On April 17, the Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry called on Afghanistan to stop attacks on the country’s border areas, which worsen relations between the countries. However, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have always been quite complicated and complex. They can be characterized by acute instability, as they have ranged from friendly to tense.
In 2015, Islamabad hosted the Fifth International Conference “Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process”, which promoted good neighborly relations between the countries of the region. The President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, came to the conference to address several regional issues, while India, China, and Iran were represented by their foreign ministers. Two aspects stood out as outcomes: Ghani’s offer to the Taliban to return to the negotiating table to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, and the positive attitude of Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Sartaj towards the resumption of the negotiation process between Islamabad and New Delhi, supported by all Indian political parties. The latter decision had indirect positive effects on Pakistani-Afghan relations and the possible positive outcome of negotiations between the Afghan leadership and the Taliban, as it created a generally favorable atmosphere for such actions in the region.
Afghanistan and Pakistan are closely linked to each other. Afghanistan’s national economy depends on close interaction with Pakistan for foreign trade. 80% of Afghanistan’s trade turnover is carried out through the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement. Afghanistan is landlocked, so many goods are delivered via Pakistan. That same year, 2015, trade turnover was $2 billion, ranking third in export volume after China and the United States. On the other hand, Afghanistan’s imports to Pakistan are extremely low. At that time, Pakistani Finance Minister Isaac Dar spoke about Pakistan’s desire to increase trade turnover to $5 billion but noted the impossibility of implementing this initiative due to Taliban’s instability. There was also an initiative to include India in the Transit Trade Agreement (between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India) and to abolish duties on Indian goods, but Pakistan was afraid of strengthening the position of Afghanistan in India.
Now the countries are facing the problem of energy supplies. Pakistan proposed the initiative to create a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India and the construction of the CASA-1000 power transmission line. The projects could not be implemented. The failure of the projects was caused again by the unstable situation in Afghanistan. Since 2005, the Taliban have promoted a tough stance that they will blow up any facilities that are partially sponsored by Western bankers.
The migration issue is acute between the countries. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his visit to Pakistan in December 2015, reiterated his regret over the presence of 300,000 to 500,000 Pakistanis on Afghan territory, saying that military operations in Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan lead to the significant migration of hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis, forcing the Afghan government to spend already scarce financial resources on their settlement and subsistence. For its part, the Afghan news agency Pajhwok, citing statistics from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (located in the Pakistani city of Peshawar), stressed that at least 3 million Afghans emigrated to Pakistan because of the acute internal political crisis in the country and terrorist attacks, of which only 53,000 returned to Afghanistan in 2015.
Both countries are suffering from the terrorist threat on their territories. Tens of thousands of ISIL fighters were identified in Pakistan from 2015 to 2020, which also undermines stability in the region, although Pakistan’s official government has repeatedly stated its readiness to fight the terrorists. In 2015, Pakistan suggested that Afghanistan jointly fight ISIL.
And another problem in Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral relations is the significant and ever-increasing flow of drugs into Pakistan from the neighboring country. First Deputy Interior Minister Baligur Rehman estimated the number of persistent drug users in Pakistan at 6.4 million in the fall of 2015, stressing that this is a minimum figure, as the real number of drug users is unknown and could be 2 and 3 times higher. In 2014-2015 alone, about 345 tons of various drugs (mostly heroin) from Afghanistan were seized in Pakistan. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 80% of the world’s opium poppy cultivation takes place in Afghanistan and despite all U.S. efforts to eradicate poppy crops (almost $8 billion has been spent in recent years) the area under this opium crop has steadily increased, reaching 224,000 hectares in 2014.
In 2017, convinced that the Taliban would soon come to power, Pakistan began hastily building a full-fledged border along the Durand Line (the disputed border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan that had been inflamed since the 19th century after the departure of British forces). The project is estimated to cost $500 million. Along the dividing line, two other fences are being built, braided with barbed-wire overhead and equipped with surveillance cameras and infrared motion sensors. Even during the pandemic, the Pakistanis tried their best, but still failed to complete the construction. By New Year’s Eve, about 10% of the borderline remained unblocked. Shortly before New Year’s Day, a sniper from the Afghan army – now the new Taliban – shot and killed two Pakistani soldiers pulling barbed wire. The Pakistanis retaliated by firing on Afghan border villages, and the Taliban artillery immediately responded. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi tried to smooth things over by saying that Islamabad was in contact with Kabul and that all matters would be resolved through diplomatic means from now on. But he was immediately confronted by Mawlawi Sanaullah Sangin, a former Taliban field commander who had been put in charge of the eastern border by the new government.
“We, the Taliban, will not allow fences and walls to be built along the borders, he announced. – Yes, the Pakistanis have done it before, but we will not allow them to continue.”
There are not a few controversial aspects of Afghan-Pakistani relations. However, this does not exclude their development. In November 2021, local Taliban forces in Pakistan agreed to a truce with the authorities. The Pakistani government and the Pakistani terrorist group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, brokered by the new Afghan authorities, agreed to a temporary ceasefire. Officials from Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Information confirmed that the parties agreed to continue talks and that they have been launched under the mediation of Afghanistan’s interim government formed by the radical Taliban. The mediator between Islamabad and the Pakistani Taliban in the negotiation process and a temporary ceasefire was Afghan Assistant Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who heads the Haqqani Network, the most radical wing of the Taliban. Haqqani is reportedly on th U.S. terrorist watch lists and U.S. authorities have promised $10 million to those who help capture him. The Afghan newspaper called the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan “an “ideological twin” of the Afghan Taliban. Founded in 2007, the group includes Pashtun Islamist militants along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Last year, its militants carried out 95 terrorist attacks that killed about 140 people, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. In the first six months of this year, the group has already carried out more than 40 attacks.
Another downturn in relations can be seen these days. On April 17, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said there has been a significant increase in attacks from Afghanistan against its security forces and called on the Taliban to take steps to stop them. According to the Foreign Ministry, Pakistan has repeatedly called on the Afghan authorities to stop the militants, but has achieved no result. At least seven Pakistani soldiers were killed Thursday in the North Waziristan border region. A day earlier, a Pakistani Air Force plane had allegedly struck Afghanistan. The attack was carried out in Khost province, which borders North Waziristan. According to unconfirmed reports, more than 30 people were killed. This further exacerbated already tense relations between the two neighboring countries. The Taliban government has warned Pakistan of “bad consequences” if the airstrikes continue. Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul said Pakistan had nothing to do with the airstrikes.
The Taliban claimed 47 deaths as a result of Pakistani airstrikes in eastern provinces. The Kunar province was also hit. On April 16, the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations reported more than 40 casualties. The statement said Pakistan’s aggression was aimed at Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and against civilians who had suffered from terrorism for the past two decades. Officials called on Pakistan to immediately stop attacking Afghan provinces. The Afghan Foreign Ministry summoned the Pakistani ambassador to Kabul to protest the airstrikes.
Earlier, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said the country intended to continue the fight against terrorism. According to authorities, since the beginning of 2022, 128 militants have been killed on the border with Afghanistan and about a hundred soldiers have been killed. Pakistan has historically been considered an ally of the Taliban. The movement was based there while the U.S. military was present in Afghanistan. Pakistan was the first to negotiate with the Taliban after the Islamists took control of the country. Hamdullah Mohib, a former security adviser to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, credited Pakistan as the main culprit for the Taliban’s victory in August 2021.
In this regard, the involvement of the U.S., China, and India in resolving the situation in Afghanistan should not be overlooked. Back in September 2021, Pakistan and the U.S. cooperated in this area. Pakistan evacuated U.S. citizens from Kabul. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken thanked Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi for the act and noted that the countries “have more to focus on in the region, namely economic ties and security.” Qureshi noted that the U.S. and Pakistan should find a way to work together for peace and stability. However, as can be seen, the withdrawal of U.S. troops has not contributed to peace and stability in Afghanistan.
China, on the other hand, said that the United States had withdrawn from Afghanistan but had not solved the main problem, terrorism, so China is forced to deal with this on its own. Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, said that China and Pakistan would coordinate efforts to stabilize the situation in the region. In light of this, the two sides have agreed to do everything in their power to prevent Afghanistan from plunging into the abyss of civil war. At the same time, China and Pakistan intend to encourage by all means an intra-Afghan dialogue which should lead to reconciliation within Afghanistan and the creation of a workable political structure in the country. At the same time, Beijing and Islamabad have announced deepening cooperation in the fight against terrorism. This includes supporting the Afghan authorities in preventing the country from becoming a breeding ground for extremists as well as preventing the strengthening of organizations whose activities threaten China. China and Pakistan also agreed to cooperate with Afghanistan’s neighbors. The main goals will be to jointly help Afghanistan achieve peace and maintain friendly relations with neighboring countries the Afghan authorities. In addition, the Chinese and Pakistani foreign ministers called on the international community to join forces to urge the U.S. to fulfill all its obligations to Afghanistan. This includes, above all, promoting peace processes, ensuring coordination among all political forces, and working to maintain peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan Amar Sinha concluded that the victory of the Taliban would give a boost to radical ideology and similarly oriented groups not only in nearby countries but also around the world. “It will also push Pakistan to continue to use terror as part of its state policy,” the diplomat pointed out. One might even conclude that Pakistani insurgents and the Afghan Taliban have become temporary allies of India. However, the Afghan consulate in India has ceased to function, India has not recognized the Taliban, and India is projecting instability on the Indo-Pakistan border. Therefore, the “temporary alliance” is very unstable, and it cannot be called an alliance, but rather a coincidence of interests of several parties.
Afghan-Pakistani relations are very unstable and one such piece of evidence was shown the other day. The Taliban are not allies or reliable partners for the Pakistani government, it is one of the factors of instability because the Taliban are closely linked with Pakistani insurgents, which brings certain contradictions and splits in the Pakistani society. The settlement of the situation by third countries has not yet yielded concrete results. The situation in the region will depend directly on Pakistan and its policy towards Afghanistan, as well as on further developments in Afghanistan itself.
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