On November 8, 2023, Pakistan officially publicized its policy shift towards the Afghan Taliban government by affirming to renege on its advocacy campaign of normalization at the international level.
It was revealed that Pakistan formally communicated to Kabul that it “will no longer extend any “special privileges” to the interim Afghan Taliban government, thereby demonstrating a qualitative decline in their relations.
This assumes great significance in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, given Pakistan’s support to the Afghan Taliban over the years, including active involvement in dethroning the Afghanistan Republican government led by Ashraf Ghani in Kabul in August 2021.
For many in Pakistan, the rise of the Afghan Taliban marked a triumph of its decades-long policy and, importantly, perceived this as the foremost event to achieve strategic depth in the country that effectively would nullify the efforts of its adversaries such as India in that country.
This shift in Pakistan’s Afghan outlook is not abrupt, though. It is a culmination of a gradual decline in the quality of their relations. Islamabad consistently blamed the Afghan Taliban for only allowing its territory to be used by anti-Pakistan groups such as Pakistan Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) for conducting cross-border activities inside the country.
It also blamed the Afghan Taliban for providing operational support to these anti-Pakistan groups. Islamabad blames this support from the Afghan Taliban to TTP for the surge in terror attacks targeting different security establishments across its tribal belt in recent months.
Afghan Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid castigated Islamabad, asserting that his group was not responsible for maintaining the security of Pakistan and that the Pakistani establishment should cease to blame others for its inability to secure its domestic security sphere. “They (Pakistani government) should solve their domestic problems on their own and not blame Afghanistan for their failures,” Mujahid stated in a post on X (formerly Twitter).
Division Of Pashtunistan
Amidst this growing mutual distrust in Islamabad and Kabul, Pakistan has undertaken a large-scale campaign to evict the 1.7 million “undocumented” immigrants, predominantly Afghans, from the country, whom it blamed directly for adding to the country’s insecurity, as covered in this EurAsian Times analysis.
It gave these immigrants a November 1 deadline to voluntarily repatriate from Pakistan, failing which they would be detained and pushed across the border crossings into Afghanistan.
Over 2,50,000 people have already been repatriated or deported over these weeks. This refocuses attention on how the two countries came to this stage in just two years when a majority of Pakistan and Pakistani establishment supported the Afghan Taliban’s takeover of Kabul. Its answer perhaps lies in the history of their relations and the contestation of the border, the Durand Line, that divides the two countries.
As we all know, the Durand Line dates back to the late 19th century when the British Indian government, through its secretary Sir Mortimer Durand, signed an agreement with the Emir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rehman Khan, to mark the frontiers between their territories on November 12, 1893.
This arbitrary line, however, also divided the Pashtun heartland, with many of the clans spread across two political entities. The line never received popular legitimacy and has been contested by successive Afghan regimes and governments.
As Pakistan emerged as a separate country from British India, making the Durand Line its official border with Afghanistan, Afghans contested the legitimacy of this colonial border and declared all agreements with the British Indian government void.
“On July 31, 1947, Afghan Prime Minister Shah Mahmood Khan declared that all agreements regarding the Indo-Afghan border had been concluded with British Indian authorities, and therefore, all of them would be null and void after British India ceased to exist.”
Afghanistan patronized the groups seeking the establishment of an independent Pashtunistan (or Pakhtunistan), leaving the relations between the two countries out and cold throughout the 1950s.
The Afghan support for the Pashtunistan movement continued throughout these decades, hampering the development of bilateral relations between Islamabad and Kabul and angering Pakistanis as this jeopardized the very existence of the country.
Pakistan-US-Saudi Nexus In Afghanistan
It is with this understanding that Pakistan exploited the very first opportunity it got to cultivate its interests in Afghanistan, which was presented by the Soviet-Russian occupation of the country.
The Pakistani military, along with its American advisors and Saudi sponsors, used the bogey of jihad to rid Afghanistan of the Communist Russians. This campaign ended in the withdrawal of USSR forces by the late 1980s.
The end of Russian occupation beset the country into chaos, with different warlords eying the war spoils. They, thereby, initiated a long civil war, an anarchic environment capitalized by Pakistanis to create the Taliban in 1996.
Taliban mainly consists of Mujahideen of Deobandi orientation, deemed as beyond ethnic consideration, which defeated the other ethnic forces to establish the first Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996 under Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Pakistani military establishment supported the group after its ouster from Kabul by the US-led coalition forces in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks as it refused to hand over the al Qaeda terror group’s top leadership, led by Osama Bin Laden, to the Americans.
Ironically, Pakistan profited by participating in the American ‘war on terror’ while shielding the Afghan Taliban leadership by facilitating its movement across the Durand Line itself, which eventually culminated in the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, undoing its two decades of democratic experiment in Kabul.
For Pakistan, a friendlier regime in Kabul was deemed a guarantee to ensure its security and, importantly, give sanctity to the Durand Line and eliminate the elements that had previously supported the Pashtun independence movement.
Durand Line: The Divide That Persists
However, much to Islamabad’s chagrin, the Afghan Taliban, like other Afghan groups and governments, time and again, demonstrated its aversion to the Durand Line and contested its legitimacy.
In effect, the issues related to Durand Line were the first ones that created tensions between the two sides. As Pakistan increased its efforts to concretize the border fencing, the Afghan Taliban repeatedly contested Pakistani actions, which descended into dozens of violent acts along the border over the two years, often forcing Pakistan to close the border trading points for days together.
Afghan Taliban’s contestation of the Durand Line was reaffirmed by its spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, as recently as February 2022, when he reiterated that “the issue of the Durand Line is still an unresolved one,” while likening the border fencing construction to “dividing a nation,” which is Pashtunistan.
Therefore, as the tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan increase, it reveals that Islamabad’s policy of dealing with Kabul has fallen through and reached where it started from.
It raises fundamental questions about the strategic policymaking in the country. It points to its need to invest in Afghan people rather than in extremist groups such as the Taliban, which have eaten the country from inside and outside alike. Pakistan needs a severe policy reorientation to move forward.
- NC Bipindra is a 30-year veteran in journalism specializing in strategic affairs, geopolitics, aerospace, defense, and diplomacy. He has written extensively for the Times of India, New Indian Express, Press Trust of India, and Bloomberg News. He can be reached ncbipindra (at) gmail.com
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