An independent think-tank

Pakistan and Afghanistan: national identity versus bonds of blood and civilisation

Zaigham Khan

The Afghans love Pakistan’s national poet Iqbal so much so that one may confuse him for an Afghan due to his Persian poetry that celebrates the majesty of Afghanistan’s mountains, character of its people and nobility of its heroes. In his eulogy of Ahmad Shah Abdali, Iqbal calls Afghanistan “the heart of Asia”, a term now appropriated by Afghan politicians.

“Asia is a body of water and clay,

Of which the Afghan nation forms the heart.

The whole of Asia will be corrupt,

If the heart is corrupt.

Its decline is the decline of Asia,

Its rise is the rise of Asia.

The body is free only as long as the heart is free,

The heart dies with hatred but lives with faith.[1]


However, Iqbal’s love for Afghanistan was a norm rather than an exception among his generation of South Asian Muslims, and this phenomenon was based on a thousand-year-old civilisational affinity between the Afghans and Muslim of northwest subcontinent. According to historian Richard M. Eaton, a Persianate world embraced much of Western, Central and Southern Asia from the eleventh to the nineteenth centuries. It was based on a prestige language and literature that conferred elite status on its users. This civilisation, like the Sanskrit civilisation, comprised transregional traditions spread over a vast territory, embraced by peoples of varied ethnic and religious backgrounds.[2]

Despite the decline of the Mughal empire, the prestige of Persian language continued unabated. The East India Company retained Persian as official language till 1830s, while it also remained the court language of the Sikh Empire that ended in 1848.[3] Afterwards, while Persian declined officially, the civilisational links endured for another century as Indian Muslims kept reading and producing Persian literature. Iqbal can be considered the last great poet of the Persianate age who carried the heritage of South Asian as well as Iranian and Afghan poets. The great predecessors of this tradition included Sinai, Attar, and Rumi, two of whom had roots in Afghanistan and one in Persia. A good part of Iqbal’s poetry is a dialogue with his spiritual and literary master (though centuries apart in time), Mawlana Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan, though he lived and died in Konia, modern day Turkey.

In terms of political and geographical affinity, the links can be traced to Indus valley civilisation, and several shared empires and civilisational periods including Achaemenid Empire, Mughal Empire, Durrani Empire and the Gandhara civilisation. During the Sultanate period, some Afghan dynasties ruled North India; the Lodhi Afghans (1451-1526) being the most prominent. Afghans also formed a part of the ruling elite through joining militaries of Muslim rulers and by serving Muslim nobles. Likewise, Afghan traders and soldiers also played key roles in shaping the society by linking India with Central Asia and beyond. Sher Shah Suri (1472, or 1486 – 1545), son of an Afghan horse trader, is still considered one of the most remarkable North Indian rulers.

While migrating to Muslim India, Afghans were also helped by the fact that they were automatically counted as upper castes in the Indian Muslim caste system alongside Arabs, Iranians, and Central Asians – a practice that persists to some extent.

The British era

During the British era, India’s trade linkages with Afghanistan and Central Asia were severely restricted, use of Persian as official language came to an end and permanent borders emerged between Afghanistan and South Asia. It was during this period that Afghanistan was portrayed as an entity not only external to South Asia but also hostile to it. This narrative particularly suited to Indian nationalists who were trying to define primordial cultural and geographical boundaries of what they called “Mother India”. India still uses this “otherised” and even demonic portrayal of Afghans through textbooks, political narratives, and popular culture; a recent example being the negative portrayal of Ahmad Shah Abdali and Afghans in a popular Bollywood movie Panipat.

During the British period, almost all Muslim territories went into hands of Western colonialists. Turkey and Afghanistan were seen as the only exceptions, which were able to guard their independence. Though British left Afghanistan ‘unoccupied’ for purely strategic and economic reasons, South Asian Muslim attributed it to the freedom loving nature of Afghans, and they eulogised Afghanistan as an island of freedom. South Asian Muslims stereotyped Afghans as freedom loving, independent, warlike, and thoroughly religious Muslims. A good part of this positive stereotyping existed till recently and some of it still endures.

This idealized image of Afghanistan resulted in a huge catastrophic event during the Khilafat movement – a movement that emerged among Indian Muslim in reaction to the impending dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of a comprehensive defeat in the First World War. As part of this movement, Muslim scholars issued a fatwa declaring India as “Dar-ul-Harab” (Abode of War). They urged the Muslims to migrate to Afghanistan to protest the British policy. Though initiated by religious scholars, Afghanistan masterminded the campaign to a large extent.[4]

The Afghan government saw this movement as an opportunity to leverage relations with the British. They started by encouraging the migration and promised land and support in settlement to prospective migrants.  Thousands of Indian Muslims started migrating to Afghanistan in 1920. About 85 per cent of the emigrants hailed from erstwhile NWFP, currently Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while around 10 per cent came from Punjab and another 5 per cent from Sindh. Peshawar, Mardan, Nowshera, Kohat, Bannu and Hazara in the NWFP were the most affected areas. Official British estimates put the number of migrants at ‘at over 50,000, while the movement sources claimed that hundreds of thousands had migrated.[5]

When the numbers became unmanageable, the Afghan government stopped further migration through a royal order by the Emir of Afghanistan. Thousands who had already sold their properties at throwaway prices and were on the roads had to return halfway through. Those who had managed to enter Afghanistan soon came across so many hardships and miserable conditions in the country that they were forced to take a journey back home. Many returning refugees perished through exhaustion or disease. The road from the Frontier to Kabul was dotted with refugees’ graves. According to eyewitnesses, the Khaybar Pass was littered with corpses.[6] Those who were able to return unharmed found themselves bankrupt and without jobs and property.

As later events showed, the Afghan government gained from the episode as the Emir finally succeeded in negotiating with the British a new relationship based on independence and sovereignty where Britain lost control over Afghan affairs. This event also stayed in public memory for decades. While the Afghans had migrated to South Asia for a thousand years, it was the first time that South Asian Muslims had migrated to Afghanistan and faced harsh treatment and unfavourable conditions.

Foundation of Pakistan and contradictory Afghan narratives

When Pakistan was founded, it appeared that Afghanistan and Pakistan would be closest allies and friends. However, the relations between the two states took a different direction and during the last two decades, the sour relations between the two states have impacted people to people relations as well. Interestingly, the Afghan state narratives dominate the discourse of bilateral relations not only in Afghanistan but in Pakistan as well. The reason perhaps lies in the fact that Pakistan does not want to tell its story to avoid debate on an issue that is linked to ethnicity and separatism.

On the eve of Pakistan’s independence, Afghanistan sensed an opportunity to claim large fertile areas of NWFP. Alongside Khudai Khidmatgar movement, Afghan leaders might have been influenced by Indian leaders who believed that Pakistan was an unsustainable state that was bound to beg for reunification sooner than later. Afghanistan opposed the referendum held in June 1947 by the British that resulted in the integration of NWFP into Pakistan, demanding options of creation of separate homeland for Pashtuns and the integration of the region into Afghanistan.

Once Pakistan was created, Afghanistan opposed its inclusion into the United Nations. In fact, Afghanistan was the only country to do so. Afghanistan withdrew its vote on October 20, 1947 and established diplomatic relations with Pakistan in 1948. Afghanistan came to define its historical borders in terms of the mid-eighteenth-century imperial expansion of Durrani empire into northwest India. This revisionism became a central focus of Afghan policy under Sardar Daoud, though it had no claim that could be raised at any international forum.

This revisionism can also be linked to Afghanistan’s search for national identity. National identity becomes meaningful only through contrast with others, that is through distinguishing and differentiating a nation from other nations or ethnic groups.[7]  Afghanistan defined Pakistan as its “other” as soon as the country was formed and this “enemy” identity has only strengthened over time, seeping into Afghan public consciousness. However, since India is the “other” for Pakistan, a corresponding dislike for Afghanistan does not exist in the country.

Afghans did not confine this “conflict” to the domain of identity formation or foreign policy alone but took practical steps to dismember Pakistan from the day of its creation, finally forcing Pakistan to react and get involved in Afghan affairs. On the eve of creation of Pakistan, an armed resistance against the British was raging in Waziristan, led by Haji Mirzali Khan Wazir, popularly known as Faqir Ippi. Afghanistan joined hands with India to arm and support this resistance and turn it against the newly founded country. Afghanistan encouraged Ippi to announce formation of Pashtunistan. Later Ippi claimed that he was duped by Afghans into the conflict against Pakistan and stopped the armed resistance.[8]

Pakistan also faced low scale invasions from Afghanistan starting from September 1950 when Afghan tribesmen, as well as regular Afghan troops crossed into Pakistan. Pakistan government announced that it had “driven invaders from Afghanistan back across the border after six days of fighting.”[9]  Afghanistan claimed that this attack, comprised exclusively of Pashtun tribesmen agitating for an independent Pashtunistan.

Tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan rose markedly in 1955, when Pakistan announced that it was consolidating its control over its tribal areas. In response, Daoud Khan made a fiery speech on Radio Kabul on March 29, 1955. Demonstrations that were reportedly inspired by the Afghan government flared up in Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad. Pakistan flags were pulled down and insulted and a Pashtunistan flag was hoisted on the chancery of the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul.[10] This incident caused the two countries to withdraw their ambassadors, and relations weren’t fully restored until 1957.

In late September 1960, an Afghan lashkar (irregular forces) crossed into Pakistan’s Bajaur area. Pakistan alleged that conventional Afghan military resources, including tanks, had also massed on the Afghan side of the border near Bajaur.[11] A skirmish broke out that Afghanistan’s official news agency described as “a major battle”.[12] Pakistan bombarded Afghan forces using its airpower that resulted in quelling hostilities temporarily.

In May 1961, clashes occurred in the Khyber Pass. Pakistani president Muhammad Ayub Khan announced that regular Afghan forces had attacked Pakistani posts at the border. The Pakistani air force strafed Afghan positions in response.[13] When skirmishes broke out in winters of 1961, two countries broke diplomatic relations. As a result, both normal trade and nomad migration rights remained suspended from September 1961 to June 1963, a serious internal crisis arose in Afghanistan, crippling its economy.[14]

Afghanistan and Pakistan re-established diplomatic relations in late 1963 with the mediation of Shah of Iran. As Daoud was held responsible for Afghanistan’s crippled economy, a section of Afghan power elite demanded normalization of ties with Pakistan to restore Afghanistan’s economy. Daoud, as a result was forced to resign in March 1963.[15]

Sardar Daoud seized power in Afghanistan in 1973 through a coup, two years after the East Pakistan debacle and establishment of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government in Pakistan. Daoud, alongside reviving the Pashtunistan issue, provided full support to twin Baloch-Pashtun insurgencies that emerged in the Pakistani province of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after dissolution of NAP governments in these provinces. Still nursing its wounds from military debacle and dissection of country, Afghan support for this powerful insurgency proved the last straw on Pakistan’s back and Pakistan decided to strike back by supporting militant resistance inside Afghanistan.

In July 1973, Bhutto established an ‘Afghan Cell’ in the Foreign Office. Bhutto’s advisor, Major General (Retd) Nasirullah Babar, a Pashtun from the KP province, was the head of Afghan affairs. The Afghan Cell met regularly for the next four years, under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Bhutto and gave out policy guidelines. The Inspector General Frontier Constabulary and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) worked in concert to conduct intelligence missions inside Afghanistan.[16]

The history after this period is well known and involves mutual interference through non-state actors, though Afghanistan became a battleground of superpower rivalries and regional conflicts. The Afghans, in the same breath, accuse Pakistan of supporting Mujahideen against their communist government and celebrate it as a great feat of national resistance. The republican Afghan government even established a museum in Herat to celebrate the Afghan jihad. The museum, however, gives no credit to Pakistan for its support to the Jihad. Much of the leadership of the republican, as well as top leadership of Taliban also consist of the former Mujahidin.

While in Pakistan a consensus has emerged that it was disastrous to indulge in the Afghan jihad, the Afghans consider it a heroic chapter of their history. The real problem emerged when Pakistan played favourites among Jihadi warlords and later supported Taliban when the movement emerged as a reaction to excesses of these warlords. This favouritism resulted in non-Pashtun groups coming together under the banner of the Northern Alliance, to align themselves with India.

“Pakistan initially supported Hezb-e Islami in the civil war that followed the soviet withdrawal in 1989, but switched its allegiance to the Taliban as the group rose to prominence in the mid-1990s.[17] The Taliban maintained close ties with Pakistan and remained hostile to India both because of religious differences and because of its provision of military and financial support to the competing Northern Alliance.[18]  However, Taliban during this period hosted sectarian terrorists who were involved in heinous acts of terror inside Pakistan. This created tensions between the two countries in 1999.

When “the republican” era started after the American invasion, the relations between the two countries deteriorated due to Afghanistan’s accusations of Pakistan supporting Taliban and Pakistan’s blame of Afghan support for Baloch separatists and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).  The Afghan government claimed it could provide GPS location of Taliban leaders inside Pakistan while Mir Balach Marri, the leader of the leader of Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a militant organisation fighting to separate the Balochistan province from Pakistan, was killed in Afghanistan on 21 November 2007.

It appears that generous military and civilian aid to Afghanistan created hubris in Afghan government who felt that they could totally ignore sensibilities of its neighbour. Though Pakistan extended full support to the new Afghan government in the first few years, this calculus changed when Pakistan felt that its worst fear of encirclement was turning into reality. As Afghanistan tilted too close to India, Pakistan blamed that Indian intelligence agencies were active in the country to destabilise Pakistan. Afghanistan, as a result, became the playground for Indo-Pak conflict.

India-Pakistan rivalry and the fear of encirclement

India and Pakistan have been afraid of encirclement from each other. According to Henry Kissinger, Indira Gandhi decided to support dismemberment of Pakistan and an independent Bangladesh because she feared encirclement from Pakistan as two wings of Pakistan were located on two sides of India.[19] Pakistan has felt similar fears due to Afghan hostility towards Pakistan and its close ties with India. Until 1971, Afghanistan’s territorial claims and its support for separatist movements in Pakistan were easier to manage without hitting back at the neighbouring state.

After 1971, Pakistan became much apprehensive about its territorial integrity. Sardar Daoud’s active support for a largescale insurgency in Pakistan soon after creation of Bangladesh changed Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan once and for all. According to an expert, thanks to this “overriding fear of encirclement”, since 1970s Pakistan has consistently sought to secure a “balance of power in Kabul that advances Islamabad’s interests while diminishing India’s role”. Analysts typically refer to this policy as the Pakistan Army’s quest for “strategic depth.” [20]. This term often used to mock and caricaturise Pakistan’s policy towards its Western neighbour.

At the heart of Islamabad’s calculus is a long-standing fear that India, in league with Kabul, is using Afghanistan as a springboard to weaken Pakistan’s territorial integrity, particularly by stoking unrest among its ethnic Baloch and Pashtun populations.

Fluid frontiers to national borders

Borders between Afghanistan and South Asia remained fluid until the end of 19th century. The areas up to Kabul remained under the Mughal rule for two hundred and thirty-four years (1504-1738 AD) before it was annexed by the Persian empire. In 1747, Durrani empire was founded by evicting Mughal governor from Kabul. In the next two years, Ahmad Shah Abdali, founder of the dynasty, was able to occupy areas up to the Indus River. It did not take him long to establish authority over areas that included almost all present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Kashmir.

The Durrani Empire was evicted from Punjab and much of the present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh and the Sikhs were replaced by the British in 1848. Though the map of the modern-day world started taking shape after the First World War, Afghan territorial claim do not stand up to the test of history either. Pakistani regions claimed by Kabul remained under the Durrani Empire for merely half a century while areas up to Kabul remained under South Asian Muslims for two and a half centuries.

For decades, Pakistan treated its border with Afghanistan like a pre-modern frontier, allowing movement of people and goods at a huge risk to its security and economy. On the other hand, since 1970s, it used the bordering areas as a strategic space that provided haven to militants operating in Afghanistan. However, this calculation underwent a change after the TTP established sanctuaries in the erstwhile FATA and in the adjoining areas on the other side of the border. Pakistan was also weary of the Indian influence in Afghanistan that was seen as encirclement by its avowed enemy.

On 8 June 2014 a terrorist attack was launched on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, for which the TTP and the IMU claimed responsibility. Pakistan army, in reaction, launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb on 15 June 2014 in North Waziristan along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

In December 2014, terrorists attacked Peshawar’s Army Public School, killing 150 people, of whom at least 134 were students. Pakistani authorities claimed that militants had entered Pakistan through Torkham. Pakistan further scaled up the operation and in order to lock in its security gains, it decided to construct a two-layer fence along the entire length of its borders with Afghanistan and Iran.[21]

Pakistan also revised its open border policy. While previously thousands of Afghans were allowed to move between borders every day without any legal documents, Pakistan gradually made it difficult to travel to Pakistan without a valid visa. On 1 April 2016, Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed on regulations that would require Afghan citizens to present valid and authorized travel documents prior to entering Pakistan via Torkham.[22] However, it can be recalled here that the Afghan government had imposed visa restrictions on Pakistanis almost a decade earlier.

On 2 April 2016 an apex committee, formed to oversee anti-terror operations, called for the enforcement of the border crossing mechanism “in true letter and spirit,” at all crossing points, especially Torkham. On 8 April, Pakistan issued notification asking all Afghan nationals residing in Torkham to vacate the area.[23]

Pakistan also changed the semi-autonomous status of FATA by absorbing these areas into the KP province.  The fence and these measures have improved security in bordering areas but made life and livelihood difficult for border communities who had come to rely on cross border trade and smuggling as their main source of income. Afghan Taliban have not only made statements against border fencing, but their functionaries have dismantled parts of fencing and shared videos on social media, probably to gain popularity in Afghanistan.

People to people tensions

Though Afghan governments have constantly leveraged hatred against Pakistan for internal political agendas, the credit of success can be largely given to the two decades of Karzai-Ghani governments. Before the republican era, tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan used to be a state-to-state affair. The Karzai-Ghani governments raised it to the level of a project.

It appeared that Afghan government, dominated by the Northern Alliance, wanted to settle its score with Pakistan for supporting its rivals inside Afghanistan during the civil war. Perhaps, they also wanted to please India, their strategic partner. While Pakistan’s support for Taliban cannot be denied, Afghanistan also followed the policy of interference in Pakistan by supporting Baloch separatists.

The new government had enormous resources available for communication mainly provided by the USA and Western government to win hearts and minds in the war on terror. Afghanistan was also able to develop vibrant media in state and private sector that mainly relied on state support and foreign funding. While the Afghan government won neither hearts nor minds, they did succeed in nurturing hatred against Pakistan and blaming it for all of their failures. Hate filled statements by senior Afghan leaders became a norm during this period. The former Afghan national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib called Pakistan a “brothel house” in a public speech, straining diplomatic relations and sparking public outrage.[24]

Mainstream Afghan media picked up these narratives and multiplied the voice. India was able to forge strong links with Afghan media. While Afghan officials frowned upon any media person visiting Pakistan, India was encouraged to cultivate such linkages. Social media too became a space to attack, not just Pakistani state but Pakistan and its people. The hatred spread to Afghan streets. Pakistanis visiting Afghanistan were routinely harassed, first by government officials and increasingly by common citizens. Since most visiting Pakistani came from KP and Balochistan, major hosting communities for Afghan refugees, it created an adverse reaction in these areas.

Impact on Afghan refugees

Pakistan is host to 1,435,445 registered Afghan refugees, while there are more than a million unregistered Afghan nationals in the country. Only 32 percent refugee live in “refugee villages” while 58 percent live in urban areas. The narratives of hatred have impacted relations between host communities and the Afghan refugees as well. In August 2022, locals in the Chamkani area of ​​Peshawar did not allow body of an Afghan child to be buried blaming that his family had desecrated Pakistan’s flag before leaving the country.[25]

During the 2021 Taliban takeover, Pakistan adopted a non-declared policy of not accepting Afghan refugees though it facilitated Afghans aligned with the Ghani government to flee to Western countries. More than 300,000 Afghans have entered Pakistan since the Taliban takeover. Around 100,000 of them arrived on valid visas while the rest crossed over the border illegally.[26]India, at the same time, cancelled visas of all Afghan including former parliamentarians and government officials who had been closely aligned with India.[27]


The people of Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as the two states, could only gain through strong relations. The goodwill that Afghanistan enjoyed and still enjoys to some extent in Pakistan was a huge asset bestowed by history. The two countries are on the brink of squandering the social capital that could have been leveraged for mutual progress and prosperity. Linkages between the people of two countries are at a serious risk due to seepage of bitterness between the two states into the public domain.

[1] Ahmad Shah Abdali in Javid Nama (see Chapter 79 of Novel of Reality)

[2] Richard M. Eaton, India in the Persianate Age, 1000-1765 (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019).

[3] Christopher R. King, One Language, Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in Nineteenth Century North India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[4] Dietrich Reetz, Hijrat: The flight of the faithful (Berlin: Verl. Das Arabische Buch, 1995).

[5] Ibid. 52.

[6] Ibid, 69.

[7] Anna Triandafyllidou, “National identity and the ‘other,’” Ethnic and Racial Studies 21, no. 4 (1998): 593-612.

[8] F. Adil, “فقیر ایپی: جنگِ آزادی کا ‘تنہا سپاہی’ جس نے پاکستان کے خلاف ایک آزاد مملکت ‘پختونستان’ کے قیام کا اعلان کیا,” BBC News اردو, 2020, available at:

[9] “Pakistan says Afghans launch war,” Associated Press, Oct. 4, 1950, quoted in David G.-Ross, and T. Vassefi, “The forgotten history of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations,” Yale Journal, February 22, 2012,

[10] David G.-Ross, and T. Vassefi, “The forgotten history of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations,” Yale Journal, February 22, 2012,

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Afghans report Pakistani clash,” Reuters, October 8, 1960.

[13] “Pakistan planes again strafe Afghan base,” Associated Press, May 23, 1961.

[14] Anthony Hyman, Afghanistan under Soviet Domination, 1964–91 (Springer, 2016), 31.

[15] Elisabeth Leake, The defiant border: The Afghan-Pakistan borderlands in the era of decolonization, 1936–65 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[16] A.Z. Hilali, US-Pakistan relationship (New York: Routledge, 2017), 104.

[17] Other political parties in Pakistan did not support the government’s backing of the Taliban, such as Pushtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party in Balochistan, who “felt threatened.” see Ahmed Rashid, “Pakistan and the Taliban,” In Fundamentalism Reborn?: Afghanistan and the Taliban (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 81–86; and Imtiaz Gul, The unholy nexus: Pak-Afghan relations under the Taliban (Lahore: Vanguard Books, 2002), 271.

[18] V. Sudarshan, “How India secretly armed Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance,” The Hindu, September 1, 2019,

[19] Henry Kissinger, Leadership: Six studies in world strategy (New York: Penguin Press, 2022).

[20] Zachary Constantino, “The India-Pakistan rivalry in Afghanistan,” USIP, January 29, 2020,

[21] E. Threlkeld and G. Easterly, “Afghanistan-Pakistan ties and future stability in Afghanistan,” USIP Report No. 175, August 2021,

[22] Peshawar school massacre (no date), Encyclopædia Britannica, available at:

[23] Ibid.

[24] Shakeel Ahmed, “FM hits out at Afghan NSA over anti-Pakistan remarks,” dawn, June 6, 2021,

[25] “Afghan child denied burial in Pakistan: Locals say ‘bury in India’,” Ground Report, August 15, 2021,

[26] Ayaz Gul, “Un-supported survey finds Pakistan hosts 1.3 million Afghan refugees,” Voice of America, June 3, 2022,

[27] Deeptiman Tiwary, “India cancels visas issued to Afghans outside country, asks them to travel only on e-visas,” The Indian Express, October 27, 2021,