Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In early 1972, as a six-year-old, I met Sardar Daoud Khan, the former Afghan prime minister and president at the time. My father, a journalist, was posted in Kabul. Of course, it was a very different Kabul then. One day, my father came back home from work with a friend. The friend was Daoud.

I remember a post-dinner conversation over some drinks between the two becoming rather loud. Years later, I asked my father about it and he told me Daoud would not stop talking about ‘Pashtunistan’ and that he had to ‘shut him up’. My father was a staunch Pakistani nationalist and an even stauncher supporter of Z.A. Bhutto’s ‘socialist’ PPP that had come to power in Pakistan in December 1971.

Daoud was always a steadfast advocate of Pashtunistan, an imagined geo-political entity which includes Afghanistan and the Pashtun-majority areas of Pakistan.

In 1972, relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan were somewhat cordial. I loved Kabul, and was devastated when the city was completely destroyed in the early 1990s during the vicious war between competing Islamic groups and warlords.

In some pictures of the devastation, I could recognise the parks where I had once played as a child. I also managed to pick up Dari, the Persian dialect that is spoken by the Tajik population of Afghanistan, and is still a widely spoken language in Kabul.

I also remember how one of my friends at the American International School in Kabul, Kamal Qazi, son of an Afghan diplomat, used to call me ‘Punjabi Paracha’. I am a Punjabi on my father’s side, but my mother is from Delhi. So I started to call him ‘Afghani Qazi’. To this, the six-year-old would respond by declaring, “No. I am Pathan!” Ironically, he would say this in Dari.

Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan were always largely problematic. In September 1947, one month after Pakistan came into being, Afghanistan was the only country that voted against Pakistan’s entry into the UN. It didn’t matter that both were and still are Muslim-majority regions.

What’s more, according to volume 1 of Hamid Wahed Alikuzai’s A Concise History of Afghanistan, the Afghan regime hoisted a Pashtunistan flag on September 2, 1947, signalling that it did not recognise the Pak-Afghan border.

Called the Durand Line, the border was established in 1893 after an agreement between the British colonial set-up in India and the Afghan Emir Abdur Rahman Khan. It separated British Indian territory from Afghanistan and also worked as a ‘buffer’ between British India and Imperial Russia.

In his 1963 book, Horned Moon, British author and journalist Ian Stephen writes that, in 1948, when the first Pakistan-India war erupted, Pakistan was in a precarious situation because, at the same time, Afghanistan was “instigating its allies in Pakistan” through the ‘Pashtunistan propaganda.’ Stephen terms it “a pincer movement aiming to crush the still-born Pakistan”.

In 1950, the Afghan king delivered a fiery speech in which he rejected the Durand Line. Pakistani newspapers reported that Afghan planes had dropped ‘pro-Pashtunistan leaflets’ over Pashtun-majority areas of Pakistan.

In an essay for the 2002 issue of the research journal The Dialogue, M.U. Durrani and A. Khan write that, in 1951, the Afghan regime sent “irregular forces” into Pakistan “to fabricate a Pashtun uprising”. The forces were defeated by the Pakistani military, and relations between the two countries worsened.

Three years later in 1954, the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul was ransacked. In 1955, the Soviet Union announced that it backed Afghanistan’s demand for the creation of Pashtunistan. It pledged aid worth 100 million dollars to Afghanistan. However, on the advice of Iran, Egypt and the US, Pakistan again restored ties with Afghanistan.

According to Stephen, in 1961, relations between the two countries again collapsed when Pakistan claimed that Afghanistan had sent in ‘infiltrators’ to stir up trouble in north-west Pakistan. Incensed, Kabul broke off all diplomatic ties with Pakistan. In 1963, through the efforts of the Shah of Iran, Pakistan ‘reluctantly’ restored ties with Afghanistan once again, when the Afghan economy began to suffer due to the closure of the Pak-Afghan border.

After 1963, relations between the two continued to improve. However, the coming to power of Daoud through a coup in 1973, alarmed Pakistan.

Seen as a staunch advocate of Pashtunistan, the Daoud regime was accused by Pakistan of offering sanctuaries to Pakistani Baloch separatists. Pakistan, under Bhutto, decided to retaliate by providing bases to anti-Daoud forces in Pakistan. In 1975, Pakistan trained 5,000 such Afghans.

But, with pro-Soviet communist parties threatening to challenge him in Kabul, Daoud rapidly backtracked by dropping all talk of Pashtunistan. He began to approach Pakistan on friendlier terms. However, in 1977, the Bhutto regime was toppled in a reactionary military coup and, a year later, a coup organised by Afghan communist factions overthrew Daoud, killing him in the process.

From 1979 onwards, when Soviet troops rolled into Kabul, Pakistan became directly engaged in Afghanistan. It became a frontline base for the US and Saudi-backed Afghan jihadist groups against the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan. The Afghan intelligence agency KHAD often retaliated by conducting assa­ssinations and bomb attacks in Pakistan through proxies.

Then, after Soviet troops left Kabul in 1988, Pakistan facilitated pro-Pakistan groups in the war that erupted between former anti-Soviet allies in Kabul. Worried that an unhinged Afghanistan would mean an unstable north-west Pakistan, Pakistan beefed up an intransigent ‘pro-Pakistan’ Islamic militia, the Taliban, and helped it come to power in Kabul.

But Pak-Afghan relations during the Taliban set-up remained unpredictable, mainly due to the highly controversial nature of the regime. Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan began to unravel again after US forces drove out the Taliban in 2001, accusing them of aiding the 9/11 attacks.

Pakistan became a staunch US ally in its ‘war against terror’ and, ever since, both Pakistan and the pro-US set-up in Afghanistan have been accusing each other of undermining their fight against terrorism by facilitating ‘destabilising groups’ in each other’s countries.

In the summer of 2018, I bumped into my old Kabul friend, Kamal Qazi. I met him in Washington DC during a seminar. He approached me after reading my name as a speaker. After confirming that, indeed, I was ‘Punjabi Paracha’, he told me his family had escaped Kabul and migrated to the US in 1980. After getting a degree in finance, he became a banker and married an American.

He had travelled twice to Pakistan in the 1980s and spoke fluent Urdu. But he now insisted on calling me ‘Nadeem Pasha’. When I asked him why, to my utter astonishment, he laughed, shrugged his shoulders, and replied in Punjabi: ‘Sanu ki’ [who cares?]

“Even in DC?” I asked. “Yes,” he smiled. “Especially in DC.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 9th, 2020