An independent think-tank

Finding a new equilibrium in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations

Mansoor Ahmad Khan and Tahir Khan

Pakistan and Afghanistan are two inter-connected neighboring countries. For centuries, the people of the two countries have remained tied together through bonds of common culture, ethnicity, religion, history and geography. The 2,600-kilometer-long Pakistan-Afghanistan border traverses through an area with around 50 million Pashtuns[1] living on both sides. The towns of Peshawar, Kohat, Bannu and erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas, now part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, have deep-rooted cultural commonality and linkages with bordering provinces in eastern Afghanistan. Similarly, Balochistan’s vast stretches have close affinity with Kandahar and other population centers in southern Afghanistan. The people in the border areas share their tribal roots. The commonalities, however, extend beyond ethnicity. More than 85 percent of the population in the two countries professes Sunni Islam.[2]

In view of these factors, the territory of today’s Pakistan has historically been used by Afghans for their access to South Asia and through its ports to the rest of the world. Afghanistan on the other hand provides a potential route to Pakistan for connecting with Central and Eurasian region. Reflecting this inter-dependence, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai during his visit to Pakistan in 2010 had stated: “India is a close friend of Afghanistan, but Pakistan is a twin brother of Afghanistan. We are more than twins; we are conjoined twins. There is no separation. There cannot be a separation.”[3]

Despite close religious and cultural commonalities as well as mutual economic stakes, since Pakistan’s independence in 1947 the state-to-state relations have lacked harmony and are marked by differences in orientation at times leading to heightened tensions. Some initial trends in Afghanistan were disturbing for Pakistani state as well as the society at large. The spat by Afghanistan over Pakistan’s entry into the United Nations, and in the later year’s emergence of support for slogan of Pashtunistan and disputing the nature of the settled border continued to create a degree of unease in Pakistan and irritation in the bilateral relations. Pakistan was concerned that the segments of Afghan polity actively agitating these issues around Pashtun nationalism and socialist ideology were receiving active Indian support. Thus, a counter move came from the strengthening of the religious parties and groups in line with the ideology of the creation of Pakistan.

Despite these irritants causing tensions in the relations between the two states, the interaction between the two societies particularly communities living along the border on both sides has remained close. Though Pakistan and Afghanistan from the beginning had a visa regime, the movement of people across the border took place in an unchecked and undocumented manner without causing any problems. Consequently, Pakistan remained the dominant transit route for Afghan transit. Smuggling of goods, drugs and human trafficking had some negative social and economic implications, but without becoming a security risk for either country. It is worth mentioning that during Pakistan’s wars with India on eastern border in 1965 and 1971, Pakistan had no threat and no military presence on its western border.

However, the increasing ideological rift between communism and capitalism, which took Afghanistan into its grip in early 1970s ultimately culminating into the Soviet military invasion of the country in December 1979, dissipated the delicate equilibrium that existed in Afghanistan and Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. The next over four decades were characterized by ‘Jihad’ against Soviet occupation in 1980s, civil war and regional proxies and eventual emergence of the Taliban in the 1990s, and the US and NATO military presence during the past two decades following the 9/11 incidents. These events and developments have undoubtedly turned Afghanistan and Pakistan-Afghanistan border region into a constant theatre of war, conflict and now terrorism.

The US and NATO’s military presence in Afghanistan came to an end in August 2021 leaving Afghanistan into more complex internal and external challenges than at the time of their entry in Afghanistan two decades ago. The issues of Afghanistan’s political, constitutional and governance framework have remained unsettled. The opportunities of political reconciliation were delayed and squandered. The US and allies’ narrative has oscillated from the claims of nation-building in 2001 to designating Afghanistan as “a godforsaken place in 2022.”[4] Terrorist groups of every kind found space in Afghanistan due to failure in erecting a disciplined institutional career-oriented Afghan security forces. Economy being wholly dependent on international aid has been in dire crisis. Afghanistan’s relations with all neighbors have varying underlying tensions. Thus, Afghanistan’s fault-lines on internal, regional and international issues have further deepened. The situation in Afghanistan has extremely serious implications for Pakistan. Afghanistan’s other neighbors and the regional countries are also affected by the troubling developments in that country.

1. Taliban takeover and aftermath

When the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in August 2021, Afghans as well as the international community anticipated that the Taliban would adopt such policies that take the country towards durable peace and stability after a prolonged conflict. Though the Taliban had fought a long insurgency, they had also been engaged in an internationally sponsored peace process in Doha. While the peace process did not yield an intra-Afghan political settlement, the spirit of Doha accord of 29 February 2020 premised on commitments for an inclusive political framework, respect for fundamental rights of Afghans and not letting Afghan soil to be used by terrorist groups.[5] With this context, the Taliban takeover of the country was peaceful and without any large-scale violence or fighting. Both the US and the Taliban have continued to accuse each other of violating the Doha agreement. As large sections of Afghan society had manifested strong resentment against the Taliban’s regime in the 1990s, many expected that in their second stint they would be more responsive to the aspirations of their people.

This optimism survived for a few months. An Afghan interim government was instituted on 7 September 2021 with an exclusive Taliban cabinet, which despite additions and changes is hitherto exclusively comprised of the Taliban leaders. There were, however, some indications that gradually progress would be made on devising a new constitutional framework, which could pave the way for making the system more anticipatory and inclusive. The focus of the new government was on consolidating their control and strengthening security as for the first time in more than past forty years a government had entire Afghan territory under its writ.

Following the takeover, Afghan Taliban leadership’s decision of offering general amnesty[6] sent positive messaging in Afghanistan and to the outside world. In the next few weeks, while isolated incidents of targeting political opponents and the officials of the past regime were witnessed, there were no gross or systematic human rights violations. The life in Afghan towns and villages was running normally. The access to all parts of country had been secured. The schools and educational institutions were open for both boys and girls. Although some checks and restrictions were imposed on the media, the news and entertainment channels continued their transmissions during the initial months after the Taliban takeover.

Pakistan-Afghanistan relations were also showing signs of better coordination. In order to craft consensus among neighbors on the developments in Afghanistan, Pakistan hosted an online conference of the foreign ministers of the neighboring countries. At Pakistan’s initiative, special envoys of China, Russia and Pakistan visited Kabul and had interaction with the Afghan prime minister and other senior leaders urging them to take steps for making the structures more inclusive. Pakistan’s foreign minister visited Kabul with a large delegation for progress on issues of mutual interest and concern with a view to strengthen bilateral cooperation. Apart from humanitarian assistance of Rs 5 billion, Pakistan exempted Afghan exports to Pakistan from all taxes and duties giving a space to Afghan economy while facing international sanctions and freezing of Afghan assets by the US.

In November 2021, Afghan foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi visited Islamabad for bilateral consultations as well as meeting of the Troika Plus involving the US, China, Russia and Pakistan. This was the first formal contact between a US high official and the Taliban following the change of government in Afghanistan. The issues of inclusivity, human rights, counterterrorism, and Afghanistan’s frozen assets were discussed during the meeting. Later, Pakistan hosted an extra-ordinary session of the OIC countries on humanitarian situation in Afghanistan which was attended by Afghan foreign minister providing an opportunity for his interaction with a large number of foreign ministers of leading Muslim countries.

By the end of 2021, with the hope that continued interaction with Afghan interim government would help move Afghanistan towards further normalization, many donor countries such as Germany, Norway, Japan and international organizations including the EU, World Bank and Asian Development Bank were considering re-opening of diplomatic missions in Kabul at Ambassadorial level. Had that trend continued, the third meeting of foreign ministers of neighboring countries, which was scheduled to take place in China in March 2022, was expected to consider substantive ways of widening interaction with the Afghan interim government. This could have yielded two dividends for the neighboring countries: (i) progress towards emergence of a strong Afghan state countering threats posed by global and regional terrorist groups including Daesh, Al-Qaeda, TTP, ETIM and IMU, and (ii) opening up the region for east-west and north-south connectivity within and through Afghanistan, which has remained choked for past fifty years due to prevalence of conflict, warfare and terrorism in that country. This indeed could become a win-win scenario for the entire region, but Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular would have been the major beneficiaries.

2. The continuing stalemate

However, by the beginning of the year 2022 the developments were seemingly taking a negative turn. Since then, a series of actions by the Afghan interim government has dampened the air of optimism and impeded the progress towards lasting stability and normalization in Afghanistan. The reports and speculations about aggravating divisions within Taliban ranks primarily driven by ideological considerations have continued to grow with time. Gradually the decision-making in Afghan interim government and the Taliban Shura became dominated by a group of religious hardliners.[7]

During the past one-and-a-half-year rule of the Taliban, three key areas widening the gulf with the people of Afghanistan and the international partners includes (a) inclusive government and political framework; (b) human rights and fundamental freedoms; and (c) counterterrorism. Lack of progress in these areas is one of the key reasons, but not the only one, that has continued to adversely affect engagement between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The developments in Afghanistan relating to these areas need objective analysis.

a)            Inclusive government and political framework

During first few months after the takeover, the Taliban circles had relayed an impression that they understood the need for drafting a new constitution[8] to cater for Afghanistan’s ground realities. However, it gradually seemed to have disappeared from the Taliban’s priority list and their main focus shifted to consolidating their control and political hold on the instruments of power in Afghanistan. Even a jirga that the Taliban convened in Kabul from 30 June to 2 July 2022, which Taliban Amir Hibatullah also attended, turned out to be a gathering of religious scholars closer to the Taliban perspective endorsing an ideological approach on governance; it was not a traditional Loya Jirga for garnering political consensus as practiced in Afghan and Pashtun tribal culture.[9]

Taliban’s stance on inclusivity is that it is an internal political issue and cannot be dictated by other countries. They contend that Afghanistan like other countries should determine its own political structures. In their view, their government was removed through foreign military intervention, and they have fought for twenty years for liberation of their country and for restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They further claim that their government is inclusive with many key positions in the cabinet and the government institutions held by non-Pashtun Afghans (although all of them are Taliban).

This Taliban perspective surely has implications for relations with the neighboring Pakistan. The Taliban cannot continue to deny the historical fact that Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic country requiring a framework providing opportunity for participation of all its ethnic minorities and political parties. Commonly held perception in Afghanistan as well as worldwide not only alienates Afghanistan’s non-Pashtuns from Pakistan but also affects latter’s interaction with the world at large. Pakistan’s interests to strengthen relations with Afghanistan would be better served if the government in Afghanistan broadens its participatory framework.

b)         Human rights and fundamental freedoms

A series of defiant actions in the areas of human rights and fundamental freedoms have tarnished the political image of the Taliban and has caused suffering to Afghans. Banning girls to go to high schools in March 2022 became the most damaging decision internally as well as externally. Later in December 2022, another decision preventing women from attending Universities further aggravated the situation and sparked widespread global criticism of the Taliban’s ideology and governance. The Afghan interim government also imposed harsh restrictions on the media channels and journalists affecting the coverage of developments in Afghanistan and resulting in the outflow of trained professional journalists from the country. These restrictions have led many donors and humanitarian organizations to further curtail their operations in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s efforts to convince the Taliban during past one and a half year to adopt an approach of moderation in handling such matters affecting lives of the Afghan nations have not been fruitful. With the two societies so closely inter-twined, many apprehend that continued regressive policies in Afghanistan can cause problems in Pakistan’s social and economic progress as in Pakistan girl-child enrollment as well as women’s access to various professions is on a positive trajectory. Many Afghans blame Pakistan for the rigid approach of Taliban on human rights particularly relating to women.

c)         Counterterrorism

The emergence of fault-lines in the areas of security and terrorism have further complicated the Afghan situation as well as relations with Pakistan. The terrorist groups including Al-Qaeda, Daesh, TTP, ETIM and IMU have continued to find space and support networks in Afghanistan during past two decades or even more. Major global powers as well as neighboring countries continue to have concerns over the perceived ambiguities in Afghan interim government’s policies for actions against various terrorist groups on Afghan soil. While the Afghan security forces have been undertaking stringent operations against Daesh hideouts killing several key commanders and fighters on a regular basis, the cooperation with neighbors including Pakistan, China, Central Asia and Iran with regard to specific terrorist groups of their concern has many issues.

The TTP is considered as an existential security threat in Pakistan. After military operations (Zarb-e-Azb in 2014, and Raddul Fassad started in 2017), the formal structures of TTP were dismantled inside Pakistan and their commanders and fighters were forced to go into sleeper mode in Pakistan while also shifting their assets to neighboring provinces in eastern Afghanistan. Consequently, the level of TTP-sponsored violence in Pakistan registered significant decline for some time. Independent analyses have assessed that despite successes in these operations, there were signs of complacency shown by the state in comprehensively dealing with kinetic, political, and socio-economic dimensions of the counterterrorism and counter-extremism efforts in Pakistan.[10]

A general perception in Pakistan was that after the Taliban takeover systemic cooperation between the security and intelligence institutions of the two countries would be helpful in completely eliminating the cross-border threat of the TTP. Immediately after formation of the Afghan interim government, Islamabad started messaging with Kabul for decisive actions against the TTP leaders and commanders based in Afghanistan. On the advice of the Afghan Taliban leadership and with their facilitation, Pakistan’s security officials held several rounds of talks with the TTP commanders in Kabul during the summer of 2022, but the process remained resultless as the TTP not only continued to insist upon imposing Shariah rule and its armed presence in certain areas but was also uncompromising on the demand for the reversal of ex-FATA’s merger into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.[11]

In view of the acute divergence between Pakistan’s expectations and TTP’s demands, in November 2022 the TTP announced to end the ceasefire and resume full scale violence in Pakistan thus suspending the dialogue.[12] While gearing for a renewed and full-fledged counterterrorism effort, Pakistan felt betrayed that the Afghan interim government had not only turned a blind eye to the presence of the TTP commanders on the Afghan soil but also ignored the ‘support networks’ that the TTP was using for carrying out terrorist activities in Pakistan. The statistics tend to show that the TTP-sponsored violence in Pakistan has shown a two-fold surge since the establishment of an Afghan Taliban government in Kabul.

The TTP offers a complex challenge and many of the interpretations and explanations of the two sides on this subject are quite varying, and often clashing with each other.

  • There has been a contested debate on whether the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban are ideologically the same or have significant differences. The view that they are like the two sides of the same coin has been becoming a dominant thought in Pakistan’s security apparatus in recent years.[13] This view cannot be dismissed as Taliban’s founding emir Mullah Omer in his lifetime had made efforts to remove differences among TTP leaders and the commanders like Hafiz Gul Bahadar in North Waziristan and Mullah Nazir in South Waziristan who at that time were not part of the TTP. Mullah Omer had announced a shura comprising all Taliban factions and a representative of Afghan Taliban deputy Mullah Sirajuddin Haqqani.[14] Since then, the TTP has not only been practically supporting the Afghan Taliban’s insurgency but its leader also publicly announced allegiance to the Afghan Taliban’s current Amir Hibatullah Akhundzada.[15]
  • TTP is using tactics of militancy and violence which in many ways are similar to those used by the Taliban in Afghanistan during the US and NATO military presence, including the practice of appointing shadow governors of provinces and instituting a centralized training system for the members.[16]
  • At political level, however, views vary from the need for an exclusive military approach against TTP to the vitality of a political approach for permanently ending this conflict. In general, the ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and its allied parties do not favor dialogue with the TTP while Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) professes an approach that does not rule out the possibility of talks with the TTP, if needed.
  • The Afghan Taliban while avoiding any comments on the ideological harmony with the TTP contend that these are Pakistani refugees living in Afghanistan and Pakistani authorities need to talk to them to address their concerns and enable them to go back to Pakistan.[17] However, at times particularly after some major terrorist incidents in Pakistan the Afghan interim government itself contradicts its stance by denying the TTP’s presence on the Afghan soil.[18]
  • Pakistan and Afghanistan also have differing perceptions about possible solutions of the TTP threat to Pakistan. Pakistan expects Afghan side to take tough measures against the TTP commanders based in Afghanistan. The Afghan security institutions are reluctant to adopt a military approach partly because of their close linkages with the TTP leaders and partly to avoid pushing the TTP towards Daesh or other anti-Afghan Taliban outfits. The Afghan Taliban leaders in their engagement with Pakistan have continued to underline the need for more time and patience for addressing this challenge. Other proposals being explored also include relocation of the TTP commanders and their families to places in Afghanistan away from Pakistan’s border, but these issues so far remain unsettled.[19]

3. Dynamics of bilateral engagement

The prevalence of conflict, warfare, and militancy in Afghanistan for over past four decades has deeply affected the course of state-to-state engagement between the two countries. During this period, the bilateral political relations have been influenced by security considerations dominated by military and intelligence channels. This phenomenon has continued to overshadow the role of political channels as well as mutually dependent people to people and tribal ties.

Successive Afghan governments during the presence of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan had continued to emphasize the need for Pakistan to deal with the Afghan state and not the non-state actors (i.e. Afghan Taliban). Consequently, the bilateral engagement remained tense and manifested first in scuffles between the Pervez Musharraf regime and Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and later in the tirades of president Ashraf Ghani against Pakistani state particularly military establishment. This state of affairs prevented any result-oriented practical cooperation between the two sides despite establishment of a comprehensive institutional framework of APAPPS (Afghanistan Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity) in 2018.[20]

The dynamics did not change even after the Taliban resumed power in Afghanistan in August 2021. The Taliban actually took little time in assuming the established position of the Afghan state. In fact, in their official stance on many issues viz a viz Pakistan such as border fencing, the TTP, movement of people and trade and transit modalities, the Taliban have been even more vociferous than their predecessor governments. This obviously has been a source of great surprise and should be taken as a reality check by policymakers in Pakistan.

Over the past twenty months under the Taliban’s interim government, the political exchanges between the two countries have gradually almost completely dried up. There are no regular institutional contacts. The Afghan interim government has not shown any interest in reviving or reviewing the APAPPS mechanism or evolving an alternative for it. The Joint Coordination Committee[21] has not been able to devise amicable ways for discussing and addressing cross-border issues in an effective manner.

Apparently, there is no appetite for expediting revision of APTTA[22] and moving forth regional transit arrangements for trade and transit between Central Asia and Pakistan. The volume of bilateral trade and the share of Pakistan’s ports in the Afghan transit trade has continued to consistently decline in recent years. The import of Afghanistan’s coal and other minerals for industrial use has also been facing serious bottlenecks. Despite huge economic complementarity between the two countries the quantum of actual commercial exchanges has remained quite limited.

The difficulties in properly comprehending and addressing each other’s legitimate interests and concerns have progressively led to a visible decline in practical engagement. The productive political exchanges at ministerial level are almost absent. There is a visible descent in diplomatic engagement. Since the Taliban takeover the Afghan embassy remains at Charge d’Affaires level. After an attack on Pakistan’s Charge d’Affaires (Cd’A) on 2 December at the Embassy compound in Kabul claimed by the Islamic State Khurasan Province (IS-K), the level of representation in Pakistan’s mission in Kabul is also now at a lower level.[23] These developments have relayed a negative messaging about the overall bilateral relations which should be concerning for both countries as most of the neighbors of Afghanistan and important regional countries have ensured political and diplomatic engagement with Afghanistan despite the ensuing challenges.

The statements coming from the latest visit of a Pakistan delegation led by Defence Minister Khwaja Muhammad Muhammad Asif and senior intelligence and civilian officials on 22 February 2023 to Kabul indicated reiteration of strong messaging of respective positions. It appeared that Pakistan’s singular focus was on action against the TTP while the Taliban emphasized its focus on enhancing movements of people, trade and economic cooperation. However, just a week later Pakistan’s experienced Special Envoy Ambassador Muhammad Sadiq after serving for almost three years has relinquished his post.[24]

One of the important indicators of the widening mistrust between Pakistan and Afghanistan is the constantly declining image and goodwill for Pakistan in Afghanistan. While on the one hand Pakistan’s hospitality for hosting millions of Afghans on its soil for past several decades is deeply appreciated by all Afghans, at the same time Pakistan’s state institutions come under serious criticism. This trend has continued to exacerbate even after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 and there is need for an objective introspection for a course correction on both sides.

4. Challenges to regional connectivity

Despite the state level frictions, a fair degree of connectivity had existed between Afghanistan and Pakistan prior to “Jihad” years. The tribal people living on both sides used to cross the border on a daily basis without much documentation under a system of easement rights. There was regular flow of public and private traffic between Peshawar and Kabul. The independent studies indicated that as late as 2010 thousands of people crossed border for socio-economic needs without any restrictions.[25]

In recent decades, the movements of people and trade between the two countries have continued to become more difficult due to increasing militarization of the border. The lack of bilateral engagement and prevailing mutual mistrust are impeding progress on the larger agenda of trans-Afghan connectivity which can be a game-changer for the regional integration. The opportunities on 2,600 km long Pakistan-Afghanistan border for opening several new trade, transit and transport corridors in the region have been identified in recent years but remain unattended and unutilized. Pakistan’s ports of Karachi, Port Qasim and Gwadar[26] connecting with Afghanistan, China, Central Asian countries, Iran and Eurasia can revolutionize the existing poor regional connectivity networks only if facilitative procedures are instituted.[27] So far, the vital needs for modernization of the border crossings have remained subdued due to a combination of counterterrorism considerations and corrupt mafias making fortunes through smuggling of goods, money laundering and human and drug trafficking.

The long years of war have prevented development of infrastructure linking Afghanistan with its neighbors. However, in recent years Afghanistan has already established railways in its north with Uzbekistan (Hairatan-Mazar-e- Sharif)[28], Turkmenistan (Kushka-Torghundi)[29] and Iran (Khaf-Herat)[30]. The transportation of cargo from China via Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan route[31] and from Turkey through Iran and Turkmenistan route[32] are now operational. While on the one hand Afghanistan has plans to build north-south and east-west railway linkages on Afghan territory, building Quetta-Kandahar[33] and Peshawar-Jalalabad[34] railways will be important for attracting Central Asian trade through South Asian ports. The trans-Afghan trilateral railway[35] project linking Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan has shown signs of renewed enthusiasm, but the momentum would depend on how the challenges of security, political interaction and funding are dealt with by the three countries.

Pakistan is currently facing severe economic and energy crises and needs early progress on mega-energy projects through Afghanistan such as TAPI gas pipeline, CASA-1000 and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP)[36] electricity transmission line. Peaceful Afghanistan provides avenues for transporting LPG supplies from Central Asia to Pakistan by road through Afghanistan, but the two countries have not yet paid serious attention to exploring this option. These connectivity projects can accrue economic activity and prosperity for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Apart from the gaps in Pakistan-Afghanistan engagement, a number of other factors also play a crucial role in scuttling the efforts for achieving concrete progress on projects of regional connectivity through Afghanistan. These are narrated below.

  • First, the regressive environment in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover has continued to put hurdles in evolving an inclusive political framework. As a result, restrictions on girls’ education and women access to work have led to economic sanctions and international isolation of Afghanistan. Suspension of transactions with Afghan banks and travel restrictions on senior Taliban ministers and leaders is also hindering connectivity initiatives.
  • Secondly, the growing US-China tensions and competition for global supremacy is expected to continue to prevent consensus building on the way forward on engagement with the Afghan interim government. China’s quest in the previous years for extending CPEC to Afghanistan as an arm of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was effectively resisted by previous Afghan governments. China’s major projects in Afghanistan including Ainak Copper mining in Logar and Amu Darya oil exploration projects have also not moved forward in a significant way.
  • Thirdly, following the conflict in Ukraine, Afghanistan and this region has receded in the strategic priorities of the US and Europe. There are indications that Ukraine conflict is likely to prolong making it difficult for Western donors to make investments in the mega connectivity projects in Afghanistan.
  • Lastly, serious challenges remain to regional consensus on Afghanistan. India as a major regional country and also a member of Quad remains wary of any increase in China’s space in Afghanistan. India and Pakistan also continue to fail to reconcile their perspectives for peace, stability and connectivity in Afghanistan. Russia remains extremely cautious to the prevailing environment in Afghanistan as a threat to Central Asia and itself. These and many other clashing regional dimensions continue to prevent an open approach for economic integration and connectivity through Afghanistan.

5. Way forward

In July 1973, the ouster of King Zahir Shah by Sardar Muhammad Daud Khan marked the beginning of the process that destroyed equilibrium not only internally in Afghanistan but also in its intrinsic relations with Pakistan. Today, half a century later, when the Taliban have resumed power in Afghanistan, and despite the withdrawal of foreign forces the situation in the country remains fragile, there is a need for Pakistan and Afghanistan to strive for establishing a new equilibrium in the bilateral equation. That is vital to ensure peace and stability in the region. This new equilibrium has to be founded on the mutual will for ending the politics of militarism and embarking on cordial interaction aimed at promoting mutual progress and prosperity of the two peoples.

Towards this end, it is important for the two countries to develop and strengthen state to state relations based on principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs of each other. This would imply that engagement has to be through official channels and not with the groups in Afghanistan. The two states have to show a better understanding of each other’s positions, interests and concerns.

This approach can enable the two countries to create an environment of trust and confidence where leadership level exchanges take place on a regular basis and the institutional mechanisms are utilized to pave the ground for a positive momentum. For this purpose, either the two governments would need to revive the existing mechanism of APAPPS with necessary adjustments suggested by either side or evolve a new mechanism according to the prevailing ground realities. Absence of an institutional mechanism doesn’t augur well for both countries to make forward movement on their multi-faceted relations and for promoting regional connectivity.

Pakistan-Afghanistan relations are marked by a long history of civilizational and tribal contacts. During the past four or five decades, prevalence of conflict, warfare and instability in Afghanistan has led to (i) relations guided by militancy dynamics, and (ii) hosting of millions of Afghans in Pakistan as migrants (mohajirs) causing strains on Pakistan’s demographics and economy. Such trends have induced some resentment as well as derogatory attitudes towards these people and their nationality. Many Afghan leaders openly express an Afghan desire for need to restore the civilized relations between the two countries that had existed prior to this long phase of instability in Afghanistan. Hoping that Afghanistan embarks on a political way forward, there is a need for pursuing a model of dignified engagement.

An effective way of achieving this objective is that the economic agenda should take lead in the bilateral interaction. In this regard, two sets of policies are vital:

  1. Bilateral trade and transit matters should be given priority. The Joint Economic Commissions in the previous years have already identified actions for increasing facilitation at border crossings, opening new trade/transit routes, harmonization of customs standards leading towards a common customs union, finalization of new APTTA, mutual investment frameworks, development health and education institutions for Afghans along the border, business visa facilitation and other such actions.
  2. Special effort should be made to expedite regional connectivity projects such as TAPI, CASA-1000, TAP, railway infrastructure, highway linkages and developing inter-connected transportation corridors.

Constructive engagement between Pakistan and Afghanistan will provide new vistas and opportunities for the latter’s opening up for the region and the world. Strengthening of bilateral economic stakes would enable Pakistan to play a more helping role in gradually addressing Afghanistan’s current political challenges such as inclusivity in the political and governance framework, human rights issues particularly education of girls and women participation in national development and Afghanistan becoming part of the regional and international counterterrorism mechanisms.

6. Prognosis

Today, Afghanistan is at a crossroads. From here, two scenarios are possible. If the current negative trends prevail, the discontent between the Afghan interim government and the people is likely to further widen due to lack of participatory political framework, deteriorating situation of human rights and continuing economic restrictions. This may result into parts of Afghanistan becoming a breeding ground for terrorist outfits particularly Daesh to harbor terrorism and violence in Afghanistan and elsewhere. These developments would increase Afghanistan’s isolation in the international system pushing the country deeper into a vicious cycle of violence, instability and chaos. A new counterterrorism campaign through sophisticated drone warfare may further complicate the lives of the people living in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region for the next few years.

This scenario will not only exacerbate suffering of Afghan people but will also have adverse implications for the neighboring countries, region and the international peace and stability. Undoubtedly, Pakistan will be the worst affected country in the region from the Afghan fall out aggravating the magnitude of unprecedented political, economic and security challenges already confronting the country.

The human history is a witness that crises bring opportunities if handled boldly. Pakistan and Afghanistan together can avert disaster in the region if they are able to work on a paradigm shift in their bilateral engagement and addressing the regional dynamics. The two countries can take measures to restore their historical dignified relationship based on mutual respect between their states and the peoples. There is a need for discarding un-necessary security paranoia and bringing people to people and economic interaction to the forefront of the relations.

Learning the right lessons from the past, today there is a historic opportunity for both Pakistan and Afghanistan to establish a new equilibrium in their bilateral relations commensurate with the current ground realities. This can enable the two countries to steer a regional compact that eliminates confrontation and lays the foundation for embarking on a new era marked by policies driven by geo-economics and fostering regional connectivity for harnessing the shared prosperity in the region. There is a need for the entire region to demonstrate a visionary outlook.

[1] This is an estimate based on population of Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan and their demographic trends particularly in the areas along the 2,640 km long border between the two countries.

[2] According to the CIA Fact book, 84.7 percent of Afghanistan’s Muslim population is Sunni and in Pakistan between 85-90 percent of Muslims are Sunni.

[3] President Hamid Karzai said responding to a question during a joint press conference in Islamabad with Prime Minister of Pakistan Yusuf Raza Gilani on 11 March 2010.

[4] The US President Joe Biden addressing the war veterans at an election rally in San Diego on 4 November 2022 said: “A lot of you have been to Afghanistan, I have been to every part of it. It’s a Godforsaken place – It’s a Godforsaken place”.

[5] See “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America. <>

[6] Comments of Ehsanullah Samangani, a member of Taliban Cultural Commission, in an interview with Afghanistan’s national Television RTA (Radio television Afghanistan) on 17 August 2022 as reported by Afghan and international media. <>

[7] Michael Kugelman, ““The Taliban Hardliners are winning,” Foreign Policy, March 31, 2022, <>

[8] Author’s assessment based on his personal interaction with many key figures in the Afghan interim government between September 2021 to March 2022.

[9] Fazelminallah Qazizai, “For now, ideology trumps pragmatism in Afghanistan,” Newsline, July 13, 2022, <>

[10] Madiha Afzal, “Terrorism in Pakistan has declined, but the underlying roots of extremism remain,” Brookings, January 15, 2021, <>

[11] Assessment based on observing the dialogue from the sidelines as ambassador of Pakistan to Afghanistan in Kabul.

[12] Hand-written statement issued and circulated to media on letterhead “Ministry of Defence Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan” dated 28 November 2022.

[13] During 2021 and 2022, the then Chief of Army Staff assisted by the Director General ISI and other senior military and intelligence officials used the expression ‘the two sides of the same coin’ for the TTA and TTP.

[14] Based on a letter from Mullah Omer for addressing internal feuds between TTP’s leaders and commanders.

[15] Asfandyar Mir, “After the Taliban Takeover: Pakistan’s TTP problem,” United States Institute of Peace, January 19, 2022, <>

[16] Abdul Sayed, “The evolution and future of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan,” Carnegie Endowment, December 2021, <>

[17] This position has been publicly stated by many Afghan Taliban leaders and officials as well as in the meetings with Pakistani officials.

[18] “IEA: TTP not using Afghan soil against Pakistan,” Pajhwok, December 24, 2022, <>

[19] Gist based on bilateral discussions during the meetings on TTP related issues since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

[20] APAPPS agreed between the two governments on 14 May 2018 in Islamabad as a comprehensive bilateral mechanism for addressing issues of mutual concern and promoting harmony and multi-faceted cooperation.

[21] In view of aggravating differences on cross-border issues, the two sides established a Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) during the visit of a Pakistan delegation to Kabul led by then Special Envoy Ambassador Muhammad Sadiq in January 2022.

[22] APTTA was signed in 2010 as a ten-year bilateral transit framework agreement and expired on 11 February 2021. Since there has been no agreement on the revised text, Pakistan in May 2022 unilaterally extended the provisions of APTTA to continue facilitation for Afghan transit, till a new APTTA is agreed and signed.

[23] Ayaz Gul, “The Islamic State group claims attack on Pakistan’s top diplomat in Afghanistan,” VoA, December 3, 2022, <>

[24] The Government of Pakistan appointed Ambassador Muhammad Sadiq as Special Representative on Afghanistan on 8 June 2020. He resigned from his post on 1 March 2023.

[25] Amina Khan, “Pak-Afghan border: A case study of border management,” Institute of Strategic Studies, 2017, <>

[26] Adnan Amir, “Afghan transit a game changer for Gwadar Port,” The Interpreter, January 31, 2020, <>

[27] Successive Afghan governments have consistently contended that ports of Karachi, Port Qasim and Gwadar are preferred transit route for Afghans but raising questions about dependability.

[28] 75 km long Hairatan Mazar-e-Sharif railway line became operational in December 2011 under Asian Development bank (ADB) funding. For details, see <>

[29] On 11 July 2011 two sleeper-laying ceremonies at Towraghondi in Afghanistan and Serhetabat (the new name for Kuskha) in Turkmenistan marked the start of work to rehabilitate the cross-border railway. For details, visit: <>

[30] The Khaf-Herat Railway Project is a 225km-long cross-border railway project under construction between Iran and Afghanistan, linking eastern Iran to western Afghanistan. <>

[31] The multimodal route starts in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province then passes through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan before entering Afghanistan. <>

[32] A special humanitarian train from Turkey traversed 4,168 kilometers via Iran and Turkmenistan to reach Afghanistan in February 2022. <>

[33] The plans to link Quetta with Kandahar through Chaman-Spinboldak have remained in early stages of feasibility and discussions for many years without making any tangible progress.

[34] Peshawar-Jalalabad railway link project has also remained in planning and feasibility stage.

[35] Sophia Nina Burna-Asefi, “The trans-Afghan railway line: back on track,” The Diplomat, July 26, 2022, <>

[36] TAPI, CASA-1000 and TAP remain three mega-energy sector projects that have not made a tangible progress because of the underlying geo-political factors.