Pak-Afghan: crises of the same

Spearhead Analysis – 17.02.2017

By Hira A. Shafi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Pak-Afghan Transit Trade AgreementAfghanistan defines its identity as a cluster of nearly 14 ethnic groups. Pakistan also retains nearly all those 14 ethnic groups- along with a few others- within its territory.  At the core, neither ethnic nor religious divides exist between the two countries; and at the core, Pakistanis and Afghans are not ‘neighbors’ but, instead-siblings .

Nonetheless, over the years this non issue -make belief divide- has managed to affix itself as not only a core area of contention between the two states; but has served as the first push into the abyss.

The past 70 years have further added various layers of conflict , therefore improving  the Pak-Afghan relations solely on a bilateral level has turned into a slight challenge.


One narrative suggests that the Afghan land was ‘too unruly’, therefore autonomy had to be granted to it by imperial powers. However, it is also imperative to keep in view, the supposed great power rivalry- between the British Empire and Russia- which was brewing in the backdrop.

Strangely, the essence of the issues till date remains the same- The Russian empire -back then was moving down south(central Asian regions), whereas the British Raj was moving Northwest(Middle East territories). In these journeys- Afghanistan and territories of Iran remained the “ too close to comfort” zones. Despite, several attempts to diplomatically establish spheres of influence-owing to mutual suspicions- frequent clashes broke out between the Russians-Afghan and British-Afghans .

History suggests that the locals remained persistent in challenging annexation attempts, but history also reveals that demarcations and treaties were accepted by those same locals; once the foreign rivalry backed off.

Some positive consensus were carved out towards the end of the 19th century.

The first layer of defence between the Russians and British was marked by assigning the territories north of the Amu Darya river to Russian influences,and they were required to remain out of regions south of those lines.

The second layer of defence was demarcated by the Durand line in 1893, regions east of the line- were under British control, and the British were also expected to remain out of the territories on the opposite side of the Durand line. The land in between-modern day Afghanistan- was agreed upon as a buffer zone by both powers.

Another additional zone-just to be sure-  was carved out, – which was the Wakhan corridor- this thin strip separates modern day Tajikistan and G-B region of Pakistan, and the 4th zone- Pamir mountains- served as a natural barrier between the two powers.

The local leadership acceded to these demarcations and agreed to maintain rule of law within these lines. Preceding Afghan leaders re-affirmed the Durand line in 1919, 1921 and 1930.   

The issue of demarcations surged up again, during 1947- when the British were exiting the region, and the Muslims of the subcontinent were carving out a new path.

From Pakistan’s standpoint- as per the choice offered by the British, to various religio-ethnic groups -who were formerly under British domain;  explicitly mentioned only two options – to either become a part of new India or New Pakistan.

However, some Pashtun groups called for either a separate territory or drew closer links to the old Afghan land.

At that time, the political elite of the new Pakistan were already apprehensive  of some resistance, from within India, adding on the apprehensions– on the other side stood a rather strong leader of the Afghans- Zahir Shah.

Looking at the biography of the Shah- a man inspired by the principles of  Kemalism- there is little doubt , that he indeed was a visionary , who above all- placed the future of Afghanistan as his top priority.

In Pakistan’s view- the Afghan policy at the time intended to reshape its own role in the region; the northern limits with the resident power i.e Russia , remained untouched.

But, the aspirations to resolve the landlock issue from its South Eastern limits became a concern for new Pakistan. Nonetheless, under the banner of ethnicity the first layer of contention set its roots.

These inter-region quarrels paved the way for new powers to induce other agendas.

The power rivalry between Soviet and US emerged by 1947. Growing apprehensions of hegemonic roles from both sides, caused Pakistan to side with the US and the new-old  game began to surface in Afghanistan.

The Cold War:

In a repetitive pattern- the prime areas of focus for the new power were the Middle regions, while for Russia- it was the Southern path. But, the role of Afghanistan amplified during this mess because in the backdrop -since 1922 till 1947- Central Asian territories and Russia were under a unified umbrella of the Soviet Union. The zones became way ‘too close to comfort’.

Over the years, internal rifts between the Afghan leadership began surfacing.  Daud Khan-the Shah’s cousin- leaned closer to the Russians, and in the process was accused for inciting Pashtun Nationalism and by 1973 he replaced the Shah.

However, the state of Afghanistan constitutes of several other ethnicities of Central Asian descent- the hyper nationalism of one ethnicity paved the way for opening newer proxies.

Rationality would suggest that triggering those ethnic divides would backfire for : Russia, China, Iran , Pakistan and  Afghanistan. But,  it seems that this concern was largely discounted back then; and instead the criss-cross pattern of rivalries-till 1979- between: US-Soviet, China-Soviet, India-China, India-Pakistan, Pakistan-Afghanistan and Iran-Soviet– remained the prime focus.  

It also appears that for a brief period of 1977-1979; a new balance was carving itself out,  primarily- because several leaders of the Middle Regions, Iran , Pakistan and even Daud Khan(by 1977 began softening towards Pakistan- and other ‘US’ allies)- were also drawing  closer to one another.

But, by 1979- the house of Pahlavis fell and the political divides within Afghanistan became stronger- the main party- PDPA somewhat reconciled its own two factions in 1978 and overthrew- Daud Khan- who was eventually assassinated in 1979.

The regional dynamics once again strongly changed; The Iran-Saudi divide surfaced, and political grievances/ ethnic divides within Afghanistan amplified- due to rapidly deteriorating situations.

This unfortunate time could also somewhat be viewed as the collapse of Kabul- even though in texts it is identified at a much later time.

From this point onwards – multiple agendas and new rivalries were at play, in a region which was slowly getting stripped of normal modes of survival.

A cursory classification of the types of groups that appear to have emerged were:

  1. The pan-Islamic -’mujahedeen’- primarily aiming to resist the ‘atheists’.
  2. Anti-Shia groups, which in Iran’s discourse threatened its integrity, followed by the mobilisation of Hazaras and other Shia groups — who focused on deterring those anti-Shia groups.
  3. Pashtun groups that challenged certain borders.
  4. Groups with links to Central Asian ethnicities: who challenged other borders.
  5. Pashtun groups and other ethnic groups, who challenged each other or foreign occupation- but not the defined borders with neighbours.
  6. The soviet-backed- Afghan government- backed fighters.

However, by 1989 Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. Moscow took a policy turn and decided to subdue tensions with its rival. And theoretically, it was decided that both powers would stop any coercive actions and provide political support to the Afghan government.

But,  the ratio of coercion to ‘healing’ was a mismatch– a community of various people, who for a long time were practically ‘taught’ this mode of survival, were more or less left without rehabilitation.

Secondly, the mutual distrust of the regional neighbors grew — keeping the region a contentious zone.

And thirdly; perhaps the most crucial factor is that the global dynamics soon changed again. The Soviets fell by 1991.

The new-old wars:

Presently, countless offshoots of various disruptive groups exist in the region. The anti-state activities perpetrated by these groups appears to be exponentially adding on the neighborhood rivalries. Everyone, appears to be pointing fingers at the others.

List of commonly named groups by various media sources and the claims each state presents in regards to ‘support’ being provided via fragile conditions in Afghanistan appear to be as follows:

Groups such as TTP , nearly 61 banned outfits along with several other ‘ethnic groups’ like IUM,  Northern Alliance coalition ; which Pakistan claims pose a threat for it and maintain safe havens in other regions

Groups such as Jundallah, Khaliqi’s Sayyaf along with certain ‘ethnic’ groups -which Iran suspects are involved in anti-Shia activities; and challenge its integrity.

India suspects that various groups such as  some factions of Taliban, and ‘pro Kashmir’ pose a threat for it. 

China is concerned about its own western borders and fears safe havens of groups inculcating ethnic  separatism.

Central Asian countries carry their own set of separatist movements; Russia remains concerned in regards to Central Asia imploding.

Afghan factions of Taliban who opposing foreign occupation–which US and Afghan government view as a threat. 

The ‘pan-Islamic ideological groups’ which everyone appears to accept as a mutual enemy( ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Haqqani network)

Observing the ethnic demographics in Afghanistan- indicates that:

  1. Southern regions of Afghanistan(bordering with Pakistan and Iran)– are Baloch dominated.
  2. Eastern belt-bordering with Pakistan— Pashtun dominated.
  3. Central region of Afghanistan– Hazara dominated.
  4. North-West, North and Northeast– contain a mix of various Central Asian ethnicities (such as Uzbeks, Tajiks etc)  along with the Pamiris and Nuristani concentrated in the N.E near G-B regions.

Based on various agendas, claims, and the demographics: let’s hypothetically assume that each state’s claim carries some truth.

However, On the surface things appear to be slightly different:

Despite India’s strained ties with Pakistan and China– it is eager to be involved in Central Asia and maintain trade ties with Russia and Iran and remain involved in the development of Afghanistan.

China– does not want to step on Russia’s toes, retain its trade with Russia and Central Asia , wants ties with Iran and Pakistan and remain involved in mining and development in Afghanistan

Pakistan, wants it borders secured and ideally wants good ties with all.

Russia: primarily does not want the region to implode and wants to define a certain order in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran and retain its interests.

Lets further assume, that all apparent good relations and various suspicions/rivalries are all true,  and in hopes of keeping certain levels of leverages , no one minds maintaining ties to various disruptive groups within Afghanistan to carve out a perfect equilibrium.

In such circumstances : what then- defines the Pak-Afghan ties? and what defines the call for peace and stability in the region ?
Presently, Pakistan and Afghanistan appear to often blame each other for unrest in their territories.

Other crimes such as kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking, drug trafficking , arms smuggling are also ongoing, along their shared border.

In  Pakistan’s discourse — the porous borders and lawlessness on the other side  increases these crimes and adds on to its economic and security burdens.

Certain reports suggest that owing to strained ties nearly 3 billion USD in annual trade is lost for Pakistani economy.

Pakistan further, witnessed a backlash when it made attempts to resolve the Afghan refugee crises.

“Building walls” is not a feasible option because the state of Pakistan retains nearly all ethnicities found in Afghanistan– it would only add on to local grievances. Power dissemination from the center faces hindrances too, due to security concerns– which again creates an internal backlash and grievances. Water security crises also remain a concern for both countries and its resolution is also witnessing hiccups.

It is evident that all regional players need  the other in someway- for their well being and prosperity.

But,  the Afghan-Pakistan issues cannot be improved unilaterally by Pakistan ; for their bilateral relations to improve :

1. The India-China disputes need to be resolved 2. The Pakistan-India disputes need to be resolved 3. Russia and China need to ensure that their  their actions are not misinterpreted by other regional players. 4. Iran should also ensure it stays with the region.

As for peace and stability in Afghanistan: clearly, every state desires it. But, it appears that in between the lines, there is a divide over “what type of peace” should exist in Afghanistan.

If peace and stability is the true goal then the showdown arena needs to shut down- unanimously. Sustainable peace cannot be produced out of warring equilibriums, the fact that Soviet Union is no more, needs to be kept in mind- an  increase in spillover effects in Central Asia– could have mutually negative regional impacts .

Regional players should divert their attention in strengthening the core institutions of Afghanistan , help  in establishing the rule of law and forsake the idea of preferring certain groups–because a group is somewhat of a “one man” show, when that leadership changes- the dynamics of the group also change.. Further, human error and other traits like greed, deceit and lying cannot be discarded– therefore, preferring  any group or carving any delicate ‘methods’ is a very risky option.  

Focus should be diverted in rehabilitating this mindset that has ingrained  because of constant conflicts. Lastly, the Afghan leadership should also work with all regional states and avoid any ‘back alley-cock fight’ approaches and carve out a sustainable trajectory for the land and its people. Perhaps, then Afghan-Pakistan ties may experience improvement and overall stability can emanate in the region.

After the recent spate of bombings whose origin has been traced to Afghan based groups there is internal pressure in Pakistan to act because it is now acknowledged by all that terrorism in Pakistan is originating from sanctuaries for IS linked groups Afghanistan. All our enemies i.e. TTP, and other groups have congregated in Afghanistan from where this wave of terror originates. Our neighbors  both in the East and West fund and sponsor these activities while the world simply ignores the horrendous violence within Pakistan and Kashmir. The government is being asked to take steps as part of an overall strategy.