Thursday, March 23, 2023

Can Afghanistan ever gain from their relations with Pakistan?

By Imamudin Hamdard

An undercurrent of tension is always visible in the relation between Afghanistan and Pakistan ever since the establishment of Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1947. Afghanistan initially even refused to acknowledge Pakistan as a sovereign state and its admission to the United Nations. The main reason was the dispute over areas (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan), and till now, all the Afghan governments including the Taliban have refused to formally acknowledge the more than 2.400 km long internationally recognized border between the two countries. 

In the 1970s, however, the escalating conflict between President Mohammed Dawood and the Islamist movements in Afghanistan provided an opportunity for Pakistan to exploit Afghanistan’s domestic crisis. Before the Soviet Invasion in 1979 and especially after the left-wing parties came to power in 1978, Pakistan provided shelter to Afghan leaders from Islamic parties and thereby increased its influence in Afghanistan substantially. With the Red Army invading Afghanistan and the massive influx of funds, weapons, and equipment from Western and Arab countries, Pakistan found itself in a much better position to avenge historical grievances in Afghanistan. It was at that time, the early 1980s, that Pakistan’s military-political circles, in collaboration with some Mujahedeen groups, started to argue for the need for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. Some even pleaded for the transformation of Afghanistan into the fifth province of Pakistan.

After the Soviet withdrawal and amid the emergence of the Mujahedeen government in Afghanistan, groups affiliated with Pakistan lost their prominence and influence. Pakistan saw its strategic goals as unattainable as ever and looked for other avenues to achieve its ultimate aim of bringing Afghanistan under its control. Taliban provided them that opportunity. Through the military successes of the Taliban, Pakistan managed to indirectly occupy around 90 percent of Afghan territory in the late 1990s. And it was at this time that people in Afghanistan and the region understood Pakistan’s hidden motives, driving its support to the Taliban. The last two decades of US and NATO presence in Afghanistan have not transformed bilateral relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which continue to reflect mistrust, tensions, and attempts to undermine each other.

The general public opinion in Pakistan attributes the Taliban for all the miseries of Pakistan. They believe that the cost of supporting the Taliban and opposing Afghanistan’s post-2001 political system has almost demolished Pakistan’s economy. All these have also not resulted in any gain from neither Pakistan nor its people. This along with complete dependence on China for everything made Pakistan a weak economy. 

Even after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on the 15th of August 2021, Pakistan has not achieved anything visibly significant except for photographs of ISI chief showing off in Kabul. The initial euphoria of Pakistan completely controlling the Taliban died down as the Taliban had other plans. Pakistan aimed to make Afghanistan a safe haven for the terror entities supported by them such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed etc. However, all that happened is Tehreek-e-Taliban establishing a strong base in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Besides Pakistan’s covert and explicit support for terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan has severely damaged Pakistan’s image at the international level. 

In addition to security and economic issues, both countries face further problems that could eventually worsen their position and hurt bilateral relations in the future. The rise of separatist sentiments in some parts of Pakistan, ongoing tensions with India, the uncertainty of the Taliban interim government and the escalation of ethnic conflict in Afghanistan, and the international community’s growing fatigue regarding Afghanistan are just a few of the issues weighing heavily on both Kabul’s and Islamabad’s shoulders.

Both countries needed a stable economy and peaceful society to grow, and become productive and positive members of the international community. These goals will not be achieved unless both Afghanistan and Pakistan restore or even build trust in several areas.

Pakistan is in dire need of energy as well as a market for exporting its industrial and non-industrial goods. The nearest and cheapest energy sources to Pakistan are in Central Asia, and the closest and most economical route is the one through Afghanistan. Central Asian markets could also be the place to sell Pakistani manufactured goods. 

Similarly, Afghanistan has missed significant opportunities in the last two decades and has never been in a position to stand economically and militarily on its own. The unfinished war in Afghanistan in whatever name it might be – whether in the name of Islamism, or terrorism or proxy war – will have no other effect but to hurt Afghanistan and its people further.

Improved bilateral relations between these two countries is more beneficial to Pakistan than to Afghanistan. As this would help Pakistan to overcome its economic crisis, to explore energy sources in Central Asia through the economical route of Afghanistan, access Afghanistan and Central Asian markets for their products and thereby ultimately reduce their complete dependence on China. But for this to happen, Pakistan to treat Afghanistan as an equal partner and a sovereign entity and not as a servant who is going to be ever dependent on them. Respecting the sovereignty of Afghanistan and treating Afghan people with dignity would remain the basis for this relationship. The question is will Pakistan ever consider Afghanistan as an equal and strategic partner?

Given the historical background of the two countries’ relations, as well as the current tensions and high levels of mistrust between the two sides, it is difficult to normalize relations and move towards a positive bilateral relationship. There is a long way to go and only time would provide an answer for this question.

Note: The contents of the article are of sole responsibility of the author. Afghan Diaspora Network will not be responsible for any inaccurate or incorrect statement in the article.

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