Pakistan and Afghanistan are joined by geography and a complex history. A long and imaginary border drawn at the end of the colonial era runs through bonds of religion, culture, language and ethnicity. Thirty years of war, political upheaval and instability in Afghanistan have been shared by Pakistan in no small measure. Since independence in 1947, Pakistan has had an unstable bilateral relationship with its northwestern neighbour, stemming from border disputes. Afghanistan has always objected to the Durand Line as the official border and claims areas in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province as its own territory.
Despite the affinities and physical proximity, this has been a troubled relationship, worsened by British, Soviet and American ambitions.
Pakistani strategists – comprising mostly the security establishment – have always feared a hostile Afghan government since it would lead to the country’s encirclement. An unfriendly Afghan government on the western border, with traditional enemy India to the east, has been an overarching fear in conventional military estimates. The hostility towards India has therefore informed the way Pakistan views Afghanistan.
The Cold War, jihad and the Taliban
The Cold War has had the greatest impact on Pakistan-Afghanistan relations in recent decades. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 plunged the country into civil war, after which Pakistan, with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, backed the Afghan ‘mujahideen’ resistance, which eventually ‘defeated’ the U.S.S.R. ten years later. What followed was abandonment by the international community, especially the West. During the 1990s, the rise of a predominantly Pashtun religious militia – the Taliban – facilitated by Pakistan complicated matters, pitting Pakistan against non-Pashtun Afghans as the Taliban carried out atrocities against other ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan.
The Taliban captured Kabul in 1996 and ended up controlling around 90 percent of the country by 2001. Pakistan was their closest ally, and one of just three countries that recognized their regime. There is increasing evidence that Pakistan’s intelligence establishment aided Taliban’s consolidation of power in Afghanistan in the 90s.
The U.S.-led war on terror after the September 11, 2001 attacks transformed the Taliban – who were providing safe havens to al Qaeda – into the enemies of the United States. The Taliban’s main opponents, the Northern Alliance, became the obvious favourite of the West, and was provided a generous share of power after coalition forces toppled the Taliban regime.
Pakistan had officially urged the Taliban to surrender al Qaeda and their leader, Osama bin Laden, to the U.S., but the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar refused, and vowed to defend his ‘guests’. After Kabul fell on November 13, 2001, the Taliban went into hiding.
As the U.S.-led NATO forces declared victory and started their disastrous state-building project, the Taliban movement re-emerged in mid-2000s, starting an insurgency against coalition and Afghan forces. (more…)