Taking current geopolitical concerns into account, it is undeniable that we must re-examine our relationship with Afghanistan and charter a new course for the future of bilateral relations. Without getting into the two countries’ mutual history here, let’s see what options are available to us.
In 2016, PkMAP chief Mahmood Achakzai’s stated that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa belongs to Afghans and all Afghans are welcome to settle in the province. He was called a caused a traitor in many circles for this. Many Pakistanis found these words deeply offensive. But to understand why a Pakistani politicians would say something like this, the region’s history must be examined.
For millennia, the Hindukush ranges were considered the Subcontinent’s natural north-western boundary. Before Islam came to the region, the areas inhabited by Pakhtuns in modern Pakistan and Afghanistan were heavily influenced by Buddhism. This areas Hindo-Buddhist period is best signified by the mammoth Buddha statues at Bamian and other artefacts found in the Kabul and Jalalabad Valleys.
The Hindo-Buddhist period is best signified by the Buddha’s mammoth statues at Bamian and other artifices found in the Kabul and Jalalabad Valleys. Eventually, the father son duo of Jaipal and Anandpal, who were rulers of the Kabul Valley and Jalalabad Plains were defeated by Mahmud of Ghazni of Turkish ancestry around year 1000 CE. The area was annexed, and they withdrew to Peshawar, where they were defeated again, hence Peshawar valley also went to Mahmud of Ghazni. Although Mahmud raided and plundered areas as deep as Kanauj and Somnath, he retained territory only up to Lahore.
Common heritage, language, customs and traditions cannot be outdone by provision of material assistance by third parties
In the wake of these invading armies also came Sufis like Data Ganj Baksh, Baba Farid, Moeenuddin Chisti, Nizamuddin Aulia, Bayazid Bistami in Bengal and many others who are responsible for spreading Islam in Subcontinent.
This state of affairs continued for the next few hundred years, until the Mughal Empire came into being. Both Kabul and Kandahar were important provinces for this regime. Raja Man Singh was one of the most successful Governors of Kabul during the reign of Akbar and Jehangir. Later both Nadir Shah Afshar and Ahmad Shah Abdali had Punjab and Sindh as part of their Empires. Abdali’s successor proved to be weak and lost Punjab to the Sikhs, and the rest of India to the Mahratta’s, Nizam of Hyderabad and the rising star of the East India Company. His descendants found refuge with Ranjit Singh after being expelled from Kabul.
Along with these invaders came freebooters, artisans and other classes to settle down in Punjab and the rest of India. The word ‘Pathan’ became synonymous with Afghan. The Burkis of Jalandhar, Rohillas of UP and other colonies of Pathans were established as far away as Bihar and Bengal. Sher Shah Suri was from Sasaram in Bihar. They provided both the cavalry and foot soldiers to the local war lords in wake of the weakening Moghul Empire. Today more Pathans are living outside their traditional area than within Afghanistan and KP.
One must read. The Indus Saga by Senator Aitzaz Ahsan to understand the complexities of those times and interlinking of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s history. The Sikhs in Punjab and Talpurs in Sindh carved their realms on both sides of Indus. The Sikhs got defeated near Jalalabad during one of their forays into Afghanistan, never to venture their again. They settled down in the trans-Indus valleys of Peshawar, Kohat, Bannu and Derajat besides the land of five rivers to carry out what was popularly known as Sikha Shahi.
Succeeding power, the British had annexed Sindh, followed by Punjab by 1849. Soon, they were in confrontation with both the rulers of Afghanistan and tribesmen of the trans-Indus belt. Three futile wars with Afghanistan resulted in unnecessary expenditure and casualties. The career of some British officers were ruined. When exiled, Shah Shuja, Amir Dost Muhammad, Amir Yaqub, Sirdar Ayub and their descendants Saddozais (Shahzadas) Barakzais (Sirdars) and Effendis came to live in Lahore, Ludhiana and Dehradun to enrich the polyglot culture of Punjab.
It was during this period that the British, unable to hold on to the Hindukush Ranges (Kabul-Kandahar Line) decided to withdraw to a more manageable and defensible line. Thus the Durand Line was thrust on the hapless Afghans; dividing tribes, clans, hamlets and families and remaining a bone of contention between the succeeding states of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It was also during the British period that the word Pathan or Pakhtun came to be widely used for an Afghan living in India. Perhaps it was to distinguish the Indian Afghans as subjects of the British from those in Afghanistan. Until then, everyone belonging to the trans-Indus region was known as Afghan. All historians and poets, including Allama Iqbal, had used the word Afghan for anyone hailing from this area. The British love-hate relationship with the Pathans — whom the respected as a fearsome people — continued up to 1947.
On August 14, Pakistan came into existence. Its entry into the United Nations (UN) was opposed only by the Afghans. Since then, Pakistan has adopted an incoherent foreign policy towards its north western neighbour — from one of benign neglect in its early years to the Dir episode and closure of Afghan Transit Trade in the early era of Ayub Khan. An active policy spearheaded by General Naseerullah Khan Babar during the Bhutto regime in the wake of the Sardar Daud coup and reopening of the Pakhtunistan issue. A few years later, General Zia began providing full support to the American anti-Soviet ‘Jihad’, followed by an ambiguous relationship where Pakistan didn’t know whom to support during the see saw battles between Ahmed Shah Masood and Gulbadin Hikmatyar. Later, Pakistan was the first country to recognise the Taliban government. This continued till 9/11 changed everything. During this period, Pakistan also hosted almost 3.5 million Afghan refugees — the largest ever number of refugees the world had seen at that point in time.
Since then, Afghans in general and Presidents Karzai and Ashraf Ghani in particular, have been accusing Pakistan of meddling in their internal affairs and playing favourites with terror groups. This state of affairs cannot continue, as it will only impede development and the two countries’ anti-terror initiatives. But what can be done here?
Pakistan needs to redefine its relationship with Afghanistan, as this would be better for our western territories. Areas in the purview of the Hindukush Ranges must be prioritised. Similarly our attitude towards Iran and its bordering province of Sistan need to be defined clearly. Trade, commerce and business need to be enhanced to benefit the Pakistani, Iranian and Afghan public.
The narrow minded policy of closing borders from time to time to bully Afghanistan harms bilateral relations at all levels. In the end it solves nothing, and only pushes the Afghans into our rivals’ embrace. The worst affected are the ordinary people; such as traders and travellers. Similarly, racist rhetoric regarding the Afghan refugees should be ended and discouraged.
Track-2 diplomacy needs to be initiated at the earliest. Contacts at all levels are essential. Dialogue between politicians, newsmen, traders, businessmen and ordinary people needs to be established. Our relationship should develop on the Canada-US model rather than the India-Nepal model.
Afghans are mature and know what is best for them. Unfortunately, we remain overly concerned about Indian influence. We need not worry unnecessarily about extraneous influences on Kabul. Regardless of their official stance, a person falling sick in Kabul is often brought to Peshawar or even to SKMCH Lahore. Afghans are dependent on Pakistan in almost every aspect of their lives; be it education, medical facilities or cultural activities. Common heritage, language, customs and traditions cannot be outdone by provision of material assistance by third parties. Let us build bridges, not walls.
The writer is a retired Brigadier
Published in Daily Times, May 8th 2018.