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The peace marchers from the Helmand province – the southern province of Afghanistan and one of the hardest hit places in terms of terrorism, civilian casualties, instability, Taliban infiltration, and violence – have further invigorated the pursuit of peace in the country. The marchers who demand an end to hostility and killings braved insecurity, physical strain, torching heat, and hunger and thirst as their march coincided with the month of Ramadan to reach capital Kabul. In Kabul, they proposed an agenda that includes “a ceasefire between the Taliban and government forces, peace talks between the two sides, the implementation of a law agreed upon by the government and the Taliban, and the withdrawal of foreign forces.” In total, the marchers covered the distance of more than 700 kilometers. They did this on foot, which is an amazing achievement, probably unprecedented in the history of Afghanistan. The peace initiative of the marchers has been received positively by the public and the government. President Ashraf Ghani held a meeting with them to discuss their demands. I wish the president had shown the same generosity toward the members of the “Enlightenment Movement” – a Hazara ethnic-led, anti-racial discrimination movement advocating for inclusive development. The movement’s peaceful demonstrations were not only unwelcomed by Ghani but its members were left vulnerable to be killed by suicide bombings and their legitimate developmental demands thrown by the wayside. Double standards and ethnic prejudice have been the hallmark of Ghani’s administration.
The peace project got a shot in the arm last year when a peace agreement between the Afghan National Unity Government and Afghanistan Islamic Party (AIP) was signed. The agreement requires AIP to denounce violence and end its armed struggle against the government. The agreement facilitated the arrival of AIP’s chief, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to Kabul after two decades of exile. The reconciliation with AIP reignited the prospects of a lasting peace in Afghanistan.
Whenever there is the talk of peace in Afghanistan’s political and media circles, Pakistan, gains prominence in facilitating the process, rather than domestic Afghan political actors. There is even a famous saying that “the road to peace in Kabul goes through Islamabad.” Does Pakistan really have that much sway on the peace process in Afghanistan, or is its role blown out of proportion?
The former Afghan President Hamid Karzai once called Pakistan a “twin brother.” His statement is not far from reality as there are many commonalities between the two neighbors. The two share a long border which is close to 2,500 kilometers. The trade volume between the two is more than two billion US dollars and Afghanistan is the second largest importer of goods from Pakistan. In 2010, the two signed a trade agreement called Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA), which strengthened economic ties, and facilitated Afghanistan’s freedom to access the sea in order to expand its international trade and economic development. In terms of religion, Islam is the predominant religion in both the states, as more than 90 percent of their population practice it. There is similarity of culture. Both Afghans and Pakistanis celebrate the festival of Eid with enthusiasm, commemorate the month of Muharram with religious fervor, and speak the language of Pashtu, Afghanistan’s second official language. Hence, the above similarities should paint a rosy picture of the relations, but tragically the two countries bitterly stand apart, and Pakistan stands accused by Kabul of meddling in the latter’s internal affairs.
In the post-Taliban era, one of the core objectives of the Afghan government was to improve relations with Pakistan and dissuade it from interfering in its domestic affairs by cutting off funding and support to the Taliban – a fundamentalist and terrorist outfit. To achieve this aim, President Hamid Karzai made more than twenty official trips to Pakistan to convince its leadership to change course. Tragically, all trips and meetings ended in failure. Pakistan showed no yielding and its support to the Taliban grew only stronger. Karzai’s successor Ashraf Ghani initially continued with the failed policy of Karzai by appeasing Islamabad to abandon its support of the Taliban but soon realized its shortcomings. However, the question that should be asked is: “why does Pakistan support the Taliban?” The answer to this question might help us grasp the complexities of bringing peace to Afghanistan.
The Border Dispute
One of the reasons that Pakistan supports the Taliban is the border dispute between the two countries. The current border was drawn in 1893 by a British diplomat and representative of British Raj named Sir Mortimer Durand. It was based on an agreement between Afghanistan and British India known as the “Durand Line Agreement.” According to the Economist magazine, the line is close to 2,500 kilometers long, and “runs from China, via Wakhan Corridor and the mountainous tribal belt of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province down to Baluchistan province and Iran.” Both the countries interpret the agreement differently. Afghanistan does not officially recognize the border, and considers it an unofficial and temporary one which has been imposed on it, although, successive Afghan dispensations after king Abdur Rahman – the principal signer of the agreement – have renewed the agreement. Afghanistan claims that the line bitterly divided Pashtuns living on both sides of the border, and lays claim to parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan, two of Pakistan’s four provinces. That might be the precise reason that Kabul advocates for “greater Pashtunistan” and does not favor any integration or merger of Pashtuns living on the other side into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Pakistan, on the other hand, considers the border dispute settled. It recognizes the border as an official one and permanently dividing the two countries. Pakistan’s continuous and unyielding support of the Taliban should be seen through the lens of this dispute. Its “strategic objective” is to install a puppet or client state such as the Taliban in Kabul that does not provoke a border dispute and refrains from advocating for “greater Pashtunistan.”
The international community accepts the Durand Line as a permanent border, annoying and at times frustrating the Afghan leadership. In November 2017 in an interview with BBC Persian service, the British Ambassador to Kabul created political unease by stating that the current border between Afghanistan and Pakistan was internationally accepted. Afghanistan’s national security advisor reacted angrily. Within the last month or so a report made its rounds on social media covering acceptance of the border by an Afghan delegation that had visited Pakistan. The Afghan government released a statement vehemently rejecting the report, reminding international observes that the border issue is a hypersensitive one. The Afghan government believes the status of the Durand Line should be determined by the “Afghan nation.” It further states that the acceptance of the border by Pakistan and the international community has “no bearing” on the views of the Afghan people and the official stance of the Afghan government on the dispute.
India’s Presence in Afghanistan
The second irritant that has hampered the peace process in Afghanistan is the presence of India. The partition of British India in 1947 into the two independent countries of India and Pakistan created all sorts of problems. The partition not only created unnecessary tension between both countries over Kashmir, but also created conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the Durand Line. So, if today South Asia is in political tension, it is due in significant part to the grotesque legacy of the British empire’s “divide and rule policy.”
In the post-Taliban period, the presence of India in Afghanistan grew. During the Taliban reign Indians were mere spectators of the Afghan political theater. Power was largely in the hands of Pakistan, which had succeeded in installing a puppet government in Kabul. It all changed in favor of India with the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 by the coalition forces, with major help from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance backed by India. Now India is one of the major donors in Afghanistan’s reconstruction program. In October 2011, India signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan, creating an “institutional framework” that allowed the latter to help the Afghan government in capacity building in the areas of education, development, and more importantly to train Afghan security forces. Anyone familiar with the South Asian politics knows that a strong Indian presence in Afghanistan will provoke Pakistan. The partition of the subcontinent in 1947 was bitter. It created suspicion and animosity on both sides that stretch to present. Pakistan apparently believes that India never came to the terms with the idea of Pakistan, and still holds a deep-seated grudge. It is in a constant state of fear that India is undermining and destabilizing Pakistan, and that by increasing its presence in Afghanistan, India is squeezing Pakistan from both its western and the eastern sides. And Pakistan has accused India of having a role in destabilizing the province of Baluchistan by supporting the Baloch separatist movement.
The 2011 strategic agreement, the number of Indian consulates in Afghanistan’s major cities, and the closeness of Afghan political elites and the Northern Alliance to India, have all made Pakistan believe that by using Afghanistan, India is hell-bent on destabilizing Pakistan. Based on Pakistan’s political and strategic calculations, a peaceful Afghanistan means expansion of the Indian presence there. The concerns of Pakistan regarding the Indian presence in Afghanistan should be addressed by Afghan leadership. They must make Pakistan understand that Afghanistan will not be used by India to destabilize Pakistan. Afghanistan should not pursue the policy of appeasement in its relations with India and Pakistan. Appeasing one against the other is not politically responsible or sustainable. Maintaining independent relations with both of them should be the way forward.
It is obvious that the border dispute is the biggest obstacle for Afghanistan to achieve peace. The political stubbornness showed by both Afghanistan and Pakistan regarding this conflict seems firmly entrenched in their political doctrines and state psyches. Both of them have spent huge political capital and financial resources to stick to their guns, so backing down seems unlikely. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have indulged in sabotage campaigns to weaken each other by propping up proxies, supporting groups with radical Islamist agendas and cultivating terrorist outfits such as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. So, as long as the border remains disputed, peace is unlikely to prevail in Afghanistan. But the situation can be addressed. Both countries can show political maturity and pragmatism by convening an “internationally accepted commission” to look into the Durand Line Agreement. The commission should be tasked to study all legal aspects of the agreement professionally and without fear or favor. To make the mandate for the commission successful, both Afghanistan and Pakistan should commit in advance to accepting its final report. Sticking to one’s rigid stance won’t solve anything. If the dispute can’t be resolved mutually, then the best way is to refer it to a third body to come up with a solution. The tension over the border dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan is longstanding. It has created a deep-rooted animosity and distrust, helped fuel fundamentalism and terrorism, shattered many lives, killed many innocent souls, made the region dangerous and unstable, put both countries in a permanent state of war, spread hatred and violence, affected the development of the region, and prevented many children from receiving an education. The financial resources that have gone into this conflict would be better spent on things like education and development than on death and destruction.