The Afghan Conundrum~II

A peaceful Afghanistan certainly frustrates Pakistan’s sinister plan. Its frustration is therefore understandable, because a peaceful Afghanistan benefits India the most, whose economy dwarfs all other economies in the region except China‘s.

The Afghan Conundrum~II

Afghan wounded children receive medical treatments at a hospital following an explosion in Mihtarlam city the capital of Laghman province on April 15, 2019. Seven children were killed and 10 more wounded on April 14 when an unexploded mortar shell blew up in eastern Afghanistan, an official said. (NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / AFP)

In 1893, Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, the then Foreign Secretary of British India, drew up a 1500-mile line to demarcate the western boundary of British India, the Indo- Afghan border, and imposed it on the Amir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan by an agreement, according to which Afghanistan had to relinquish Swat, Chitral and Chageh areas to the British in exchange for Nuristan and Asmar which it had never controlled.

The Durand line ran through the heart of the Pashtun territory, which for the Afghans was reminiscent of the Durrani Empire, and was very much part of their country. Thus after 1947, when Pakistan came into existence, Pashtuns found themselves distributed between two countries. Of the total Pashtun population of 45 million, 17 million live in Afghanistan where they are a majority over other ethnic groups, whereas the rest 28 million live in Pakistan, where they constitute a minority and feel discriminated in comparison to other Pakistani citizens, because their per capita income is just half of the country’s average.

In Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province bordering Afghanistan, 78 per cent of Pashtun men and 98 per cent of Pashtun women are illiterate. For Pakistan, the corresponding figures are respectively 40 per cent and 69 per cent. There are similar disparities in employment and income too. Afghanistan never accepted or recognised the Durand Line and in 1949, annulled the Durand Line agreement as an artificial relic from the colonial era.


All territories stretching from this line right up to the Indus River, comprising almost 60 per cent of Pakistan, are claimed by Afghanistan. The border dispute lies at the heart of Pakistan- Afghanistan relations, but there are other serious issues as well. The Pakistan army and the government, dominated by Punjabis, fear the unification of Pashtun areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan to form a greater Pashtunistan south of the Hindukush.

Pakistan’s ISI would rather have a “Greater Pakistan” within Afghanistan controlled by Islamabad. Further, Taliban are also predominantly Pashtuns; like Pakistani Pashtuns, they do not accept the control of Punjabi- dominated Pakistani army. The KPK is virtually outside of Pakistan’s administrative control. It was the fear of an independent Pashtunistan or a Greater Afghanistan (including Pashtun areas within Pakistan) that led Pakistan to create the first Mujahideen leaders like Burhanuddin Rabbani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to foment the Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan in the mid-1970s.

Once the Soviets invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 1979, this transformed into a full-fledged decade-long war to defeat them. Meanwhile, at the height of the Cold War, the USA was still following its encircling strategy against Soviet expansionism known as Kennan’s Containment Strategy premised on the hypothesis that containing Soviet influence everywhere would ultimately lead to the automatic downfall of the Soviet empire.

Therefore, when the Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Americans readily supported the Mujahideens to drive away the Russians. Soviets withdrew in 1989, but was supporting the Najibullah government hoisted by them with economic and military aid. In close coordination with the CIA and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan created, armed and supported the Taliban to overthrow the Najibullah government after six years of civil war in 1996. But while the ISI had supported the Afghan Pashtuns in their fight against Soviets or other Afghan ethnic groups, it never encouraged them to fight against the Taliban.

In fact, during the conflict years, Pashtun Mujahideens and Al Qaida terrorists had sought and got refuge in Pakistan among the same ethnic group in the KPK which sheltered them. The scenario, however, changed after 9/11, when the USA forced Pakistan to go aggressively after the Taliban. Pakistan then played a double game with the Americans. While continuing to remain a strategic “non-NATO ally” and receiving massive economic and military aid from the USA worth $ 26 billion , it clandestinely helped train, rebuild and relaunch the restructured Afghan Taliban against US/NATO forces from 2003 onwards.

Central to this strategy was Peshawar ~ a sort of urban Taliban military industrial complex, where Kalashnikovs, bomb making technology, grenades, jihadi fighters and suicide bombers freely flowed in and, with money and training provided by the ISI to destabilize Afghanistan. The situation got complicated after the emergence of Pakistani Taliban-Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007 and its relentless strikes in Punjab, Sind and KPK, which forced the Pakistan army to launch counterinsurgency operations involving 150,000 troops, but without any significant breakthrough.

The Pakistani army then launched its major ground operation Zarb-e- Ajb (Sharp and Cutting Strike) ~ apparently against the Afghan Taliban in North Waziristan, supported by the full might of its air force. But the focus was not on the Afghan Taliban, considered a strategic asset by Pakistan, but the TTP bases and foreign militants from China’s restive Xinxiang province and Uzbekistan. However, the evolving symbiotic relationship between Afghan Taliban and TTP is posing a strategic dilemma and a major challenge to Pakistan’s security policy.

Pakistan has always considered Afghanistan as a territory necessary to keep tightly under its control for gaining strategic depth against India, and for that purpose, to be able to exercise permanent influence over the governments there. For Pakistan, the worst case scenario is for Afghanistan to fall under the influence of India, of any of its close allies, which Soviet Russia was during the Cold War period. The presence of Soviet troops in Afghan territory was therefore anathema to Pakistan, and it did all it could to support the Mujahideens to expel the Soviets.

Influence over Afghanistan with a Pashtun majority also serves Pakistan’s interest to prevent any movement for independent Pashtunistan which would include the Pashtun populated areas of Pakistan in it, while ensuring that no Pakistani Pashtun dissident finds refuge in Afghanistan. An Afghanistan under the Taliban will create a continuity of radicalized Islamic groups stretching from the India-Pakistan border to Central Asia ~ indeed an evil empire composed of the likes of Jallaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Heckmatyar and Laskar-e-Toiba, but something Pakistan can control and use against India and Iran.

A peaceful Afghanistan certainly frustrates this sinister plan. Pakistan’s frustration is therefore understandable, because a peaceful Afghanistan benefits India the most, whose economy dwarfs all other economies in the region except China’s. A stable and moderate Afghanistan can become the hub of both Central Asia and Eurasia, where the economic interests of Russia, China, India and Iran will converge in favour of transport corridors through Central Asia. This would tremendously boost the growth of Indian trade across Central Asia to European and middleeastern markets estimated to be over $100 billion annually ~ to Tbilisi, Istanbul, Tashkent or Almaty, by rail and road links.

World Bank estimates the Afghan economy to be reasonably self-reliant by 2025, till which time it needs to be sustained by international aid to stabilize its war-ravaged economy. Afghanistan has several reserves of oil in the north and strategic minerals in the south. Peace will see it exploit its geopolitical advantages, as it transforms into a transit territory for the energy resources coming from Iran and Turkmenistan to Pakistan, India, and China. Iran and Turkmenistan occupy second and fourth places respectively in terms of the estimated gas reserves in the world.

The creation of oil and gas pipelines by Afghanistan would increase the output of energy resources in Central Asia and Iran, a fact that would favour almost all countries in the region, except probably Russia which is trying to monopolise the gas distribution in Europe and Asia. India’s strategic interests in Afghanistan lie in ensuring the sovereignty and integrity of the country, preventing the subversion of its democratic political transition, integrating Afghanistan into a regional economic framework and by all means to prevent any resurgence of Taliban.

India has heavily invested in Afghanistan’s economic development, and is helping to build the country’s road and power infrastructure, improve connectivity through the development of Chabahar Port, and also assisting in capacity building in Afghanistan. Three decades of violent conflict had taken millions of lives and completely disrupted the social fabric of Afghanistan.

The international community, along with India, must ensure that after the withdrawal of US forces, it does not descend into chaos and anarchy as in Iraq, with tribal, ethnic and sectarian insurgents dividing the country into zones controlled respectively by them, while the Taliban renews their offensive and emerges stronger than ever before. Peace is an essential prerequisite for development of Afghanistan, but is not in sight yet.


(The writer is a commentator. Opinions are personal)