Shahid M Amin
PAK-Afghan relations took a nosedive recently after the most serious border clash in years. It began when Afghan shelling killed 12 Pakistanis near Chaman border. Pakistan Army stated that the Afghan side had been confronting a census team in divided villages of Killi Luqman and Killi Jahangir on Pakistani side of the border. Pakistani forces retaliated and many Afghans were killed. Pakistan also closed down Chaman border, which has stranded hundreds of vehicles, including convoys carrying goods for US forces in Afghanistan. Chaman is one of the two traditional transit routes in Pakistan through which the bulk of Afghan trade takes place with the rest of the world.
Subsequently, moves have been made by Pakistan and Afghanistan to mend their relations. With the intercession of US Military Mission in Afghanistan, a trilateral meeting of top military oficials was held in the GHQ, Rawalpindi on May 12, 2017 where all three sides agreed to act against Daesh through joint efforts in their respective areas of operations. There was also a bilateral meeting between Pakistani and Afghan military officials to discuss the border tensions and improving military-to-military coordination. “Both sides agreed to enhance the frequency of bilateral interaction at multiple tiers through different command and staff channels to foster an environment of mutual respect, trust, cordiality and cooperation.”
The ironic thing is that such interaction at multiple tiers had taken place just a few days before the Chaman flare-up. High-ranking Pakistani Generals and a big Pakistani parliamentary delegation including two cabinet Ministers had visited Kabul and held intensive talks with the top Afghan political and military leadership. There was optimism among Pakistani parliamentarians that a path of reconciliation and friendship had been opened between the two countries. They were evidently impressed by the show of traditional warm Afghan hospitality, but the hard ground reality shattered the illusion just a week later. The moral is that semantics and warm hopitality should not be taken at face value.
The Chaman incident is not the first of its kind. There have been periodic border clashes on the Pak-Afghan border. The most serious incidents were in September 1960 when an Afghan lashkar invaded Bajaur and was repelled with heavy loss of lives. That led Afghanistan to break diplomatic relations with Pakistan in 1961, but it did prevent any Afghan misadventure for many years. Showing of muscle can sometimes be useful and the Chaman incident might also induce some degree of Afghan restraint.
The latest border clash can be attributed to an old dispute between the two countries, arising from the Afghan Government’s refusal to recognise Durand Line as the international border, since Pakistan’s independence in 1947. This border had been demarcated and recognised in a Treaty signed in 1893 by Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman Khan and the British Indian Government.
In conducting relations with another country, the realistic approach is to understand the objectives and concerns of the other side and judge how far they converge with one’s own national interests. Pakistan’s objective vis-à-vis Afghanistan is clear. We want a friendly, cooperative relationship with Afghanistan due to strategic, political, economic, ethnic and religious considerations. The grave threat to Pakistan’s security comes from India, which is several times bigger than Pakistan. An unfriendly Afghanistan will compound our security concerns and lead to an unsustainable two-front situation. But friendly relations with Pakistan are also in Afghan national interest.
Pakistan is bigger and stronger than Afghanistan and the latter would always be at a disadvantage in confronting Pakistan. Secondly, Pakistan is the main transit route for Afghan trade. Pakistan is also the market for fresh and dry Afghan fruit, as well as the main supplier of many consumer goods needed by Afghanistan. Thirdly, Pakistan played a key role in Afghan Jihad against Soviet military occupation in 1980s and put up four million Afghan refugees, of which about half sill reside in Pakistan. Many Afghans own properties in Pakistan. There are also religious, ethnic and cultural bonds between the two countries.
The main Afghan grievance against Pakistan is that its territory is used as a sanctuary for Afghan Taliban who carry out terrorist activities in Afghanistan. They allege that the Haqqani group and Taliban Shura are living in Pakistan. This is where Pakistan can partially allay Afghan concerns. We keep denying that our soil is being used as sanctuary but this should be backed by specific action. At the same time, we expect a quid pro quo from Afghanistan which must not allow Afghan soil as launching base for TTP absconders who have been engaged in terrorism in Pakistan. We should also confront Kabul with evidence that Afghan secret agencies have abetted such terrorist activities.
Afghan leaders must also understand that successes of Afghan Taliban are due to their own efforts and/or failure of the Afghan military, and Kabul must stop making Pakistan a scapegoat for activities of Taliban. Another Afghan grievance is that Pakistan interferes in their internal affairs, by supporting Afghan Pakhtuns. Our support for Hekmatyar in early 1990s and later for the Taliban regime did create such an impression. It would be best for Pakistan to keep aloof from all internal factions in Afghanistan. Conversely, Afghanistan must give up the Pakhtunistan stunt.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.