The foreign ministers of China, Afghanistan and Pakistan meet the press at the Diaoyutai state guesthouse in Beijing on Dec. 26 following talks earlier in the day, the first of their kind.
Since the birth of Pakistan in 1948 up to the present time, relations between this country and Afghanistan have gone through many ups and downs. Without a doubt, the issue of the Durand Line, which has broken Pashtunistan into two halves, is at the core of political relations between these two countries. Diplomatic tensions between Islamabad and Kabul further escalated during negotiations that led to the establishment of Pakistan as an independent country. During those talks, despite all the efforts made by the Afghan government, the issue of the Durand Line, which had been set by Britain as de facto border between India and Afghanistan in 1893, was left undiscussed. Afterwards, Afghanistan was faced with an unknown neighbor, which did its best to convince Kabul to officially accept the Durand Line. Without a doubt, one of the most important strategies adopted by Pakistan toward this issue is the policy that Islamabad has followed to weaken the central government in Afghanistan, especially during the past four decades. Following the collapse of the monarchial system and establishment of the republic system in the country in 1973, former Afghan president, Mohammed Daoud Khan, was the first leader who turned the issue of the Durand Line into the main axis of his country’s diplomacy with Pakistan and also took steps to return Pakistan’s Pashtunistan district to Afghanistan. However, Pakistani officials were smart enough to know that they had to somehow slow down Daoud Khan’s rapid moves. As a result, the government of former Pakistani leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, took advantage of the upsizing launched by Islamist groups against Mohammed Daoud Khan and turned the city of Peshawar into a safe haven for extremist figures fleeing Afghanistan. After the republic system fell apart and was replaced with the people’s democratic regime, Pakistani officials took very good advantage of the existing conditions and triggered a civil war in the neighboring country, which engulfed Afghanistan for three decades.
Therefore, from 1979 to 2001, there was no broad-based and powerful government in Afghanistan and this was the same state of affairs, which Pakistan was looking for. The fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 and the rise of a new government backed by the West in the war-ravaged country, once again brought to life the nearly forgotten issue of the Durand Line within Afghanistan’s diplomatic apparatus. On the one hand, Pakistan is facing very serious issues and challenges with India in the case of Kashmir. As it result, neither has it wanted nor can it handle simultaneous tensions resulting from territorial and border disputes at two fronts with India and Afghanistan. From the viewpoint of Pakistan, dealing with the weaker side, that is, Afghanistan, and making it recognize the Durand Line is a more expedient option. However, the problem is that various governments in Afghanistan have shown no willingness to do this and have renewed their claims to ownership of the entire Pashtunistan every once in a while.
Under these conditions, Pakistan considers itself entitled to target Afghan’s Achilles’ heel and continue with its policy to weaken the Afghan government and keep it occupied with crises resulting from the country’s civil war. Therefore, although successive governments, which have come to office in Pakistan following the fall of the Taliban, have rejected accusations about their country supporting the Taliban, experts and Western governments have no doubt that during the past seventeen years, the government of Pakistan has spared no effort to bring the government of Afghanistan to its knees. In doing so, Islamabad has given refuge to the Taliban leaders and has tried through supplying the group with military equipment to make the government and society of Afghanistan so helpless and hopeless that they would voluntarily seek a solution to the problem with the Durand Line. In the meantime, prolongation of war against the Taliban and further strengthening of this group during past few years have caused the leaders of Afghanistan to reach the conclusion that they should give up the policy of tolerating Pakistan and mount pressure on that country in order to make it cut support for the Taliban.
It seems that during the past three years, the policy adopted by leaders of the national unity government in Afghanistan has somehow faced Pakistan with difficult conditions, especially taking into account that the Republican administration in the United States has also lent its support to the Afghan government and has been mounting pressure on Pakistan to give up the policy of supporting the Taliban. A glance at Afghanistan’s diplomatic relations with Pakistan during the past years will show that they have taken a downhill path and have reached their lowest in the past seventeen years. The pressure exerted on Afghan refugees in Pakistan and cutting trade routes to Afghanistan by Pakistan are good evidence to this claim. The tension in political relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan during last year has been so high that the two countries’ high-ranking officials have been regularly leveling new accusations against each other and the war of words has been also raging. As a result of this situation, Afghanistan’s President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani rejected an official invitation by the Pakistani prime minister to visit that country last year and made the visit conditional on total cessation of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban.
Of course, it seems that tension in relations between the two countries has somehow ebbed recently and there have been exchanges between political and military officials from Islamabad and Kabul during the past couple of months. According to available reports, the two countries’ deputy foreign ministers have been negotiating a plan, which has come to be known as the “Afghan Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Stability (APAPPS).” Also according to other reports, the two countries’ negotiators are trying to come up with a document, which can serve as a guiding light to plot the course of their diplomatic relations in the future. Recent developments, especially a visit to Kabul by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on April 4, 2018, clearly show that the two countries’ leaders have been to some extent successful in putting a cap on their differences and are trying to come up with a joint agenda that they hope would lead to peace and solidarity in the two countries’ relations.
Although many experts believe that recent diplomatic exchanges between Kabul and Islamabad are a proof to gradual thaw in political relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the reality, however, is that the Gordian knot of diplomacy between these two countries is so convoluted that it cannot be easily cut. The fact that Pakistan views Afghanistan as its strategic depth can only undergo basic changes if Afghanistan shows resilience about accepting the Durand Line before any other issue is brought up. The past history of relations between the two countries, at least during the preceding seventeen years, shows that the leaders of Pakistan have been following a vacillating policy toward Afghanistan and have never showed real will and a persistent strategy to settle their disputes with their neighbor, especially when it comes to supporting the Taliban and other extremist groups.
The only way to explain the current lenience shown by Pakistan is that the United States has cut part of its annual aid to the country at a time that Islamabad’s economic interests are in jeopardy in Afghanistan and the way has been paved for further maneuvering by India in Afghanistan. As a result, the leaders of Pakistan have reached the conclusion that they must weather the current difficult conditions and to do this, they have introduced a plan known as the “Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity.” The interesting point is that although this plan is still half-complete and has not been finalized, during their recent meeting, the leaders of both countries put emphasis on the need to finish such infrastructural projects as construction of a joint railroad and trade roads between big cities of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Amanollah Shafaei is a senior expert on South Asia affairs.
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