Regional Dynamics and Pak-Afghan Relations By Dr Zafar Khan Safdar
THE relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan is marked by historical, cultural and geopolitical complexities. The two neighbouring countries share a porous border, a common Pashtun ethnicity and a history intertwined with various civilizations and empires. The historical roots of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations run deep into the pre-independence period when the territories that now constitute these two nations were part of British India. Prior to the partition of India in 1947, the region was a mosaic of cultures, ethnicities and political entities. Afghanistan maintained diplomatic ties with the British authorities in India and the Afghan monarchy viewed the Pashtun tribes inhabiting the borderlands as an extension of its influence.
The ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan date back centuries, but one of the most contentious issues has been the Durand Line agreement of 1893. This British-drawn border divided ethnic Pashtun communities and has been a source of dispute between the two nations. Afghanistan never fully recognized the Durand Line as the official border and this issue continues to influence their relationship. Afghanistan’s support for Pashtun separatism predates Pakistan’s creation in 1947 and has fluctuated since then. Kabul provided support to pro-Pashtunistan Pakistani leaders after Pakistan’s independence, but initially refused to recognize Pakistan at the United Nations. Some key Afghan officials supported the creation of a confederation to include Afghanistan, Pakistan and Pashtunistan until the mid-1950s.
Both Pakistan and Afghanistan hold significant geostrategic importance in South Asia. Afghanistan serves as a land bridge between South Asia and Central Asia, making it a crucial transit route for trade and energy pipelines. Pakistan, on the other hand, is strategically located between India, China, Afghanistan and the Arabian Sea, giving it a pivotal role in regional politics and economics. In the 1970s, during negotiations between Afghan President Sardar Daoud Khan and Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the two parties did come close to a solution on the Durand Line issue. The opening had been made possible by a number of causes, including Iranian efforts to mediate better relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan and Daoud’s goal to lessen Afghanistan’s reliance on the Soviet Union. But the agreement did not survive Daoud’s assassination in 1978.
The relations of both countries are influenced by geopolitical dynamics, cross-border links, security interests, sovereignty concerns and connectivity and trade. The changing aspects of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations underwent a seismic shift with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Pakistan played a pivotal role in supporting Afghan resistance against Soviet forces, providing refuge to millions of Afghan refugees and serving as a conduit for Western assistance to the Mujahideen. This period marked the height of the Cold War and Pakistan’s alignment with the United States significantly impacted its relations with Afghanistan.
After the Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan experienced civil war, leading to the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. Pakistan, one of the few countries to officially recognize the Taliban, faced geopolitical interests, ideology and regional stability concerns. Post 9/11, Pakistan became a frontline state in the US-led War on Terror, causing diplomatic and security challenges. The border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, particularly the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, became a hotspot for militancy. Today, Pakistan-Afghanistan relations remain complex and fragile, with renewed instability due to the US withdrawal in 2021. Tension between the two sides may impede a negotiated settlement, potentially causing further conflict.
It is far past time for top officials on both sides to interact directly in order to sustain ties, rather than depending primarily on track-2 exchanges. Talks can only succeed in managing controversy and conflicts if participants promote an environment of open communication and set a process to address issues in advance. Participants should commit to keeping conversations confidential, avoiding media leaks and limiting provocative remarks from individuals in their governments who are opposed to dialogue. To keep the debate open, both sides should officially condemn those beliefs.
Existing mechanisms, such as the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS), provide a useful framework but have been underused to date. If negative public opinion makes bilateral engagement on sensitive issues politically infeasible, talks on less controversial issues, such as economics, drug interdiction and refugees, could be more tenable. They should build familiarity, road test ideas and maintain open lines of communication. They should include Afghans and Pakistanis from diverse backgrounds and sectors to ensure consideration of a wide range of perspectives. Inclusion of influential Pashtun representatives can help manage concerns within Pakistan’s security establishment over Pashtun nationalism.
Exploring border management options is essential for reducing the salience of the Durand Line and sovereignty tension in the relationship. Regularizing military-to-military engagement would provide an important channel for deconfliction and crisis de-escalation. Pursuing increased intelligence sharing, as it has been limited due to mistrust between the two sides’ intelligence services.
Pakistan and Afghanistan should collaborate on post-conflict reconstruction, confidence-building measures, trade, investment, people-to-people exchanges and military and security exercises. Pashtun major areas of Pakistan, including Swat and the erstwhile FATA, have experienced instability over the past two decades. Local government officials and civil society members can share lessons learned with Afghan counterparts on deradicalization, reintegration and governance reforms. Both sides should consider introducing a range of Community Building Measures (CBMs) to generate trust and drive demand for future engagement. Trade should be eased by easing frictions on traders and facilitating access to third-country markets. Investment should be facilitated by easing visa application process, allowing Afghans to open Pakistani bank accounts, sports diplomacy initiatives, cultural exchanges and military and security exercises and identifying cross-border investment projects.
Pakistan’s relations with neighbouring Afghanistan are a testament to the intricate interplay of history, geopolitics and regional dynamics. The future of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations will depend on their ability to navigate these complexities while pursuing mutual interests and regional stability.
—The writer is PhD in Political Science and visiting faculty at QAU Islamabad.
views expressed are writer’s own.
Regional Dynamics and Pak-Afghan Relations By Dr Zafar Khan Safdar