Addressing the fundamentals
of Afghan policy


By Mansoor Khan

TWO recent developments – continuing skirmishes with the TTP in Chitral from across the border and confrontation over the border structure resulting in continued closure of Torkham crossing – signal increasing Pakistan-Afghanistan tensions.
For Pakistan, Afghanistan is a vital relationship for national security, foreign policy, economic revival and regional connectivity. Increasing challenges for Pakistan even in the post-US/NATO Afghanistan under Taliban necessitate an introspective analysis/review of Afghan policy. While security and militancy are real and credible threats, the shift from an exclusive security focus of the past to a trust-based holistic engagement involving natural broader and wider dimensions of social, and economic relations is vital. Such an approach will gradually help address security concerns and move to a regional connectivity agenda.

The peoples of Pakistan and Afghanistan are tied through common religion, history, culture, ethnicity, languages and tribal/kinship linkages. Border areas inhabiting 50 million people across a 2,600 km long border for centuries has been a common social zone and market.
The studies undertaken by the UN and other international agencies in recent decades indicate that more than 50,000 locals on a daily basis used to traverse through formal and informal border crossings for socio-economic needs. For these linkages, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai once described the two countries as ‘conjoined twins.’

Taliban fighters pictured in somewhere in Afghanistan
Taliban fighters pictured in somewhere in Afghanistan

In the decades after Pakistan’s independence, bonds of friendship and connectivity continued to outweigh the agitations caused by differences in perspectives on Durand Line and Pashtunistan issues. The practical manifestation of Afghanistan’s solidarity with Pakistan was especially visible in the 1965 and 1971 wars with India when no Pakistani troops were deployed on the western border.

During the past 50 years, these dynamics changed due to long spells of foreign military interventions in connivance with regional proxies. As a result, the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region has been turned into a perpetual theater of war, conflict and terrorism. The border today is among the most securitized, militarized and fenced boundaries in the world. Instead of increasing opportunities for free movement, trade and transit, the frontier has become an arena for militancies, insurgencies, counter-terrorism operations and drone warfare.

Mansoor Khan, former Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan
Mansoor Khan, former Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan

The costs of these campaigns have been enormous for both countries. Afghanistan which was experiencing social transformation in the 1960s and 1970s is today under regression, international isolation and sanctions. Global and regional militant groups (Daesh, Al-Qaeda, TTP, Baloch militants, ETIM, IMU) continue to find safe havens on Afghan soil. Out of desperation, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have already left their country in the past two years while many more want to leave.

For Pakistan, years of the Afghan war and Taliban insurgency have led to unabated militancy propelled by outfits such as TTP and Baloch militants in the bordering provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Resultantly, economic revival and regional connectivity projects cannot take off. Investments by China in CPEC/BRI or by Gulf countries in agriculture and mining is under threat. The distrust between the two states has continued to increase. Most significantly, Pakistan’s image and goodwill among brotherly Afghans continues to decline. Ironically, the two countries instead of approaching the matter rationally are drifting into a blame game and posturing, falling in the trap of detractors.

For the way forward, the two sides must embrace the reality that neither is a existential threat to the other. Instead, it is just that the destinies of both are inter-twined. Both will have to come out of their narrow, securitized narratives and blame game, and move toward substantive multifaceted cooperation. To achieve this goal, there is a need for mutually working out visionary and forward-looking strategies to transition from an era of tensions/confrontation to that of social and economic connectivity.

Firstly, the two countries should evolve a state-to-state bilateral mechanism on a comprehensive agenda of relations. Since 2001, Pakistan and Afghanistan have not been able to build a functioning bilateral mechanism. The Afghanistan Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS) agreed to in 2018 could not work effectively due to a lack of mutual trust. Since the Taliban takeover of Kabul, the two sides could not evolve a mechanism for engagement. It’s now imperative that Pakistan proposes a bilateral mechanism to address the issues holistically.

Second, cross-border militancy by TTP is undoubtedly a priority issue for Pakistan. Previously, following the Afghan interim government’s advice, Pakistan undertook negotiations with the TTP leadership but their demands were unrealistic. Now, it is incumbent that the Afghan interim government help Pakistan overcome the challenge. Afghan institutions may have capacity limitations, but trust-based engagement is essential for finding a way forward on TTP.

Third, bilateral relations are essentially rooted in mutual interests. Movement of Afghans to Pakistan is their vital need. The current Afghan government complains that during US and NATO launched governments Pakistan was generously issuing visas to Afghans, but currently visas and movements have become restrictive. Also, frequent closures of borders reduce dependability of trade and transit routes through Pakistan. Since connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia/Eurasia is important for Pakistan’s economic revival plans, the border crossings should function independent of political and security considerations.

Bottom line: The peace, stability and progress of Pakistan and Afghanistan are intrinsically linked. Their challenges and opportunities are shared. There is only one way of combating challenges and harvesting opportunities – holistic and uninterrupted bilateral engagement.

Mansoor Ahmad Khan is Pakistan’s former ambassador to Afghanistan. Former ambassador of Pakistan to Austria & PR to UN Vienna. Ex Chairman UN CND. Twitter @ambmansoorkhan