Pakistan's Afghan Policy: Stalemate or Progress?
On Friday, December 02 2022, a gunman opened fire on the Pakistani embassy in Kabul, injuring a security guard of the Pakistani ambassador Ubaid Ur Rehman Nizami (Head of mission in Kabul). The ambassador escaped unhurt in the attack. Islamabad described the attack as an attempt to kill the ambassador. The attack on the embassy occurred just days after Pakistan’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Hina Rubani Khar, led a team to Kabul to meet with Taliban authorities to reduce border tensions between the two nations. However, it was not apparent who was responsible for the attack. All parties were outraged by the attack. The government of Pakistan has strongly denounced the incident and has urged the government of Afghanistan to launch an investigation and give stern punishment to the culprits. The Taliban government has also issued a statement denouncing the incident. However, there are a few concerns that need to be looked at. Do the border conflicts have a role in this? Has Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy failed or is failing, which was said to have succeeded when US-led NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021?
Despite cordial relations, it is difficult to overcome underlying issues between the two countries. It is believed that domestic concerns determine international policy. In the case of these two nations, long-standing issues complicate matters. However, the new Taliban regime was perceived to be more pro-Pakistan than ever. The current problem also involves long-standing difficulties.
The border dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the Durand Line, which divides the two countries and the Pashtuns, continues to be a source of disagreement between the two governments. The Durand Line cuts through the modern-day provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (NWFP), Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and Balochistan in Pakistan. Ten of Afghanistan’s provinces are included as well. Reports indicate that this dispute, which has its roots in the fight for the Pashtun homeland, is at the root of the recent escalation in tensions along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, the escalating hatred between the two nations has surfaced on multiple occasions. On September 19, 2022, Afghan security agents deployed to the Pakistan Consulate in Jalalabad mistreated Pakistani diplomats, precipitating the ongoing incident. They prevented the head of the Nangarhar Chamber of Commerce and two other members from meeting with the Pakistani consul general.
Pakistan was partially optimistic after the Taliban’s victory. It believed that the Taliban administration would recognise the legitimacy of the Durand Line and use its ties to the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to negotiate a peace pact. There otherwise has been an increase in Islamist militancy in tribal areas, and the TTP is directly attacking Pakistan’s security forces, prompting the government to worry about terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan. The connection between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban appears to be stronger than ever, and there are indications of convergence across the Durand Line. Unwilling to tolerate Pakistan’s border-fencing actions, considered unilateral, illegitimate, and attempting to alter the status quo, Taliban members are reportedly dismantling the barbed-wire fence along the Durand Line in numerous locations.
The military victory of the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan has inspired those who desire to implement sharia law in Pakistan. The Pakistani government has good reason to fear Afghan Taliban retaliation over the Durand Line. Pakistan’s practice of aiding extremist militants is now provoking religious fury among a significant portion of its own population. The ideological connection that has helped Pakistan control the Taliban in Afghanistan has also cleared the path for the radicalisation of several groups within Pakistan. These groups are currently citing Islam less to oppose India, as they have in the past, and more to exert pressure on the Pakistani government to affirm the country’s Islamic character. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif even mentioned this fear in his keynote address at United Nations. He mentioned about the threat posed by the major terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan, especially ISIL-K (Islamic State Khorasan) and TTP, as well as Al-Qaida, ETIM (East Turkestan Movement) and IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan).
Naturally, the Taliban administration was outraged, and Foreign Minister Stanekzai claimed that Pakistan was receiving millions of cash from the Americans to utilise its airspace against Afghanistan. Pakistan was not helped by this being true for years. The targeting of Ayman Al Zawahiri proved it, as the strike could not have originated from Iran or Central Asian countries because the Russians regularly monitor their airspace.
The Pakistani Foreign Office called this unacceptable and against friendly country norms. Though the oddest public spat, this was not all. Pakistanis are concerned about the TTP’s escalating attacks since the Taliban took power. Most Taliban cadres, especially the Haqqanis, formed a fraternity until then. After years of Pakistan army “counter-terrorism” operations, the worm has turned.
The attacks in Pakistani territory are making things more complicated. Despite an on-off truce and dialogue between the two parties, militant attacks have increased. The TTP is also targeting youngsters in Swat, sparking widespread protests. The protests now focus on counter-terror operations that have hurt Pashtuns. The Pakistanis are aware that a separatist wave might mix with the peaceful Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) led by charismatic Manzoor Pashteen, who has also opposed TTP resettlement in Swat. This appears to be an unfathomable occurrence. The Taliban, on the one hand, have attempted to mediate between the TTP and the Pakistani government by setting up negotiations. Several senior members of the TTP were transported to Kunar for this reason, leading to the deaths of four key commanders, including Omar Khalid Khorasani, who had a $3 million price tag on his head.
Those who try to place the Afghan Taliban’s success in a context concerning Islamist thought rather than ethnicity tend to ignore the fact that the Taliban movements in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have some origins in Pashtun nationalism. The Taliban movement has employed both Pashtun and Islamic identities to promote its purposes depending on the circumstances, despite the fact that it is to the benefit of Pakistan’s security apparatus to instrumentalise the Islamic aspect in the Taliban’s ideology. Currently, Pakistan is suffering because of this. After the Taliban’s victory, similar groups were emboldened, turning up the pressure on Pakistan. The citizens of these two countries are also shifting their perspectives. The former friends have severed all ties with one another. There is a widening gap between the people of the two countries as well. Afghanistan’s loss to Pakistan in a September 2022 cricket match showed this deep-seated hostility between the two nations, resulting in ugly scenes on the field as dejected Afghan fans flung plastic chairs at their Pakistani opponents and heated online debates. Pakistani supporters referred to the entire Afghan nation as namak haram (traitor), meaning that Afghans who had lived in Pakistan as refugees for decades are ungrateful and ingratitude. In contrast, many Afghans referred to all Pakistanis as terrorists.
Afghanistan’s relationship with Pakistan cannot continue to be one of patron and client. Pakistan’s repressive and coercive actions against the TTP have failed to produce the expected results. A Pakistani analyst has encouraged his nation to recognise that the Taliban in government is not the Taliban with whom they dealt in the past. There are evident friction spots, and all parties know the potential for additional deterioration. Pakistan is eager to supply the Taliban with a conduit to the outside world, and Pakistan has strategic interests in Afghanistan that it cannot afford to abandon. Therefore, both nations must strike a balance while attempting to settle the fundamental concerns as soon as feasible. Pakistan appears to be losing its grip on the Afghan Taliban, and its foreign policy decisions surrounding them appear to be in disarray, at least for now.
(Zahoor Ahmed Mir is a Research Scholar from Jamia Millia Islamia Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nasir Khuehami is the National Convenor of J&K Students Association. He is pursuing Masters in Conflict Analysis and Peace Building from Jamia Millia Islamia and can be reached at Khuehamiayaan@gmail.com).