Need for new Afghan policy

By: Mian Sanaullah

Owing to chequered relations with Afghanistan, Pakistan could never develop a comprehensive Afghan policy. A common perception ran through all governments from 1947 to 1979 that erratic relations could be managed.  Firstly, Afghanistan was not considered strong enough to pose any serious threat to Pakistan. Secondly, Indian influence in Kabul was not as lethal as today. Thirdly, Pakistan had the US backing during the Cold War era.  Pakistan’s responses to crisis in the relationship, in general, remained casual and reactive, mostly preserving legitimacy of the Durand Line.

The Soviet intervention in 1979 awakened the government in Islamabad to realize its folly. Pakistan saw the “buffer” disappearing and a super power assuming the status of a “near neighbor”. Potential challenges were grave. All apprehensions of the “cold bear” reaching warm waters of the Indian Ocean started looking real. It was feared that India under the Indo- Soviet Treaty of 1971 might stir up trouble at the western border to weaken Pakistan watch at its Eastern frontier.

This entirely new situation warranted a rethink and resetting of the half-baked Afghan policy to exploit Pakistan’s strategic locational advantage. Large cache of literature exists to explain how and why Pakistan chose to become a front state and an ally of the US against the Soviets. And how in following years till now Afghanistan bled and those who basked in defeating Communists suffered.  Their woeful bloody torment never abated, though the Geneva Accord was signed on April 14, 1988.

During this turbulent time Pakistan made use of intelligence information, technical assistance, training facilities offered, high tech surveillance equipment received and information exchanged with key allies including US, China, Saudi Arabia, UK etc. to evolve a little more consistent Afghan policy.  The salient feature of this embryonic policy, nevertheless, corresponded to Pakistan’s need for stable friendly relations with the government in Kabul. The Afghan Cell, which was constituted in 1978 and beefed up later with formal and informal top level military and civilians, including governors, corps commanders, cabinet ministers, DG ISI and Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS) developed the concept of strategic depth and non-acceptance of unfriendly (meaning non- Pashtun) government in Kabul.

These goals in some minor variations and at times with more stress on cooperative friendly government continued to be perused by Pakistan during the post-Taliban period. Another important feature of this policy was to use its influence to offset Indian and at times Iranian perceived or real threats against Pakistan. Other goals included an outreach to Central Asian Republics. The policy was sold out as Pakistan advocating a broad based, representative and a multi-ethnic government in Afghanistan, aimed at creating conducive environment for peace to return.

The world changed after 9/11. Pakistan shifted its support from Taliban to US, elevating anti- terrorism as the main plank of its Afghan Policy. In essence, the world witnessed little change in Pakistan’s policy on ground. It is alleged that Pakistan continues providing safe havens to Taliban considered friendly. As a result, the US allies and the governments of President Karzai and now of President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul suffered military reverses and suicide carnage. Pakistan’s efforts to promote Afghan national reconciliation are taken with a pinch of salt by the Afghan government and the US administration.

If one looks at what transpired at Amritsar during the Heart of Asia Conference, Afghan- Pakistan-relations seemed to have ebbed so low that a major shift in Pakistan foreign policy is unavoidable.  There is no point beating our chest over what we did for Afghans, both inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, for 3.2 million refugees and how much Pakistan suffered human and material losses. This time it may not work as the Afghan people in urban areas have openly started voicing anti-Pakistan sentiments. India or the failing US/NATO commanders or corrupt Afghan government leaders may lead these protestations, there is no let-up in anger against Pakistan at street level, in Pashtun more than non-Pashtun belt. The pious hope that India or any other country cannot divide us from our neighbor is failing us and will do so in future too.  The shared affinities and commonality of faith and talk of mega projects are not good enough to reclaim the space already encroached by India.

The mistrust of Afghan people is more poisonous for the Afghan-Pak relations than the outbursts of Ashraf Ghani. Pakistan, therefore, should address Afghans and their genuine concerns like human treatment of refugees, tangible action against all terrorists, an early review finalization of the Transit Trade Agreement etc. At the same time, Pakistan should not feel under pressure by Afghanistan.  It is not the responsibility of Pakistan alone to keep extending hands in the hope of a friendly embrace.

Pakistan might have failed to close “the alleged 20 terrorists bases”, Afghanistan and NATO forces are also living with terrorists’ hideouts (as claimed by the spokesperson of Pakistan Foreign Ministry).  While border management should be pursued with commitment, the relation with Afghanistan should not be seen purely through Indian prism.  The new comprehensive Afghan policy should take into account the compromises Pakistan has to make to implement mega projects of gas pipelines, power supplies and transport connectivity.

The Amritsar outburst and the increasing regularity of similar statements by Ashraf Ghani is regrettable but he is still a shade better than Afghan leaders Pakistan dealt in past six decades with much worst developments. A quick glance at our relations with Afghanistan will reveal:

  • Soon after the announcement of the India Partition Plan on June 3, 1947, Afghanistan denounced the 1893 Durand Line Agreement. Grand Afghan Jirga held in 1947 & 1948 voiced similar sentiments.
  • Afghanistan was the only country, which opposed Pakistan membership to the United Nation and conditioned its recognition to grant of self-determination to Pashtuns in Tribal areas and the province of North Western Frontier.
  • In 1950, King Zahir Shah and his Premier made anti Pakistan speeches at a celebration in Kabul where the Pukhtoonistan flag was hoisted. The Afghan Air Force dropped anti- Pakistan leaflets.
  • In September 1950, Afghan forces launched raid across the Durand Line. Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan had to issue a strong statement reminding Afghanistan “the disturbance of peace in an area of such strategic importance is fraught with danger”.
  • Afghan Prime Minister Sardar Daud threatened Pakistan with dire consequences if it went ahead with the proposed merger of West Pakistan’s provinces into one unit. Pakistani diplomatic missions in Kabul, Jalal Abad and Kandahar were ransacked. Pakistani flag was insulted and later diplomatic relations were severed (1955).
  • In May 1961, Afghan lashkars raided Pakistani territory and later the strained relations led to severance of diplomatic ties.
  • With the help of Shah of Iran the diplomatic relations were restore in May 1963.
  • After capturing power in July 1973, Sardar Daud started interfering in Baluchistan. As a counter strategy, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto encouraged Gulbuddin Hikmatyar and Burhanuddin Rabbani , Afghani dissident leaders who were against Daud’s government. Realizing that inimical policy was more harm than good to Afghanistan,  he exchanged official visits to put the ties on an even keel. Premier Bhutto agreed to release the National Party (NAP) leaders who were accused of supporting the Pookhtoonistan demand while Daud accepted the Durand Line as the international border between two countries. A coup in Pakistan scuttled the formal agreement.
  • A similar understanding was reached between Sardar Daud and General Zia-ul Haq during the former’s vist to Islamabad in May 1978. Before an agreement could be signed, Sardar Daud was killed in a coup. The relations curved back to new low of non-cooperation, spurious territorial claims and strong Indo Soviet interest aggrandizement.

President Ashraf Ghani is not a lost case. He may feel threatened and due to losing support feel wounded.  But he is better than any past or may be any future Afghan leader. If the Afghan people keep behaving as their majority do now, who would go to such length as Ghani did in his initial months of presidency to warm up relations with Pakistan. Instead of lamenting and countering blames, effort should be to focus on making a saleable deal with Afghanistan. This aspect should be the core of the new Afghan Policy.

The author Mian Sanaullah is a former Ambassador, political analyst and Advisor to Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). He can be reached at

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