Domino effect

August 7, 2022

The Afghan Jihad of the 1980s had a profound effect on the Pakistani society

Domino effect


fghanistan has often attracted global attention one way or the other. During the 19th Century, the British and Russian empires tussled over Afghanistan in terms of the so-called Great Game. Neither could control this region completely. Indeed, due to their respective geopolitical interests in West Asia - which included Afghanistan, these Great Powers preferred to view this part of the world as a ‘buffer zone’. Later in the 20th Century, the British employed military means to subjugate Afghanistan but could not colonise it like the subcontinent. It continued however, in a certain context, to influence the foreign policy contours.

Post-WWI, Afghanistan gained independence from foreign influence in 1919. It remained a kingdom in terms of political system till it became a republic in 1973. As regards its foreign policy, in the immediate wake of WWII, Afghanistan led by King Zahir Shah practiced neutrality by not formally joining any of the Cold War alliances. However, his country engaged both the superpowers for development purposes, i.e., economic aid. Importantly, Afghanistan carried a strong sense of territorial nationalism. Consequently, it did not recognise Pakistan, citing territorial issues vis-à-vis Durand Line which was drawn by the British as international border between the British empire and the Emirate of Afghanistan.

Being the successor state, Pakistan claims the Durand Line as international border between the two countries and is, thus, erecting a fence along the Line to ensure territorial sovereignty and integrity. Moreover, Zahir Shah-led Afghanistan laid claims even over parts of today’s KP and Balochistan. The revisionist stance taken by Kabul discouraged warmth in diplomatic interactions and people-to-people contact during much of the 1960s and 1970s. Post-Shah, political instability engulfed the country till it saw the two superpowers fighting a proxy war on its soil.

The Afghan Jihad of the 1980s, as it is commonly called, was a prolonged proxy war among various actors. The US confronted its archrival the USSR through its allies such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The latter, indeed, played a pivotal role due to its geographic contiguity with Afghanistan. Views differ on Pakistan’s participation in this war. The ‘realists’ argue that Pakistan wanted to safeguard its national interests vis-à-vis the USSR whose military presence in South Asia was not a good omen for Pakistan which had already lost its eastern wing due partly to Moscow’s support for New Delhi through a treaty of friendship signed a couple of months before the start of India-Pakistan war in 1971. A social constructivist, however, would accord more weight to norms, values, ideas and identities that nation-states including Pakistan have been consistently constructing to generate discourses that in turn shape their foreign policies.

Nonetheless, Pakistan’s participation in the Afghan Jihad would have served the national interests if realism is a point of reference. The Soviets had retreated by late 1980s and by early 1990s the USSR had disintegrated. The US, on the other hand, emerged as a sole superpower.

Pakistan, however, faced some new realities as well: millions of refugees crossed into the country during and after the Afghan Jihad; Pakistani society witnessed the so-called Kalashnikov and drug culture that badly impacted the youth, both physically and mentally, across the length and breadth of the country; in some cities like Karachi, the demographic profile registered a change with long-term implications for local politics, culture and economy. Some studies since have assessed the economic contribution of the Afghan communities at the micro-level.

Domino effect

After the Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan, was mired in a civil war that settled in 1996 with the formation of an Islamic State by the Taliban. However, the Northern Alliance kept fighting the Taliban commanders in the north of the country. The Taliban rule faced the American wrath in the wake of 9/11 because the former did not hand Osama bin Laden (OBL) over to the US authorities.

The consequent War on Terror caused many families to flee the country to Iran and Pakistan. The latter, once again, received more Afghan refugees. Importantly, the War on Terror had a peculiar dynamic distinct from the Afghan Jihad of the 1980s. For example, while Pakistan allied itself to the US in this war too, the latter kept pushing it to “do more” in terms of targetting US-designated global terrorists and their hideouts. The “do more” reflected divergent foreign policy choices between Washington and Islamabad. Bilateral relations ebbed low in the wake of American military operation to target OBL in Abbottabad in May 2011. The drone attacks in erstwhile FATA were also highly unpopular.

In the post-OBL period, the Obama administration vowed to draw away from the war-ravaged country struggling politically and socioeconomically. The Karzai, and later Ghani-Abdullah, government could not provide the much-needed political consensus to govern the country effectively. Instead, intra-coalition political differences, corruption and poor governance provided strategic space to the Taliban who controlled more than 65 percent of the country’s territory a year before they captured power on August 15, 2021 after the US decided to pull out as per the Doha Agreement signed between the Taliban and the US in February 2020.

For the past one year, Afghanistan has been being ruled by the Taliban. The regime is still denied de jure legitimacy by major powers like the USA and China though the latter has held talks with a Taliban emissary a few months ago. The global isolation has caused a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. “Despite persistent humanitarian needs sparked by years of conflict and recurring drought, the current situation in Afghanistan is unparalleled, with more than 24.4 million people requiring humanitarian assistance to survive”, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.”

In the absence of global financial support and given the lack of industrial infrastructure, Afghanistan’s subsistence economy is reverting to poppy cultivation. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime “[d]rug trafficking and illicit financial flows emanating out of Afghanistan pose increased challenges for the Central Asian region. Afghanistan continues to dominate the worldwide opium market, accounting for 85 per cent of the global production total in 2020.

Opium produced in Afghanistan supplies markets in neighbouring countries as well as Europe, the Near and Middle East, South Asia and Africa.” The situation is not that different in Pakistan, either. According to a TRT World report “in December 2021 and January 2022, authorities at the Torkham border post seized over 524 kg of hashish, 255 kg of heroin, 280 kg of opium and almost 22 kg of methamphetamine”. Pakistan’s Anti Narcotics Force website posits that Pakistan “is recognised by entire world as a Poppy Free State (less than 1,000 hectares), but a victim of Afghan Opiates Drug Trafficking”. Until there is political and socioeconomic stability in Afghanistan, the perennial problems of drugs and weapons will linger. At its end, Pakistani authorities need to eradicate such cartels besides spreading more awareness on the deadly effects of drugs and weapons for the youth that makes the bulk of its population.

The writer has a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University and a post-doc from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and an associate professor at the Department of Social Sciences, Iqra University, Islamabad. He can be reached at

Domino effect