in Afghanistan – simultaneously, pledging allegiance to ISIS, which has made deep inroads and gained traction in Afghanistan under its banner of ISIS-Khurasan (an ambitious project to include Afghanistan and Pakistan in one province under ISIS rule). During this time, the Afghan intelligence, purportedly with the knowledge of the Americans, aided the now ISIS allied TTP terrorists to attack Pakistan.
While Pakistan has often been made to take the fall for the failures of the Obama administration in Afghanistan, by blaming the Haqqanis, American media remains eerily silent on the fact that 40% of Afghanistan’s territory is under Taliban rule. With the porous nature of the borders, this adds to Pakistan’s worries, especially with the ISIS taking a foothold in Afghanistan.
The refugee problem still exists to date, whereby the Afghan government fails to contain the flow of refugees and illegal migrants in Pakistan. As of now, 1.5 registered and 1 million unregistered refugees reside on Pakistani soil, and has been a point of contention between the two governments. Pakistan’s recent response to this has been one of mass eviction and downright harassment, citing reasons of its own lack of finances to support these refugees. The government last year ordered all Afghan migrants and refugees to leave, a policy under which authorities began raiding homes and shops – stories of police harassment, and arbitrary arrests began to surface. By failing to denounce the mass expulsion as refoulement – the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to be subject to persecution – the UN also failed in its duty to safeguard refugees. With Afghanistan’s limited absorption capacity, a lack of repatriation plans and durable solutions for refugees, and a system still in tatters, the inflow of refugees would only prove to be an additional burden on the state as of now. However, the Pakistani government recently extended the deadline for Afghans to leave until the end of 2017 – a policy to save face, and avoid mudslinging.
The prevalence of undocumented, un-taxed trade that happens near the border region, and the failure of the Afghan government to control the flow of drugs and smuggled goods into Pakistan is also a point of contention. With Pakistan closing off borders every now and then as a tactic to pressurize Afghanistan and to have the upper hand, Afghanistan loses millions in the trade of perishable items whereby truckloads of fruits and meat are left stranded along the border. It is for this reason that farmers and traders resort to the production of opium, especially with Pakistan estimated to being one of the highest users of heroin – demand always exists. While New Delhi is vigorously building bridges (literal and metaphorical) to Afghanistan, as it recently launched an air-cargo link between Afghanistan and India to bypass existing border issues, Pakistan’s frequent border closures and poor air connectivity causes a lot of resentment in the traders community, and the leadership of Afghanistan, whereby Pakistan is seen as sabotaging the economic activity of the former for political reasons.
However, Pakistan’s leadership needs to understand the difference between political/security, and economic relations – both should be independent of each other. If the distinction doesn’t exist, economic relations will be cut off every single time political skirmishes take place, causing two things: a) an economically stagnant country, with limited partners for trade, b) no leverage, nothing to hold on to in case the need for dialogue arises.
Frosty relations with Kabul aren’t in Pakistan’s best interest.
Effective border management is vital to monitor the movement of goods and people between both countries, including militants moving across the porous border. The existing trust deficit needs to be bridged by leaders and civil society members to ensure both countries are on the same page when it comes to security concerns. Apart from a relationship built on security issues, both Afghanistan and Pakistan need to understand the need for cooperation in media, education, sports, arts, and the common culture both countries share, in order to establish better ties. This relationship should be independent of Pak-Afghan relations with other countries in the region.
Peace in Afghanistan is contingent on regional stability, with Pakistan at its core. Likewise, a volatile Afghanistan threatens Pakistan’s internal security and its ability to revive its economy, weak state structures, and subdue militant factions operating in the country. However, with relations with India on the decline, Pakistan needs to understand the repercussions of being sandwiched between two countries it has severed ties with – making it very vulnerable in the region, in terms of trade, and most importantly its borders.