It won’t be wrong to say that it is the failure of the foreign policy of both Afghanistan and Pakistan that the two neighbouring Islamic countries with so much to share have been unable to peacefully co-exist.
The relationship has rarely been friendly, but the unfriendly nature of their ties hasn’t gone out of control to risk a war. There have been border clashes occasionally, though the hostility every time was short-lived and the crisis triggered by it remained manageable. However, the deterioration in relations since 2016 has touched a new low and there is no real hope that Islamabad and Kabul would be able to overcome their huge trust deficit in the near future.
Afghanistan cannot escape the responsibility that it fired the first salvo that introduced the bitterness in its relations with the newly independent state of Pakistan. By opposing Pakistan’s membership in the United Nations on the plea that it doesn’t recognise the Durand Line as an international border, Afghanistan ensured that this issue would continue to haunt the Pak-Afghan relations. That animosity continues to this day because Kabul has yet to give up its inflexible stance on the issue.
Linked to it was Afghanistan’s move to highlight the Pakhtunistan issue and champion the cause of the Pakistani Pakhtuns and the Baloch. It hosted dissident Pakhtun and Baloch leaders on more than one occasion and assisted the tribal elders from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) to destabilise Pakistan.
In a tit-for-tat response, Pakistan started offering sanctuaries to Afghan dissidents, mostly Islamists, in the 1970s. Subsequently, Islamabad backed the Afghan mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet occupying forces, and later allowed the Afghan Taliban leaders to come and stay in Pakistan after losing power in late 2001 as a result of the US invasion of Afghanistan.
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Kabul reacted by allowing the Pakistani Taliban fleeing the military action in Fata and Malakand division to seek refuge in Afghanistan. The policy to host each other’s enemies is still in place and unless it is brought to an end there cannot be a breakthrough in improving Pak-Afghan relations.
Over the years, Pakistan’s foreign policy with regard to Afghanistan has been shaped by security issues. The world powers, such as the erstwhile Soviet Union and currently the US as the sole superpower forced Pakistan’s hand to become involved in Afghanistan’s affairs and suffer the consequences. In particular, the latter tempted Pakistan to first host, train and equip the Afghan mujahideen to fight the Soviet Red Army troops in Afghanistan and then arm-twist it post-9/11 to go after the same breed of militants who had now morphed into the Taliban, al Qaeda and Islamic State, or Daesh.
However, Islamabad cannot absolve itself of the blame as some of its rulers, particularly the military dictators General Ziaul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf, got the country badly involved in the Afghan conflict and then failed to control its fallout on Pakistan. It has become increasingly difficult to decide whether to adopt a hands-off policy towards Afghanistan or re-balance its interaction with the various players in present-day Afghanistan.
India’s big entry into the game post-Taliban and the rise of its influence in Afghanistan has made the situation even more complex for Pakistan. It cannot allow India a free hand in its neighbourhood, but is unable to match its $2 billion-plus reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan coupled with the supply of heavy weapons and training of more than 1,100 Afghan officers yearly in Indian military institutions.
Of late, the Indian factor has increasingly come to determine Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan. With Afghanistan moving closer to India and taking sides in the India-Pakistan disputes, Islamabad is at its wits’ end trying to salvage its relationship with Kabul and prevent further Indian inroads into its neighbourhood.
Due to the presence of around 14,000 US-led Nato forces in Afghanistan even after the drawdown of the bulk of the coalition troops post-2014, the West’s policy is clearly pro-Kabul in respect of the disputes between Islamabad and Kabul. The international opinion, too, is largely in favour of Afghanistan as a state under attack by militants of every hue and colour and in need of help to rebuild its war-battered infrastructure.
Pakistan is continuously asked to ‘do more’ and this demand is unlikely to end until Afghanistan, by some miracle, becomes peaceful and stable again.
Certain recent policy decisions by Pakistan have contributed to the rise in distrust in Afghanistan with regard to Islamabad’s motives. The border management by Islamabad to make it difficult for Afghans to enter Pakistan without visas is seen by Afghans as a move to force Kabul to formally recognise the Durand Line as an international border.
Pakistan’s decision to apply pressure on the large number of Afghan refugees to return to Afghanistan is seen by Afghan officials as an attempt to put burden on their government and paralyse its working. There are numerous examples of how the Afghans continue to blame Pakistan for all its problems without being able to substantiate their allegations.
To its credit, Pakistan has showed patience and refrained from making counter-allegations despite the provocative statements coming from Afghanistan. It has been careful not to antagonise Afghanistan further and push it deeper into India’s corner. However, President Ashraf Ghani has taken Afghanistan so close to India that there could now be no turning back even if Pakistan tries hard and long.
Islamabad should have no objection to New Delhi’s reconstruction and development assistance to Afghanistan, but it is concerned about the defence and security ties that have allegedly enabled India to use the Afghan soil to destabilise Pakistan through the Pakistani Taliban militants and the Baloch separatists.
Lately, Pakistan has initiated steps to revive high-level contacts with Afghanistan in a bid to improve relations. Pakistan Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has called President Ghani, Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah and his Afghan counterpart General Qadam Shah Shaheen to greet them on the New Year and offer condolences on the deaths caused by the recent bomb attacks in Kabul, Kandahar and Lashkargah. It resulted in an invitation from the Afghan President to General Bajwa to visit Afghanistan.
Whenever the visit takes place, General Bajwa could follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, General Raheel Sharif, and try to build trust before exploring the possibility of facilitating another round of peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul. It cannot be easy, but Pak-Afghan relations would see a positive turnaround if Pakistan can somehow pulls this off.