Catch-22: Pak-Afghan Relations

Spearhead Analysis – 25.08.2016

By Xenia Rasul Khan Mahsud
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

SR FeaturedIn recent news, authorities have indefinitely shut down the Pak-Afghan border at Chaman after Afghan demonstrators desecrated the Pakistan flag and pelted stones at the Friendship Gate. This has come weeks after the incident at Torkham border, where cross-border firing over the construction of a gate along the border led to the death of a Pakistani major.

The dynamics of Pak-Afghan relations are often seen shifting, dictated by leaders in power, national security concerns, and foreign policy linkages. While many attribute fickle 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 mistrust. Although Ghani’s appointment was seen by many as the calm after the storm that was Karzai, less than a year into his tenure he is found blasting Pakistan on international forums over its alleged ‘undeclared’ and covert war in Afghanistan.

With Karzai endorsing Modi’s statement on Balochistan, Pakistan’s civil-military repeatedly deflecting blame on Afghan intelligence agencies following attacks on Pakistani soil, recurring border skirmishes, and the shadow of the Durand line looming large on bilateral relations, many are of the opinion that Pak-Afghan relations are headed for the worst.

What does this mean for regional security?

Blame game

While cultural, ethnic, economic, and religious ties are deep-seated between the two countries, both 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 Pashtun areas of Pakistan. Afghanistan refuses to recognize the Durand line still and sees Pakistan’s involvement in destabilizing Afghanistan through its covert tactics as a means to weaken its claim on its rightful territories.

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. This resentment extends to the Afghan public, whereby anti-Pakistan sentiments run as deep as pro-Indian romanticism.

As of now, Pakistan is invariably accused of breeding radical groups on Afghan soil, and providing sanctuaries and support for terrorists. Mullah Mansour’s presence in Balochistan, and the Afghan government’s claim that Mullah Omar died in a hospital in Karachi, along with numerous other examples of Taliban leaders operating in Pakistan, adds to this narrative. In a recent interview, Sartaj Aziz conceded to the presence of the Afghan Taliban leadership in Pakistan and the provision of medical facilities to them. Additionally, he disclosed that Pakistan has “some influence” on the Afghan Taliban, and that ridding the Haqqani network was a process that needed time and could result in a backlash if not done right. However, Pakistan rejects allegations regarding its involvement in the politics of Afghanistan, and sees it as Afghanistan’s policy to use Pakistan as a scapegoat for its own political failures. Moreover, it is noteworthy that Pakistan’s position has changed considerably following the APS attacks, where its former lenient policies regarding militants took a turn towards a more aggressive answer to the problem in terms of Zarb-e-Azab and the ongoing combing operations. The formulation of the 20 point National Action Plan, executed by the civil-military leadership, is a step taken in the right direction.

Pakistan too has accused Afghanistan of cross-border terrorism on various accounts. The recent attack in Quetta stands as testimony of that where the civil-military leadership both charged Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Service and Indian Research Analysis Wing for assisting Jamaatul Ahrar, a splinter group of the Taliban, in carrying out the attack to derail CPEC. While this statement was thrown around as a convenient way to conceal the failure of intelligence and security agencies, it’s noteworthy that the existence of this narrative is grounded in a deep historical mistrust between both countries where they are seen as facilitators of insurgency on each others soil.

Friend of my enemy

With Pakistan still struggling to mend ties with Afghanistan, India is making deep inroads in the political and economic sphere of the country through diplomatic gifts like the recently inaugurated Friendship Dam, and a new Afghan parliament building. The Iran-India-Afghanistan Chabahar nexus, with Pakistan far from the economic scene, is also making policy makers and leaders anxious of the growing proximity of the two countries. Pakistan’s conundrum is this: an unstable Afghanistan, and a strong Afghanistan closely aligned with India. Of the two, Pakistan prefers the former. Geographically, Pakistan lies sandwiched between the two countries, and with worsening relations between India and Pakistan over issues like Kashmir, the recent support of Modi to Baloch insurgents, alongside Afghanistan’s territorial claims and accusatory fingers – Pakistan is put between a rock and a hard place.

Pakistan acts as a natural trade route between Afghanistan and India. However, with the completion of the Chabahar port, Pakistan could possibly lose its only leverage over Afghanistan whereby it closes off borders and forces the government to talks and negotiations as in the case of the Torkham border. A dissenting position to this is that Afghanistan relies heavily on Pakistan for medical tourism, meat supply, and every day items, and would still have to maintain ties with its neighbor despite dwindling relations. Furthermore, since Pakistan is geographically a natural neighbor, a partner in counter-terrorism efforts, as well as a religious and cultural ally, Afghanistan would continue its efforts to rescue bilateral relations with Pakistan mindful of its long-term gains.


ISIS has gained traction in Afghanistan under its banner of ISIS-Khurasan, an ambitious project to include Afghanistan and Pakistan in one province under ISIS rule. Added to this, the Taliban continue to operate in both countries to destabilize the region. In a recent case, Kunduz fell into militant hands once more as it did last year, before security forces took it back. If US forces are to eventually withdraw from Afghanistan, which the US government keeps delaying, an unstable Afghanistan could sow the seeds for a destabilized Pakistan owing to the porous borders both countries share. However, recent efforts to control cross-border movement, and focus on border management could possibly limit the movement of militants. This would also put an end to habitual finger pointing by Afghanistan claiming that terrorists on its territory come from Pakistan, and Pakistan accusing them of the same. This is a step taken in the right direction to strengthen the internal security of both countries, bilateral relations, as well as bolster regional stability. Both countries could also possibly escape the confines of viewing bilateral relations through a security prism, and enable them to approach foreign policy through an economic and cultural exchange; something that India seems to be doing successfully in Afghanistan.

Peace in Afghanistan is contingent on regional stability, with Pakistan at its core. Likewise, a volatile Afghanistan threatens Pakistan’s internal security and it’s ability to revive its economy, weak state structures, and subdue militant factions operating in the country. However, as mentioned earlier, with relations with India on the decline, Pakistan is perceived as leaning towards a policy of maintaining ties with the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network in an Afghanistan closely tied to India. But Pakistan is treading on thin ice. What it sees as a zero-sum game is in reality excluding it from regional economic ventures like the Chabahar agreement, and making it difficult for its allies to stand by it as in the case of the US changing its tone to a more aggressive one in discussing Pakistan’s policy of good and bad Taliban.

China’s growing interest in Afghanistan, possibly as a policy to restore the balance of power in the region with regards to India and the US, could also prompt Beijing to pressurize Pakistan in revisiting its Afghanistan policy. Though Pakistan has been relentless in this regard, cohesive international pressure could lead it to take another look. While expecting radical change in this policy would only lead to disappointment – India, Afghanistan and the United States would be foolish to recoil from whatever partial collaborations they have with Pakistan pertaining to their counterterrorism syndicate.