Understanding Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan

Explaining five particular factors which are vital to Pakistan’s policy calculations in Afghanistan

Understanding Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan

After months of concerted diplomatic efforts by regional powers, the long stalled Afghan peace process resumed in earnest recently when delegates from Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States met in Islamabad. Any Afghan peace process is incomplete without complete and clear involvement of Pakistan.

Since its inception, Pakistan has had deep interests in Afghanistan [and vice versa], and ignoring or sidelining these interests will only destabilise Afghanistan and put the region in peril. Among others, there are five particular factors which are vital to Pakistan’s policy calculations in Afghanistan and need to be considered seriously.

Mitigation of Indian influence

Preventing India from gaining significant foothold in Afghanistan has remained one of the top priorities of Pakistan. Pakistan has always remained skeptical of the India’s influence in Afghanistan. Islamabad on its part assumes that India’s deep presence inside Afghanistan is a direct threat to its national security. While Pakistan’s perception of the Indian threat in Afghanistan might be exaggerated [as the claim that India has hundreds of consulates in Afghanistan!] yet the fears of Pakistan should not be dismissed.

In fact, Afghanistan can give both India and Pakistan an opportunity to work together in stabilising Afghanistan, with the important side effect of improving their own relations too. To some extent the objectives of India and Pakistan in Afghanistan do collide, but there is a large measure of agreement too, so if the positives are worked upon, peace and stability might be promoted.

Economic interests

Pakistan’s economic interests in Afghanistan are well founded. In recent years, the abundant energy resources in Central Asia, largely untapped, have triggered a race amongst the big powers for gas and oil pipelines in and around the region. Moreover, Pakistan and Afghanistan’s geostrategic setting between the energy-loaded Middle East and Central Asia, and the energy-keen and growing economies of India and China naturally triggers some strong potential drivers for economic development in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Besides, Pakistan needs energy for its own economic revitalisation and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline [TAPI], with all its hurdles, provides an energy source that will be in Pakistan’s capital stock for fifty more years. The pipeline is expected to complete by 2019.

Pakistan’s flagship economic project, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor [CPEC] also has similar stakes in Afghanistan. The CPEC, which is a part of the China’s One Belt, One Road development framework, promises to connect Central Asia with South Asia and beyond via Afghanistan and Pakistan. So the security situation in Afghanistan, whether worsens or stabilises, directly impacts Pakistan’s economic interests.

The Durand Line dispute

The Durand Line is the western border of Pakistan that divides it from Afghanistan. It is named after a Foreign Secretary of India, Sir Mortimer Durand, who in 1893 along with an Afghan leader, Abdul Rehman Khan, signed a treaty, the Durand agreement, which demarcated the border separating India and Afghanistan. When Pakistan became an independent state, the Durand Line became the first reason for a perpetual conflict between the two countries.

While Pakistan recognizes the Durand Line as its legitimate western border, Afghanistan has never recognised it as an international border -- Pakistan could not even get recognition of it during the Taliban government. This issue has also caused serious hurdles in border management as militants move freely across the Durand Line because of prevailing non-cooperation between the both countries. Therefore, the time has come to finally attempt to resolve this long-standing dispute.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are two sovereign countries and need a border which is recognised by both sides. Hence, they need to create a commission to revisit the issue, and mutually agree on a recognised border. While wholesale redrawing of the border might not be possible and exchange of smaller enclaves and minor adjustments, like on the Indian and Bangladeshi border recently, might provide a way forward.

Balochistan secessionist movement

Pakistan has faced the Baloch insurgency since its inception. The movement has evolved over the decades, drawing its strength basically from early resistance offered to the proposed merger with Pakistan in 1947-8, followed by sporadic revolts against the state since then. The largest uprising took place between 1973 and 1977 with 80,000 or more Pakistani troops being deployed in the province.

Presently the fifth insurgency is going on in Balochistan and Pakistan claims that both India and Afghanistan have a hand in fuelling the insurgency. Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, on many occasions talked about a scheme in which some of Pakistan’s neighbours were complicit in supplying funds and weapons to the Baloch insurgents. While Pakistan has not been able to produce substantial evidence of Indian involvement, India has always denied it.

However, from Pakistan’s perspective, Indian involvement cannot be disregarded entirely. It cannot be argued that India’s interest in Afghanistan is entirely humanitarian. India’s proactive involvement in Afghanistan, especially close to the Pakistan border, definitely makes Pakistan sensitive. The claim is not without historical justification as Pakistan has been dismembered before and that too with the help of Indian intervention.

Analysts argue that even if India is involved in inflaming insurgency in Balochistan it is because of Pakistan’s involvement in Kashmir for similar purposes and India is just returning the favour by playing a tit-for-tat spy game with Islamabad. Nevertheless, there exists a serious territorial problem for Pakistan which sits next to Afghanistan.

Hence, not only does Pakistan need to work internally to develop Balochistan which will have a sobering effect on the insurgency, it needs to talk to its neighbours to end their tacit support of the Baloch insurgents. An independent Balochistan will neither serve the interests of Afghanistan nor of India and will further destabilise the region, for the detriment of all countries. With the start of the CPEC project peace and stability is even more paramount in Balochistan and so the time is set for Pakistan to act.

The issue of ‘Pashtunistan’

When the British were leaving the Indian Empire in 1947, Afghanistan pushed for a review of the border and when the request was refused, Afghanistan called for an independent Pashtunistan to be carved out of Pakistan. Pakistan has always considered Afghanistan’s support for Pashtunistan as a threat to national security. During the 1950s and 1960s, Afghanistan sponsored a Pashtun separatist movement in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province [NWFP], now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa [KPK]. Furthermore, in 1979, the Afghan prime minister, Hafizullah Amin, explicitly stated Kabul’s aspiration for a ‘greater Afghanistan’. The Durand Line, he said, ‘tore us apart’.

These concerns continue to feature in Pakistan’s evaluation of the events in Afghanistan and so the Afghan government needs to assure Pakistan that no such tactic will ever be used against Pakistan. While there is little support for an independent Pashtunistan in Pakistan now, elements in Afghanistan still think it to be a useful future. Hence, confidence needs to be built on the Pakistan side by the Afghans that Pashtunistan was and will remain a thing of the past.

The above five are important considerations not only for Pakistan, but for Afghanistan and India, as well as other powers. With the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East and increasing instability there, any more instability in South Asia will fuel fires which will be difficult to contain. Therefore, the time has come for all South Asian countries to focus on the promotion of peace, stability and development in the region.

Yaqoob Khan Bangash is Director for the Centre for Governance and Policy, IT University Lahore, where Umair Jamal is a Research Associate.

Understanding Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan