Pakistan and Afghanistan
Terrain | Demographics | History | Political Interests | Economic Interests
Pakistan and Afghanistan share an immense border stretching 1510 miles (2430 km) along the southern and eastern edges of Afghanistan.1 The Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Nurestan, Konar, Nangarhar, Paktiya, Khost, Paktika, Zabul, Kandahar, Helmand, and Nimruz are all adjacent to the Pakistani border. Ethnic Pashtuns populate the area along the border. The frontier passes through varying terrain, with sandy deserts in the south and rugged mountains in the east. Major border crossings between the two countries are in Torkham, between Peshawar and Jalalabad and in Spinboldak between Kandahar and Quetta. The border between the two countries was determined in 1893 in an agreement between the Afghan Emir Abdur Rahman Khan and the British Government of India. Since the creation of Pakistan in 1947, however, subsequent Afghan governments have not accepted the so-called “Durand Line” as the boundary between the two countries. While Kabul considers the dispute unresolved, the Durand Line has functioned as a de-facto border.
At least two major ethnic groups—the Pashtuns and the Baluchs—live on both sides of the Durand Line. Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, comprising 42 percent of the population or 13.8 million people.2 (Credible and up to date numbers about the demographics in Afghanistan are hard to find. The last national census was conducted in the 1970s.) On the Pakistan side, Pashtuns make up 15.4 percent of the population, roughly 26.6 million people.3 In Afghanistan, the Pashtun live mainly in a belt extending across the south of the country from Pakistan in the east to Iran in the west, but they are also present in other areas as well. Afghan cities with significant Pashtun populations include Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad. While in Pakistan, the Pashtuns live in the North West Frontier Province, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and sizeable communities of Pashtuns are also present in Baluchistan and Karachi. Pashtun’s on both sides of the border share the same origin and other commonalities, including a language. But they have experienced widely different political conditions and divergent national trajectories for at least over a century.
Ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, large numbers of Afghans have sought refuge in Pakistan. At one time, it was estimated that five million Afghans lived in Pakistan. Since 2001, many have returned to Afghanistan. But the number and presence of Afghan refugees in Pakistani cities such as Quetta and Peshawar remains considerable.
After Pakistan’s creation in 1947, Afghanistan objected to its admission to the United Nations. The Afghan government of the time decided not to recognize Pakistan as the legitimate inheritor of the territorial agreements reached with the British India. There were several ambiguous and often changing demands from Kabul centered around the aspirations—as Kabul saw it—of the Pashtun and Baluch ethnicities inside Pakistan. For intermittent periods between 1947 and 1973, Kabul extended support to Baluch and Pashtun nationalists inside Pakistan and even called for the creation of a new state called “Pashtunistan.” In 1973, Pakistan, grappling with territorial insecurities, resorted to extending support to Islamists dissidents that opposed Afghanistan’s Republican government of Sardar Daud. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government created the “Afghan Cell” within Pakistan’s foreign office and assigned it a policy that included strengthening ties with and empowering Islamists in exile in Pakistan, and improving Pakistan’s influence over governments in Kabul.
Sardar Daud made friendly gestures to Pakistan in the late 1970s, but his overtures were cut short by a Communist coup in 1978. The new regime in Kabul returned to the support—at least rhetorical—for Pashtun and Baluch nationalists in Pakistan. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was seen by Pakistan as a grave threat to its national security. It also presented Pakistan with a major avenue to build on its 1973 policy of empowering dissident Islamists against the governments in Kabul. Furthermore, Pakistan had been a partner of the United States in the Cold War since the 1950s, and this cooperation had provoked numerous Soviet threats over the years. The new leader of Pakistan, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who seized power in a 1977 military coup, was a fervent anti-communist and Islamist. General Zia approached the United States for help with organizing a religious resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, international interest in Afghanistan and the mujahideen began to wane. Zia died in a plane crash in 1988, and was succeeded by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of the man he had overthrown and hanged a decade earlier. However, even though Hezb-e Islami was closely affiliated with Bhutto’s political enemy, Jamaat-e-Islami, the ISI continued to support Hekmatyar’s faction and the other mujahedeen parties against the communist regime of Dr. Najibullah in Kabul. After Kabul fell in 1992, attempts were made to bring Hekmatyar into a unity government with Rabbani and Massoud, but the Hezb-e Islami commander continued to attack his rivals. Afghanistan spiraled into a brutal civil conflict between competing mujahideen warlords, none of whom were capable of unifying or stabilizing the entire country. Kabul remained in Massoud’s control.
Benazir Bhutto briefly lost the office of Prime Minister in 1990, but returned to power three years later. Hekmatyar’s failure to advance against Jamiat and other forces around Kabul led to the decline of Islamabad’s support for his group. Bhutto’s interior minister, General Nasirullah Babur discovered and empowered a group of former Mujahideen from the Kandahar area as Pakistan’s new strategic card in the Afghan conflict. Working through Jamaat-e-Islami’s rival Pakistani Islamist party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Islamabad began supporting the students the party trained in its madrassas in the Afghan refugee camps, who came to be known as the Taliban. Bhutto was determined to deal a blow to Jamaat-e-Islami, which she believed had aided and abetted her father’s executioner and was partly responsible for her losing power. She also wanted to weaken the ISI. But in 1996, as Bhutto’s second government was dissolved by Pakistan’s president, and as the Taliban grew into a formidable force, the ISI regained control of Pakistan’s Afghan policy.
During the 1990s, at the center of Pakistan’s Afghan policy was the military’s pursuit of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan that could be useful in the event of any military conflict with India. Bhutto’s second government also sought a stability that will allow it access to the newly independent Central Asian republics. Pakistan was also seeking a government in Kabul that did not indulge ethno-nationalists issues inside Pakistan, and question the Duran Line as the boundary between the two countries. The Taliban, with Pakistani and Saudi backing, proved very capable, conquering Kandahar in 1994, Kabul in 1996, and most of the rest of the country by 1998. Pakistan, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, extended diplomatic recognition to the Taliban regime—the only countries to do so. Rabbani, Massoud, and other factional leaders retreated to corners in the north of the country and later formed the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (also known as the Northern Alliance). Hekmatyar sought refuge in Iran in 1997.
In the late 1990s, Pakistan continued to support the Taliban regime in its war against the Northern Alliance, while Russia, all the Central Asian Republics minus Turkmenistan, Iran, and India backed the opposition. However, after the attacks of 11 September 2001, General Pervez Musharraf—who had seized power in a military coup in 1999—was forced to reverse Pakistani policy and reluctantly joined the US in its “War on Terror.” Musharraf feared US action against Pakistan and the prospect of a US-Indian alliance. In return for supporting the US war effort, providing bases, and facilitating the transport of supplies, Pakistan would receive billions of dollars in US aid over the coming years. Less than two months into the military operations in Afghanistan the US-led coalition, working with the Northern Alliance, toppled the Taliban regime, which fled across the Pakistani border with its al-Qaeda allies.
In Pakistan, the Taliban and al-Qaeda regrouped along the border in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), Baluchistan province, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In 2002, the Pakistani military moved into parts of the FATA in search of Al Qaeda operatives. (The FATA is a largely neglected part of Pakistan that is still ruled by colonial era laws. Pakistan’s constitutional order and liberties does not extend to the region, and political parties are barred from operating there.) In retrospect, Pakistan’s efforts in the region have been dubbed as half-hearted since Islamabad has pursued a double policy towards Afghanistan. The Musharraf regime declared support for the government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul but retained involvement with the Taliban who were mounting an insurgency against Karzai’s government and its international backers.
Thousands of fighters from Maulana Fazlullah’s Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) effectively took control of the Swat Valley in the NWFP, less than a hundred miles from Islamabad. Fazlullah and TNSM worked with Mehsud’s TTP, and although they were briefly beaten back by the Pakistani military, they seized Swat again by the end of 2008. In February 2009, the Pakistani military agreed to a ceasefire and allowed TNSM, under the direction of Sufi Mohammed, to implement Sharia law.7 But militant continued their expansion, reaching areas such as Buner which is only a few dozen kilometers from the capital. In the meantime, local media broadcasted enraging statements from militants such as Sufi Mohammad and videos surfaced showing the gruesome treatment of the population in areas under the control of the Pakistani Taliban. Public outrage, international pressure, and the proximity of the threat to Pakistan’s strategic centers such as Rawalpindi and Islamabad appears to have compelled the military to push back TNSM and other militant advances in areas such as Swat.
The driving force behind much of Islamabad’s foreign and defense policy is its concern with neighboring India. Throughout its history, Pakistan has feared either direct war with India or encirclement by its allies, and this has had a tremendous impact on its relations with neighboring Afghanistan. In order to prevent encirclement by India, Pakistan requires a friendly government in Kabul. This objective also serves Pakistan’s planning for a future war with India: in the event of an Indian invasion, the Pakistani Army would need to fall back to positions in and along the border with Afghanistan, and a friendly government in Kabul would provide this much-needed “strategic depth.”
In terms of its Afghan policy, this has meant that Islamabad has generally supported Pashtun Islamist parties, like Hezb-e Islami and the Taliban, as a counterweight to Indian-backed Tajik groups like the former Northern Alliance.
Ethnic Nationalism and Separatism
The 1893 Durand Line effectively divided the Pashtun population in half. Numerous Afghan-Pashtun leaders over the years have argued that Afghanistan is the “original home” of the Pashtun, and therefore the Pashtun regions of Pakistan should be part of Afghanistan. Others have tried to incite nationalist sentiments in Pakistan by calling for the creation of an independent “Pashtunistan.” Such rhetoric and policies tied to it has contributed to Pakistan’s fears that its neighbors to the east and west—Afghanistan and India—are bent at breaking it down to several parts. It has also led Pakistan to calculate that any stable and strong government in Kabul will involve itself with causes that threaten Pakistan’s territorial integrity.
Pakistan has tended to back Sunni Islamist parties in Afghanistan which are predominately Pashtun, such as Hezb-e Islami and the Quetta Shura Taliban. While Pakistan does not want to see a strong Pashtun leader emerge in Kabul who can provoke nationalist sentiments across the border, it would like to see a pliable, Pashtun-led Afghanistan that is situated firmly in its camp and accepts the legitimacy of the Durand Line. Such a policy is driven partly by regional concerns over India and, to a lesser extent, Iran. India and Iran have tended to support non-Pashtun minorities in Afghanistan, such as the Tajiks and Hazara, and Pakistan fears that if these groups came to power in Kabul, it would mean encirclement by India and its allies. Furthermore, the Pakistani military has long held the view that it needs a friendly Government in Afghanistan that would give it the “strategic depth” in any future war with India.
Islamabad has strongly supported the Quetta Shura Taliban from its inception in the early 1990s until the attacks of September 11, 2001. Reports indicate that elements within the Pakistani security apparatus continue to consider the Taliban as a strategic asset for Pakistan’s regional policies. After 2001, Pakistan changed its official policy towards its ally and nominally joined the US-led “War on Terror.” In practice, Pakistan’s sincere participation in that effort has come under severe questioning by Afghanistan, the U.S. and allies. Current Afghan President Hamid Karzai contends that Pakistan—particularly under the Musharraf regime—has used its military and the ISI to destabilize Afghanistan and support the insurgency. The relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan improved when Musharraf stepped down in 2008, but the new Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (Benazir Bhutto’s widower) admits that there are rogue elements within the ISI and the Pakistani military that may be supporting the Taliban on both sides of the border. According to U.S. officials, the ISI continues to support the Afghan Taliban’s Quetta Shura, led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, as well as the Haqqani network and Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin.8 Kabul has continually pressed Islamabad to do more to stem the flow of Taliban insurgents from Pakistan, and in 2008, Karzai threatened to send Afghan troops across the Pakistani border to fight insurgents. Pakistan has negotiated ceasefires with the insurgents and effectively ceded them territory—allowing them a safe haven from which to operate in both countries and causing a spike in violent attacks in Afghanistan.9 In April 2004, the Pakistani military negotiated a peace deal with militants led by Nek Muhammad Wazir in South Waziristan (part of the FATA). However, the ceasefire quickly fell apart after Nek Muhammad was killed in an airstrike a few months later. In February 2005, Islamabad negotiated another ceasefire in South Waziristan with the new militant commander there, Baitullah Mehsud, who would later go on to form the TTP in 2007. Under the terms of the ceasefire, Mehsud agreed to end his organization’s anti-government activities, stop supporting foreign fighters and international terrorists, and end cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. In return, the Pakistani military would end its air and ground operations in South Waziristan and reduce the number of troops stationed there. This agreement was mimicked in North Waziristan in September 2006.10
Coalition Supply Routes
In 2008, 90 percent of military supplies bound for ISAF forces in Afghanistan arrived at the Pakistani port of Karachi, where they are unloaded and transported by truck to Afghanistan.17 Two routes are used: The first route passes through Baluchistan province and the city of Quetta, before traveling through the Khojak Pass and the border towns of Chaman (Pakistan) and Spin Boldak (Afghanistan), en route to Kandahar. The second route, through which 75 percent coalition supplies travel, goes from Karachi to Peshawar in the NWFP.18 From Peshawar, supply convoys then pass through the Khyber Agency in the FATA onto the Afghan border town of Torkham, before reaching Jalalabad and Kabul. Recently, these supplies are “mostly non-combat materials, such as food, water, fuel and construction supplies, are delivered by ground, while military weapons and other ‘sensitive’ equipment are flown in by cargo plane.”19
Afghanistan is responsible for more than 90 percent of the world’s illicit opium production, and 33 percent of that product is smuggled across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.20 Pakistani cities of Quetta and Karachi and the ports associated with them have significant importance in the drug trade out of Afghanistan. But Pakistan is not just a transit point for drug smugglers; it also has a significant drug problem itself, with around 700,000 opiate abusers (including almost 500,000 heroin abusers) in the country, making up 0.7 percent of the population ages fifteen to 64—almost twice the world average.21
Southern Afghanistan has become the primary region of opium poppy cultivation. Consequently, the proportion of opiates and heroin smuggled across the Pakistani border has increased in relation to that trafficked through Iran or the Central Asian Republics. From Afghanistan, narcotics are smuggled into Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, where they are then trafficked to Iran and later the Middle East and Europe. Drug traffickers also operate routes from Pakistan to China, India, and the rest of Asia; and recently Afghan heroin has begun arriving in North America via Pakistan. This drug trade has had a significant toll on the country. For example, Baluchistan province has an opiate abuse rate of 1.1 percent of the population ages fifteen to 64 and is home to labs that refine Afghan morphine into heroin.22 In fact, large-scale heroin production—from Afghan products—has occurred in Pakistan since 1979. Furthermore, opium poppy cultivation along the border regions with Afghanistan is on the rise. The revenue from the drug trade also funds the Taliban insurgency, organized crime, and other destabilizing elements in the country.
Afghanistan has long had a dependent economic relationship with neighboring Pakistan, and Islamabad has done much to foster this dependency. The Afghan Transit Trade Agreement (ATTA), which allows Afghanistan to import goods duty free through the Pakistani port of Karachi on the Arabian Sea is key to their trade. It is recently being renegotiated and the United States is facilitating the process of updating the agreement. Pakistan is the largest exporter to Afghanistan, with around US$ 1.7 billion in exports annually, which accounts for 36.8 percent of Afghan imports and 8.4 percent of Pakistan’s exports.23 Pakistan also represents a major export market for Afghan products, with roughly about US$ 71 million exported to Pakistan every year—equal to 21.8 percent of all Afghan exports.24 However, much of Afghanistan’s exports are raw materials, which are processed or used in manufacturing in Pakistan. The finished goods are frequently resold to Afghans at a higher price.
A stable and secure Afghanistan, developing economically, represents a boon to Pakistan’s ailing economy, as it may provide a growing market for Pakistani products. Pakistani workers and companies might have access to lucrative reconstruction and development contracts. A secure environment in Afghanistan would allow for the building of the transportation links—road and rail—Pakistan desperately needs to access untapped markets in Central Asia, which was part of the rationale behind Islamabad’s support of the Taliban in the 1990s. However, Pakistan finds itself in economic competition with its regional rival Iran and India, which are also trying to increase their economic influence in Central Asia and challenge Afghanistan’s economic dependency on Pakistan. India’s growing economic foothold in Afghanistan has stoked Pakistan’s fears. Pakistan’s monopoly over Afghanistan’s access to sea was recently challenged with the opening of the Iranian port of Chabahar and the linking of it to the ring road in Afghanistan.
Since early 1990s, Afghanistan and Pakistan have sought to build a pipeline that will transport Central Asian—especially Turkmen—energy to markets in South Asia. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline vision is far from implementation for reasons including insecurity, high prices demanded by the supplier and unreliability of Turkmen reserves, lack of adequate outside financing and the on again off again tensions between India and Pakistan.
3 United States Central Intelligence Agency, “Pakistan,” The World Factbook, April 9, 2009.
4 United States Central Intelligence Agency, “Pakistan,” The World Factbook, April 9, 2009.
5 United States Central Intelligence Agency, “Afghanistan,” The World Factbook, April 9, 2009.
6 United States Central Intelligence Agency, “Afghanistan,” The World Factbook, April 9, 2009; United States Central Intelligence Agency, “Pakistan,” The World Factbook, April 9, 2009.
7 Bill Roggio, “Pakistan to end military operation and implement sharia in Malakand Division,” The Long War Journal, February 15, 2009.
8 Mark Mazzetti and Eric Scmitt, “Afghan Strikes by Taliban Get Pakistan Help, U.S. Aides Say,” The New York Times, March 25, 2009.
9 “NATO: Pakistan's Deal With Militants Spurring Violence in Afghanistan,” Voice of America News, May 14, 1008.
10 Tarique Niazi, “Pakistan’s peace deal with Taliban militants,” Jamestown Terrorism Monitor, vol. 4, issue 19, October 5, 2006.
11 “Pro-Taliban militants end peace deal with Pakistani government,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 15, 2007.
12 Bill Roggio, “Pakistan signs the Bajaur Accord,” The Long War Journal, March 17, 2007.
13 “Top Pakistan militant calls truce,” BBC News, April 24, 2008.
14 “Pakistan in deal with militants,” BBC News, May 21, 2008.
15 Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah, “Pakistani Taliban repel government offensive,” The New York Times, August 10, 2008; “Forces claim victory in Bajauar Agency,” The News International, March 1, 2008.
16 Zein Basravi, “Pakistani government does deal with Taliban on sharia law,” CNN, February 18, 2008.
17 Ann Scott Tyson, “Afghan Supply Chain a Weak Point,” The Washington Post, March 6, 2009, A10.
18 U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden, “Afghanistan operations not vulnerable to supply line dangers,” American Forces Press Service, February 27, 2009.
19 U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden, “Afghanistan operations not vulnerable to supply line dangers,” American Forces Press Service, February 27, 2009.
20 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “2008 World Drug Report,” 51.
21 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Illicit Drug Trends in Pakistan,” April 2008.
22 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Illicit Drug Trends in Pakistan,” April 2008.
23 United States Central Intelligence Agency, “Pakistan,” The World Factbook, April 9, 2009.